Ash Wednesday Sermon, 22nd February 2023

Isaiah 58.1–12; 2 Corinthians 5.20b–6.10; Matthew 6.1–6, 16–21; Psalm 51

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The days around the beginning of Lent are filled with symbolism and tradition, one of which – the imposition of ashes – we will be practising today.  Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday – or Pancake Day, as I enthusiastically thought of it as a child.  And pancakes are traditional for that day because it was a time of clearing out the cupboards before the start of the fasting of Lent, so all the fats, sugars and good, tempting things were used up as pancakes ready for the 40 week days of fasting for Lent, with simpler food for thought (Sundays being days of celebration of the resurrection and therefore a break from the fast).   So we clear those cupboards of temptation and distraction and prepare for Lent.

And this has a deeper meaning as we clear our own mental cupboards of those things that distract us from God, and prepare to be reconciled to God.  Because that is what Lent is all about.  It is a time of realigning ourselves, of setting aside 40 days to rethink our lives, clear out our mind-cupboards of those things that separate us from God.  The psalm is very clear about what we are doing: for I acknowledge my faults and my sin is ever before me.  It is a time of looking deeply at our lives, ourselves, and what our priorities are and acknowledging our faults and failings.  Looking at how we are living, who we are living for: where our treasure is, as the Gospel puts it.  Today we start the process of working out just what and where that treasure is, what is it that we see as important, valuable in our lives.  It is a time to acknowledge where we have gone wrong, or sought a false treasure, and then to repent: to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ – words you will hear as the sign of the cross is made in ash on your forehead. 

Repent, turn away from sin.  These words form part of  many aspects of our worship, but most particularly at baptism, when we declare our intention to follow Christ, or support a child in following Christ.  We are asked, do you repent of your sins?  That is, do you turn away determined to try not to repeat your sins.  And this is followed by: Do you turn to Christ? The two go together: Turning first from sin and then to Christ, a complete turn around from a previous life to the new one in God.  And we are asked again during Lent to turn from sin and turn to, be faithful to, Christ.  To lay aside those things that take us from God, and actively turn, move towards the love of God and the building of God’s kingdom. 

So today we stand before God, and ask for forgiveness, forgiveness that Richard Holloway describes as ‘putting an end to the thinking that robs us of our joy of the present moment by looking back in anger or forwards in revenge’.  Forgiveness that Jesus offered continually to all through God, through his own life, death and resurrection.  But for forgiveness we need to look at ourselves, our sins in thought word and deed, in what we have done and left undone.  We need to acknowledge them, reflecting on how they affect us, and offer them to God in penitence and faith, trusting in God’s grace and promise of forgiveness.  And then, in our contrition, we ask God: cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy spirit from me. Give me the joy of your salvation and sustain me with your gracious spirit. 

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

Ash Wednesday and Lent, allow a space in our lives for this reflection.  For a “Spring Clean” of our lives, our hearts.  To refocus and decide what and where our treasure is. Through acknowledging those deeds, thoughts, actions which go against the will and purpose of God, and showing this through accepting the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are able to receive forgiveness and turn once more to the will of God: that true treasure.  The will of God so beautifully described in the reading from Isaiah: the removal of injustice, the satisfying of hunger, the relief of the oppressed, homeless, refugee, the poor.  And acting with God, choosing the fast that God chooses, we can call and the Lord will answer, cry for help and God will say: Here I am. 

Through being reconciled to God, seeking the treasure of God, we set our hearts on the true treasure: doing the will of God, doing our “little bit of good where (we) are”, as Desmond Tutu put it, because “it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”But doing these humbly, hidden, for God’s glory, not our own, and washed thoroughly from our wickedness. 

So this Lent, let us ever watch and pray and feel that we are frail, so that we can then act according to God’s will and wishes, quietly doing God’s will, bringing the goodness of God into the world where we can, forgiven, loved and free, knowing our need of God, and God’s promise of love and salvation, and God, who sees in secret, will offer the  reward of forgiveness and peace. 


Reverend Jackie Sellin 

Desmond Tutu: Drink from the well: Schools Learning Resource; Christian Aid resources

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