Ash Wednesday, Year B, 2015 – Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
If the seasons of the Church year are anything like children you’re not supposed to have a favourite, but alas, parents inevitably do have favourites and so do I—I like Lent. Our culture of ubiquitous consumerism has thoroughly ruined Christmas and Easter—what with Santa and the Easter Bunny and the sales and the shopping. Just this morning I overheard a conversation between Christina and Charlotte, our three-and-a-half year-old. “Easter is the day that Jesus died!” proclaimed Charlotte out of no where in particular. “Well…” began Christina. “And then, and then the bunny comes with chocolate! I love Easter.” I don’t know how Charlotte knows this, but alas she does. Lent is different though. For example, you aren’t bombarded with commercials advertising pre-Lenten sales—have a Holy Lent, with this big screen television at 40% off! No, we get Lent all to ourselves.
I gather this is due largely to the fact that modern Western culture hasn’t the slightest clue what to do with a day like Ash Wednesday, a day that highlights the truth that we all sin and are going to die—Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I was reading the blog of a well known pastor this week and she mentioned two problematic ways that we think about sin. The first is when we equate admitting that we are sinful with having low self-esteem. Last week I spoke with someone who described feeling this way. She wasn’t all that interested in Christianity because she thought it was mostly about the feeling of never being good enough and always having to ask for forgiveness. And so her question was, “Well, aren’t I good enough?” It just seems a little gloomy. Thus, some Christians think that sin is an antiquated and backwards notion that just makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid talking about it all together. The other way we talk about sin which is just as problematic is when we equate sin with immorality. Sin is essentially boiled down to “bad behaviour.” Therefore, other Christians imagine that sin is avoidable if we just work really hard at steering clear of immorality and being good.
Here’s the problem, if sin is ultimately a matter of low self-esteem or immorality then it becomes something we can control, and if it’s something we can control then it’s something we can fix. The Bible, however, paints a different picture—sin is something we are in bondage to, granted we are perpetrators as much as we are victims. It’s a stain on God’s good creation that ensnares us all. Moreover, you and I cannot by our own understanding or by some concerted effort disentangle ourselves from being so ensnared. And just when we think we can free ourselves from the bonds of sin, we are trying to do what only God can do.
Is this not what Lent exposes in us? Is this not the tale which the ashes on our foreheads tell of? That we have grasped God’s good gifts and claimed them as our own. That we have chosen our own way apart from the Way of God, chosen to serve ourselves rather than to worship God and serve Him.
We know that all is not right—we can feel it in our bones—but we think for the most part it’s a problem we can solve if we get our act together.
The power of positive thinking, or the hard work of self-improvement—our desire to be our “best selves” and to have everyone notice! Why? So that we may be like God, and be so honoured.
And good religious folks like you and I aren’t exempt from this. In the passage from the sermon on the mount which we heard read this evening Jesus mentions three things which any good Jew would be familiar with—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Indeed, these are three things which Christians traditionally pursue during Lent. So Jesus is presuming that his hearers are doing these things and will continue to do so. Yet even these good practices, which are meant to turn our attention to God alone, to open our lives up to his life, even these can be co-opted, turned inward, and confined to our own agenda. This is why Jesus exhorts his hearers, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Three more times he cautions against giving, praying, and fasting in order to be seen and praised by others: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others,” “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.” The hypocrite’s faith is all about “me” precisely because it is all part of the project of self-improvement, and having other people bear witness to the fact that we’re better and thus deserving of recognition and reward. And to be fair, this sort of play acting does get attention: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward,” Jesus says.
It calls to mind a parable which Jesus told once, maybe you know it. Two men go to the temple to pray, one was a religious fellow, a Pharisee, the other a sinner, a tax collector. And the Pharisee, stands there in the temple “by himself” Jesus notes—that is, his own way on his own strength—and his prayer is an advertisement featuring his own beautiful self: “God, I thank you that I am not like all of those sinners. Nope, not I. I fast twice a week; hell, I even give away a tenth of all I’ve got; and now here I am standing here praying.” But this is no prayer at all, says Jesus.
What is the prayer that justifies? Look to the tax collector, the sinner, unable even to raise his head: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the kingdom of God, you see, strength is not a strength, and weakness is not a weakness.
Indeed, often times strength prohibits us from turning to God.
Is not Lent ultimately about a turning away from all of this striving and meddling and instead embracing the truth about ourselves and returning to God? “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning: rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing,” (Joel 2:12-13). It is not easy nor particularly comfortable to stand in the light of Christ and to have that light penetrate into the darkness of the world which we have made for ourselves, into the darkness of our own hearts. But God will give us the humility to do just this—to let go of all of the pretenses and our assertion of independence from God; to let go of defending ourselves; to let go of self-loathing and to return to God as we are, broken and beloved creatures. Because this is what delights God—not being perfect as peaches, or having all the right answers, but in our returning to him, because underneath all of that despair and false-pride, underneath the stain of sin and the stench of death, we are His—creatures of His own making, created by him and through him and for him. No, not underneath all of these things, but even in all of these things, we are his. That is why we are marked with ashes in the sign of the cross—because it is there on the cross where God proclaims most loudly and clearly, “I hate nothing which I have made,” to borrow from the words of the Collect for Ash Wednesday. Because it is there on the cross where sin is forgiven and death is defeated, because it is through this very act of self-giving that God himself creates and makes in us new and contrite hearts.
Three times Jesus says, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Giving, prayer, and fasting for the sake of Christ alone, this has it’s own reward. And we’re not talking about those silly trinkets which the world gives to those it loves—no, that stuff passes away, it’s hardly worth calling treasure at all really. The reward which God gives to those who seek him cannot perish, it is heavenly treasure. Those who pay attention will discover this as we follow Jesus through Lent, because sure enough, as it happens, we’re following him to the cross. And along the way we will discover that our lives, the lives that we claimed as our own quite apart from God, are taken up into Christ’s own life. And on that cross, who was it that Jesus thought of? Was it for himself that he offered up his life? Did he not give himself up for us?
God rewards those who seek him, says the author of Hebrews. And what is that reward then? In seeking God, and in finding him on the cross, the very life that was there given for us is given to us.
So, a challenge for us then. Over the next 40 days or so, away with self-loathing, lay down your scorecards you tally-keepers, cease striving to be a better version of yourself, set aside your sin management program, and instead seek God alone. Give Him your attention, intentionally, each day. Look at Christ, do not look at yourself. Give up going your own way and go the way with God, walk with Him. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember you are God’s. Confess your sin, repent, and return to Him. Because when we admit our brokenness and mortality what we are confronted with is not a great despair but rather a great hope—the great hope— Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us and to us. Together let us do this, and let us see what God will do. Amen.