Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:10; Matthew 6:1-2,16-21
Sometimes I wonder if Lent is the Christian equivalent of New Year’s resolutions…
I mean, think about it for a minute – we talk about giving up things like chocolate or coffee or bread as a way of having a Lenten fast but is it sometimes really just an excuse to stick to that weight loss plan … ?
Or the Lenten Spring Cleaning that is more about making the house look good for visitors than about decluttering our spiritual lives to clear a path to better relationship with God.
Our readings today clearly outline this with some pretty graphic imagery. Joel reminds the people of Israel to rend their hearts and not their clothing, suggesting that it is the internal state that matters more than the outfit we do it in or the way we show it off to the world.
Matthew’s gospel echoes this, encouraging the left hand to keep its actions secret from the right hand – not because there is something to hide or be ashamed of, but because if we are concentrated on everyone around us seeing how great we are for the things we are doing, we miss the true point of doing them for our own spiritual practice and for God.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reminds us of the importance of the state of our spiritual selves and our relationship to God:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation … so we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God
You might be thinking, I don’t know that I was ever not reconciled to God? And in part, says Paul, that is true: God through Jesus did all of the hard work of reconciling God to humanity in all of our mess. But Paul still urges us to be reconciled to God so that we might become God’s righteousness.
Which, you might also be thinking, is a monumentous task! Where do we even begin??
Well, that is the good news. Today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of these great 40 days of Lent, is where we can decide the starting point this journey.
Will it be a starting point of coasting through Lent and doing the same old same old?
Will it be a starting point of putting on piety so that others can obviously see how well we are participating? – A starting point of doing the cleaning for appearances sake only?
Or will it be a starting point of gathering to acknowledge our humanity and committing to reconciliation: with God, with those around us who we love and those we have hurt, and with ourselves?
The reading from Joel reminds us of the importance of journeying together. God called for the trumpet to be sounded and everyone – the aged, the children and infants, the newly married – everyone to gather together to be set apart for the work of God.
We are in this Lenten journey together. We may have slightly different paths at times, with different kinds of reconciliations needed, but we are in it together.
The cross of ash on our foreheads reminds us of who we are, of where we have come from, and of where we are going:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return
But also remember the cross on your forehead at baptism where you were signed with the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever.
And remember the cross that these 40 days of Lent is leading us towards …
Yes, we know where we have come from and in one sense we know where we are going this Lenten journey: we know about Good Friday – and we know what happened and what will happen on Easter morning!
In another sense, though, we don’t know where we are going because we don’t know exactly what path this Lenten journey will take. We don’t know where God will ask us to shine a light in our lives. We don’t know what will change, what may shift, and what might emerge – or not – on the other side of Lent.
All we really know is where we are standing and whom we are journeying with. Where we are right now, today, on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded of our humanity and the solemnity of the Lenten journey we are about to embark on.
And in receiving the cross of ash we commit to travelling the Lenten journey of reconciliation in whatever shape God makes it for us, knowing that we are all walking together with God these 40 days.