Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Years A B & C (2)

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
“Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden,
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.”

I think this prayer will be at the heart of my reflections this Lent.

It offers a key to an understanding of both our readings this evening but perhaps particularly of the Gospel reading.

It acknowledges the complete and intimate knowledge God has of each one of us. As the psalmist says:

“O Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you discern my thoughts from afar”
“There is not a word on my tongue,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether”
“such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
so high I cannot attain it”

When we realise again how completely God knows us we might well feel like Adam and Eve, spiritually naked and ashamed and we might want to search for a metaphorical fig leaf to hide behind.

But if we can also realise again the enduring love and compassion of God perhaps we can be brave enough to stand spiritually naked before him and allow him to forgive, heal and restore us to a life freed from guilt and shame.

And the sort of freedom that comes from knowing we are loved and forgiven might perhaps be the treasure which Jesus calls our “reward” from our Father in heaven, who sees what is in secret.

God sees us as we really are. He sees the whole story: our strengths and weaknesses; our fears and hopes; our hurts and limitations. And because he is the only one who truly knows everything about us, his judgement of us is the only one that really matters.

He knows when we are struggling with anxieties or grief; he knows when we’re doing the best we can in difficult circumstances.

I was once unhappy about a service I had prepared and led. Julian (vicar of St Andrews at the time) asked me if I had done it as well as I could at the time. When I said I had he replied “well, that’s all God wants, the best you can do at the time”.

I think that that love of God and his acceptance of us as we are is a treasure in heaven worth giving our best for. And if we’re focussed on that we won’t be worrying about how other people see us. We don’t have to play to an audience for their “reward” and “praise”.

And it applies to all of us. So when we see what others are doing and hear what they’re saying and are tempted to pass judgment, let’s remember we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know the hidden secrets that go to form another person. God is the only one who knows it all and he is the only one entitled to make any sort of judgment. We are called just to love.

It might seem contradictory after our Gospel reading to go through the ritual of having ashes imposed on our foreheads. Jesus nowhere condemns rituals for themselves, it’s the spirit in which we perform them that matters and our integrity in living lives true to our faith.

This particular ritual is when we acknowledge together that we know we get it wrong and we stand in need of grace and forgiveness all our lives.

We will also share together in bread and wine, receiving spiritual strength and nourishment from God who alone knows our deepest needs.

My prayer this Lent is that we will have the courage to grow in freedom in our relationship with the God who knows us inside out and loves us so that we will also grow in relationship with each other, freed from fear of judgment and drawn together by the love of God among us.