SERMON for Ash Wednesday

SERMON for Ash Wednesday

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 14th February 2024

I’d like to say a few words about the passage we have heard from the book of Isaiah. It is worth remembering that scholars have generally agreed that the book was written in three time periods, chapters 1-39 late in the 8th century before the common era, when Judea was under threat, then chapters 40-55 in about 540 BCE in Babylon. Tonight’s passage from comes from chapters 56-66, which are somewhat more recent and probably written in Jerusalem when the work of restoring the disillusioned and demoralized community was under way.

At the time of writing the final chapters, 56-66, the community was much concerned with proper observance of the sabbath. But there are also signs of uncertainty about the value of fasting. The previous chapter reveals that fasting is a practice particularly for those who have been wicked, and they appear to be devoted to it. There is evidence from this second temple period that fasting was approved, by some and not by others. The author here suggests that fasting may be too readily accompanied by unacceptable behaviour. 

Verse three raises two important points. Firstly, this passage stands within the prophetic tradition, beginning with Amos, which warns that religious practice is worse than useless if it is not accompanied by real social justice. Secondly, we are reminded here that prophetic words were typically addressed to the upper strata of society, that is to say, those who had enough time to listen to them and to respond. It is those who oppress the workers rather than the workers themselves who are being addressed here.

The passage then leaves the matter of fasting, and develops the matter of social justice. It is a classic text and expresses a vital aspect of the prophetic movement. It is particularly striking for those with a religious perspective as it is in the form of an exhortation. It contains a powerful promise, rather than a condemnation. And again, we read that it is addressed to those who already have food and a house, rather than to the hungry and homeless poor.

The last part of the passage includes a series of conditions, followed by spelling out the positive results that will follow if these conditions are obeyed. It ends with language of restoration. It is unlikely that this refers to the restoration of ruined Jerusalem. It is much more likely to be a metaphor for the renewal of the community, a theme which runs strongly throughout Isaiah.

There are aspects of the concerns put here which uncomfortably closely mirror the world in which we live here in Oxford and in the wider world. As in the time of Isaiah, we see many signs that our community today is disillusioned and demoralized. This is illustrated by the steadily increasing use  of our Community Cupboard food bank: more and more people living with a mile or so of here are becoming hungry, and cold, especially children and the elderly. The work of the Community Cupboard also reveals that more and more people are badly housed. And more and more are lonely. Alongside this is clear evidence that richer people here are becoming richer. The increasing divisions in the community are a huge scandal.

At a fundamental level social justice today is being challenged everywhere by the forces of the electronic world which encourage or imply selfishness and greed. Social justice is being undermined by political populism in which political policies are more and more defined by what surveys which reveal what people say they most want, and thus for whom they will vote, rather than by any vision of the future wellbeing of the community.

Lent is a time firstly for facing reality within ourselves and then in the community and the wider world. Lent is a time for us to reflect upon these matters and to challenge those among whom we live by word and deed. We can do this knowing that God is there in the midst of this reality.

The imposition of ashes reminds us of our mortality. In a few minutes I shall say to each of you: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. It has been said that the true test of our living is in our dying. Lent is a good time to prepare for our death. Are our affairs in good order, with up-to-date wills, and our funerals planned? Have we sorted out our possessions so that those who follow us are not caused unnecessary trouble clearing our so-called treasures on earth? Might your body be used for organ transplantation, or for medical research so that future generations may live a better life?

We began with the topic of fasting, in the sense of eating less as an aid to becoming closer to God. Perhaps we could also think about the other meaning of the word fast, to hold onto something. Maybe our Lenten prayer can be about holding fast to God, giving thanks to the God who loves and holds us fast, and the God who will give us strength to live for his kingdom. Amen.