On Ash Wednesday the faithful received a sign of death placed upon their foreheads.
We say the words at a funeral, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust”
If a loved one is cremated many have their ashes in a special container or in a vault. Many as well will scatter those ashes to the wind or across the waters of an ocean.
In the Genesis account of creation at the beginning of humanity it is described “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” and in the curses after the fall into sin “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The very name Adam, comes from the Hebrew, אדם (‘adam), meaning to create and it is connected to what we are created from , the אֲדָמָה (‘adamah), the Earth, dirt, dust. Our mortal frames come from the earth and return to the earth.
Those ashes were a sign of death. But which death? Did you know there was more than one?
Death that occurs when our mortal flesh dies and returns to the earth that is the first death.
While the first death is unavoidable the second death is not.
The book of Revelation speaks about a second death that happens after the first death, if the person is apart from the love of God in Jesus.
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Strangely we are told something that goes against all of our instincts, don’t fear the first death, fear the second.
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
The second death as well does not need to be feared for those who are in Christ Jesus, because of His victory we conquer as well and will never face the second death.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
There is mortal death and eternal death, the first and second death.
But there is also a death that is spoken of, that is different from any of those deaths, a third kind of death that is only experienced by the Christian.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We 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.
If you are apart from the love of God in Jesus, you are already dead in the spirit, even if you are alive in the flesh, cut off from life-giving source that is God, If not remedied being dead only leads to be dead eternally apart from God, the second death.
What occurs when faith is kindled in the human life, through baptism and the receiving of God’s Words in faith, is that Jesus resurrects that dead spirit and makes it alive, connected to God- the source of all life.
Now that the person is alive and connected to God, there is still part of that old death that remains in this life, in our mortal flesh that is always trying to kill us again and separate us from God.
Pastor Paul describes it this way:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
What needs to be done about this inner demon waging war inside and trying to kill us?
Martin Luther teaches us that in remembrance of what God has done for us in our baptism (Small Catechism-Baptism)
It indicates that the Old self in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Notice the word, daily. This third death is a daily dying to those ways of living that separate us from the love of God.
This is the responsive life of the Christian after being redeemed and made alive in Jesus. This is not about going to heaven or not, in Jesus you are already made alive and if you are alive with God now, you will still be alive with God, even when you die the first death.
But as a living person, still also living a mortal life, how are you going to live right now connected to the life that is found in Jesus?
So those ashes on our forehead, they represent death, but which death?
Not entirely the first death. Yes they are a reminder to live wisely in the time you are given as a child of God, but the first death holds no fear for the Christian, knowing we are already alive in Jesus.
Not the second death at all, we have no fear of the second death, because we are in Jesus and we will not know what the eternal separation from God is like.
The ashes point us to the third death. The death that is lived out by those who are alive in the Spirit in Jesus.
In the third death we are daily dying to sin and rising as a new and living person each and every day, as a person who walks with God because of Jesus. That ash-mark, in the sign of the cross, is the mark of death— death to sin. But it is also the mark of life— life in Jesus.
Just as we have this outward sign of death and life placed upon our foreheads once a year as a reminder of who we are, there are also daily outward signs as we live out the third death, dying to sin and being made alive in Jesus.
These outward signs of the third death may not be like a cross of ashes on our forehead, but they are still there and visible for others to see.
That’s good for us, because so often we think of our Christian faith, as either private, or personal or so ethereal and out there, like a vague notion of spirituality, that we don’t always think or know that the life of a Christian has outward marks that identify it, just like the cross of ashes identifies us as Christians.
These outward marks of the third death, come in slightly different names and numbers, but these are the ones we will be working with.
Prayer. Study. Worship. Duty. Mercy.
Each of these marks are ones that we, who do not fear the first death, who will not experience the second death, live out as visible signs of the third death.
Each mark, a sign for others and ourselves to see, that the old person has died again and the new person has risen again. Each mark is an active part of living the Christian life and each are things that we can actively and intentionally do better at and become stronger in.
Prayer, study, worship, duty and mercy.
Living each day, dying to sin and being raised in Jesus, these outwards signs become the daily marks placed upon our foreheads without ashes.
Each an outward sign of the inward life in Christ.