A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2010

Isaiah 58:1-14

Brennan Manning, the Catholic author, writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel about a visit to a baseball game when he was a teenager. Like many people do at these events, he bought a hot dog from one of the vendors who walked around. It was only after his first bite however that he realised that it was a Friday, and as a good Catholic he shouldn’t be eating meat. What he was doing was a sin.

About to spit the hot dog out it suddenly occurred to him that were he to throw the sausage away he would now be guilty of the sin of wasting food. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, he was bound in the Roman Catholic distinction between venial and mortal sin. Would the venial sin of eating a sausage on a Friday be compounded into a mortal sin by his wilful carrying on of a sinful action? Was the throwing away of good food the same thing? Was one of the two options a mortal sin and one venial and would that help him decide? And on top of that was the sin of forgetting that it was Friday an even worse mortal sin anyway so he could actually just carry on eating the hotdog because God couldn’t get any angrier with him regardless?

Thus began Brennan’s spiritual journey into the heart of true repentance.

I wonder what your picture of sin is? Do you have in mind a list of dos and don’ts, a bit like the board with the Ten Commandments that we have up in one corner of the church? Is the divine consequence of sin like Brennan Manning’s initial experiences a moveable feast dependent on the exact specific act? When you hear talk of repentance do you try and remember as quickly as possible as many bad things that you’ve done in order to confess them in time for the words of absolution to be read out? Is that really what the penitential life is about? Do we just need to make sure we cover everything we’ve done wrong in and in the right order and that will sort everything out?

The Biblical understanding of sin is fundamentally different to the popular misconceptions that pervade our society and even our church. The key facet of sin is introduced in the first verse of our reading this evening – “Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.”

Rebellion. The Bible describes sin as rebellion against God. Sin is not simply the list of things that we do that offends God. Sin is much deeper and more insidious then that. Sin is our very state of being as human beings, a state of being that rejects God, his sovereignty and his will for our lives. Sin is not so much the actions we commit, it is our very waking moment and sleeping breath as fallen human beings as we make ourselves King and Queen and push the true ruler of our lives out of the way. No wonder Jesus taught that it is what comes from deep within, from the heart, which makes us unclean. This rebellion against God is at the core of our very being; it is not something we do, it is actually who we are.

And that means that “doing” a response isn’t good enough. The complaint that God brings against the Jews is that despite the outward display of repentance by fasting on the allotted day, their hearts aren’t it. How can we tell? Because they continue to do what is wrong – for example exploiting workers and quarrelling. They cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes, but fail to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. And in response God proclaims clearly both the mess they are in and what he wants so much for his people – to transform them into “a well-watered garden, a spring whose waters never fail, to rebuild ancient ruins and raise up age-old foundations”.

The refinement that God wants to perform in us is not simply to wipe out what we have done, it is to transform who we are. Luther described this as the difference between simply covering a pile of manure with snow and actually changing the whole mound of brown stuff into white stuff. How does that happen? It happens when we accept that we can never do it ourselves, that left to our own devices we cannot be righteous, our lights will not break forth like the dawn. It happens because God changes us, not we changing ourselves.

We need God’s healing and we need his righteousness and that is brought into reality when we recognise that he achieves these things for us through Jesus on the cross. We exchange our rebellion for Jesus’ perfect submission and so the Father turns his face away from Jesus and towards us. We receive healing and transformation and at the same time Jesus becomes a curse for us. We lay in front of God not just our specific wrong acts but our whole wrong selves. We confess our state of rebellion and proclaim not so much a willingness to do the right thing in the future, but more importantly, to accept that we are not our own and that we belong utterly to our Heavenly Father. And in doing so we are united with him and raised to our place with Christ, who having taken on himself our sin and our rebellion has conquered it, risen in glory and now sits ascended and exalted at the right hand of the Father.

In the same way that Jesus died so we may live, in true Biblical repentance we die so that we may live. It is a call that comes back to us again and again, however long ago or recently we first realised the truth about ourselves and God. It is a call that we have a chance to respond to again this evening, using the words of John Wesley’s prayer of Commitment to not just lay ourselves, warts and all, at the feet of God in full acceptance of his full sovereignty over us, but also to glorify and revel in the truth that in letting God truly be God and ourselves nothing we will discover his amazing love and everlasting faithfulness to us, unworthy rebellious creatures.

In classical orthodox spirituality, Ash Wednesday begins a journey towards the cross and the empty tomb. It is a journey that asks us to examine the deepest parts of our being, to recognise our need for change, to recognise that we cannot achieve that change ourselves and to recognise the one who can.

The core of Christian discipleship is to understand that nothing but the work of Christ can save us and nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit can transform us. It is the core of Christian discipleship that having recognised these things, we fall on our knees and hand ourselves over into the hands of a merciful, loving, forgiving, healing and restoring redeeming and resurrecting God.

As our reading tonight says – “Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

This is indeed the God that we not just celebrate and worship, but that we truly experience – right here tonight.

Let it be so.

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