A sermon preached at a shared service of St. George’s Anglican Church and Prince of Faith Lutheran Church by the Rev. Clara King on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Ash Wednesday - Year C
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Here we are at the beginning of Lent, ready to begin our season of fasting and repentance. And yet, in our readings today we are given two strict warnings about the wrong way to do it.
In Isaiah, we read of God’s anger against those who fast and pray merely to get God’s attention, merely to earn God’s good favour - while leaving unattended the basic social justice issues to which God is committed. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount with a blistering criticism of those hypocrites whose religious observance is entirely for show.
It is almost as if the Lectionary Writers were concerned that we might come away from our religious observance tonight with ashes on our heads and an entirely wrong idea of the Christian message in our hearts. Almost as if they were saying: yes, put ashes on your heads, and commit yourselves to a season of self-discipline - but please: do it for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
So: the right reasons. It is not the intention of these practices to “earn God’s favour” or merit God’s grace. God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:17). Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord: nothing, nothing, nothing (Romans 8:38-39). We are safe in God’s grace. Secure in God’s love. And nothing we can ever do will change that: not for good, nor for bad.
So it does not matter how many heaps of ashes we pile upon our heads, or what fasts we commit ourselves to, or how dramatically we pray. God sees us; God cares for us; God does not need to be swayed by grand gestures.
Tonight isn’t about swaying God, or persuading him. It is rather about swaying ourselves. Because God’s love for us is unshakeable - even as God sees us with a clear sight.
Each of us in our lives carry the memories of things we can never undo. And each of us carry regrets of things we should have done, and moments that we should have acted. And we carry those memories around - and the knowledge of the consequences of our actions that can never be taken away.
And most of us have been Christians long enough that we know what kind of lives we are supposed to be living. We know we’re supposed to act justly, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We know we are called to love one another; we know we’re called to serve generously. We know we are called to lives of love, joy, peace, justice, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self control.
The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak.
Instead, our lives quietly stack up with small moments of selfishness, and ill-temper, and jealousy, and covetousness, and rage that we trample down but just can’t quite put out. We don’t mean to be, but we are secretly scared, not brave; violent, not tender; bitter, not hopeful.
God sees our hearts and our actions and our intentions, and God knows the impact and the consequences of what we do. We have left undone which we ought to have done; and we have done those things we have done which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. God sees the very best of all that we are; and the very worst of all that we have done. God see it all.
And because God loves us, and because God so loves the world, God does not stand back idly, waiting for us to sort this all out ourselves. Because we can’t.
Instead God comes to us, in the person of Jesus Christ. He comes all the way to the door to our heart and knocks, asking to be let in (Revelation 3:19-20). Asking us to open the door and step back. Asking us to acknowledge the mess within that we cannot sort out ourselves.
Jesus stands at the door, gently knocking. He is not banging like a debt collector or like the police. He is not demanding to be let in. He will not break down the door. For he comes in love, and love never forces itself on the beloved.
He knocks gently, inviting us to stop baracading the door of our hearts, shameful of the mess inside. He invites us to step aside and welcome him inside in faith and in trust, and believe that he can do that thing in our lives that we, without him, cannot possibly do.
And if we step aside, Jesus comes in, not as a whirlwind of activity and judgment and determined to get everything spic-and-span before anyone sees all this mess. He comes in with infinite tenderness and gentleness, and sits us down amidst all the mess with a nice cup of tea, and says, “come now, tell me how it happened.”
And after listening, he says, “we can do this together.”
Friends, every day of our lives, Jesus comes to us in love, asking for our willing participation in the transformation of our lives. Asking for our humble acceptance that we cannot do this alone. Asking for us to be committed enough to do what is hard - and it is hard - because it is the right thing to do.
For Jesus asks us to let him transform transform our hearts, not just so we can live more beautiful lives: lives of more love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control.
Jesus ask us to be partners with him in transforming the world, so that the oppressed go free, and those in chains are liberated. So that the hungry are filled, and the homeless are housed, and the naked are clothed, and the sick are cared for, and peace rules in our hearts, and the glory of the Lord shines on the earth.
So you see: tonight is not about changing God’s mind about us. God’s mind is set on love and redemption and nothing will change it. Nothing, nothing, nothing. This Lent, my brothers and sisters, it is our own minds we seek to change.
May our ritual observance this Lent reintroduce us to God’s everlasting mercy, and strengthen our confidence in his love, so we may have the courage to lay down our pride, and be not afraid, and let Jesus transform our lives.
For he stands at the door and knocks - so let us welcome his love: for our sakes and all the world.