ASHES AND PERSPECTIVE
Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday
17 February 1999
Bible Readings Joel 2:12-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2, Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
Today we begin a spiritual time of reflection. In many churches there will be the occasion tonight to begin Lent with the imposition of ashes. This is the lighting of the Palm crosses from last year and the placing of a cross in ash on the forehead. Repentance and ashes are biblical, spoken of in scripture and this is a good thing to do. It is a sign of the life of the cross, the acceptance of all that owning that cross can bring. Through this commitment we have access to spiritual growth and healing.
Lent is a time to be penitent and to seek God's will for our life as surely as Jesus sought God's direction in the wilderness. We live our lives under the shadow of the cross and this is a good time to consider what the implications of that are. It is a time to say to God 'teach me afresh, where am I going wrong, how do you want me to change?'
In the Old Testament ashes were a sign of sorrow at having let God down they were a demonstration of looking for the new direction and being sorry for what was in the past. They were a sign of repentance and looking forward. The Christian response is of course to see the new direction for us all in the cross and we make the ashes into the sign of the cross. That is where we come to find God's forgiveness and direction for our lives.
One of life's special gifts is that it provides us with countless experiences that help keep things in perspective. We visit a hospital and see people enduring great physical suffering and suddenly the fact that we have the flu doesn't seem so monumental. We view documentaries about famine striking people all over the world and consequently the burnt toast is not catastrophic. We read news of whole societies suffering under repressive dictatorships, and the need to obey a 30mph speed limit round bollards down Wentworth Drive does not so much fray our nerves.
People with wealth and influence die and are cremated. Power, ambition, worries, hassles, manipulations, and posturing are all reduced to a carton of ashes. The point of citing this is not to make us morbid, but to prompt us to reflect. Lent begins with ashes, because ashes can put things into perspective. On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge our mortality, that all things will pass, and that we too will pass. None of us is indispensable. Family goes on, the economy goes one, the job goes on-life will go on, without us.
"You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
Lent is a time to reflect on matters that we might not reflect on at other times of the year. It is a time for putting things back into perspective, for taking a good look at ourselves, at what we have become, and at what we are doing with our lives. Ashes provide us with a perspective about what counts and what doesn't. Ashes also inform us that our time is limited and that we should take advantage of the time we have left to continue our spiritual development.
We welcome Lent, therefore, with ashes for the opportunities it will afford us to clear our vision and reset our sights. We have much to do before we turn to dust. Lent is a time for tough questions. Where are you going in life? What are you doing with yourself? What kind of priorities do you live by? What changes should you need to make to ensure a more worthwhile life for yourself? What should you become more serious about? Less serious about? Are you preoccupied and overly concerned with trivia? Do you get angry over petty things? Do you lose sleep over matters that have little lasting import? Do you need to push yourself more on worthwhile projects? Do you need to slow down? Think in terms of ashes and see if it doesn't change your perspective.
A Poem: 'The thread'
Something is very gently
invisibly, silently, pulling at me—
a thread or net of threads
finer than cobwebs and as elastic.
I haven't tried the strength of it.
No barbed hook pierced and tore me.
Was it not long ago this thread
began to draw me?
Or way back?
Was I born with its knot about my neck,
but a stirring of wonder
makes me catch my breath
when I feel the tug of it
when I thought it had loosened itself and gone.