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Lenten Preaching from an Outsider’s Perspective

A dusty sermon series on the themes of Lent.
Lenten Preaching from an Outsider’s Perspective
Image: doidam10 / Getty Images

Author’s disclaimer: Mine is a baptistic tradition that does not observe the Lenten season. Admittedly, I view its traditions and rituals as one peering through a dusty window. Sometimes, though, I find that an outsider’s perspective is helpful, drawing attention to things that insiders take for granted and otherwise overlook. For that reason, I offer the following observations in the hope that they may serve as the basis for a sermon or series this holy season.

It’s difficult for me to think of Lent without being reminded of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Both center around self-denial and repentance. Both, as I see it, are intended to effect reconciliation with God by first reconnecting us to our humanity, particularly, in the case of Lent, on Ash Wednesday.

The ashes worn on that special day are meant to represent repentance and mortality, recalling that famous line from the Book of Common Prayer: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Repentance and mortality, ashes and dust, seem naturally to belong together.

“Dust and ashes” is a familiar refrain throughout Scripture. Abraham in the presence of God claimed himself to be “nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Downcast Job felt he had been “reduced to dust and ashes” and later repented in the same (Job 30:19; 42:6). Elsewhere, Ezekiel foretold the day when the mariners of Tyre would “cast up dust upon their heads … and wallow themselves in ashes” (27:30) in lamentation over their decimated city.

Among the most haunting lyrics of all the songs on my personal playlist are these penned by Kerry Livgren of the American rock band Kansas.

I close my eyes

Only for a moment and the moment's gone.

All my dreams

Pass before my eyes, a curiosity.

Dust in the wind,

All they are is dust in the wind.

Same old song,

Just a drop of water in an endless sea.

All we do

Crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.

Dust in the wind,

All we are is dust in the wind.

I sing the words and cannot help but remember “‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity,’ saith the preacher.” Vanity and dust, mortality and ashes. They go together, and the Bible says a great deal about them. In that sense, the Bible is a dusty old book. Dust flies from its pages, beginning in Genesis and going through Revelation. All that dust preaches to us if we’ll listen.

The Dust of Our Humanity

“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). That verse should both humble and uplift us. It reminds us that we humans are essentially humus, Latin for “ground.” We are lowly creatures. At the same time, we are creatures that God did not merely speak into existence as he did everything else in this universe. In our case, God got his hands dirty. He reached into the mud and breathed into it life.

That same Moses who wrote Genesis is credited by many scholars to have written Psalms 90-100. In the ninetieth, he contemplates the eternality of God and mortality of man. In the one hundredth, he commands: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

Who or what we human beings are isn’t determined by what we suppose or claim. Self-identification must bow to divine revelation. The myth of the self-made person is just that: myth. We are what God says we are—his people. The pasture is his and all we sheep who graze upon it.

What kind of Shepherd is he? Look no further than Psalm 23 to find out. What kind of sheep are we? Alas, that answer is found in Isaiah 53:6, which brings us back to our second dusty verse in Genesis.

The Dust of Our Mortality

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). It wasn’t intended to be that way. Death was the consequence of human disobedience. As Paul explains, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

Sin is the symptom. Death is the prognosis. Depravity is the underlying condition. “Depravity,” said Haddon Robinson, “is a curvature of the soul.” Chuck Swindoll calls it a “case of the bends.” None of us are immune, and none of us like to admit it.

In Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who went to the Temple to pray, we can see ourselves in both characters, if we’re honest. Inwardly, we know we’re as messed up as that tax collector. Outwardly, we try like the Pharisee to act as if we have it all together.

“Depraved” sounds so foreign to us, as if it’s a word that only describes the worst of the worst, not grandma, mom, dad, or me. But it does. It’s what all of us living on this side of Eden are—depraved.

Why are we shocked when depraved people do depraved things? Could it be for the same reason that we find death loathsome? Deep down we sense that neither should be as they are. We just know that people should be good and that death should be no more. Is there nothing that can be done about either? The answer to our quandary is here in another dusty verse in Genesis 3.

The Dust of the Seed’s Victory

“And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).

Later, Paul writes, “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil. And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:19b-20a).

Here is poetic justice at its finest. God promises that One born of dust would someday crush into the dust him who occasioned humanity’s fall. The bruising of the seed’s heel would result in the crushing of the serpent’s head. If that sounds confusing, the Gospels fill in the details. Lest we miss the point, the preacher to the Hebrews sums it up.

Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:14-17).

Jesus made himself our brother so that his victory over the devil might become a family affair, so that we, too, might crush the serpent under our feet by becoming wise in the ways of goodness and simple concerning evil. But that’s not the end of the story. We must consider one other dusty verse: Genesis 3:19.

The Dust of Glory

When we speak of the Resurrection, some will ask, as they did in Paul’s day, “How does that work exactly?” The apostle answers,

As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly… Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:49, 51-54).

First Corinthians 15 is all about God setting to rights what sin set wrong.

On the other hand, the Lord’s last recorded words to Adam before exiling him from the Garden were these, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That’s all the world knows, but that’s not all there is. The gospel, the Good News, is that dust is going to be reanimated! Paradise lost will be paradise regained.

He who came from glory will someday return to bring us to glory. He who breathed life into our lungs will one day soon breathe a grave-rattling, soul-awakening blast into our ears. He who cast us out of the Garden and cut us off from the Tree of Life even today invites us to return and one day partake of its fruit (Rev. 22:1-3). On that day, all that dust in earth’s winds will finally settle around heaven’s throne.


No, I don’t observe Lent, but I believe in its themes. Humanity. Mortality. Victory. Glory. Dusty old themes from a dusty old book for dusty old folks like us, whether we observe Lent or not.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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