Ash Wednesday: A Sermon

A sermon preaching on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) and St.  John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Joel 2.1-2; 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18.

“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” (Joel 2.13). Amen.

Lent is a season of paradox, which is probably why our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition refer to it as the ‘Bright Sadness’. Lent is also highly countercultural. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Lent is immune from commercialization. This immunity is rooted in the solemnity and penitential focus of the season; these things simply don’t sell. Furthermore, ours is a culture in which we are expected to be perpetually up-beat and happy. Perpetual optimism is our culture’s default setting: things are going to get better! Look on the bright side! Keep your chin-up! However, these paper-thin sentiments are merely a cover for our profound inability to see the world as a broken place in desperate need of redemption. Of course, we all read and watch the news, so we know that things are not exactly perfect. Yet, our culture is unable to offer deep comfort and assurance beyond that expressed by a greeting card. However, Lent cuts through this sentimentality and names the deep brokenness of our world.

In order to see this brokenness, we also need to be willing to admit our role in creating the world as it currently is. The truth of the matter is that God did not create a broken world: we did. Nevertheless, the perpetual optimism of our culture tells us that we mostly good and can fix the world with enough will power and team-spirit. Indeed, to suggest otherwise is to diminish the power of the human spirit, to be a defeatist, a pessimist, someone who stands in the way of human progress, or so we are told. However, Lent reminds me that repentance is the first step in moving toward hope and healing.

Repentance is the work of acknowledging that not only is the world a broken place, but that I am directly responsible for playing a part in this brokenness. This is an admission that flies directly in the face of our culture’s obsession with self-help and the power of positive-thinking. To suggest that we all share responsibility for the world’s brokenness is the height of peddling guilt-inducing shame that erodes self-esteem, or so we are told. However, Lent reminds me that I cannot fix or save the world precisely because I am part of the problem as much as I refuse to admit or accept this.

You see, Lent names the brokenness of the world for what it is: sin. Talk about sin makes us uncomfortable; it brings to mind judgment, condemnation, and punishment. These are not topics for polite conversation in our culture; how dare we presume to judge anyone else, let alone ourselves! We must respect the various pursuits of happiness of all people! Live and let live, after all! Nevertheless, Lent confronts us with the bald reality of sin and death; we simply cannot ignore sin and death, as uncomfortable as they make us.

The very reason the Christian tradition takes discussion of sin and death seriously is because we take salvation and redemption seriously. In order to understand the immensity and beauty of God’s salvation extended to humanity through Jesus Christ, we need to be able to understand the enormity and destructive power of sin. The result of ignoring or tip-toeing around sin is that we diminish salvation. When salvation is diminished, Christianity is reduced to a system of ethical self-improvement by which we ‘tweak’ our goodness, give ourselves a spiritual ‘boost’, and attempt to fix the world through various well-intentioned projects.

However, Lent cuts through our attempts to water down the gospel in order to make it more culturally acceptable and presents us with the stark reality of the gospel: though the world is ensnared in sin resulting in our alienation from God, each other, and creation itself, God is reconciling himself to the cosmos through Jesus Christ, and calls us to return to his loving embrace that we might participate in his work of redemption. This is more than greeting-card sentimentality or sunny-optimism; it is the only true source of hope and healing for the world. Lent confronts us with the truth that all people, even those of us who belong to the Church, need to hear gospel truth whether we like it or not.

Lent invites us to face the reality of our broken humanity, but Lent also invites us into the way of humanity embodied by Jesus Christ. “Lent strips off layers of self-deception, self-defence, [and self-righteousness] that screen us from the Risen Christ”, and lays us bare and dying at his feet, upon which he picks us up, restores us to life, and commands us to take up our crosses and follow him.[1] “The sin and death represented by the ash cross will wash away like dust. [However], the chrism cross by which you were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever at baptism is indelible”.[2]

Lent reminds me that I am dirt and that one day I will die and become dirt again. However, Lent also reminds me that God is not done with the dirt on either side of the grave because God love dirt and God is in the business of bringing life. God creates life out of nothing and God brings the dead back to life. Death is not final; life is. We can observe Lent precisely because we know that God has the final word on the fate of humanity, and that word is Jesus Christ.

Reconciled through and with Christ, we, those who collectively bear the cross of Christ, become the righteousness of God; the “weapons of righteousness” which we bear are weapons used not to bring death but in service of resurrected life; they are the weapons of repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These Lenten practices are profoundly at odds with our culture and seem rather weak as far as weapons go. However, they are weapons of righteousness because they do not rely on human strength or initiative; rather, they are the fruit of God’s work in our lives. Lent turns our eyes toward the cross and in so doing reminds us that the world is not ours to save because it is already saved through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Ours is to show the world that another way of life is possible, a way of life that stands in defiance to the way of sin and death, a way of life made possible through Jesus Christ, who for us and our salvation took on human flesh, and died for us so that we might live with him. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peter Leithart, “40+ Reasons To Observe Lent”, http://www.theopolisinstitute.com, accessed Feb. 9, 2106.
[2] Bishop Matthew Gunter as quoted on facebook.

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