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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Ash Wednesday 6th March 2019
2 Corinthians 5.20b 6.10 & John 8.1-11
The lady had woken early and showered. She dressed in simple, expensive and smart clothes. She put on her make up and did her hair. She ate a nourishing and healthy breakfast. She picked up her leather briefcase containing important papers, checked she had her phone and keys and she set out for work. She was confident and in control. She was able and ambitious.
Within an hour of leaving home her clothes were ripped and ruined. She had lost her briefcase, phone and keys. She was wandering the streets in a daze. She was confused and vulnerable. She was covered, head to toe, in dust and ash.
The lady was the victim of a random terrorist attack in a busy city centre. One moment she was confident and in control. Within seconds, due to an act of human evil and sin, she was broken and vulnerable. Covered in dust and ash. This is the human condition writ large. We yearn for a safe and comfortable environment where we are in control, but tragedy and acts of selfishness and sin, by others or by ourselves, constantly wreck and shatter our safe, comfortable and controlled lives.
On Ash Wednesday we are challenged, by the Church, to face up to this. We are reminded of our mortality, that life is a precious and fragile gift. We are also led to face up to our weakness and sin which is destructive and ultimately leads to death. In this service we take ash – a stark symbol of tragedy and death, and we are marked on our foreheads with a cross. We take ash, a symbol of destruction and death and make the mark of the cross, for Christians, a symbol of life and hope. The message is clear. By God’s power and grace, by God’s willingness to enter into the tragedy and sin of our lives and our world, there is always the potential for new life, for resurrection. In the dust and ash of human tragedy, in the dust and ash caused by human sin, the sins we commit and the sin done by others, even in the dust and ash of death, there is the potential of new life.
Ash Wednesday is about Hope. The season of Lent we begin today is about Hope. Not Hope that God will magically or supernaturally sort out our problems, but Hope that with God’s Grace and Love, and our repentance and courage, there is no tragedy or sin that cannot be overcome, there is no tragedy or sin that cannot lead, in some way to new life, to resurrection.
It is good to be reminded at the beginning of this penitential season that repentance has two elements – there’s the saying sorry for our sins, but this is not enough we also have to do something about our sin. True Repentance involves a serious attempt to put right in our lives what we know is wrong. Think for a moment about the lady caught in adultery in the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. At the end of the story Jesus says, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’John 8.11. So she didn’t get stoned to death by the mob, she got forgiven by Jesus – thank the Lord. But when she walked away from Jesus, where did she go? As far as we know, the only person who had forgiven her was Jesus, so presumably, she had to go back to her husband and apologise to him and work hard to gain his forgiveness and trust. Then there would be her family to speak to, remember she was humiliated by being dragged through the streets, everyone knew what she had done. So she would also have to face her neighbours, the ladies in the queue to fill the water jars at the well, I wonder what that was like. Life was going to be very tough for the lady in the gospel after Jesus forgave her. Living as a forgiven person is not always immediately a happy ending – often it involves a lot of honest conversations and hard work.
So as we begin this season of Lent today by sharing in this simple ritual where a little ash is used to mark us with a cross, let us be aware of the enormity of the message this ritual carries – life is precious and fragile, yet there is no tragedy, no sin that may drench us in dust and ash, out of which some new life may not come. New life comes through God’s love, grace and forgiveness, and through our true repentance. In a beautiful church building in the context of a moving act of worship with evocative liturgy and beautiful music, this is easy to believe this. When tragedy strikes it becomes more difficult. So as we prepare for the ritual imposition of ash and the assurance of Hope, let us, in a moment of silence pray that, should we be drenched in the ash of sadness or tragedy we will be able to hold on to the belief that God will remain with us and lead us to new life, and let us pray for others we may know or hear about on the news whose lives today are covered in the dust and ash of tragedy. May we repent of the sins that cause so much tragedy, our own sins and the sins with which we are complicit, and work hard to put things right. May we, this Lent, resolve to hold on to the hope of new life and help make that new life a reality for others through our compassion, forgiveness and love.
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