10 Feb 2016
“‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.’” (Matthew 6:16)
In the name …
I’m new at this. I haven’t preached an Ash Wednesday sermon for literally 20 years. For the past 19 years we have had a guest preacher here for Ash Wednesday in conjunction with our Lenten Discussion Series. This year two local pastors are on a sabbatical leave so the Series doesn’t begin until next Wednesday. I’m preaching on Ash Wednesday for the first time since 1996. So get comfortable because I’ve got a lot to say. Well, maybe I can learn Jesus’ lesson from the cross. He summed-up everything about Him in just those few words: “‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’”
I do, however, want to start by saying something about how meaningful the symbolism of the ashes is to me. We take old palms that are left over from previous Palm Sundays and burn them. In the liturgy of Palm Sunday, the palms represent the praise of the People of God as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They cry out “Hosanna” in His honour, which translates as the exclamation to God of: “Save, we pray!” They see in Jesus the Messiah, the one who is going to free them through the direct intervention of God.
We’re now so accustomed to the story that we know what happens next and the surprise is no longer there. The shock is absent. But it was only after a few days that the cries of “Hosanna!” had turned into shrieks of “Crucify Him!” How did that happen so quickly and unexpectedly? It had to be shocking to first time Christians. Heck, it had to be shocking to the ones who lived through it. It’s amazing what can happen when the crowd’s expectation is at a fever’s pitch and then just as quickly ripped back down. There are feelings of betrayal and anger, and this boils over into revenge. When Jesus would not save them the way they were thinking, their hope turned into fury.
And we can’t imagine this is limited only to the Jewish people as their particular sin as if we are immune. For centuries upon centuries, and even still today in parts of the world, Jews have to be extra cautious during Lent because Christians act with vengeance against them as so-called “Christ-killers.” It seems some Christians have their own expectations that the Jews counteracted and Christians then respond with an embarrassment of violence. And one doesn’t have to reach too far to see how easy it is to hate in God’s name when we think about Islamic terrorism. Faith can bring out the best in people, but it can also sow the seeds for the worst in us.
This is where the burned palms come into the story. They symbolize for us what happens when we have a superficial relationship with God, with Jesus, when we plaster on Him our expectations of God instead of letting Him lead us to God. It’s not going to end well. Nobody ever anticipated what Jesus would do or say – not the prophets, not the disciples, and definitely not us. That’s the fun of reading the Bible. That’s the challenge of living the faith still today, even right now. It’s always, always, about being surprised by Jesus. When Jesus becomes routine, then we can be pretty sure that something’s gone wrong. It’s probably not that we have become so saintly that Jesus is our new normal. It’s more likely that we’ve tamed Him down so much that we only know Jesus-lite.
Think back to today’s Gospel selection. It’s not only about the particular examples Jesus uses; it’s about His insistence that His way is always going to be a bit more than we expected. Appearance, the superficial, is only where Jesus begins to talk to us. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that’s all He has to say to us. This is why there’s a constant refrain in Jesus’ first sermon when He says, “‘You have heard,’” but then He goes on to say, “‘But I say to you.’” And if you let me make up a new word, the conventional is not the “revelational.” That three-letter word but makes all the difference when Jesus is speaking. It separates the palms from the ashes. This Sunday we’re going to hear about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. In that story, even Jesus has to learn the lesson that takes 40 days to sink-in that when God is in charge it’s always going to be more than what we expected. If it took Jesus 40 days, then we’re going to need every single day that Lent offers us – and it all begins today with the ashes, with the reminder placed prominently on our foreheads for all to see that there’s always something more when it comes to God.
Lent is a special and holy time of the year when we can remember where we’ve been and when we can think about where we never thought we would go. This is the excitement, surprise and challenge of living the faith more intensely. We don’t have to know how we’re going to come out of this. Again, looking forward to Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ 40 days changed even Him. Why would we think it won’t change us? I have a special place in my heart for the quote from Isaiah where he hears God saying: “‘I have called you by name and you are mine.’” (43:1) Faith is anything but mechanical. It has to be personal. And that takes time, effort and a willingness to follow because Jesus is calling each us by name. We don’t have to know to where; we only have to know that Jesus is there ahead of us.
May these days of Lent surprise us wherever they lead. May we realize that we gain so much more than we give up. And after all we do this Lent may we find that Jesus has brought us even closer to Him. For this we pray in His most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo