Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ash Wednesday Sermon

A theologian called Marcus Borg believes there are three great themes running through the Bible and I have tried to choose three readings to reflect those themes.

The first is the theme of Exodus.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew people were slaves in bondage and they needed liberty.
In the Gospel reading we hear Jesus say that he has come to set the captives free, which is good news for those of us in Bondage.

So what do we mean by bondage? It is that we are in some way trapped and we can’t find a way out. Addiction, drink, pornography, bad relationships, abuse, drugs, these are just some of the bondages.

Guilt just gets us further into bondage – so if our bondage is eating or drinking then guilt makes us feel bad about ourselves and the way we deal with that is to eat or drink more, in a vicious circle fuelled by guilt.

Bondage is normally something that we can’t get out of by ourselves. Have you heard the definition of madness? It is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The Hebrew slaves in the Old Testament needed a rescuer, they needed Moses. When we are in bondage, the shame makes us keep it secret for years and years until we can no longer cope.

My favourite bondage over the years has been in relationships. I remember when I was 14, I was going out with a man who was 21 and he was making me truly miserable. My misery was only relieved when he dumped me, and in the aftermath I wondered why I hadn’t dumped him. Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson and I kept repeating that cycle.

Bondage is a horrible thing. If you are in Bondage I promise you there is liberation but you need to overcome the guilt and the shame and get help.

The second theme is Exile.

In exile we feel isolated and we need a journey home.

In the Old Testament the Hebrew people were taken into exile many times this is described by Psalm 137. It tells of the pain of being exiled, they sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept, they couldn’t sing, they felt sick. They were mocked by their oppressors.

What drives us into exile? It can be an event – the death of a loved one, or some sin we have committed or a sin committed against us. Some are exiled early in life, abandoned by their mum or abused by a member of their family. For others it comes later, the death of a child or a spouse or a parent. We can get cut off from God and cut off from those who care for us.

Depression is also a sort of exile, I once heard it described as being on the sea bed with all your friends on the surface in a boat calling down to you, you can sort of hear them but there is no way you can get to the boat.

I think the worst time of exile for me was following the discovery that my unborn child was dying, and the subsequent termination of that pregnancy. I think I spent a year feeling wretched and cut off from God and from others. The question in the Psalm is ‘How can I worship God in a foreign land?’ I think eventually we do learn to sing again, the journey isn’t really back to Jerusalem, the journey is to finding God in a new place. Life events change us forever, there is no going back, but as we go forwards we hear God’s voice again.

For me, after that year in exile, I felt God telling me that it was my guilt getting in the way, whatever happened God still loved me immensely. Only when I heard the message and accepted the love again did I end my exile. I wonder whether you allow yourselves to appreciate how loveable you are and how much God wants you to know that?

The third theme is the priestly theme.
This is about the problem of sin and the solution is repentance, realising we are going wrong and choosing to go a different way. I chose psalm 51 as the reading to show this. King David had just realised that his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent killing of Bathsheba’s husband was errr... wrong, and the psalm is a beautiful poem of how he feels.

In the Old Testament there is the sacrificial system of putting to death an animal, the person who had guilt would put his hands on the animal and the guilt was symbolically transferred, then the person could walk away free from guilt.

The cross is a symbol for me of this. This came clear to me at Uni when I heard a talk where the preacher was thinking about the words Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished”:

It is finished.. what do those words mean?
They are the same words that a baker or a butcher would have stamped on a bill when it is paid.. In those days they would have gone to the shop and the shop keeper would write it down, and then once a month the man would go into the shop and pay all that was owed, and he would stamp these words on the bill.. it is finished.. it is paid for in full.
 Jesus in the same way does this for all of us.. he wipes the slate clean.
 Close your eyes for a minute and imagine all the things that you have ever done wrong, listed on a list, like a baker’s bill.. the things that are not too bad, and the things that you are really sad that you did, the things that you are ashamed of.. Now imagine that Jesus  comes with a stamp and at the bottom of the bill are the words ‘paid for in full’.

That talk was transformative for me – all that stuff that I felt for so many years was unforgivable dropped away, it really did give me a new life.

So tonight, if your problem is Bondage then perhaps you would like to come up and receive the ashes as a sign of your desire for liberation. If your problem is Isolation and you would like to sing in a foreign land then perhaps you would like to come up as a sign of your journey towards God. If your problem is sin, then perhaps you would like to come and receive the ashes as a sign of repentance, knowing God has already forgiven you and promised that it is paid for in full.


  1. Don't get me wrong here I am a believer, but something about the Exodus has always confused me. God sent Moses to plea for the release of the Hebrews, and then at the same time we learn that God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh, then set about killing people and bringing about plagues and pestilences as a way of punishment. But we learn that God directly interfered with the free will of the Pharaoh by hardening his heart - Am I missing something here? The bondage you speak of could have been rectified without all the slaughter could it not? I get mixed messages from this story, do you?

  2. Thanks for this comment John, yeah I struggle with that too. My take is that the writer had a very interventionalist view of God and hence if something bad happened it must have been because God was punishing a sin - a bit like when the blind man was brought to Jesus and they asked whether it was his sin or that of his parents that had caused it.

    I think Pharoah's heart was hardened but it wasn't God, that was just how the writer understood his theology.

    Metaphorically I think that there is a lot of pain when we overcome our bondages, the route to liberty hurts a lot.

  3. So how do I get to be so exact about the non God inspired bits like you then? I read the Bible and wonder how come people are able to spot the bits that don't mean anything. Is it a simple case of choosing the bits that make you feel comfortable? I hope so because this will help me understand the liberal approach which often confuses will eliminate the hypocrisy because it will now mean that scripture is only relative to what makes you happy and safe. Kool!

    It kinda helps the atheist opinion that Christians are full of shite though, this is the only danger here. But, so long as we are OK then this is all that matters.

  4. I think we have a choice - either we believe that God effectively dictated the Bible and hence we end up believing in a God that deliberately hardened Pharoah's heart and then killed of all the first born in a horrible massacre - or we believe that God inspired the Bible but only in so much as stretching the understanding of the people at the time, and their understanding of God is mixed in with the inspiration of God. I choose the latter, I know that means that I risk choosing the bits that make me comfortable, but I hope the Holy Spirit guides us as individuals and the church as a whole.

  5. The question above prompted me to some hard thinking and resulted in a long blog post!