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Text: "[D]eath reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many." (Romans 5:14-15)
Families pass on a lot of different things from generation to generation— some good, some not so good. Some pass on their significant wealth or even just prized antiques. Others pass on patterns of abuse or addiction. Ash Wednesday reminds us what has been passed down to us as descendants of Adam: the curse from Genesis 3, summed up in the words you heard earlier, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Or, in the words of our text, our heritage as descendants of Adam is to live under the reign of death. Now, what does that mean, that death reigned?
Think of it this way: Four years ago now the boys and I went out west for the baptism of my youngest nephew. My sister and her husband lived in NW Arizona at the time and it worked out best for us to stay in Las Vegas. At one point in our time there my father pointed to all the buildings along the strip and said something to the boys that I really appreciated. "Look at all these buildings," he said. "They are amazing. They're huge, they're beautiful, and every one of them was built with money that people gambled and lost."
There's no question that Las Vegas is a sight to see. The buildings are impressive in size, amenities, luxury, the entertainment they offer. They practically scream wealth and success.
But they hide a secret: they are all built -- not on success-- but on failure, loss.
This life is impressive. The creation around us is majestic and amazing (the more we learn about it, the more amazing it becomes). Leaving aside, for now, the sinful pleasures that we pursue, there is, truly, so much in this life to give us joy. We enjoy so many beautiful and precious things in this life. The fulfillment we get from our work. The joy of the homes and lives and families that we've built. These are beautiful and precious things.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that, behind all of it hides a secret: the reign of Death. For all it's majesty and wonder, this creation is equally terrifying, and even deadly, at times. It is marvelous and awesome, but it had a beginning and it will have an end.
And the beautiful and precious things that we enjoy, how long will they endure? There's a great perspective on that question in a poem by Percy Shelley called "Ozymandias." Ozymandias is a statue. A broken statue, actually, really just a pedestal with two legs on it, the rest of the body broken off and gone, except for the head. The head is lying nearby, half buried in the sand, but the expression of pride and power is still perfectly visible on its face.
It seems that, at least in the poem, Ozymandias was an actual person, a king, who had this statue carved and placed there, in the middle of his kingdom, so that everyone would know who it was who had built that kingdom. Shelley writes, "[On] the pedestal these words appear: / "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings." / Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!" It is a challenge. Which one of you "mighty ones" can match what I have done? Who can accomplish what I have accomplished? Who can build anything close to what I have built. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
The thing is, the statue stands in the middle of nothing. As far as the eye can see, there is only a wasteland where there had once been the kingdom that this king was so proud of.
It's hard not to be led to despair by Ozymandias. Not out of the hopelessness of building anything as great as the kingdom he built, but from the fact that, out of everything he built, there was nothing left except half of a statue that would also be worn away and return to the dust one day. All that he had built has been wiped away by time. The record of all he did and accomplished is gone. Even his very name forgotten. As Ecclesiastes puts it: "Meaningless, all is meaningless-- chasing after the wind."
That is the way of things under the reign of death. These are the consequences of being descendants of Adam who are dust and who will return to the dust. These are the wages of sin— the sin we’ve inherited from Adam and the sin which we ourselves have committed. It drags us and all that we try to build back into the dust from which we came.
And yet, is that the way you look at the sin in your life, as the ultimate force of destruction and corruption? As the cause of everything that we despise, as the source of every tear that must be shed, as a deadly enemy to be fought against tooth and nail? Yes, we fight against death. We do our best to avoid it, or at least distract ourselves from it. But death is only a symptom. It is only a symptom of sin. Do you fight against sin?
Usually, you and I treat sin as if it were something outside of us, something that we can avoid when we choose to. The purpose of grace becomes the assurance that you don't really have to choose to or, perhaps, to spot clean the occasional moments of sin that we regret.
You and I don't fight temptation, we make provisions for it. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" has been pretty effective advertising. It's terrible theology. But that's how you and I live. We set aside places where it's ok. We take on "pet sins" as if they could somehow be rendered harmless. No sin will ever be harmless, nor is it something "out there" that we can shelter ourselves from, not even here, safe behind church and school walls. You and I are descendants of Adam. There is sin in the world because it comes from within our hearts.
Even the practice of fasting during Lent has become a joke. In fact, I would even go a few steps further and say that it's become an insult to God. Not because any of us expect that we're "earning points" with God by doing it. It's an insult to God because of how/why we fast. How many times have you heard someone say that they’re giving up fast food, for example, because they can stand to lose a few pounds? You’ve said it, haven’t you? I know I have. Or maybe it’s not fast food, perhaps there’s some other unhealthy habit we need to rid ourselves of. Does sin really mean so little that we have to make up new reasons to fast? Is sin that unimportant that we have to find some new meaning for fasting?
This is an ancient practice. And the idea used to be "mortifying" the flesh, the understanding that the appetites and desires that have been handed down to us in our human flesh need to be fought against-- in fact not just resisted, actually, they need to be put to death!-- because, as James writes, "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). The reign of death begins with our own sinful flesh and all of its appetites and desires.
Or, in the words of Paul: "[S]in came into the world through [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned." Fasting used to be part of a battle against all that. This is not some little game that we're playing at. Nor is it a battle that we can choose to participate in or not. This sinful flesh that you and I have inherited from Adam, with all its lusts and appetites and desires, it wants to destroy you. As long as we are in the flesh, it will constantly be attacking you, leading you into false belief, despair, and all sorts of shame and vice. Simply because you and I are sons and daughters of Adam.
The good news is that, by God's plan carried out in Jesus Christ, Adam became a 'type'-- model, prototype-- of Christ. Adam is a pattern for what Jesus would be and do and accomplish-- except the opposite. You've heard the words in the communion liturgy from one of the services in the hymnal: "In Your righteous judgment You condemned the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, and You justly barred them and all their children from the tree of life. Yet, in Your great mercy, You promised salvation by a second Adam, Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and made His cross a life-giving tree for all who trust in Him" (DS4, p. 209) Jesus is the “second Adam”— He is Adam, but in reverse.
The gift that Jesus offers is exactly the opposite of what Adam passes down. "For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many."
What Jesus brought into the word is the opposite of what Adam brought into the world: "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ."
Adam was created perfect and sinless and, by his disobedience, by his sin, he brought guilt and death to all of his descendants. Jesus, too, was born perfect and sinless and, by His obedience, brings grace and the free gift of righteousness for all who believe, making you sons and daughters of God.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And remember, as well. "All who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death. You were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Through baptism, your old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that you are no longer enslaved to sin. You died with Christ in baptism, and you will also live with Him. Through His death, the reign of death was destroyed.
Adam disobeyed and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and we were cut off from the Tree of Life. Jesus obeyed and went willingly to die the death that you deserved and, in the process, "made His cross a life-giving tree for all who trust in Him." In fact, all who have received the bread and wine in the Sacrament receive the body and blood of Christ. You have eaten from that life-giving tree and will one day have access to the Tree of Life itself.
Let me be clear: fasting is certainly a good and beneficial practice— not necessary, but good and beneficial. But don’t make a game out of it. Approach it for what it is: part of the fight against sin— yes, including the sin of gluttony! Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus because that’s what you are, according to God’s promise. Whether you choose to fast or not, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey it's passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
"[Many] died through [Adam's] trespass, [but] much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many." Ash Wednesday brings the secret out into the open: You, child of Adam, are dust and to dust you shall return. It brings the secret out into the open in order to declare that, by the second Adam, Jesus Christ, you are a child of God. Sin has no dominion over you. The reign of death is done.