By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
In yesterday’s devotion, I began reflecting on the question: How does Ash Wednesday relate to our work? Today, I want to consider this question a bit more. Even though Ash Wednesday itself is over, the core truth of this holy day remains. In the words of Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s right. Because of sin, you are mortal. You will die. (If you’d like to learn a little more about Ash Wednesday, check out yesterday’s devotion.)
Both holy ashes on Ash Wednesday and on-the-job frustrations in the present, point in the same ultimate direction – to Jesus, to his saving death on Good Friday and his victorious resurrection on Easter.
I’m very familiar with the last portion of Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In fact, I’ve repeated this portion of Scripture more than 2,000 times during my life, perhaps more than I’ve spoken any other sentence from the Bible. I quoted this portion of Scripture every time when, as a pastor at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I imposed ashes on the foreheads of Ash Wednesday worshipers. In one sense, I know this part of Genesis extremely well.
Yet, I am not sure I ever connected the last part of Genesis 3:19 to the first part during my years as a pastor. The final portion says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The first lines of the same verse read, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.” The “sweat of your face” phrase links back to verses 17 and 18, in which God explains to the man that his work will now be difficult and painful because of sin. He will continue to do the work of farming assigned to him, but now “thorns and thistles” will greatly complicate and frustrate his labor. Verse 19 makes the connection between hard work and human mortality explicit through the element of the ground, which is to say, the dust. We get food from the ground/dust and we, who are made of ground/dust will return to ground/dust when we die.
Let me try to make clear what I’m suggesting here and how this connects our work to the core truth of Ash Wednesday. Because of sin, we will die. Our earthly bodies will return to the earth. We experience our morality most of all through death itself. But we are reminded of our mortality on a regular basis through our work when it is hard and painful. The difficulty of work underscores the reality of sin, which leads to our mortality. Sin shows up, not just in our own hearts, but also in our work, with all that work entails: systems, rules, relationships, physical labor, thinking, earning, etc.
So, for those of us who participated in an Ash Wednesday service yesterday, the ashes on our foreheads reminded us of our mortality, which reminded us of our need for a Savior. For all of us who do work today, whether paid or not, the difficulties and frustrations of our work also remind us of our mortality, which reminds us of our need for a Savior. Both holy ashes on Ash Wednesday and on-the-job frustrations in the present, point in the same ultimate direction — to Jesus, to his saving death on Good Friday and his victorious resurrection on Easter.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
When you think about the fact that “you are dust and to dust you shall return,” what difference does this make? How might this affect your work? Your leadership?
Death is perhaps the most dramatic result of sin. But, in Genesis 3, God emphasizes how sin makes work difficult and painful. Can you see connections between the frustrations of work and human mortality?
Gracious God, you made us in your image, giving us the privilege and responsibility of sharing with you in the work of this world. You also made us from dust, underscoring our connection to the earth, that which you gave us to steward well. Yet our sin messed up what you intended. Now, we will work, but only with pain and unnecessary difficulty. Now, we who are from the dust will return to the dust.
O Lord, we are surrounded by signs of our mortality. Indeed, it permeates our hearts and our bodies. Even our frustrations at work tell us that this world is not what you intend it to be. We are indeed living in the dust of death. We are made of this very dust.
Yet, by your grace, O God, you have not abandoned us in our mortality. Rather, you have taken on our mortality, our dustiness, in Jesus Christ. You have also taken our sin upon yourself so that you might give us new life. On this day when we remember our mortality, we also remember your life-giving grace. All thanks and praise be to you, our Savior. Amen.