Sunday next before Lent - The Reverend Canon Charles Royden
If you wanted a long theological sermon this week then I’m sorry this one is for a family service and so we want to keep it reasonably simple! The good news is that the simple truths of this short sermon are some of the most important things we can ever learn.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday the start of Lent, the time of year when the days begin to Lengthen - and so I want to think about Lent and the preparation for Easter. There are three things which we do in Easter and each of those things teaches us something important which I think helps summarise what Easter is all about.
There are also three words which I want you to remember this morning and they all start with the Letter ‘L’ !
1. Knowing our LIMITS
2. Seeing God’s LOVE
3. Receiving new LIFE
1. The Ash of Ash Wednesday Knowing our LIMITS
The first thing we have to look at this week is Ash, we place it on our foreheads at the Ash Wednesday service in the sign of the cross. Why do we have ash and what does it teach us ?
Well people have been doing it in churches for over a thousand years but as long ago as the Old Testament we read about Job showing his desire to be faithful to God by placing using ashes.
In the service on Ash Wednesday when we place the mark of the cross ash on our foreheads we hear the word
‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return’
It is all about recognising our frailty. I think of the funeral service when somebody had died and we come to the burial or cremation we commend the person who has died to God and we say the words
‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust’
These words remind us of passages in the Bible such as
Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" (Genesis 3:19), and
"I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee" (Ezekiel 28:18).
These are pretty brutal words which are meant to bring us to our senses that all the stuff we think is important, our possessions, our position in society, at the end of the day we all come back to dust.
The words which I would use to describe what ashes are about is Limits. Ashes reminds us of our limits. We are frail human beings. The Psalms used at funerals have some poignant words,
Man born of woman has but a short time to live.
Like a flower we blossom and then wither; like a shadow we flee and never stay.
This is all very gloomy, but there is also reassurance. We are told that God looks on us and sees our frailty. He knows our limits. we are told
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him. For he himself knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.
In other words God knows our frailty and our weakness. Thankfully God does not expect too much from us. God knows that we are not able to do anything to fix ourselves, God knows our limits !
2. This brings us to the next symbol of Easter the Palm Cross - Seeing God’s LOVE
The palm cross is made from palm branches like those which the crowd waved to welcome Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, the very same crowd which were later to call for his crucifixion. The cross is the most potent symbol of the Christian faith. Jesus died on the cross and the Bible tells us that Jesus came to die, to show God’s love. The classic Bible verse is John 3:16
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
God knowing our limitations, our inability to save ourselves, loved us so much that he became human to save his creation, the cosmos, which of course includes humanity. The Bible is also clear that this love of God for us was not conditional on anything which we have to offer.
God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners Christ died for us Romans 5:8
This is the really good news, God’s love transcends our human limitations and meets us in our weakness. Its like the kind father who runs out to meet the prodigal son and welcomes him home and forgives him.
3. The final symbol of Easter that I want us to think about is Easter Eggs - Receiving new LIFE
You won’t find Easter eggs in the Bible, but they are now a firm reminder of Easter and for very good reason. We started by thinking about our limits and how we are frail beings in a state of decay. Well we finish by reminding ourselves that this is only half of the story. Easter is a special time because Jesus in his frail human body died, but he was resurrected and came back to new life. This new life of Easter is symbolised very well by the egg, from which life is born. Lots of religions have myths about creation and how life came from an egg. There are Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Phoenecian stories and in a Hindu sacred text creation is described as the breaking of an egg.
Eggs are symbols of birth and life, there is also the obvious link that many Christians have drawn between the hollow egg and the empty tomb.
We started by thinking about how when people die we say ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ but for the Christian that is not where the story ends. From the obvious sorrow of death comes the realisation that Jesus has conquered death and is the first to show to us what God has planned in the raising to life of that which has died.
In the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:47-) we read that although we are made of dust, we will bear the image of Jesus who the man of heaven. The writer goes on to say that death has lost its sting, its curse on humanity has been broken.
From our three symbols of Easter, the ashes, the cross and the egg, we learn three important truth about ourselves and God. We recognise our limits, our frail humanity, and yet we see in Jesus on the cross the tremendous love which God has for all people. It is from the assurance of that love that we can know the joyful message of Easter that God has promised life beyond death. As we enter Lent this week and prepare for Easter, may you know the truth of God’s Easter promise and find peace in the knowledge that death has been defeated by his love.