A Sermon Preached at the online service on Ash Wednesday by Graham Low.
‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’
These profound words will be spoken to us in a few minutes time. Though we shall be unable to receive the powerful visual and tactile marks of the imposition of ashes this year, as we hear the words, our minds and our prayers are still prompted towards amending our lives in the light of our sin.
In the story of the woman caught in adultery which we have just heard, Jesus eventually asks her to amend her life. Jesus confronts her, and us, not with judgement, but with justice and mercy. As we begin Lent, perhaps you have a particular call during Lent to examine your life with the traditional emphasis on penitence.
But I’d like us to take a broader view of Lent. Where do we stand at the start of this Lent? Where are we on our way with God? Have we wondered, or stepped back, or made progress since last year? The question of where we start implies that we’re starting from a certain point, a map reference, if you like. That point could be by the River Jordan, where we read that Jesus, after his baptism, was driven by the Spirit of truth into the wilderness, in order to be set free.
Lent is the season for the Spirit of truth to drive us. Being driven is uncomfortable: inertia and even fear can hold us back from responding to God’s invitation to enter the truth and gain freedom. We read that Jesus needed the full force of God’s wind, pneuma, meaning spirit, breath, or wind, to enter the test of the wilderness. If we are ready to enter into that truth this Lent then our prayer is that we are open to being driven by the wind of the Spirit.
Deserts are places of climatic extremes, where people often feel vulnerable: any desire to escape is often displaced by a sense of surrender. Jesus surrendered to the driving force of the Spirit in the desert. Remember that when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus he said “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”.
So I suggest that the word “surrender” may be our starting point for Lent. This is the opposite of surrender to an enemy. It is about ceasing to being resistant to God, the depth of whose love for us is beyond imagination. Dwelling on this letting go of ourselves to God may bring us closer to Jesus as we follow his journey into the wilderness. This may be a better concept than “discipline” which so many of us were taught was the essence of Lent.
Perhaps we can even smile at our feeble attempts to bring our lives under some kind of control by giving up something or starting a new project. We can completely fail to notice that what we are called to give up in Lent is control itself. Making deliberate attempts to discipline make it even harder to reach the freedom which Jesus eventually found in the wilderness by surrender to the Spirit. He promised that same freedom to us: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3.17).
The freedom of Lent is about exposure to the truth. So what is “truth”? The Greek word aletheia literally means unhiddenness. In a sense truth is an event. It is when layers of illusion are removed, and the real is exposed. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16.13). Lent is not about taking on yet more knowledge, but exposing ourselves to God’s presence in us and the world. It is about removing the insulation that separates us from the reality of the love of God for us and for the world. May we have the grace to receive that freedom this Lent. Amen.