This is the text of the sermon that I preached on Ash Wednesday at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Cross Hills, for the Craven and District Fellowship of Churches. The scripture texts were Isaiah 58.1-12 and John 8.1-11.
This year, Ash Wednesday falls on 14th February, better known as St Valentine’s day. Valentines’ Day – a festival associated with the celebration of love. Ash Wednesday – a rather more sombre affair, when we are invited to reflect on our sinful nature and our mortality. Perhaps at first glance, it looks as if these festivals don’t have much to do with each other. But they each have something important to say about what it is to be human.
Valentine’s Day gives us an opportunity to remember that all love is a gift of God, rooted in the One who is love. We love, because God loves us first, and the love that we show to others is a reflection of that love that God has for us. Our capacity for love flows from the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. It wouldn’t be too much to say that we are at our most God-like when we love other people, with that love that Paul writes about in his first letter to the church in Corinth – the love that is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; that doesn’t insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. Having the capacity for that kind of love is part of living a fully human life – the kind of life that God created us for.
But our experience teaches us that although we also have the capacity for great love, we also have the capacity for other, darker things too. Individually and collectively, we are capable of terrible things. We have within us the seeds of violence and hatred; of coldness and indifference; of carelessness and selfishness – and much else besides. We are not God. We are not all that is good. And it is this aspect of what it means to be human that Ash Wednesday reminds us of – that although we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are not God. We are his creatures, frail and mortal and dependent, and the tendrils of sin still cling to us, seeking to hold and bind us. Our hope is to be found in turning, again and again, to the One who made us, in recognising and acknowledging our fragility and weakness, and seeking his way, his truth and his life.
Ash Wednesday is all about facing up to the reality of our human condition. It is the bracing opposite of denial. It’s about looking the truth in the face. That’s what Isaiah does in this evening’s reading. Like the people of Israel, we need to hear our sinfulness declared, and to own our part in it. We need to recognize how easy it is to do what looks like the right thing, but for the wrong reason, so that it becomes the wrong thing. How easy it is to look as if we’re seeking after righteousness, and carrying out the forms of spiritual practice, but without the right heart and spirit, so that they are hollow and worthless. Fasting for health purposes is quite trendy at the moment. If that’s the reason why we choose to fast, and we’re honest about it, fine. But if we carry out any spiritual practice – fasting, praying, worshipping, Scripture reading, coming to a service like this – and don’t go beyond the practice, the outward form to the thing that it’s supposed to be fitting us for, we are deluding ourselves. We can come to an Ash Wednesday service, and bow our heads and metaphorically lie in sackcloth and ashes, as it says in Isaiah 58.5, but if we go out from here without being transformed by what’s happened in here, we have missed the point. The point of the fast is not the fast. The point of the fast is that it makes us into people who are hungry for the kingdom of God, and who seek to satisfy that hunger by doing our part in loosing the bonds of injustice, breaking the yokes that bind, sharing our bread with the hungry, giving shelter and clothing to the homeless and needy. Once we’ve faced up to our own sinfulness, our flawed hearts, our tendency to hide from the truth about ourselves by adopting the appearance of righteousness without the substance, we are set free. Free to let God do his work of real and deep transformation within us, that will be seen in the fruit that we bear in our lives.
We see this desperate need to face up to the reality about ourselves also in our Gospel reading. Where is the sin in this story? At first glance, the answer seems obvious. The woman was the sinner. Adultery was – is – a grave sin. In passing, given that we’re told that she was caught in adultery, and that adultery takes two, I can’t help wondering what happened to the man she’d been with. The Torah, the Jewish law, provided that the penalty for such a sin was death for both parties. Perhaps the fact that it’s only the woman who’s brought before Jesus is the first clue that there’s an agenda here beyond simply testing Jesus’s Jewish orthodoxy. The motives of these men are darker and more complicated.
So why have the scribes and Pharisees brought this woman before Jesus? It goes back to what’s been going on in chapter 7. Jesus has gone to the Temple, to the heart of Israel’s worshipping life, the very seat of God, and begun to teach there. And his teaching has been stirring things up, with confusion and debate in the crowd – some believing that Jesus is the one that they’ve been waiting for; others unsure. Because of the resulting unrest, the chief priests and Pharisees have already sent the Temple police to arrest Jesus – only to have them return empty-handed, saying, “Never before has anyone spoken like this!” So the scribes and Pharisees have concluded, “if you need a job doing, you need to do it yourself”. There’s no alternative but to test Jesus themselves, in an attempt to come up with a reason for arresting him. That’s the agenda behind this scenario. That’s what’s going on underneath the surface. A woman’s personal tragedy has been caught up into something much greater.
The deep sin in this story is that of the scribes and Pharisees who turn a vulnerable human being into an object, a tool to be used for their own ends. Her sin is co-opted and weaponised against Jesus, in an attempt to force him to make a choice that will result either in a woman’s death, or his own arrest.
But Jesus sidesteps their trap. He refuses to engage with the scribes and Pharisees on their own terms, and instead reframes the whole situation. When he finally answers, his response goes devastatingly to the heart of what’s really going on here – “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” A situation ostensibly about a woman’s sexual sin is revealed to be about something much darker, more insidious and destructive. Just as in the Isaiah passage, it’s about how easily sin disguises itself as righteousness, whilst covering up something deeply ugly.
And brought face to face with their own sinfulness, the accusers can no longer stand in Jesus’s presence, but instead melt away, until the only two people left are the woman and Jesus. She is a sinner. She doesn’t attempt to excuse or justify herself – and neither does Jesus. But in her mute acknowledgment of who and what she is, in the simple dignity of her humility, she receives from Jesus, not condemnation, but grace. She is sent on her way, commanded not to sin again. She is given a second chance.
What was true for her is true for us too. When we don’t try to run away from our sins – when we face up to them, name and acknowledge them, in the presence of Jesus, then we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving forgiveness and grace – a fresh start.
It’s the sins that we don’t recognize, the sins that hide or disguise themselves, that are the most difficult ones to deal with. When we don’t see sins, they cling to us all the more tightly and do their damage. The sins that dress themselves up in other clothes – as righteous anger, as concern for protecting a greater good, as justification for judgmental attitudes, and as giving us reasons that allow us to see other people as objects to be used for our own ends, rather than as children of God like us. The sins that we can find reasons and excuses for. The sins that permeate structures and institutions, and that we are blind to because we are caught up in the same structures and institutions – like those scribes and Pharisees. These are the deeper sins, and they are much harder for us to see and recognize, let alone deal with. But once we start to see them, then we have a chance of dealing with them – by bringing them out into the light, and holding them before Jesus. Then it’s possible for us to receive the unlooked-for grace and mercy of God. In our Gospel story, the scribes and Pharisees melt away. They recognize that they are not without sin. But they don’t bring that recognition to Jesus. They don’t take that next step. And we know that as the story goes on, that sin will build again, in all its hideous evil, until eventually it will take Jesus to the cross and nail him there.
Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity, at the start of the journey of Lent into self-examination and penance, to acknowledge our human frailty and our dependence on God. To acknowledge our need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, that frees us to turn from the way that leads to darkness and death and back into the way that leads to light and life. This Valentines’ Ash Wednesday, may we pray for our capacity to love to grow alongside our capacity to recognize the truth about ourselves, through God’s bracing, cleansing, healing and transforming mercy and grace.