Ash Wednesday Talk: Dying words .Luke 23 v32-43
A deacon is in the hospital and his good friend, the vicar goes to visit him. The vicar notices all the medical equipment attached to the deacon. He kneels by the bed. The deacon motions to a pad and pen on the bedside cabinet. The vicar hands his friend the pad and pen, and the deacon begins to write. Suddenly, the deacon dies. At his funeral, the vicar delivers the service. He says, “I was with him when he died, and as a matter of fact, I have his last thought in my coat pocket here.” The vicar pulls out the paper and reads, “Please, get up. You’re kneeling on my oxygen hose.”
The last words of a dying person are normally never forgotten. A person’s closing comments are diverse, often reveal their pain and agony. Some enter eternity without saying anything, while others utter sentiments that disclose their values, priorities, and innermost thoughts.
Right before P.T. Barnum the famous showman died, he asked, “How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”
Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” As he lay dying of throat cancer.
Joan Crawford was filled with anger when her maid began to pray out loud and said, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!”
Leonardo da Vinci, when surveying his life’s work, said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
General John Sedgwick, who fought in the Civil War, had his final words cut off in mid-sentence as his soldiers were seeking cover from some sharpshooters. This is what he said, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”
Captain Smith of the Titanic “Lieutenant Wilde I have a good feeling about this cruise. Eye captain Smith, she’s a fine vessel. Completely unsinkable.
Groucho Marx “Either I’m dead or my watch has stopped”
Steve Jobs (founder or Apple Corporation) Oh wow, oh wow, of wow.
Charlie Chaplin when the priest at his deathbed said”May the Lord have mercy on your soul” replied “Why not? It belongs to him!
Tonight as we begin the season of Lent, let us thinks about both the final dying words and attitudes of the 3 men in our reading. In doing so I want to bring out 4 main points! I know when I did my training from St. John’s college they recommended 3 main points in a sermon but tonight you can have a bonus. I call them the 4 r’s no not including reading, writing and arithmetic! But Recognition, Repentance, Reconciliation and Reward.
The first Recognition: It’s interesting and certainly no coincidence how these 3 men were sharing the same fate together. Remember when in Mark 10 v35-39 Jesus two disciples James and John asked Jesus for the places of honour next to him in his kingdom, he told them they didn’t know what they were asking. Now that Jesus was preparing to inaugurate his kingdom through his death, the places on his right and left were taken by dying men, criminals. As my Life Application Bible points out, this shows that Jesus death is for all people, regardless of their past. As Jesus explained to his two position conscious disciples, a person who wants to be close to Jesus must be prepared to suffer and die. The way to the kingdom is through the uniqueness of the cross. Although mocked as a dying king of the Jews, and most kingdoms end with the death of a king, his death was the start not the end of his kingdom.
Two common criminals, yet two different attitudes and levels of faith. One who not only fully recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah but also the fact that he, the criminal, deserved the punishment. The other who doubted and despised Jesus, hurled insults which included “if you are the messiah, save yourself and us”.
I ask the question, which criminal totally reflects our own persona? If we are totally honest I guess most of us have some traits from both. I know I do! Do we fully recognize and appreciate the sacrifice that Jesus made for us? Do we ever have doubts and fears? I wonder what our last words on earth would be? I like to think that all of us on our death beds would be praising God but the reality is that so many people seem to lose their faith when the wheel comes off! On the other hand some when faced with the certainty of death do accept the salvation offered through Jesus at the very last moment.
About 20 years ago several of my non Christian friends asked me to conduct their parent’s funerals. As they put it, we know you are the religious one and it would be nice to have someone who knew our parents do their funerals. Although lay people cannot perform church marriage ceremonies or baptisms, they can take funerals. As I knew their parents I considered it a privilege but insisted that there would be some Christian input. Although I knew them, as with my own parents when they died, I didn’t know if they knew God, had they recognized Jesus as the messiah, the giver of salvation? As a Conservative Christian as several people have branded me recently, I believe the Bible is clear that not everybody goes to heaven or paradise as it’s also known. However I also believe that everybody has the opportunity, yes even if it’s the last thing they say and do, to repent and accept Christ as their savior and like the repentant criminal from that moment be with Christ. Whenever I speak at funerals I offer hope quoting from today’s reading. I think when we reach our final destination, hopefully heaven, we will be not only be surprised who we find there but also those who we expected to find but never made it! Although I know we are saved through faith not our good deeds, I think as we start this period of Lent it is right not only to recognize Jesus as our friend, savior and redeemer but also to recognize our faults and failures and try to do a bit of in house cleaning! Which brings me onto the second point: Repentance.
In 1977 (in his book How to be born again) Billy Graham wrote: ‘Several years ago I was to be interviewed at my home for a well-known television show and, knowing it would appear on nationwide television, my wife [Ruth] took great pains to see that everything looked nice. She had vacuumed and dusted and tidied up the whole house but had [also] gone over the [lounge] with a fine tooth-comb since that was where the interview would be filmed. When the film crew arrived with all the lights and cameras, she felt that everything in the [lounge] was spic and span. We were in place along with the interviewer when suddenly the television lights were turned on and we saw cobwebs and dust where we had never seen them before. In the words of my wife [Ruth], “That room was festooned with dust and cobwebs which simply did not show up under ordinary light.”’A Christian is examined in the light of God’s word. Like Billy Graham’s wife Ruth we may have done a great job with the obvious stuff; but the bright light of the holiness of God reveals areas that He wants to clean up, starting right here, right now, tonight.
I personally seldom give things up for lent, although I admire and respect those who do as an act of recognition of the sacrifices Christ made for us. I’m not convinced God is too bothered if we stop eating chocolate or pigging out with other things! But I know there are some attitudes and mannerisms in my own life that God would be delighted if I did some spring cleaning. Now I’m not about to divulge all my dirty washing in public as the saying goes but we cannot hide anything from God. One thing I’m going to try to give up is how I verbally express my frustration on the golf course! Another of my confessions is that I seldom attend an Ash Wednesday Service. In fact in my 32 years of being a committed Christian, this is only the second I have attended. I had to come tonight as I was down to preach, maybe it was either Martin’s or God’s way of making me obedient to his call? So I thought maybe I should make an effort to find out more about this annual service, and maybe enlighten myself and maybe some of you. To be honest I’m pleased I was given the privilege to preach tonight as God really spoke to me as I prepared,
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (just like Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter. In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, just as in Old testament times Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not and should not be some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter. A distinctive activity of Ash Wednesday services is the “imposition of ashes.” Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
The theological core of Ash Wednesday is shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace, and salvation. It also enacts biblical injunctions to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.” It’s the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. Remember the Leonardo da Vinci quote I used at the beginning of this talk, when surveying his life’s work, said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” I’m no art expert and I couldn’t criticize his work, after all it’s been admired by many for centuries but he knew the reality, he could have done better. We all at some time in our lives we too have offended others including God. There are things that we could do better. We all bear the mark of sin, We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior. Ash Wednesday is a day to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our mortality.
At this stage I would like to acknowledge the help of The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts for some input into my reflection of Ash Wednesday. Mark is a pastor, author, leader, speaker, and consultant for Christian organizations. Currently, Mark is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
My third point is Reconciliation: I felt strongly the Lord wanted us to deal with unforgiveness tonight. You know at least once a week we utter the Lord’s prayer “Father forgive us as we forgive each other” True forgiveness is never easy. No doubt it wasn’t easy for Jesus to forgive those who persecuted him and were instrumental in his death but he asked Father God to do so.
During the Second World War, Coventry cathedral was bombed. In the 1960s a new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old one. On the altar there is a cross that was constructed out of nails that were taken from the collapsed roof of the old church. On the cross are the words, “Father, forgive.” Many visitors were bothered by this because they wanted it to say, “Father, forgive them,” meaning, “Father, forgive the Germans for bombing this beautiful place of worship.” The reason it reads like it does is because even where the issues seemed so clear-cut, Britain had some sins to confess as well. Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We’re all guilty and need to repent in order for our sins to be wiped out.
The Lord hates sin. The Lord hates the mess of sin in our lives and he wants us to cooperate with him to get it cleaned up, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. On the cross Jesus paid the price for the sins of the whole world, but he was crucified between two thieves, one who mocked him and one who asked Jesus for mercy. Let’s be a people who will leave no stone unturned, no cobweb un-swept, and no dust that’s been allowed to gather. Let’s for once and for all dump any hurts from the past whether at home or in the fellowship. Let us really start cruising together in unity with each other with Christ as the Captain. Unlike Captain Smith of the Titanic he will always keep our heads above the waterline if we reach out and accept his help. Tonight, we will leave this place with the sign of the cross marked on our forehead in ashes. Unlike the beautiful decorative crosses that are around us in churches and homes, the cross of ash is dirty and ugly. The ashes remind us of our need to repent, to lay aside ourselves and all that hinders us so that we might more fully follow Christ. The ashes, as with the cross itself, also remind us that this is a “dirty” business; a tough calling that can entail suffering, it’s not always a bed of roses! But will the cross be that for you this Lent and beyond? Or will the ash-drawn cross on your forehead just be a reminder that you can’t eat chocolate or drink alcohol or watch TV? The choice is yours, ours; and it is a choice. Jesus gave us this challenge “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let us choose willingly to wear this cross and to bear the burden of sacrifice just as Christ himself did. And finally the fourth point: Reward. If we have truly recognized, repented and reconciled ourselves with Christ and each other will are guaranteed our passage to paradise. Just reflect on both Charlie Chaplin and Steve Jobs final words. Our souls belong to God and as he died Steve Jobs said not once but thrice oh wow, oh wow, oh wow, maybe he was getting a glimpse of paradise. Amen.