Ash Wednesday Sermon 2014
14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? 15 Jesus answered, How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips this evening reflect something of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Not long after I passed my driving test, which was quite a long time ago now, I bought a classic car in the hope that it would be a good investment and a good run-around. In my callow youth I didn’t appreciate that those two things were mutually exclusive. Anyway, I bought myself a VW Beetle – but it wasn’t one of those revamped ones which come complete with plastic gerberas on the dashboard, it was a proper old one from 1963. I apologise if anyone here owns a jacket which predates 1963. It had a leather interior and it had that wonderful old car smell which is impossible to describe and yet unmistakable. There was only one problem with this car – the gearbox didn’t work. You could put the car into first gear, provided you were completely stationery as it had no synchro-mesh, and it would just about go into second but third and fourth were simply nowhere to be found. The theme tune from Friends could have been written for that car – always stuck in second gear.
The point of that little anecdote is simply this – in order for that car to function properly all the way from 0 to 60 it was necessary, albeit impossible, to change from one gear to the next and I think that the same is also true in our Christian life and discipleship – sometimes we need to change gear, both up and down. It is of course good to rejoice and to praise God for our salvation but sometimes we also need time alone with God, space for quiet reflection and self-examination. It is all very well as Christians telling people about our relationship with God but like all relationships it needs the investment of time spent together in order to grow.
So, for me, Lent is a time of us consciously changing gear – of withdrawing into the wilderness or climbing the holy mountain. Perhaps to face temptation and to relearn our reliance upon God alone or perhaps to be transfigured by the presence of God.
We mark the start of this season of Lent with the imposition of ashes and with some rather gloomy sounding words:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
I say that it is quite gloomy sounding simply because our society has become extremely coy about the subject of death. It used to be the case that death was an everyday reality for most people and the big taboo subject was sex. But now it seems impossible to get people to stop talking about sex whereas the business of death and dying has become verboten and often tidied away out of the sight of most people, most of the time.
And this tidying away of death means that it is very easy to kid ourselves of our own immortality and, therefore, to put off spending serious time with God, thinking always that there will be time for that another time. The ashes today remind us of our mortality and the fact that now is the time to spend time with God. But we should not feel gloomy they are made in the sign of the cross, and the cross is the source of the hope that we carry within our hearts every day.
But Ash Wednesday of course only marks the start of Lent, which the Church has traditionally kept as a time of fasting and preparation for Easter. For many now fasting has become not a religious observance but an uber fashionable diet – fasting for Lent marks you out as a terrible fuddy duddy or worse, whereas doing the 5:2 fasting diet makes you totally on message.
Today’s gospel, presents us with some stark challenges: – what do we, as 21st century Christians living in the affluent West think about the practice of fasting, and, perhaps going even deeper, are we as a church currently in the presence or the absence of Jesus?
“…John’s disciples came and asked him, How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
I would love to know exactly how the disciples of John the Baptist said these words to Jesus because there are at least two ways in which this could be interpreted:
Were the disciples of John the Baptist being self-righteous, in a way that the religious are so good at, claiming the moral high ground in their practices whilst looking down their collective metaphorical noses at the way Jesus and his disciples carried on?
Or, perhaps controversially, could we detect an element of jealousy in their voices? Being a disciple of John the Baptist undoubtedly meant living a life of deprivation and hardship, probably living in the wilderness with their master, eating nothing but honey and locusts and certainly drinking no alcohol, and yet here was another teacher, one who had actually been baptised by John, whose followers seemed to be having a good time.
What is going on? Who has it right? Does God want us to fast or to feast?
What is Jesus’ response to this seemingly straightforward question? The first part of his answer is easy enough:
“15 Jesus answered, How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?.”
Jesus says that his disciples are eating and drinking and making merry because they are celebrating as if they were at a wedding feast and that he is the bridegroom at the centre of this feast – that may well bring back memories of the wedding feast at Cana where, when the wine ran out, the same Jesus produced the equivalent of 726 bottles of the finest wine so that the party could continue.
Let’s face it, it would be a fairly unwelcome sort of wedding guest who sat around fasting and being abstemious in front of the bridegroom – in fact it would be an affront to his presence and his hospitality.
However, as much as we may want it to, Jesus does not end his answer there, but he continues:
“The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast”
Jesus knows that the party will not go on forever, a time is coming when he will leave the feast and then it would be appropriate for his followers to fast.
So is Jesus present or absent for us, and should we feast or should we fast?
In perhaps an annoyingly Anglican way, the answer is yes.
Jesus is present in his church through the Holy Spirit, he is present through the body of the Church which is us and is he present in the bread and wine of the eucharist. However he is also absent in the sense that he sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. The bridegroom is both here and not here.
So, yes, we should feast to celebrate all that he has done for us and none more so than at the great feast of Easter which is coming, but in this time of Lent we should also not forget that we are not there yet and that there is nothing like a fast for honing the appetite – our appetite, yes, for the feast but most especially our appetite for God.
Of what should our fast consist? Some churches, especially the Eastern Orthodox Church, still follow a rigorous diet of abstinence from certain foods during Lent, and we still have a cultural echo of that in the events of Shrove Tuesday when we were supposed to empty our larders of the forbidden foods by making lots of pancakes. Lots of people give up chocolate or alcohol or treats. Actually I think that by concentrating too much on what we are giving up for Lent we run the risk of fetishizing them and distracting ourselves further from God.
If this season of changing gear is to have any effect on us whatsoever, if we are to get out of second gear and be changed from one degree of glory into another, then we should take a good long look at ourselves, our motivations and our addictions and we should try to fast from all that distances us from God. The time to draw close to God is now.