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Ashes: Dying into Life

Date: 26/02/2023/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Ashes: Dying into Life
26 February 2023
Miak Siew

Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Lent is a period of spiritual preparation and reflection – lasting for 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. So today, we also begin our Lenten sermon series “Ashes.”
While we did not observe Ash Wednesday at FCC this year, we can still take the opportunity to reflect on its meaning and significance.

How many of you have attended an Ash Wednesday observance before?

It’s ok if you haven’t. We can still intentionally mark the season of Lent with a realignment of our hearts and minds. And what is a realignment of our hearts and minds but repentance?

Many Christians, particularly those from a more liturgical tradition like the Catholics and Anglicans, will attend mass or service and receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads.

As they receive a cross of ashes on their heads, the priest will say “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:19

What do you hear, when you hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return?”

Our mortality? The brevity of life?

Recently someone shared with me that they thought there were two ways to look at life – that everything is random, and at the end of the day everything is meaningless.

The other, is to see that life, though brief, is full of meaning – if we set out to make meaning in life – to love and be loved, to give and receive, to be a blessing to the world – life isn’t just about making money, being famous, acquiring materials things that moth and rust destroy but rather do what is required of us – And what is required of us?

To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (Micah 6:8)

These views aren’t anything new. In fact, way way way back there are already people who thought that life was random.

Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 –

“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: As one dies, so dies the other—they all have the same breath and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

But is everything vanity. Is everything futile?

We came into this life without anything, and we cannot take anything into the next life – we are dust, and to dust we will return.

Everything we have built will crumble to dust one day. We may seek comfort in the illusion of permanence – trying hard to preserve what will inevitably become dust. Even the things we have done in our lives will be forgotten one day.

There is one thing that is forever. No, it is not a diamond – no matter how hard De Beers try to market diamonds.

As our ancestors in faith put it –

Psalm 136 – O Give thanks to the LORD, for God is good. God’s love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for God’s steadfast love endures forever;

So as we die to the old self – letting go of our attachment to things that are temporary, we are invited into new life, leaning into God’s radical, unfailing and eternal love.

It is not easy to let go of what we are used to.

But we have to – if we hold on, then we cannot receive anything with these clenched fists. We can only receive something new when we open our hands and let go of whatever we are holding on to.

I shared with you weeks ago about my climb up Mount Norquay on the via ferrata. (And yes there were quite a few things I realised during that climb that I thought would be great sermon material, so you are likely to hear more about the via ferrata)

The harness that we wore for safety during the climb had two bungee cords. One cord is hooked on to the via ferrata all the time (that is the safety). As we moved, we hooked on to the next rail/ metal cable and released the previous one. If we didn’t, then we will get stuck at the previous section of the via ferrata.

Every new section of our journey is also about leaving something behind.

What do you think God is inviting you to leave behind / die to this season of Lent so that you can have new life?

What needs to become ashes, so that something new can emerge?

I have been following Jeremy Duncan, lead pastor at Commons Church in Calgary in Canada. I resonate a lot with his work, and when I watch their services online, their theology, their music, are very similar to FCC’s.

Recently, they had a sermon series called “Dis-arming the Bible.”

And Pastor Duncan talked about “Inspired vs Inerracy.”

How many of you were taught that the Bible is inerrant?

And what does inerrant mean?

I think very often, people don’t realise that inerrant meant different things over a period of time.

The “doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture”[9] held by the Catholic Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council, (1965) is that “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”[10]

What is important is the qualification of “that truth” with “for the sake of our salvation.”

Pastor Duncan says “In other words, the Bible can use myths and parables as we’ve seen. The Bible can provide contextual commentary as we have observed. It offers us perspective and opinion as we’ve read, but it never fails to faithfully point us to Jesus. That, by the way, is the historical Orthodox definition of inerrancy. It’s one I have no issue with. In fact, I embrace that completely.”

So do I. The Bible never fails to point us to Jesus.

But in 1978, a written statement of belief formulated by more than 200 evangelical leaders at a conference convened by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and held in Chicago came up with what is known as the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy.

“Being holy and verbally God-given, scripture is without error or fault in all of its teachings, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation or about the events of world history, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”

See what they did? It is no longer enough to trust that the Bible reveals salvation perfectly in Jesus. You must now believe that the Bible is the perfect record of world history as well.

But that’s not how the church historically talked about and understood the Bible. This idea that of biblical inerrancy extending beyond salvation to things like the age of the Earth or world history is only 45 years old. But isn’t.

2 Tim 3:16
“All scripture is inspired by God and is[a] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Pastor Duncan explored a lot of background of that verse in his sermon – and I invite you to go check it out because I am bordering on plagiarising his sermon at this moment.

But one key point I took away was when he talked about God breathed.

When we read the NSRV it says inspired by God, but other translations may read “God-breathed.”

Many people will take it meaning verbal plenary inspiration – the idea that God spoke each word exactly as it was intended to the author who then wrote it down – God literally breathed out the words. (That’s not how Christians understood how the Bible came to be. This is how Muslims traditionally understood how the Quran came to be – and it may be in this context – the competition between the faiths that some Christians want to lift up the status of the Bible)

The Greek word for God-breathed or inspired by God is theopneustos, which is just theo – God, penustos – breathed.

The Invention of the Inspired Text by John Poirier
the Greek word here is theopenustos,

Pastor Duncan

God breathed was a very common adjective used in a lot of writings to mean life-giving,

God breathed into dust and brought humanity to life in Genesis.

In Ezekiel 37

In the Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

God breathed and brought life back to the valley of dry bones.

“Theopenustos was being used in second temple Judaism to speak of all the ways God’s spirit brings life to us, and here the writer of First Timothy says scripture is now one more way that the spirit of God is present breathing life into our lungs every day when we open the Bible and read.

In other words, Theopenustos is not a technical description of how the scriptures were inspired, it is an affirmation of the fact that they are. All scripture is life-giving, well scripture is useful for teaching, all scripture reveals to us the story of Jesus, and it is Jesus that we trust to lead us back to God.

So what is the way forward?

It is to let some ideas die, so that we get life, and life in abundance.

The Bible does teach solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” – and that truth is Christ. The Bible points to Christ.

You see, Jesus as the way the truth and the life isn’t about rules or beliefs or dogma. It is about how Jesus incarnates, embodies a way of being in this world that is totally aligned with God so God can be known in and through Jesus.

Elizabeth O’Connor told the story of a Christian community organized around two spiritual journeys—the interior one toward knowing our true self and knowing God, and the one directed outward into the world to enact God’s justice and love. [1] These two movements comprise the way of Jesus, a continual flow of breath: in, out; in, out; in, out.…

Can we be that community? (No Menti for this)

This requires us to let go of being secured to the things that are no longer helpful, and to hook our safety harness onto what we know is eternal and everlasting – and that is God’s love.

We need to die to the old life, the old ways, so we can live into the new life.

So in this season of Lent, be it things that happened to us in the past, be it unhelpful behaviours and habits, be it attachment to the things that don’t give us life, or theologies and beliefs that we should outgrow (when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways) 1 Cor 13:11,

So that’s the inward journey, and for the outward journey – we do have something very tangible – Our T-mart project –

May we die to these things, so that we can find new life that God is offering.

May the ashes of all these become the ashen cross on our foreheads reminding us what is temporary, transient, passing – and what is eternal.

May we find ways to make our lives meaning-full.

May God breathe into us a new life.