“For you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
These are some of the most sorrowful words recorded in scripture. They were spoken by God to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 following their disobedience and fall into a state of sin. God had made Adam from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and it was God’s preserving grace that kept Adam from turning back into dust. Now, because of sin, God withdrew that preserving grace causing Adam and Eve to one day die. And, because you and I are “in Adam”, we too will eventually die (1 Cor. 15:22). That is the tragedy of the Fall – we were meant to live with God and one another forever, but sin robbed us of that.
When God pronounced curses on Adam, Eve and the rest of creation, he was vindicating his holiness and declaring that sin must not go unpunished. But God’s judgement was also gracious to Adam and Eve (and us!) because it taught them that sin was destructive to God’s created purposes and therefore harmful, especially to them. By seeing sin as something that is offensive to God and harmful to us, it makes us hate sin and desire something better.
Embedded in the curses of Genesis are promises of something that is better – the Gospel. In Genesis 3:15 God says to the serpent that he will put enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent and that “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This is a foreshadowing of Christ’s battle with Satan and his ultimate victory over him. But we also see in verse 21 a hint of the price of that victory. God made clothes for Adam and Eve using animal skins to comfort them in their shame. Animals had to die because of their sin. This points to the death of Christ on the cross whose blood atones for our sin and covers over it. Our redemption from sin came at the awful price of the Son of God’s life because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
It is for our good that we regularly look at the reality of sin in our lives and all the havoc it wrecks on us and in the world. It reminds us of our need for the Gospel. That is the purpose behind Lent, the forty-day period (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter.
During Lent, we spend a season examining ourselves and confessing the sin that we find there. We don’t do this to shame ourselves before God or to somehow motivate ourselves to behave better. Looking at our sin is the first step toward repenting of it and embracing the grace of Jesus. A season of staring at our sin during Lent ensures that when we come to Good Friday our hearts will cry out “Worthy is the lamb who was slain!” In being reminded of death at work in us because of sin, we see the empty tomb on Easter as a promise that our dead bodies will one day be resurrected into something glorious. Lent screams out “we need the Gospel!” Good Friday and Easter assure us that we have indeed received the Gospel.
The slow march toward Holy Week begins today, on Ash Wednesday. It is a worship service focused on a time of examination, confession, mourning and hope. The mourning is expressed in the ashes we will wear on our forehead, in being reminded of that awful curse – “we are made of dust and to dust we shall return.” But we do not mourn as those without hope. In receiving the assurance of pardon for our sins and celebration of sacred communion, we are also reminded that we are children of the resurrection who have received Good News. Because of all that has been done for us in Christ Jesus, the curse has been lifted and we are now being made new.