1st March 2017
Ash Wednesday
Revd. Cheryl Collins

I once heard a sermon on the fact that you can’t really have Easter day without Good Friday. I’d like to extend that by suggesting that you can’t really have a joyful Eastertide without a solemn season of Lent.

Lent is here to bring us back, quite literally to the crux of the matter, which my dictionary defines as both a cross and an essential point. It is to remind us of what is crucial, that is according to the dictionary again, what is both testing and decisive.

We customarily think of Lent as a time of repentance, that is according to Biblical usage, of turning and returning. Turning, as in ‘I will turn and go to my father and say, ‘ Father, I have sinned against God and against you; treat me as one of your hired servants.’’ Or ‘With these words she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognise him.’ Or ‘ Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us, but he will heal us.’ Turning and returning.

We turn and return to the one person and one event which stands quite literally at the crux of history. Like Paul to the Corinthians, in Lent we are called to know nothing but Jesus Christ - and him crucified.

We learn Christ anew as his ministry of reconciliation calls forth our response. I can’t help feeling that today’s NT lesson should have started two verses earlier. Then it would have begun by reminding us ‘ All this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation.’ What follows is the encouragement of a grateful response to this gift. There is a suggestion that we too can be part of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world by the way we conduct ourselves. We are invited to proclaim the gospel, using words if we have to.

This gospel, rooted in the cross, with its power of utter vulnerability and self-giving love offers a radical interrogation of our lives as we stand at its foot. I can’t put it better than Revd Dr Ben Quash writing about the centrality of the cross for our ancestors:

“ They saw in the cross the meaning of the world’s developing existence. On the cross, God in Christ had married himself to the world with absolutely unbreakable vows. He had shown himself ready to give everything for the love of it. Participation in God’s life had become, on the cross, the world’s destiny.

This new perspective on history which the cross opened up suggested for Christians - then as now- a distinctive way of living in the midst of time; a way that did not cynically think of history as just random ( one damn thing after another), and did not turn to violence as the only reasonable way of surviving in this flux. The cross was, and is, for Christians a flat contradiction of the vision that makes self-preservation into life’s highest priority.

The real victors in history, in the light of the cross, are those who do not see history as the pointless brutal meandering of time and either try to harness its brutality or else shore themselves up against it. The real victors in history, says the cross, are those whose faith allows them to make the ultimate sacrifice - the gift of their lives- in the assurance that this gift bears gracious fruit.”

Thus, living in the shadow of the Cross means turning towards a hopeful offering of self and away from a compulsion to measure and judge both ourselves and others. Since the cost is not less than everything none of us can do more than meet it partially, but this does not ultimately matter, for Christ has filled up to overflowing the inadequacies of our own self-giving with his, what matters is our continuing turning and returning to him.

We can therefore, do Lent a grave wrong and pervert its meaning by turning it into some kind of spiritual weight watchers. That is one of the points Jesus is making in the extract from the sermon on the mount which we heard as our gospel. To give alms, to pray, to fast in a way which is full of anxiety about whether we are doing enough and how we compare to others is to utterly miss the point. We can never achieve our own salvation by sticking to our spiritual points or calories it just doesn’t work like that. We have to let go such self- preoccupation and turn again to Christ on the cross, keep our eyes, minds and hearts fixed on him.

For those of you looking for a recipe for Lent, alms, prayer and fasting do give us clues. They touch on three vital relationships that we have. Alms deals with our relationship to the world, to what we have been given and what others lack. Prayer invites us ever deeper into our relationship with God, and fasting reminds us of the proper place of self-gratification. But for each of us as we stand at the foot of the cross and allow Christ hanging there to speak into our hearts, the right balance and expression of our response through these ingredients will be different. Only focusing on Christ and him crucified will lead us gently but firmly into that proper balance. It as if, to return to the weight watchers analogy for a moment, in him we can see ourselves at our proper size. Neither so big that we cannot see anything around us because we have pushed everything else outside of the picture, or so small that we forget that we are created in the image of God and are able to grow through grace into the women and men God has called us to be.

We were marked with the cross at our baptisms as a sign of our entering into the fellowship of those who stand under the cross, humbled and renewed by its power. Today we receive that sign again in ash. It makes visible once again the indelible cross of baptism and reminds us that despite our mortality the cross under which we stand is our hope as well as our judgement. For the cross has freed us.

Predictably I’d like to end with what I think is an ideal poem for Lent, written by George Herbert. It deals with the dilemma of Lent, our longing to earn our redemption by our own efforts, the impossibility of this and the grace which gives us back ourselves by surrendering everything for us.

I threatened to observe the strict decree
Of my deare God with all my power and might.
But I was told by one, it could not be;
Yet I might trust in God to be my light.
Then will I trust, said I, in him alone.
Nay, ev’n to trust in him was also his:
We must confesse that nothing is our own.
Then I confesse that he my succour is:
But to have naught is ours,
not to confesse that we have naught. I stood amazed at this,
much troubled, till I heard a friend expresse,
That all things were more ours by being his.
What Adam had, and forfeited for all,
Christ keepeth now, who cannot fail or fall.