ASH WEDNESDAY—MORTALITY AND IMMORALITY
Text: Lk. 18.9-14
The term Lent comes from the English word Lenten which in turn comes from the English word lengthen, referring to the season of the lengthening of the days. Ash Wednesday is the first day in the Lenten season, and has traditionally been a day of repentance, of remorse for sin symbolized by the imposition of ashes, but in that imposition is the sign of hope, for the ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross—the means by which our sins were atoned for. Ash Wednesday falls exactly 46 days before Easter and of course it moves around in the calendar because it is linked to Easter which moves around in the calendar. Why? Because Easter is in turn linked to Jewish festival of Passover, when Jesus was crucified, in all likelihood on April 7 A.D. 30. The Jews followed a lunar calendar which of course made the months shorter, and so Lent and Easter are moveable feasts. They are linked as beginning and end of a process of repentance and forgiveness. What precedes Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday, the day one seeks to be shriven of one's sins, which of course has been turned into Fat Tuesday by our culture, the binge before the supposed purge.
Today, above all days, is the time to talk about repentance, which means ever so much more than just saying one is sorry, or even having regrets. The Greek word we translate repentance metanoia refers to a volte face, an about face, a complete change in direction or behavioral pattern, and from the very first Jesus associated this concept with the Good News of the Kingdom—“repent and hear the Good News, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1.15) seems to have been a summary of his early message, and as such it was much like John the Baptizer’s message as well.
When Ann and I lived in England, we once attended an Ash Wednesday service in Durham. When the minister called the congregation forward to pray for forgiveness of sins, the elderly gentleman stood up in front of me, to be first to go forward and his wife tugged on his sleeve of his Harris Tweed Jacket and whispered "Sit down, Henry, you haven't sinned, by which I take it she meant he hadn't broken the big ten lately. This is too often how we view sin.
During a normal Ash Wednesday service you will hear the words—‘dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ or even ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. These words are also part of the funeral ritual. Why this somber reminder about our mortality? Well for the very good reason that we will one day go to meet our Maker, ready or not, and it would be better to be ready, than not! The reminder of our mortality is meant to help us renounce our immorality, to repent of our sins, and as the old Southern sign bluntly said—‘Get right with God, or get left by God’.
Unfortunately, in our current culture we would like short-cut salvation--- forgiveness without repentance, salvation without a change of life, grace without gratitude or a change in attitude. In a God-forsaken life, there may even be an attempt to atone for one’s own sins. We like to say “let me make it up to you”, but alas that is seldom possible, even with ordinary mistakes, and totally impossible if we are talking about sin. One of the most powerful movies I have seen in years is the recent Oscar nominated film—‘Atonement’. It is a truly post-modern film, all about a young girl with a vivid imagination who is rather jealous of her older sister and her relationship with her boy friend who works on the English estate where the girls live, but who is ‘beneath the station of the girl’s family’.
It is a typical class clash English drama in some ways, but there is much more too it. For the younger sister Bryony would like to have this young man for herself, but when she is spurned, and something goes terribly wrong on the estate (a teenage girl is raped) Bryony imagines that she saw the young lad doing it, she accuses him, and he is carted off to jail, ruining her older sister’s relationship and hopes.
The rest of the movie is consumed with the tale of atonement, or shall we say attempted do it yourself atonement. Bryony becomes a nurse during WWI, thinking she can work her sin off by good deeds. She attempts reconciliation with her sister, but this does not work. She attempts to wash her hands of the affair, but this does not work. She writes a clever novel in which there is a happier ending to the story than there was in real life, ‘to make amends’ ‘to make it better’ as she says, but alas, the sin is still not atoned for. Like Lady MacBeth trying to get the blood off her hands from a murder and crying out in the night ‘out out darn spot’, there is, and can be no self-atonement!
Let me be perfectly clear---neither good intentions, nor good efforts, nor good deeds can atone for sin—only repenting, turning to God who has atoned for sin in the death of his Son Jesus, and receiving forgiveness from Him can break the endless cycle of futile and fatal attempts at self-justification and self-atonement.
It is more than fitting that at the beginning of Lent we would repent, in reminder that at the end of Lent our means of forgiveness shows up in the person of Jesus, and through his atoning death on the cross. Only God in Christ can not merely forgive sins, but make the sinner whole. Only he has the grace which can change a sinner into a saint. So as we have the ashes imposed we remember or mortality and our immorality and realize that ‘tempus fugit’ and there is need that we get right with God before we go ‘gentle into that good night’ as Dylan Thomas put it.
In our text for this evening we have the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, an appropriate story as April 15 is coming. The story is a story of contrasts between a pious Pharisee, who is no hypocrite, and a penitent tax collector, who knows he is a sinner. The problem with the Pharisee is not merely that he measures himself by comparing himself with other less moral human beings, thus not measuring himself by God’s absolute standard. The problem with the Pharisee is that he is a good pious person, whose piety is getting in the way of his repenting, as he thinks his relationship with God is just fine. The Pharisee knows his need for God and for repentance, and does not make a show of listing his many good deeds, as if to impress God. This word just in--- God is not easily impressed.
The tax collector, who knows he has defrauded many, and must come to God ‘just as I am without one plea’ throws himself on the mercy of God, and shows all the signs of true repentance. Notice the difference in the posture of the two men—one stands near to the altar with hands uplifted looking up to God, the other stands at a distance beats his breast and dares not look up into heaven, in remorse for sin, daring not to look into the face of the Almighty. One prays ‘I thank you God I am not like other people—evil doers.. or even this tax collector’ The other prays, ‘God have mercy on me a sinner’. One reminds God he fasts and prays more than required, the other comes without one plea to the throne of mercy and grace.
Jesus concludes the parable by informing us that it is not the former man, who is no hypocrite but thinks his piety has established his claim on God’s blessing and mercy, but rather the latter man who goes away set right or justified in the sight of God. True repentance and a turning around of life and behavior, leads to divine forgiveness from a merciful God. And the miracle is not merely reconciliation with God and forgiveness, but one begins to become either for the first time, or once more, one’s best self.
Today is the day to repent of your sins and be shriven and forgiven. Today is the day to confess you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, you have neglected to do things you ought to have done (sins of omission), and you have done things you ought not to have done (sins of commission). All of us, all of us, as Paul says have sinned and fallen short of God’s highest and best for us. Today is the day to repent and receive the Good News that in Christ you are both forgiven, and given a chance to be a new person, make a new start. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up. And may I just add, for our nation as well, in the throws of a war, and on the cusp of a crucial national election, we as an American people need to get our house in order, and kneel once more before the throne of grace and receive mercy and forgiveness from Almighty God. Now is the appointed time and needed hour. AMEN