Ash Wednesday 2021

I once knew a woman who, for so many years, had dreamed of being able to read one of the set readings from the Bible in a Sunday service.  It was a huge thing for her, and she approached Scripture – God’s Holy Word – with reverence.  The reason why she hadn’t been able to was because the small group of people who did readings had become a clique which closed itself off from everyone else. But one day the Minister invited her to do a reading – her opportunity had finally come!  Unfortunately, in her excitement she realised as she stood at the lectern that she had forgotten to bring her reading glasses. Although she completed the reading, it didn’t flow as she read it, and the ‘team’ of people who usually did readings all pointed out how badly she had done the reading at the end of the service.  The woman was distraught, and it really knocked her confidence. It took her years to recover. The simple truth was that even though her heart had been in the right place, she allowed herself to become more influenced by what other people thought rather than taking comfort in knowing she was right before God who knew the attitude and reverence in her heart.

The British evangelist, preacher, leading Bible teacher, and prolific author G. Campbell Morgan once said, “Probably the vast majority of people are more influenced by what men will say, than by what God Almighty thinks.”  Even though he died in 1945, I think his words still hold true today.  It can often seem easier to do the right things when we gain recognition and praise can’t it?

The bottom line is this…if we’ve done an act of service to the best of our ability, in a way that is honouring to God, with a servant heart and in a way which we show integrity, then we should be prepared to take a stand and question the motives of the people who have brought discouragement.  We should not allow criticism we might receive to sap our confidence and crush us to the extent that we lose sight of what God is saying to us.  It may be that you inadvertently (or at worse knowingly) have made an “off-comment”, or a critical comment to someone.  I invite you to step back and think carefully about the words that you bring.  Do they bring life or destruction? Where are you in your heart? If you are unsure, ask the person you’ve made the comment to “How did you feel when I said…”, whatever the comment you made might have been.

This service marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which gives us a great opportunity to give ourselves a spiritual health check and honestly and candidly examine ourselves and examine our motives, whether relating to generosity of time, resources or talents, prayer or fasting – or the attitude in our heart.  It’s good to ask ourselves searching questions like “Would I still do this if no one would ever knew that I did it?” or “If I say what I want to say how might it be received?” Our words can be very destructive and in some cases quite toxic; but they can also be life giving and life affirming.  The truth is our words are a window on our heart. If we do or say anything, we should do it that people might “give glory to our Father in heaven”. It’s not about us – it’s about him.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy being encouraged – for example, if you’ve made Church ready for a Sunday service or been preparing refreshments for after a service and someone says to you how much they appreciate it, that’s great!  What is important here is the motive or reason WHY we do the things we do.  With the wrong motives, or if presented in the wrong way, our acts of service become empty and shallow and we are nothing more than hypocrites.  Whether we face encouragement or discouragement the key point is that we should act with integrity and humility, in a way that is honouring to God, and in a way that is free from hypocrisy.

I think that one of the greatest problems any church may face is an absence of grace, often seen in people who don’t understand grace or people who have never experienced it.  If we live in grace, there is no room for hypocrisy.  You see this at work when you encounter people who are both critical and who struggle to help solve a problem that they speak into.  When you have a lack of the kind of humility that is born out of grace, and a critical spirit, it is bad fruit that suggests that an individual is not at peace with God.

Paul was someone who had personal experience of an encounter with the full measure of God’s grace.  Paul spoke into the heart of the Corinthian church because he was not certain that everybody in the church who professed to be saved was truly a child of God (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). His heart was that people would be reconciled to God and also reconciled to one another.

Ministry requires sacrifice.  A hard truth though is that we are ALL called into ministry.  We are ALL called to take up our cross and follow Christ, not on our terms but on God’s.  Paul paid a high price to be faithful in his ministry. And yet how little the Corinthians really appreciated all he did for them. They brought sorrow to his heart, yet he was “always rejoicing” in Jesus Christ. He became poor that they might become rich (see 1 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 8:9). The word translated as poor here means ‘the complete destitution of a beggar.’

What brought about this life changing transformation in Paul was an encounter with Christ.  The woman caught in adultery also had a life changing transformation through an encounter with Christ.  It is an account in John’s gospel that I am sure you will have heard many times before.

As I thought and prayed about this passage, what struck me was that this woman was actually facing death – she was facing the prospect of being stoned to death.  This event took place at dawn, so likely she will have had little if any sleep.  Exhausted physically, and emotionally, she found herself in a place where everything was stripped away.  Trauma and the prospect of death have that tendency of stripping everything away.

It is astonishing that into this place of accusation and trial, the woman encountered Jesus and found herself in a place of reconciliation and forgiveness – a place of grace.  And let’s be clear, that pastoral encounter with Jesus was not a ‘sticking plaster’ kind of encounter…he didn’t simply say “there, there, there, you’re forgiven – on your way”…but instead he said “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  The woman journeyed from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope, from death to life, and in her heart she must have been overwhelmingly grateful for this chance for new life.

We must be prepared to be self-aware and self-critical and ask ourselves in what ways do we show appreciation for Jesus’s ministry – his life, death, resurrection and exaltation…and in what ways do we show appreciation to one another for the ministries we exercise? The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.  It is a time when we consciously strip away the baggage and die to self, as Christ died for us on the cross.  It is a time when we can remind ourselves that we seek to follow God and not our own often misguided ideas.  It is a journey with grace as its destination. 

As you journey through Lent this year, I invite you to join me in coming before God to ask him to take you to a deeper place of grace. And if like me you have the need and the courage, to ask God to take you to a deeper place of humility that we might bear the fruit of a humble and grateful heart.  After the Liturgy of Penitence, you will be invited to come forward to receive the sign of the cross made from palm ashes. The music that will be played at that moment is based on Psalm 51, a piece called Miserere mei, Deus, Latin for “Have mercy on me, O God” by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, and its mystique was increased by unwritten performance traditions and ornamentation. As you receive the cross and listen to this music, you may wish in that moment to simply say to God in silence “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner” and “create in me a clean heart” with expectancy and hope, as a way of refocussing and rebalancing knowing that you are forgiven.  Then later to receive Communion, mindful of what Christ did for us on the cross that we might approach the throne of grace. Amen

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