Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6, 1-6 & 16-21
‘If anyone saw us now they would think we were bonkers.’
These words were whispered to me as I stood in the queue at Cuddesdon theological college, by my friend Big Nick, as we waited in the aisle of the village church for ashing. He had a point, there we were a group of fresh, and not so fresh faced ordinands, dressed in white cassock-albs, waiting for a priest to mark our foreheads with ash. When you stop to think about being ashed is not normal; in fact it's very odd.
Or, at least it's odd by the standards of the world. Ash Wednesday, I would want to suggest, sees the church at her most counter-cultural. The words ‘from ash you have come and to ash you shall return,’ are words that stand contrary to the myth of the self-made, independent, destiny deciding, write your own script story, perpetuated in contemporary culture. Ash Wednesday in crucial ways reminds us that we are not ultimately in charge, and worst still that death is the great equaliser, for it is an ultimate and unarguable truth that ‘to ash’ we shall all ‘return.’ Ash Wednesday, far from being bonkers, even though the ritual of ashing looks bonkers, is a call to embrace the ultimate truth; that ‘to ash’ we shall ‘return,’ as equals. To fully accept that we have come from ash and shall return to ash, is, I would want to argue, to be graced by humility.
Humility is the greatest of liberators. If God is in charge, if there is literally nothing that I can do to prevent the reality that one day I will return to ash, then perhaps I can learn to stop striving quite so hard; perhaps you can learn to stop striving so hard? What I am referring to is, of course, the sense that we need to strive to impress, so that we can be well thought of and liked. Wouldn’t it be far better, not only for ourselves, but also for others, if we simply learnt to accept ourselves as we are before God? We would presumably be so much happier? Ash Wednesday and Lent beckon us into the ever deeper levels of humility; the consequence, or fruit, of which is very possibly greater levels of contentment and happiness. And that truly is a counter-cultural thought! The world wants you and me to believe that happiness and contentment are purchased through acquisition, self-development and status, Christianity says, ‘rubbish it starts with humility.’
If it, the journey to contentment and happiness, starts with humility, then it is built through a commitment to holiness. Today’s gospel reading repeatedly makes this point: ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 6) and ‘whenever you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 17-18). To pray silently, alone, before the Father is to exercise holiness. To pray silently and in a spirit of humility has the effect of bringing us closer to the ultimate reality that the only view of us that really counts, at the end of the day, when we are but ash, is God’s. It really doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks we are ‘bonkers,’ for ultimately it is only God’s view that counts.
Surely, whatever the world says, it is this level of knowledge, this depth of knowledge, that is the only true source of happiness and contentment?
Lent is often, and correctly, referred to as a penitential season, but the paradox is this; if engaged with in a spirit of humility, and with a commitment to growth in holiness the consequence could well be increased stocks of liberation, freedom, and, dare I say it, happiness. Let’s go ‘bonkers’ this Lent!
Sunday before Lent: 2 Kings 2, 1-12, 2 Corinthians 4, 3-6 & Mark 9, 2-9
Let me start with a highly personal question. Does anyone here wear varifocals? I do! Varifocals, of course, help those who wear them, with their short and long sightedness.
In the account of the Transfiguration, Peter doesn’t see things clearly. He ‘should have gone to Spec Savers!’ We too should make sure we go the spiritual equivalent of Spec Savers so we can see things clearly. If we don’t see and perceive Jesus clearly our vision will become so blurred that in the words of St. Paul all we will see is ‘the god of this world,’ whose objective is to ‘blind minds,’ and turn us into ‘unbelievers.’
The season of Lent, which we are about to enter into, and the story of the Transfiguration invite us to sharpen our spiritual vision and the only way we can do this is by looking at Jesus. The Transfiguration shows us Jesus in all his glory. We hear that ‘his clothes became dazzling white, such as no-one on earth could bleach them.’ Of course in the fullness of time the powers and authorities are to do the very worst by Jesus; they are to crucify him. But, as we know Jesus is to rise again proving that ‘no one on earth could bleach,’ him.
The Transfiguration invites us to reflect on Jesus divinity, his glory, his power to overcome darkness, to shine into, through and beyond the darkness of this life.
The story of the Transfiguration also invites us to consider the possibility that Jesus trumps all that has gone before and all that will come on the future. In the story it is Jesus that shines, Elijah and Elisha are presumably wearing ordinary prophet clothes! And yet Peter can’t quite see what is before his eyes. He can’t see that Jesus is divine, and that he is the ‘fulfilment of the law and the prophets.’ Poor chap; he should have gone to Spec Savers, for what he hasn’t as yet learnt to see is either that which is right under his nose, the fully divine yet fully human Jesus, or the Jesus of eternal life. For Peter, the Transfiguration will only make sense in the light of the resurrection. We, unlike Peter, have been given a pair of specs that allow us to see the whole story in one go.
Like Peter we must learn to see Jesus as both the ‘God of this world,’ and the God of eternal life, and this is no easy task. But, we have the gift of Lent, which starts this Wednesday to help us.
In Lent we are asked to reflect on the state of our own hearts, but we can’t do so properly without also looking to Jesus and giving ourselves to Jesus. Jesus must become the inhabitant and sanctifier of our hearts. So yes, we need to self-reflect during Lent, but we need to do so in the radiant presence of Jesus. If we are prepared to do so then we can be assured of three things: first, Jesus will become for us ‘the God of this world.’ Secondly, and consequentially, in the wonderful words of one of the BCP night collects we will become ‘children of light;,’ ‘illuminated…….. With celestial brightness.’ We too will in some ways be changed even transfigured! Others will see us as people who point the way to the ultimate truth: Jesus. Thirdly, our hope and faith in our eternal destiny will grow. We will be granted the gift of a really long range, eternal and, heavenly perspective.
As I said last week I know of only three ways to deepen our life of faith and to sharpen our spiritual vision: prayer, scripture and the sacraments. So to help you through your Lent journey I thought I would write a short form of daily meditative prayer, please do take one away with you and use it during this season of Lent as a spiritual equivalent of going to Spec Savers, Amen.
Second Sunday before Lent: Colossians 1, 15-20 & John 1, 1-14
In some ways I don’t want to say very much this morning. Thank goodness for that you might be thinking! The reason why I don’t want to say too much is because I would like the readings to speak for themselves, and anyway those of you who were in church for Midnight Mass heard my sermon on today’s gospel reading.
But, what I do want to ask is simply this:
Do we, do you, accept the fundamental propositions revealed through today’s readings?
The first of these propositions is that we are involved in a greater story than anything we can create, strive for, insist on, or narrate. We are part of the Jesus story, the eternal story and, this is the very best of news, for our destiny, should we choose it to be, is to be with Jesus, now and for all eternity.
Yes, life for some of us, many of us, may be extraordinarily difficult at times but hang on to this one thought that gets to the very heart of Christianity: that ‘God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.’ And, can I encourage you to take heart from the notion that God was ‘pleased;’ Our God is not mean-fisted, nor is he a tyrant, our God is the God who is ‘pleased,’ to invite each and every one of us into an eternal relationship. We enter into that relationship through faith; faith in Jesus. Christianity really is that simple.
And, we enter into this relationship as a people, as members of His body, the Church. This is where it get missionally challenging. If St Paul’s fundamental proposition is correct, and Jesus’ body on earth is the church, we need to ask ourselves, constantly, the question Bishop Steven has set before this diocese: ‘are we a Christ-like church?’
One of the things I would like you to go away and think about, and pray about, is simply this: do you, and we as a people, behave in a Christ-like manner?
God is invisible, Jesus has risen, but the Holy Spirit is alive, and if we are open, active. Are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, individually and collectively. Let’s be clear we need to be so that we can be as ‘light’ in the world, and for the world. We are the Body of Christ and our mandate is to ‘testify to the light’: you, me, us.
So how do we get to this point? Well as I keep suggesting I know of only three ways: prayer, imaginative reading of Scripture and through participating in the sacraments of the church; baptism and Eucharist. If I could make one plea it would be simply this: don’t make praying and reading the bible a Sunday only thing, make it, instead, a daily thing. Through prayer and reading the bible our fascination with Jesus, and our relationship with God, matures and deepens and we change. And, as we change the world around us changes, always for the better.
I want to leave you with some words from Scripture that I read during my morning prayers this week. These words are taken from Paul’s first letter to his prodigy Timothy: ‘Fight the good fight of faith, take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.’ If you, we, can live in the here and now, however challenging that is, but with a firm hold on the promise of eternal life then we will ‘testify to the light;’ which at the end of the day is the only real rationale for being the Church. Amen.
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