Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2021 based on readings Isaiah 58:1-12 and John 8:1-11
May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is Ash Wednesday, a specific day in the church calendar on which we enter the season of Lent. A season that is dedicated to three things: Repentance, Readjustment and Renewal. A season that requires not one, but all three of these things to happen in our lives. A season which can last beyond the next 40 days (47 if you include the Sundays, which I think you should, to be consistent) into the future.
The first thing about Lent is the need to gauge a starting point. This involves a period of inner reflection on what we have done and said that requires forgiveness. It’s a way of clearing the decks or wiping the slate clean and putting ourselves right with others as well as God. The things that we do wrong, that go against God’s will and purpose are what we call sins, and there’s no real difference between the degree of sinfulness that we experience, the fact is we are all sinful.
For the women caught in adultery her sin was obvious, but it was the unobvious and unobserved sins of those who were about to launch their own form of physical justice who were restrained by their knowledge of their own sinfulness. In the same way, we are called to acknowledge our own sinfulness and to ask for forgiveness.
Just so with the House of Jacob, and God’s instruction to Isaiah to very loudly pronounce their lack of consciousness of their sinful behaviour. For them, as for us, the practise of faith is not in the rituals and laws, but in the knowledge and understanding of God’s way.
Acknowledgement of our wrongdoings is only the first step, the second is to change our behaviour to avoid repeating those mistakes, to turn away and to turn back to focus on God, to repent. For the woman in John’s gospel, there was no condemnation, but there was an instruction, ‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’.
If we do the same then we are readjusting what we need be like; and in doing so we can ask ourselves, what are the things that get in the way of us focussing on God, are there too many distractions in our homes, in our work and leisure, in the world around us. Some of us counteract this, during the season of Lent, by abstaining from some of the physical pleasures, but it’s often just a temporary abstention.
However, a fast is not really a fast unless some long-term readjustment takes place. The real idea of fasting is just that, to take our eyes off of the things of the world and instead to focus on God. Fasting is a way to demonstrate to God and to ourselves that we are serious about our relationship with him.
For the people of Isaiah’s day, it was clear that their fasting was never going to improve their relationship with God and was merely a cellophane cover that didn’t make any difference to their attitudes towards those they held responsibility over, and it was certainly not acceptable to God.
Of course, fasting is also about humbling ourselves and the imposition of ashes will serve as a visual reminder of our repentance, but the real difference will be in readjustments and choices that we make as our focus coincides with the things that God wants to focus on; injustice, relief of oppression, charitable provision and family harmony.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
If we are in any doubts that these are the most important things on God’s heart then we only have to recall Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, when he opened and read from the scriptures his mission statement, ‘to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim liberty to the captives; recovery of sight to the blind and to set free the oppressed’
When these things are our focus then renewal can take place; instead of gloom and darkness there is new light brought into our lives and into the world, and with God walking alongside us as our guide our lives are reinvigorated, and ‘parched places… shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose water never fails’.
For the adulterous woman, her encounter with Jesus brought about repentance, readjustment and renewal and the same would have been assured if the people of the house of Jacob had taken notice of Isaiah’s offering of redemption, and for us, this Lent or at any time, we too can receive this reassurance.
So, make this Lent not just a season of sackcloth and ashes but one that lays a strong foundation for ourselves and for the future as we look forward to the joy that will be Easter.