Ash Wednesday – St John the Divine – Wednesday 13th February 2013

Readings: Joel 2: 1,2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be forever pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Ash Wednesday begins our season of Lent, a season of preparation for Easter: the Passion and resurrection of Christ. Our three readings this evening introduce us to Lent: they give us a taste of what this season is about, why it happens, and finally suggest how we should make use of it. Put another way, the first reading tells us why we should prepare ourselves, the second tells us when, and third tells us how we should go about it.  Why, When and How.

So first: Why? Why do we need Lent? Why should we prepare ourselves? There is no point getting ourselves ready for the sake of it: we need a reason. In life we do not dress up for a walk on the hills and then sit and read a book. We don’t preheat the oven when we’re making a salad. In life we make preparations appropriate to the event, so what are we preparing for in Lent? What are we looking towards? We all know Lent is the preparation for Easter, but what does that actually mean?

For Isaiah, simply calling on the LORD is not necessarily a good thing – if done without proper preparation the arrival of God might not happen, or it might not be exactly what we’re expecting.

Prophecy is not always about foretelling the future, you see. In fact, in the Old Testament it is more often than not, not about the future at all, except perhaps in the sense that it is pointing out what the future can be like. The prophetic nature of this passage, like the prophetic nature of Christ’s ministry that we are meant to emulate, is one of calling the world to recognise its own problems.

Isaiah’s prophecy is a foretaste of God’s ‘however.’ In it, we are told, “you are sinners and dishonest and wilfully  bringing destruction on yourselves through disregard for the wellbeing of others and for the future. However, God is offering us an alternative.” We need to make changes in our lives if we are to receive the hope Christ offers.

Our Old Testament reading, therefore, tells us why Lent needs to happen: we are preparing ourselves to receive God’s great ‘however.’ We do not think that by doing so we will deserve God’s forgiveness, but we know that we need to make changes in our lives if we are to receive the hope that he offers.

So, that is the ‘Why.’ What about the ‘when?’ When should we prepare ourselves for this gift? To answer this question, let us consider our next reading, from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

In this letter, Paul asks the readers to be reconciled to God, much like Isaiah. Although he recognises and indeed stresses that we receive the grace of God freely through Christ, he asks that we not take it for granted. We should not just accept the gift of grace without acknowledging what it is. In fact we can’t just accept it; it’s not the kind of gift we’re duty bound to keep from a not-quite distant relative we mustn’t offend, only to be brought down from the attic when they’re visiting. We cannot work to earn the grace, the salvation of God, the right relationship with God that is offered by Christ, but neither can we be ready to receive it if we do not genuinely integrate it into our whole life.

Paul goes on to tell us that God has listened to our prayers and has provided us with his saving help, and he has done it now. That is the important word for answering our question. When should we prepare ourselves to receive God’s gift? Now.

The events of Easter are in the past. They have happened. But the effects of Easter are right now. we are to receive God’s saving help, given to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, now. And if we are to receive God’s help, then we need to make ourselves ready by preparing ourselves now.

I am reminded of another text of preparation, one that is found in the Book of Common Prayer. Personally it is not often that I am able to take spiritual inspiration from that book of services, but in this case I think it is appropriate. The introduction to the confession at Evening Prayer says “although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together.”

So for us I would like to say “although we should always be preparing ourselves to receive the gift of grace God gives, yet we should most certainly do so with special care during Lent.”

That is the ‘When.’ We’ve talked about the ‘Why,’ and we’ve explored the ‘When,’ now we come to the ‘How’: exactly how should we prepare ourselves for Easter? To answer this final question, we turn to our gospel reading.

I think the most striking thing Jesus says here about how we are to make ourselves ready is not in what we are to do, but in how we are to do it. In essence, what he tells us to do is to make our efforts God-focussed, not world-focussed.

To make sense of this, let’s look more closely at the examples he gives: firstly, he talks about charitable giving. Giving alms isn’t something unusual to Jesus: it is expected and normal. Those who are giving alms according to Jesus’ are both the people he criticizes and the ones he wants to lift up as an example. What is different, what he wants us to recognise, is how the alms are given. We are to not even let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.

Jesus second example is on the subject of prayer. Again, assumptions are made that we will pray. God is generally in favour of prayer, and it makes sense that if we want to improve our relationship with God, we can’t go very far wrong if we improve our prayer-life. What Jesus is asking us to do is to work on our private prayer-life: not to make a show of our prayer, but to close ourselves away in our room and pray. Just us and God.

Thirdly, Jesus talks about fasting. Again, he doesn’t say that fasting is itself a good or bad thing. What he does say is that he doesn’t want it boasted about, or for the fasting person to make themselves utterly miserable. Lent is a time of serious preparation and contemplation, but that doesn’t mean it’s improved by misery.

None of these things that Jesus talks about were considered to be special works for special seasons of the year: they were the kind of thing that those in a relationship with God are expected to do as a matter of course. What was different, and what we can apply here, is the way in which they were to be done.

Jesus is keen that we do not try to earn ‘treasures on earth,’ the respect or admiration of our peers, because that is not action that is directed towards God. Our Lenten preparations are for how we are to receive God, so they are about us and God. The only person who needs to know what we are doing is God.

Let’s review what we’ve heard through these readings. Why do we need to prepare ourselves? We need to make ourselves ready because, no matter how hard we try, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And the result of this sin is death. Incredibly, Christ has taken upon himself the cost of this sin, and in its place, through his resurrection, he offers us the gift of life with God. But we need to accept this gift and integrate it genuinely into our lives: God doesn’t do lip-service.

When do we need to prepare ourselves? We should always be preparing ourselves, being open to the work of God in our lives to bring us closer to him. But we do this particularly in Lent, as it is the time when we prepare to remember Christ’s death and celebrate his resurrection.

Finally, how should we prepare ourselves? Jesus gives multiple examples of how we can make ourselves ready, and this shows that for different people, what we need to do is likely to be very different. If you aren’t sure what you should do to make yourself ready in Lent, then I would encourage you to begin by doing less. Be open and ready. Be still and quiet. Take some time to really look at the world, and at yourself, and at God. That is the time when we are more likely to be able to hear the voice of God directing us. Whatever we do needs to be directed by God, and directed towards God.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to know what and when and how to make ourselves ready to receive the gift of your salvation, given to us freely in the grace of your Son. May we walk with him this Lent, and be open and able to hear your voice, encouraging us to do as you would have us do.

Amen. 

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