Clothing performs many functions in our lives. On a cold day, clothing can keep us warm. On a rainy day, clothing can keep us dry. When we were in Hawaii, the guide told us that pineapple leaves can be very stiff and abrasive. The workers wear long sleeves and pants to prevent nicks and cuts. Clothing protects.
Clothing also denotes position and status. People in the military wear uniforms that indicate rank. Medical staff wear uniforms. The color of the uniform can indicate specialty … one color could be a lab tech, another a registered nurse, another a volunteer, and so forth. I normally wear an alb during services, but today, I am wearing a cassock because it is Ash Wednesday. Each uniform communicates something.
Clothing provides modesty as well. We wear clothing because we are modest and proper. This was not always the case. The Bible tells us that when God first created us the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:25) This little detail informs us that before sin, humanity was innocent … so innocent that clothing was not an issue. That all changed when humanity fell into sin. So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6–7) Sin brought shame. Shame brought the desire for a covering that would hide the shame. So, they sew together fig leaves lest the Lord God see their shame, lest He discover their sin when He walks through the garden. It did not work. It was the wrong kind of garment.
Nakedness and shame are equated with sin in the Hebrew Scriptures. Man tried to hide and cover up his sin with his own garments and his own works. It did not work—it never does. After Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden, the first thing the Lord God did was clothe them. The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21) Clothing made from leaves might be enough for protection from the environment, but only blood can cover the shame of sin. God initiated the first animal sacrifice and covered Adam and Eve with the skins of those sacrifices. In reality, only God can cover sin, and He chooses to do so with a bloody sacrifice. This garment motif points us forward as it continues to be woven through the Old Testament.
Isaiah 61:10 helps us to understand what God promised is coming. 10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10) Isaiah says there is One who is coming who will clothe us “with the garments of salvation” and cover us “with the robe of righteousness.” As we know, it will require a bloody sacrifice … the blood of God’s only-begotten Son. Isaiah also tells us that “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6) Our righteous deeds are like Adam and Eve’s fig leaves. They atone for nothing. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12–13) When Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our garments, he tells us that the rending of our garments accomplishes nothing; rather, it is a broken and contrite heart coming before God in repentance that pleases Him.
We see the reverse of this motif on the cross at Calvary, and it tells us everything. Christ, the One who bears our sins, is stripped of His garment, and in His nakedness, we see our sin. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus is stripped, and His bloody sacrifice washes our sins away. We are clothed in robes of righteousness and covered in His garments of salvation.
So we have gathered here this day to put on ashes, to repent of our sin. We know our sin, and it is ever before us. We know the sorry condition of our blackened hearts. We know that we, of our own strength and power, cannot return from our sin-stained exile. We know we cannot return to the presence of our God. The ashes remind us of our sin. They remind us of the condition of our hearts. But ashes in the sign of the cross remind us of a gracious and merciful God.
We who are helpless and hopeless sinners are told, Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:13) We, who can do nothing, have a God who has willingly done everything. Ashes show our sin; ashes in the sign of the cross show us the true nature of our God.
The cross! An instrument of torture and death and the means by which God cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. The cross … the place where Jesus is raised up in our place. The cross … the place where Jesus is stripped of His robe and all of our sin is revealed as He hangs naked in our stead. For He who knew no sin became sin for us. We attempt to cover our sin, but Jesus reveals it so that it might be washed away by His blood. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. (Isaiah 53:4) Ashes in the sign of the cross.
A gracious and merciful God has offered up His only-begotten Son so that the sin that has exiled us from His presence might be washed away and we might be restored to His presence … a return from exile, a Lenten journey. And where does this journey end? Not at the cross, not even at the empty tomb; the journey ends in the courts of heaven!
Listen to the words of St. John as he describes those who are gathered around the throne of the Lamb in His kingdom:
9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9–12)
See the great multitude who wave palm branches as they worship their Savior. Note that they are clothed in white robes. These are no fig leaves they wear; they are not adorned in filthy rags. They are clothed in white robes. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:13–14) Their garments of sackcloth have been exchanged for robes of righteousness.
The sackcloth and ashes are gone, for Christ’s journey to the cross clothes His Bride, the Church. It is the blood of Jesus that washes away sin. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus washes our robes and makes them white. Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
Blackened, corrupt hearts covered by fig leaves and animal hides … such is the cause of our exile. Exiled from the presence of God, we adorn our foreheads with ashes. We come before God with repentant hearts. And God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God provides His Son in our place. Jesus endures the cross in our stead. Blood is shed, holy and precious blood that washes away and cleanses from all sin. Our hearts are restored, and our sackcloth and ashes are exchanged for garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. The exile is over, the journey is finished. We are returned to the presence of our God, and we rejoice in the robes the Bridegroom has provided for His Bride. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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