Sermon for Ash Wednesday Years A B & C

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 

I’d like to share with you some thoughts I’ve had about this our Ash Wednesday service and about Lent in general.

My first thought (and there are three of them!) centres on the words “In Penitence and Faith”.

Right at the beginning of our service, as Robin explained the meaning of Lent, he used the words

Christians take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel” – the assurance of forgiveness.

In the reading from the book of Joel we hear him call to the people of Israel:

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

And in our Gospel reading Jesus encourages us to have faith in God as a loving Father who knows the secrets of our hearts and who will reward us as, in the privacy of our own rooms, we express our repentance and our wish to grow closer to him.

In a few moments we will follow the Liturgy of Penitence which will be introduced by the words

Let us now call to mind our sin and the infinite mercy of God.

So throughout this evening’s service we are reminded of both our need for forgiveness and the infinite mercy of a God who is always willing to forgive and to offer a new start.

Perhaps it’s true to say that it’s only because we have faith in God’s willingness to forgive that we are able to confess our sins at all.

Someone once suggested to me that perhaps in our services we should hear the absolution first and then make our confession.   It’s a powerful thought even if it can’t be put into effect.

My second thought is to do with the relationship between an individual and his/her community.

Adrian and I were at a concert a few days ago and had seats in the fourth row in the stalls.  We were therefore caught up in the energy of the conductor and musicians and the excitement of the music.  That got me thinking about the role and responsibility each musician carries for the well-being and performance of the whole orchestra.  The orchestra relies on each member to practice playing their instrument, to learn and rehearse their part in any particular piece of music and to be committed also to rehearsing and performing with the whole group of musicians.

The same sort of thing might be said about many groups or teams and I wonder if these ideas might offer a way of looking at what we are doing here, this evening, gathered as individuals each with our own experiences and relationships with God but together forming the church, the body of Christ in this part of Taunton.

In our first reading the prophet Joel is talking to the people of Israel as a whole. Nowadays, in many walks of life, the emphasis is on us as individuals each responsible for our own needs, our behaviour and development.

But in Joel’s time the people of Israel would have seen themselves as together forming the community of God’s chosen people.  The call of the prophet is for public repentance of the whole community by fasting and weeping.  It’s a call to everyone:  the old, the young and even the bride and groom are called away from their privacy to put the community first.

When we come to the Gospel reading, though, we hear Jesus speaking against public shows of faith by individuals.  Jesus wants actions such as giving alms and showing evidence of fasting to be done privately, unnoticed by other people.

He wants his followers, including us, to be in private fellowship with our heavenly father and for that relationship to be our treasure, stored up and held for us by our merciful, gracious and loving God.

So we have these ideas of penitence with faith in a loving, forgiving God and of being individuals with our own personal faith journey whilst also belonging to a community of God’s people.

My third thought comes out of blending these two ideas together as we begin this season of Lent.

It might seem contradictory after our Gospel reading to confess our sins together in public instead of privately in our own rooms and to go through the ritual of having ashes imposed on our foreheads.

But 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.

In this particular ritual we acknowledge together that we know we all get it wrong and that we all stand in need of grace and forgiveness.  We stand alongside each other as equals in God’s sight and we are reminded that none of us can judge another – we can’t point accusing fingers at anyone because we too bear the cross on our forehead.  Instead we can support each other in fellowship as God’s forgiven people.

At the beginning of the Liturgy of Penitence which we are soon to follow, we are told that a minister leads a “corporate examination of conscience”.  That word “corporate” suggests that we examine ourselves as individuals, as members of the church community and as that community as a whole.

From the notes on the back cover of our service booklets we see how the observance of Lent developed over the years and how it involves individuals and their relationships with their communities.  For those who were to be baptized at Easter it was a time of preparation to join the church community.  For those who had been excluded from communion with the church it was a time of penance and preparation for being received back into the church’s sacramental life.

In time it became a period of preparation and penitence for all Christians who looked forward to celebrating Easter as a community of old, new and restored believers.

So perhaps we at St Andrew’s can use this season of Lent to reflect certainly on our own personal faith and its expression but also on our roles and responsibilities within this gathered congregation and the future direction for our church out there in the wider community in which we seek to serve God.

As we do so let us pray for the guidance and blessing of the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Amen.