Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

This is the transcript of my sermon for Ash Wednesday on February 26, 2020.

Ash Wednesday


Joel 2:1-2,12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6.10 
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’

These are the words that accompany the ‘imposition of ashes’ that takes place in churches on Ash Wednesday.  They are words that this year very few people in Hong Kong will hear.  This is, of course, because churches, unlike shops and supermarkets, are, at the moment, closed to the public.  However, it has to be said, that even had we been allowed to open today, our churches would not have exactly been full.

This is in contrast to how Lent was approached and observed in the past.  In the past, yesterday Shrove Tuesday, all the sweet and delicious food in our store cupboards would have been eaten.  We would have gone to church to be ‘shriven’, that is, to confess our sins and receive absolution from a priest in order to get ourselves ready for Lent.  Giving something up in Lent would not have been a token ‘giving up’, but a several week abstaining from meat and much else.

Lent in the past, in other words, was taken very seriously.  It was not simply about preparing for Easter, but about a specific way of preparing for Easter.  It was a time for self-examination and reflection on our mortality and spiritual need, designed to get us ready for the message we will celebrate at Easter.  Ash Wednesday, the day beginning Lent, is still, in the Anglican Church, a Principal Holy day, one that Christians are expected to take seriously.

So why don’t we?

Well doubtless the reasons are many, but certainly part of the reason is that we don’t want to hear how utterly weak and wretched we are.  You might have thought that the fact that whole cities are being brought to a standstill by a virus might have led us to think about our weakness and vulnerability, even if nothing else did, but human pride and arrogance being what they are, we have developed a natural immunity to such a message.

The truth is we have embraced instead the message of popular culture that tells us we are all wonderful really.  ‘There is nothing we can’t do, if we but believe in ourselves.’  ‘Our only limitation is our imagination.’  This would just be mildly amusing were it not for the fact that this is the message that children are being taught in schools and the philosophy they are being raised and encouraged to base their whole lives on.

No wonder then that they get such a shock when they find out by bitter experience just how false it is.  Of course, the world holds up as examples of its message those who have followed their dreams and have succeeded.  And it emphatically insists that we can be like them if we have the same faith in ourselves.  This isn’t just a lie; it is a cruel lie.  No wonder then that suicide, mental illness, depression, despair, and disillusionment are so common among even the youngest members of our society.

Instead of embracing this philosophy of human wonderfulness as have, to our shame, many Christians and churches, we as Christians should be telling people how we are the exact opposite of wonderfulness.  We should do this not because we enjoy wallowing in sin and humiliation in a kind of spiritual sado-masochism, as the world likes to suggest we do, but, quite simply, because it is the truth.

We really aren’t wonderful.  We can’t do anything we want if we just put our minds to it.  And believing in ourselves is more likely to lead to disappointment and failure than it is to success.

And we are all going to die.

And that is the one indisputable fact that none can escape, no matter how much we may try to ignore or forget it.  We try to ignore or forget it because it undermines everything we are being taught about how wonderful we are.

I stand before you as a dying man.

Just as you are a dying man or woman.  The issue is not whether we will die, only when.  The fact of our mortality should draw us up short.  It should make us think.  And it should lead us to God.

If we stop at our sin and mortality, then we will end our lives in despair.  But the good news that we will celebrate at Easter is that God has taken our sin, weakness, and wretchedness on himself.  He has even allowed himself to become subject to death itself that we may have life.  He did this not because of how wonderful we are, but because of how wonderful he is.

Lent, then, is not simply about reflecting on how terrible our sin and failure is.  It is seeing in the light of our sin and failure how amazing is what God has done for us.

It is also about seeing our sin and failure in the light of what God has done for us.  So serious is our sin and failure that Christ had to die for it.  His body and blood are at the centre of our worship as a permanent reminder to us of this seriousness.  Saint Paul wrote:

‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)

Our celebration of the Eucharist tells us both the bad news about ourselves and the good news of what Christ has done for us.

So today, as we begin Lent, we remember that we are ‘dust and to dust we shall return’.  And we do not come to this our Lord’s table trusting in ourselves and in own righteousness.  We come knowing that ‘we have no power of ourselves to save ourselves’, trusting only in his mercy.

We eat his body and drink his blood because we know that only they can save us.

We are not wonderful, but we do worship a wonderful Saviour.

As we reflect in Lent on our wretchedness and worthlessness, may God grant us a vision of the Lamb of God who alone is worthy and who saves those who, no matter how unworthy they may be, turn to him.

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’


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