Scripture: Psalm 30
1 I will exalt you, LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
2 LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.
3 You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.
4 Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.
5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
6 When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
7 LORD, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.
8 To you, LORD, I called to the Lord I cried for mercy:
9 “What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
10 Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.”
11 You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
LORD my God, I will praise you forever.
Oft times we read in the Bible of people repenting in “sackcloth and ashes.” Why are these two things paired? Sackcloth can be a coarse burlap kind of material, or more commonly in biblical times was made of coarse black goat’s hair. (Burlap is perhaps the closest material we have today to biblical sackcloth.) As you might guess, it was not comfortable to wear against bare skin. The black goat hair was a sign of mourning, repentance, and humiliation before the Lord. There are numerous accounts in the Bible of people repenting in sackcloth and ashes in moments of great stress and fear.
Ashes are a humbling reminder that we came from dust . . . then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life and man became a living being.” (Gen.2:7) Humans are not naturally inclined to humility. Dust is a reminder that we are not ultimately in charge of our own life. Last week on Ash Wednesday many people heard these words, “from dust you came to dust you will return” during the imposition of ashes. Dust reminds us of the transitory nature of our pilgrimage on this earth.
In I Kings 21:27-29 we see King Ahab repenting in sackcloth over the wrong he had done when confronted by the prophet Elijah. There is the story of Mordecai praying, sprinkling ashes upon himself, and wearing sackcloth when confronted with the news of the planned annihilation of the Jews. Donning this attire was Jacob’s response when he learned of the supposed death of his son Joseph. Jesus himself referred to “repentance in sackcloth and ashes” when speaking to the people who refused to believe the message of John the Baptist. The rough cloth on the skin was a constant reminder that the current situation is not comfortable, things are not settled. There is no present peace.
Sackcloth was a cloth of humility. If you don’t have some black goats near you to weave their hair into sackcloth (!), maybe find a piece of burlap and cut out a two-inch square and put it in your pocket or wallet or purse to carry with you reminding you that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but that Jesus has “turned our mourning into dancing; you [Lord] removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” True peace is found only in Christ.
In this era of ever-expanding technology and exaggerated claims of humans’ abilities, we would do well to replace this worldly arrogance with humility, bowing before the One who created us from the dust of the earth. Have you ever been prostrate on the floor in humble prayer? The view from there is very different. What simpler words of humility than “I need you Lord, every hour.”
Music: “I Need Thee Every Hour” arr. Sam Robson Christmas at Briarcrest
Prayer: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Book of Common Prayer