The one thing needed

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
On Ash Wednesday ten years ago, I was in East Timor. Early that morning, I walked down the road from my hotel to the garden of Bishop Belo’s home for the Ash Wednesday service. In 1999, after East Timor voted for independence, the bishop’s house and garden were destroyed, but that day, several hundred people were peacefully gathered.

I stuck out like a sore thumb. For a start, I only saw one other westerner there. But I was also taller than most; I stood head and shoulders above just about everyone else there. I was obvious, and I don’t like being obvious.

When it came time to be marked with the Ashes, I stood in a line to to receive the Ashes from a lady I think of as “The Shortest Nun in the World”. She stood not much higher than my navel. I had to bend very low indeed before she could reach up to my forehead!

As I thought about it later, I was grateful that it was that way. Because for me it became a sign of the one thing that is really needed as we receive the sign of Ashes: that one thing is humility.

I wasn’t humble that day; I was very aware of myself. Humble people are unaware of themselves. They don’t worry that they’ve got a smudge of ash on their forehead. In Isaiah’s day people said, “Why do we fast, God, when you take no notice of us?” The humble don’t do it to be noticed, or accepted.

Isaiah criticises those who serve their own interests while they are fasting, and don’t humble themselves. Jesus points out that some people are hypocrites. The word ‘hypocrite’ actually just means ‘actor’. They are acting a part, playing the role of being spiritual, when in fact they only want to be noticed. 

We have here tonight a time to humble ourselves. As you come to receive the mark of ash on your forehead, will hear some uncomfortable words, words that I find uncomfortable to say as well as to hear:

    Remember that you are dust 
    and to dust you shall return. Amen.

The ashes come from the palms we used last year to celebrate Palm Sunday. We use those palms because we rejoice to see the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem—but we also remember that our sins put him on the cross.

Perhaps you can imagine yourself, as I can, in the crowd cheering Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. And perhaps you can imagine yourself, as I can, a few scant days later, in the crowd jeering Jesus on the cross.

So today we humble ourselves, and we ask God’s help for us to do that in sincere humility. Today we begin the journey to the cross together. Today through the Lent Event we begin giving something up for the benefit of others, and ourselves.

Come, and receive the sign of ashes.

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Filed under church year, RCL, sermon

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