ASH WEDNESDAY 2015: GOD’S WORMS

 

If you could become any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Would soar on wings like an eagle? Perhaps the lion would your animal of choice because you love the strength and beauty of the king of the jungle. Or, how about being a sweet and adorable little dog – like my dog, Jack?

 

How about becoming a worm? I’m sure none of you considered that. And, who would? Worms have no arms, no legs, and no eyes. They’re small and insignificant. And, they live in the dark and the dirt.

 

Who loves worms? No one ever stops their car and says, “Hey, take a look at that worm!” No one writes an editorial that argues, “We must stop the ongoing genocide taking place in our lakes and rivers! Worms deserve better! These cute creatures should not be skewered on hooks, just so they can be fed to the fish!”

 

Can you imagine the worm being any team’s mascot? There’s no Washington Worms or Michigan Maggots. Such a name would not inspire players or fans!

 

And yet, in Isaiah 41:14 God calls His people a worm: “Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob.” Why does He call them this? Well, they’ve been conquered by the Babylonians, torn out of their land, and transplanted to Babylon where they live under the boot of their conquerors. God goes on to call these exiles weak and weary, bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, deaf and blind, childless, widowed, divorced, and a stubborn rebel from birth. God has one simple word that summarizes this: worm. There’s nothing about them to be praised, nothing that is attractive.

 

After God calls the people “you worm Jacob” He goes on to refer to them as “you dead Israel,” for the dead are similar to worms. Dead people are buried—so are worms. Dead people are stepped on—so are worms. Dead people are surrounded by dirt—so are worms. Dead people are ignored and soon forgotten—and so are the worms.

 

The exiles had seen terror on every side. The promises God had given to their ancestors appeared to be null and void. They’re now captives in a culture where their most treasured narratives and liturgies are being mocked, trivialized, or dismissed as being simply irrelevant. Everything had been swallowed up by the beast called Babylon. Their hopelessness is epitomized in a Psalm of David they would have known well, Psalm 22. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” it begins. In verse 6 is the confession, “I am a worm and not a man.”

 

Now, what does this have to do with us? Well, we are captive to sin and are by nature sinful and unclean. We don’t “act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God” as God in His Word tells us to do (Micah 6:8). We’re not aflame with holiness and with compassion for the lost. We are too infrequent in prayer, harbor lustful thoughts, have little delight in God’s Word, and desire the praises of people. What are we? God says we are worms.

 

“Hey, doesn’t God realize that calling people a worm isn’t the way to boost self-esteem or encourage us to get up and get going?” Well, He’s not concerned that we think highly of ourselves. Instead He longs for us to cry out with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips”; and with Job, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”; and with Paul, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!” This is what Lent is all about. It is acknowledging who we are in God’s sight—sinful and unclean in thought, word, and deed. Lent is when we confess these sins, grieve over them, and repent before Almighty God. You see, only people who are dead and buried and surrounded by dirt cry out for life and resurrection!

 

But now, hear this Word of the Lord. God says in Isaiah 41:14, “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you dead ones of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” The Lord is not some football coach trying to rally his team to “win one for the Gipper.” Nor is He a sentimental granddaddy who wants us to feel warm and fuzzy all over. Our God is “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

 

The word “redeemer” appears nineteen times in Isaiah 40–55. A redeemer is your next-of-kin-relative who buys back your inheritance, frees you from slavery, and pays off your debt. Whatever has gone bad, your redeemer will make good.

 

Coupled with Redeemer is the phrase “the Holy One of Israel.” It appears in the book of Isaiah twenty-five times and only seven more times in the Old Testament. God is, as the angels who surround His throne cry out, “holy, holy, holy!” The Lord is completely set apart from, and over, and different from everyone and everything else.

 

And yet, here Isaiah couples the title “the Holy One of Israel” — the completely transcendent One who is over all things — with the title “your Redeemer” — the completely immanent One who fills all things with His presence. In this way, he announces that the Lord comes to us with His overwhelming power for a single, loving, relentless goal—to join Himself to us and raise us up with His love and life, His forgiveness and salvation!

 

How does He do it? In the fullness of time, God became our next-of-kin-relative, literally. And then He took another step. He became dirty, despised, and dismissed. But then He took another, almost incomprehensible step. He became a worm.

 

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus cries out these words, the first words of Psalm 22, from the cross. The words of verse 6, then —  “I am a worm and not a man” — are also about Him. Here is Jesus, nailed to the tree, His body bent and twisted, a bloody mess. Here is Jesus, mocked, ridiculed, and abandoned — even by God, for He bears our sins. He is us: a worm. He is the worm.

 

He did it all for you. And by so doing He transforms us. God goes on to say in Isaiah 41, “See, I am making you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. You shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.” (Isaiah 41:15-16).

 

God makes worms into mountain movers! The lowly and despised are loved and lifted up. Our Lenten sackcloth and ashes are not the last word, for they are exchanged for baptismal robes washed white in the blood of Jesus. “You shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory,” God says. We shall see the glory of Christ risen from our death and judgment, and we shall be raised with Him. This, the glory of Easter, belongs to Christ’s worms!