Sermon for ‘Ash Sunday’
Our theme for Lent is ‘who is welcome?’ and, as you may have gathered from the Call to Worship, the answer is ‘everybody!’ Jesus was executed by the Romans because they thought he was a political rebel, seeking to overthrow them. But long before he entered Jerusalem on the day we remember as ‘Palm Sunday,’ Jesus was a social and religious rebel, well-known for welcoming those others excluded.
Today, the first day of Lent, the day on which we belatedly ‘celebrate’ Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that the ‘everyone’ Jesus welcomes includes ‘sinners who need forgiveness’. That’s just another way of saying ‘everyone’ because there isn’t a human being alive who lives without sin. Luckily, there is also no one whose sins God does not forgive.
Before talking about sin and forgiveness, let’s look at the reading set for the first Sunday in Lent, the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. In this story of Jesus’ tempting by the devil after being led into the desert by the Spirit, the testing doesn’t involve anything obviously evil. Jesus is being tempted to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. In a world of hunger, why not turn stones to bread? In a world of indifference, why not do something as spectacular as leaping off the temple to command attention? In a world of violence and slavery and oppression, why not, as the Son of God, just take over? There’s nothing obviously wrong about Jesus doing any of this. Indeed, later Jesus will feed thousands; he will do miracles; and ultimately he will be given all authority in heaven and on earth. Every point the devil makes is true; Jesus is the Son of God and he can do all this. He is being tempted by legitimate, if distorted, popular expectations of what the messiah would look like. Why not fulfil them?
The answer, the reason that at this moment choosing to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful would be to choose sin, is that this is not God’s way of salvation. Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry, on a journey that will lead him to the cross. The journey on which God sends his Beloved Son leads to the scandal of the Messiah being executed as a criminal. Jesus, although he is, as the devil keeps reminding him, the Son of God, does not seek equality with God. He recognises that there must be no forcing of God’s hand, no testing of God. Jesus doesn’t need signs and wonders to know that God loves him. So Jesus, despite being tempted as we are all tempted, refuses the devil’s wiles and the devil leaves him.
Here, as his ministry begins, Jesus chooses the road he will travel. He chooses God’s way, which is the way of humility and weakness. Remembering that, here at the beginning of Lent, we join him in the wilderness, taking the same path of humility, and showing it with ashes.
Christianity says two almost contradictory things about human beings. The first is that we are all, without exception, beloved children of God. Last week, when we celebrated the Transfiguration, we were reminded of God’s identification of Jesus as ‘beloved Son’. We believe that God says exactly the same thing to each of us: ‘you are my beloved child’. The second thing that Christianity says about humanity is that we are all, without exception, sinners. We are both God’s beloved children, and we are those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
‘Sin’ is a difficult word for us twenty-first century people to hear. It’s not a word taken seriously anymore. That’s partly the Church’s fault. One stereotype of the historic Church is that it spent all of its time telling people that they were miserable sinners, totally depraved, and that everything they did was wrong. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but there is a pinch of truth in it. Unsurprisingly, people rebelled against that idea. In our modern post-Enlightenment society, which sees human beings as completely free and naturally good, the idea of sin is more of a joke than anything else. We can buy ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ chocolates and ice-creams, if we want, or ‘Sinner’ lines of clothing. Nowadays ‘sin’ commonly means ‘indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness’. Not something to be taken seriously.
But Christianity does take sin seriously. For Christians, sin isn’t about eating chocolates and ice-cream; it isn’t about indulging in things that are a bit naughty. As we understand it, sin is about our separation from God, about the way every single one of us fails to live up to our potential as the people God created us to be. One Christian author, Francis Spufford, describes it as the ‘human propensity to muck things up’ – only the word he used wasn’t ‘muck’. We can muck things up individually, or as churches, communities, cultures, and nations. The ashes that we will put on our forehead later to mark our sin come from the palms with which Palm Sunday was celebrated last year. They acknowledge that we, too, would have been part of the crowd that welcomed Jesus with acclamation when it thought he would be a political messiah, and demanded his crucifixion when he didn’t live up to expectations. Some sins aren’t just personal.
Today, we are given an opportunity to remember all the ways in which we fall short, all the things of which we have to repent, and to turn again to God, seeking forgiveness and renewal. Being reminded that we are sinners might not seem particularly positive and helpful, but it really is. We all sin, every single one of us, and we are forgiven for those sins. God doesn’t want us to pretend to be better than we are; we don’t need to be perfect and healthy and happy to come here to church, to be part of the people of God. We can come to God with all our messiness and sickness and failure, and know that we are welcome. God’s door is open to us, and all we need to do is walk through it. Our sins are forgiven.
Given that we are practising post-Royal Commission Christianity, a quick sidebar. One of the things that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said was that a culture of forgiveness in churches might have led to poor responses to child sexual abuse. Abuse was seen as a sin to be forgiven, not a crime to be reported. Obviously, when the church says that all our sins are forgiven, that doesn’t mean that crimes should be ignored or that perpetrators shouldn’t be investigated and charged. Most importantly, the fact that sins are forgiven doesn’t mean that those who have done harm should continue to be in positions that enable them to do further harm. In fact, the awareness that we are all sinners, that as human beings we are all constantly liable to the ‘human propensity to muck things up,’ should mean that we don’t lead people who have committed child abuse into temptation by allowing them further access to children. That God forgives sin doesn’t mean that people, especially children, should be put at risk. End of sidebar.
Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are made of dust and to dust we will return, which again doesn’t seem especially comforting. God is eternal, we are mortal; one day we will die. No matter how healthy we are, no matter how rich, no matter how much we exercise, how good our diet is, how good our lives are, we will all die. Sadly, not all of us die peacefully at a great age; babies may be stillborn; teens die in car accidents; the young and the middle-aged succumb to cancer. And no matter at what age someone dies, death can devastate those left behind. Christianity is very clear that suffering and death are real and agonising; people do not merely fall asleep or slip into an adjoining room.
But just as God once breathed into dust from the ground and gave humans life, so God breathes new life into us here and now, and offers us the hope of eternal life. As we walk with Jesus on the road to his death, we are reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘For if we have been united with [Jesus] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’. (Romans 6:5) The ashes on our forehead tell us that we will die, but they also remind us that we do not believe death is the end of our story. The forty days of Lent are a journey to Jesus’ death, certainly, but after that death comes the joy of resurrection. We are made of dust and to dust we shall return, but Christ shall give us abundant life.
The ashes on our foreheads are signs of repentance and mourning; but they are made in the shape of the cross. We are reminded that in the crucifixion of Jesus we see the love that can cleanse and heal all of us. In the resurrection we see the victory of that love over even the last and greatest enemy, death. The Easter story is the story of ultimate love in ultimate action. During Lent we travel towards that final defeat and victory, joining Jesus in his wilderness as at his testing he joined us in ours. The last and best message of the ashes is the message repeated again and again throughout the Christian story; we have not been left alone in all our messiness, sin, and mortality. God is always with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, (London: Faber and Faber, 2103), p. 26.
 See Final Report, Volume 16, Book 1, section 12.6.7 and Book 2, section 13.11.10.