“In Sackcloth and Ashes”: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The following sermon was preached several years ago on Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the text on which the sermon is based – Daniel 9:1-19.  Daniel 9 is not a traditional Ash Wednesday text, but the resonances between the text and the day are significant and stirring.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that Christians have historically set aside to face up to their mortality and to repent of their sin. Now this doesn’t mean that Ash Wednesday is the only day of the year when Christians can humbly acknowledge their frailty and their failure to live into the fullness of God’s intentions for their lives, but if we didn’t set aside Ash Wednesday for this purpose, it is unlikely that we would set aside any time at all. For the broader culture we find ourselves in is built on the refusal to acknowledge the presence of death and the reality of sin. So I commend you for making the effort to be here tonight. Your presence signifies that you recognize that the Lord desires to do something for us far more important than making us comfortable. He desires to make us holy.

For this reason Ash Wednesday is set aside for the work of repentance. We must be on guard though, for as with any human ritual, whether it be shaking hands with someone we meet on the street, singing along with the praise band on a Sunday morning, or sitting down with our family for Christmas dinner, there is always the danger that the ritual may become a mere formality.

The dangerous implications of empty Christian ritual are on display in the dramatic conclusion to the renowned film The Godfather, when Michael Corleone, the new head of the Corleone Mafia family presents his son for baptism. In this climactic moment, the director, Francis Ford Coppolla skilfully juxtaposes scenes from the baptism ritual with images depicting the unfolding of Corelone’s plan to kill the heads of the five rival Mafia families. We see the priest reciting different parts of the Roman Catholic baptismal liturgy, at the same time as Corleone’s henchman are making their way towards their targets. The drama comes to a head as the five Mafia bosses are murdered at the exact same time as the priest asks Michael if he renounces Satan and all of his works. Clearly something has gone wrong and there is some type of disconnect when the same person who is renouncing the devil and his works in the sanctuary is sanctioning murder on the street.

Now I am certainly not suggesting that we have any Mafia Godfathers in our midst, but there is the danger that we can find ourselves simply going through the motions. If repentance becomes for us simply an empty term or a mere formality than we too will find ourselves submerged in a shadowy underworld type of existence, ensnared in the devil’s works. For this reason I thought it was important for us this year, not only to hear the standard Ash Wednesday Scripture passages which call us to repentance, but also to hear a passage which shows us what it looks like to repent. Hence, our reading from the book of Daniel – one of the most wonderful prayers of confession and acts of repentance in the entire Bible.

At the beginning of chapter nine, we are told that Daniel has been studying the Scriptures. He has been reading the words of the prophet Jeremiah. But Daniel, has not just been walking around with his nose stuck in the Bible, he has also been intently looking around at God’s world and in particular taking notice of the plight of God’s people. Daniel has been reading both the Bible and the newspaper, or the Bible and the church bulletin. However, the two do not share an equal footing. It’s not as if Daniel is walking around with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Rather Daniel is reading what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in the life of God’s people through the lens of Scripture and as he does so, he is brought to a place of repentance. Notice that Daniel is both a careful reader of Scripture and an alert observer of current affairs. Like Daniel, we must be involved in reading both our Bibles and our lives. If we are only engaged in reading the Bible, but not in reading our lives, we will slip into the realm of abstraction. We will toss around biblical words like love, grace, repentance, and reconciliation, but they will be words without living power. They will be like spectres which hover over but never set foot on the earth, phantasms which never fully materialize, formless concepts which always slip through our grasp. On the other hand if we are not immersed in the Scriptures, we are bound to misdiagnose the situation and as a result we will be like a doctor who attempts treat the symptoms without considering the underlying cause. For our attention is frequently drawn to that which is the most immediate and obvious. However, what is most immediate and obvious is rarely the most pressing spiritual reality. To the people of Daniel’s day the most obvious problem was that they had been carried away from Jerusalem into exile in Babylon. Undoubtedly, there were many who were praying that God would fix this problem and restore the fortunes of Israel by making a way through the desert for the exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple. Daniel saw that there was a deeper spiritual reality at play. Through his prayerful study of the Scriptures Daniel came to realize that the exile was merely a symptom of a deeper theological problem whose history could be traced back throughout Israel’s entire existence. Daniel recognized that Israel was in exile on account of its sin. The trajectory leading to the exile could be traced back to the earliest days of Israel when the people grumbled against Moses in the desert. This was closely followed by the golden calf debacle. After entering the land, the people begged the prophet Samuel for a king so that they could be like the other nations and so began the reign of terror known as the monarchy. Just as the Pharaohs had constructed cities on the backs of Hebrew slaves, the Kings of Israel lined their pockets and treasuries from the sweat of the brow of their poor countrymen. Rather than trusting in the Lord’s provision, Israel sought to preserve its own existence through entering into expressly prohibited political alliances with foreign powers. Idols and altars to foreign gods were set up on hills throughout the land and the people disregarded the way of the LORD. Daniel knew his Scriptures. He was familiar with the book of Deuteronomy which outlined the curses which would befall Israel if they were to fail to uphold their covenantal responsibilities. He was also familiar with the prayer that King Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple. From his immersion in the Scriptures, Daniel recognized that the real issue was not the presenting symptom of exile, but rather the real issue was the presence of sin in the life of God’s people. He also recognized that God desired for His people to repent and that God in his own providence had linked Israel’s repentance to their restoration.

Repentance only occurs where God’s people are both listening attentively to God’s Word and carefully observing the shape of their lives in relation to the world around them. In his prayer Daniel confesses that Israel has only been doing the latter and not the former. They have experienced the desolation of exile and captivity, but even this has not been sufficient to stir the people to repent. At various places in the prayer we hear Daniel acknowledge that Israel has not listened to the Word of the Lord, nor have they obeyed it. There is an organic connection between hearing and obedience in the Bible. In Hebrew, the same word is used for both, suggesting that only the obedient have truly heard and only those who hear obey. The season of Lent has traditionally been a time for Christians to simplify their lives in order to create space for hearing the voice of God. I pray that in the midst of our ever increasingly busy and noisy lives that we both as individuals and as a congregation would dedicate ourselves this season to the disciplines of simplicity, silence, and meditation upon God’s Word, so that we may hear the truth that God is speaking into our lives.

What does it mean to repent? What does repentance involve? Perhaps the biggest misconception we must clear up is the idea that repentance is simply feeling bad about ourselves. This understanding of repentance is the fruit of a sentimental distortion of Christianity which reduces the Christian life to a matter of feelings. The same impulse is at play when people equate worship with having a particular feeling or confuse a feeling of affection for love. Like the words love and worship, Christians understand repentance to be an action word. Repentance is not simply feeling bad about ourselves. Rather repentance is speaking truthfully about ourselves in the presence of God and God’s people. Repentance is returning to the Lord, which begins by taking responsibility for our sin and not merely mouthing the words of the empty apologies that clutter the pages of our newspapers and emanate from our computer and television screens. Saying, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” is neither an apology nor repentance. However, such a statement is completely understandable in a culture that insists that we are self-made men and women. It’s the same in the business world, where there is little place in the story of a company or institutions for failure, instead things are always portrayed as one step forward after another. This makes sense, for if we are the authors of our own stories than there is no place for acknowledging our failure. For if it is up to us to write our own stories, any admission of guilt or failure is an act of self-annihilation. Therefore, every misstep or defeat must be rationalized away or carefully wordsmithed into the realm of banality. But it is a different matter for us Christians. We are a people who have discovered that our story has been taken up into a much larger story. Because our lives have been engrafted into God’s story we have been freed from the tyrannical compulsion to make sure our stories come out right by attempting to write our own endings. Rather we can rest assured that our stories find their proper and fitting end in Christ, who is the Alpha and the Omega. Not only, have we found our stories engrafted into a much larger story, the story that we find ourselves a part of is a comedy. At times it may look like a tragedy as we bumble our way along in the darkness afflicted by sin, sickness, and sorrow, but in the end the hero gets the girl and the story comes to a close with a big party as Christ sits down with his bride at the wedding banquet. Because this is the story we have been made part of, we are not only freed to speak openly about our sin, we are, in fact obligated to do so. For to pretend that we have our act together by denying our sin and brokenness would be to deny the very character of the story we have been made a part of – the story of God’s extravagant love poured out to save sinners. We are a people who live by the forgiveness of sins – a reality we acknowledge every time we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As the people that live by the forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit, we Christians are able to speak truthfully to one another and to face the truth about ourselves without it destroying us. For our story is not one of self-sufficiency, but of being taken up by a love which even the grave could not contain. From this perspective it might be helpful to speak of the Church as a hospital, a place where health is not enjoyed, but rather recovered with great pain and labour.

This brings another misconception surrounding repentance to the fore. In repenting we are not involved in some type of exchange with God where we hope to change His attitude towards us from hostility to affection. God does not change his mind towards us. God longs for us to repent because he loves us, not because he hates us. Notice that one of the underlying presumptions of Daniel’s prayer is that God has continued to keep covenant with Israel. Israel may have turned their backs on the LORD and they may find themselves suffering the fruit of their folly, but the LORD continues to be their God. God’s people may prove to be faithless, but God remains ever faithful. It is because the Lord is merciful and forgiving that God’s people are able to repent or as a song that we sometimes sing puts it, “It’s your kindness Lord that leads us to repentance.” In calling us to repentance, the Lord is inviting us to enter into the fullness of the life that he has planned for us in Christ. Those in 12-step addiction programs know that the first-step to recovering from an addiction is to name it. Similarly, when we are given the grace to name our sins, to give voice to the various ways that we have been held captive in destructive patterns of behaviour and less than truthful ways of relating, it is the beginning of our liberation from them. Afterwards they no longer hold the same power over us. Hear the words of Psalm 32:

“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD –
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

In the prayers of Daniel and the Psalmist we are confronted by an inescapable series of questions. Are our bones wasting away in the face of our refusal to acknowledge our sins in the presence of the Lord? Are there elements of our stories, either as individuals or as a church, that we need to repent of? Are there less than healthy patterns of behaviour and relating to one another that need to be acknowledged and left behind? Are there mindsets and attitudes, perhaps even long-ingrained habits of mind and heart that need to be confessed and abandoned? These are questions not just for a single night, but for our entire journey together over the course of the Season of the Cross. We can do all the planning we want, we can busy ourselves with as many activities as we want and fill our lives with as many distractions as we can manage, but the road to renewal for God’s people leads through repentance.

Daniel recognized this and came before the Lord in prayer, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets.” The recurring appearance in the prayer of the plural first personal pronoun ‘we’ is somewhat startling, if you stop to think about who is repenting. It is Daniel who is praying this prayer of repentance. Daniel, who at this point is over seventy years old, perhaps even well into his eighties. Daniel, who has led a life of integrity amidst a people who do not know the Lord. Daniel, the great interpreter of dreams. Daniel, the old man who was thrown into the lion’s den on account of his refusal to stop praying to the Lord. If anyone would have been justified in separating himself from the people it would have been Daniel. If anyone would have had a reason to stand aloof from the people and say, “let’s wait and see what happens with this messed up people” it would have been Daniel. Yet here is Daniel identifying himself with the people and coming before the LORD in prayer saying, “We have rebelled, we have done wrong, we have not listened, we have not obeyed, we have sinned against you.” Daniel recognized that there is no one who is not implicated in the cosmic train-wreck of sin. Like a virus, sin infects the matrix of all the various spheres in which human beings relate to one another: the family and home, places of work, institutions of education, and even the church. Daniel recognized that he could not extricate himself from the web of sin in which his people were entangled, for he too was ensnared. We human beings truly are our brothers’ keepers. Daniel, the great hero of faith, most clearly demonstrates his holiness here in this prayer by acknowledging his sin and identifying himself with his people. In doing so, Daniel points us to the person of Jesus Christ.

All four of the Gospels are united in identifying Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River at the hands of John the Baptizer as the beginning of his public ministry. It is hugely significant that the truly righteous one began his ministry by submitting to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus himself had no need to repent, after all he was the sinless Son of God. However, out of the freedom of His love, Christ identified Himself with us in our sin and entered into the waters of baptism. Jesus Christ is our repentance. In his baptism by water and the Spirit, Jesus entered into solidarity with us, making the true and perfect confession of our sin for us, and in his baptism by blood on the cross he bore away the sins of the world for us and our salvation. Because Jesus Christ, the One who is our repentance, has so radically identified himself with broken humanity under the burden of sin, our repentance, which is really nothing less than the image of Christ taking shape within us, will lead us into greater solidarity with all who struggle under the burden of sin and death – beginning with those in the church, but opening up to include the entire world. On Ash Wednesday, Christians not only repent of their own sins, they also exercise their priestly ministry as a ‘royal priesthood’ and ‘kingdom of priests’ in receiving the ashes of repentance and mortality on behalf of the entire human race. True repentance does not leave us in a place of introspection, but rather calls us outside of ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters and the world that Christ loves. That is why following the message tonight we will not only enter into a time of corporate and personal confession through praying Psalm 51 and observing a time of silent prayer, but we will also identify ourselves with the brokenness of our world and bring that broken world before the Lord in song and prayer.

Like Daniel, we dare to pray in such a way, we dare to confess our sins, we dare to identify ourselves with the sin of our brothers and sisters and the brokenness of the world, because we are a people who bear the Lord’s name. We have been baptized into the body of the Messiah Jesus. We have been claimed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We bear the name Christian. So may the Lord listen! May the Lord forgive! May the Lord hear and act! For his sake, may God not delay, for we are the people who bear His Name. Amen.

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