Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? The short answer is to develop the habits of character that will be necessary for us to live as citizens in God’s promised new creation and to be signs of his new creation to others. And so tonight I want us to explore briefly what that means for us as we enter this season of Lent (and beyond).
We can all relate to the anguish in tonight’s Psalm because at one time or another, we have been the psalmist. The psalm itself identifies David as its author. David reportedly wrote it after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan for ordering the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, to cover David’s disastrous affair with Bathsheba and save his own neck (cf. 2 Samuel 11; 2 Samuel 12.1-14). Apparently sin is such a bad thing that we want to hide it from each other as well as God.
But we don’t have to engage in adultery or murder to understand the gist of the Psalm. We all know the dehumanizing effect sin has on us. It cheapens our bodies and spirits and can cause great anguish and guilt. And if we believe Scripture, our sins even pollute and corrupt the land in which we live. Every time we miss the mark and fail to be the wise and responsible stewards of God’s good creation we were created to be, and every time we fail to love God with all our being and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we as God’s image-bearers along with God’s good creation are diminished. Paul lists some of the behaviors that cause this dynamic in Galatians 5.19-21: sexual immorality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and others like these. We are well aware of the results these kinds of behaviors produce everyday. Whether it’s mass murder or political bickering that results in the virtual paralysis of the various levels of our government or theft or drug and alcohol addiction (and the destructive behaviors that accompany both) or skyrocketing divorce rates and the breakdown of families or interpersonal conflict or incessant warfare and the threat of terrorism, we don’t have to look far to see the negative effects sin has on us and God’s world.
And even if we don’t fully understand it, we also get it instinctively that our sin causes us to be alienated and separated from God, our very Source of life, with all its accompanying adverse psychological and physical effects. Of course, we being who we are—proud, fallen, and occasionally self-delusional creatures of God—desperately seek solutions everywhere else except from the One who has the power to really heal us. We seek self-help gurus. We medicate or drink ourselves into numbness. We advocate various agendas where we listen to our disordered heart’s desire in an attempt to find fulfillment and self-understanding. We hide behind gated communities or join exclusive country clubs to shield ourselves from the world’s misery and our own. We seek safety and security in technology, money, sex, and power, but at the end of the day nothing has changed. We are exhausted and more often than not find ourselves beaten down and discouraged by our own failures and overwhelmed by the brokenness of our world and its people.
“Ah, Fr. Kevin,” you say! “Another one of your uplifting sermons! And this on Ash Wednesday! Who knew?” My intention is not to depress you, although this stuff is depressing, but rather to encourage us to see our present condition and our relationship with God without Jesus in the mix with eyes wide opened. I do this because Scripture spends a lot of time exhorting us to do so. To be sure there is great beauty and much goodness in God’s world and human relationships. After all, God created his world and us and declared it all to be very good. But our sin was a game-changer and if we ever hope to be really healed and not overcome by all that ails us and our world, we must see ourselves as God sees us and realize we are in desperate need of help beyond our ability to provide. When we come to that point we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus and God’s plan to restore his broken world. That is why our OT lesson this evening implores us to rend our hearts, the very center of our will and emotions, so that we give up our delusions of self-help or inevitable human progress and acknowledge we need radical help. In biblical language this means we are willing to repent, to turn away from ourselves and back toward God, because God is the only doctor who can cure what ails us.
Paul tells us about the nature of that help in tonight’s epistle lesson. In explaining to the Corinthians the basis for his apostolic authority and teaching about the gospel of Jesus, Paul says that God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us. In other words, God became embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross to bear his own just punishment for our sins so that we do not have to bear that awful punishment. Or as Paul says elsewhere, in Jesus we have been reconciled to God and no longer have to suffer being alienated from our very Source of life (cf. Colossians 1.20ff). On the cross, all our sins, all our failings, and all our inadequacies were somehow dealt with, and all because of the faithfulness, tender mercy, and love of God.
Believing this, really believing this, requires us to give up our delusions about earning favor in God’s sight or somehow doing enough good works to cancel out our sin and the alienation it causes. Not so say Paul and the other NT writers! We are too broken to accomplish what is necessary for God and humans to be reconciled. Only God can do that for us and has done so in Jesus of Nazareth. When we finally get this and really believe it, like the psalmist, we are in a position to see God’s steadfast love and mercy applied to our lives, undeserving as we are. There is a huge weight and burden lifted from us and it cannot help but change us. We realize that our being reconciled to God by the blood of Christ is an act of unimaginable love, mercy, and grace on the part of God and this inclines us to turn away from our self-centeredness and back toward God because in Jesus, God has restored us to life.
But why would God do such an outlandish thing? In other words, what are we saved for? Are we saved so that we can go to heaven when we die? I suspect many Christians would give just that answer. But God has bigger fish to fry in rescuing us from sin and death. God saved us so that he can use us as the fully human beings he created us to be to announce to a broken and hurting world that when God raised Jesus from the dead, it signaled the arrival of God’s new creation and things are going to be different now. Paul talked about this earlier in tonight’s epistle when he made the astonishing claim that if anyone is in Christ there is new creation and it is here right now (2 Corinthians 5.17)! When God’s new world is born—a world without evil, sin, or death—it requires a new way of living that is patterned after Jesus the Messiah, a way of living made possible only after we have been reconciled to God and come under the influence of the Spirit. For you see, we cannot offer God’s reconciliation and healing to others if we have not first accepted it ourselves and made it our own. God’s new creation has arrived, if not yet fully, and in the power of the Spirit we too are made new creations, people who live for God, not ourselves. And this is where Lent comes in.
Why? Because Paul and the other NT writers understood that even though we are reconciled to God by the blood of the Lamb and given the gift of the Spirit to live in us, we are still fallen creatures who are weighed down by our sinful nature. So if we want the power of the Spirit to be active and alive in us so that we can be signposts of God’s healing and new creation for others, we have to give him room to operate, so to speak. We have to consciously think about and learn to act in new ways that imitate Jesus the Messiah because acting like Jesus is not consistent with our fallen, selfish nature. If we want to enjoy the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control—we have to make a conscious decision to put to death those things that are in direct opposition to these character traits. Using the language of Paul, we have to crucify our sinful desires with the help of the Spirit before we can bear his fruit. In other words, we have to think, decide, and then practice until our new holy habits, the fruit of the Spirit, become second nature. This is no different from learning a new skill. For example, when I was young, I really wanted to learn to play the guitar because I fashioned myself to be like Paul McCartney. Delusional, yes. But my point is that playing the guitar did not come naturally. I had to practice hours and hours before it became a new habit. And nothing about learning to play the guitar felt natural; that only came much later. Likewise with the fruit of the Spirit. For example, our natural inclination is to be impatient with things and people. It is a product of our fallen nature and impatience comes rather naturally; we don’t have to work at it. But if we want to bear the fruit of the Spirit, if we want to become patient, we have to consciously decide to do so and then work at it until it becomes second nature. That’s why many people who pray for patience are often confronted with things that immediately tax their patience. God is answering their prayers but not as they expected!
Learning new habits of the heart, new character traits in Jesus the Messiah, is the point behind Jesus’ teaching about prayer, works of charity, and fasting in tonight’s gospel lesson. Jesus isn’t telling us to give up these things, but rather to concentrate on doing them out of love for God rather than to gain the attention and praise of others, and that does not come naturally to us because we are profoundly broken. We much prefer the praise and attention of others! But that is not a holy habit of the heart and if we want to develop the necessary habits to live in the new creation and be signs of Jesus’ new creation for others, we are going to have to think about what that looks like, decide to act on it, and then practice the new behaviors until they become habitual. I realize this isn’t glamorous or sexy, but it is the usual way the Spirit works and how holy habits are developed. Do you love God enough for what he has done for you in Jesus to do the hard work required to make the new habits second nature?
That is why it is critical for us to carefully consider what needs to be crucified so that we can start to work on it in the power of the Spirit during Lent. The more we can crucify our sinful desires, the better able we will be to display the fruit of the Spirit and be Jesus’ resurrection people of hope and new creation to a sin-sick world that desperately needs signs of real hope and healing. Of course, as Paul reminds us, not everyone will be glad to see that we are signs of new creation. The powers and principalities have been defeated in Jesus’ death but they aren’t going down without a fight and as Paul and countless other Christians have testified, our work will be costly and sometimes deadly. But that doesn’t matter because in Jesus, God has defeated the powers of evil and conquered death so we who follow him have nothing to fear.
So what work of the flesh do you need to crucify this Lent? Whatever it is, think carefully and prayerfully about it before you start, just like I have tried to model for you in this sermon by reasoning out the need for us to crucify our sinful desires in the light of God’s mercy and love. Don’t give up something just because you think that’s what you are supposed to do. Ask Jesus to show you what is really holding you back from loving him with your whole being and loving others as yourself. Ask him to show you what is impeding the fruit of the Spirit from blooming and ripening in you so that Jesus really can use you as his bright beacon of light. Then get to work. Decide to crucify that which needs to be crucified right now and then practice, practice, practice so that in the power of the Spirit you will learn the new habits of the heart that reflect Jesus’ healing love and presence to others and equip you to live in the new creation when it comes in full. It won’t be easy and yes you will fail, at least at first. But you have Jesus and his people there to pick you up. Despite your failures, you have been reconciled to God because of Jesus’ blood shed for you. You have the hope and promise of new creation because the event that launched it, Jesus’ resurrection, is an historical fact and therefore you know the promise is true. So get busy and don’t be afraid to call on Jesus often and regularly to ask for his help. If you do all this, I humbly suggest to you that this Lenten season will actually be a season of joy for you as you look forward to your great Easter hope and that you will find new meaning and purpose in your Lenten disciplines. And when you do, you will surely be reminded in the power of the Spirit that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.