Prayer (2016 Lent Sermon Series #3)

Two and a half weeks ago, at our Ash Wednesday service, I used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we have six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves up to the presence of God in a new and fresh way. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Third Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at prayer.

Our theme verse for Lent is the well-known verse from the Book of Revelation:

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

In this verse the Lord is calling us to welcome him again into the centre of our lives – to return to our first love for him, or perhaps to kindle a deeper love for him than we’ve ever known before. And there is probably no practice that’s more fundamental to this than the practice of prayer.

Prayer was central to the life of Jesus. Jesus had a busy daily schedule and he was always on the move. But in the midst of all that, the joy of his heart was to take time to be alone with God. In Mark 1:35, after a very busy sabbath, we read these words:

‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.

We know from the gospels that this was his habit – regular withdrawal from the crowds for that quiet time with God. When he had decisions to make or when he was facing some particularly difficult task, he sometimes spent whole nights in prayer – no doubt waiting on his Father to guide him and strengthen him for what was ahead.

Jesus is also our teacher of prayer. In Luke 11 we read,

‘(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”’ (Luke 11:1).

Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt this deep hunger inside to come closer to God, to be more aware of God’s presence in your daily life? Have you ever wished you could find a journeyman prayer who could teach you how to pray? If so, you can understand what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus’ prayer life and thought, “Wow – he seems to be so much more aware of God’s presence with him! I wish I could pray like that!” And Jesus responded by giving them a prayer outline that we’ve used ever since – we call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, although it might just as easily be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’.

I don’t consider myself to be a journeyman prayer – far from it – but this morning I want to give you a personal testimony of prayer. My experience is that prayer is like a rich banquet with many different dishes available for us to enjoy. Christians have been praying for nearly two thousand years now, and our Jewish ancestors in the faith were praying long before us, as the Book of Psalms testifies. Down through those years our fathers and mothers in the faith discovered many different ways of praying, and all of us can find ways that work well for us. So this morning I want to pass on to you some of the things I’ve learned from them, in the hope that maybe you might get some ideas that will be helpful to you.

I’m going to go in roughly chronological order, in terms of when I discovered these various ways of praying in my life. So I want to start with the simple daily Quiet Time. The person I learned this from was my dad.

Some of you will have heard me tell the story of how, when I was a young teenager, my dad challenged me to give my life to Jesus, and I did. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. It was designed for people who had never prayed regularly before, and it described a very simple and accessible way to get started in daily prayer. The idea was to start with a short time, with the idea that it’s better for people to think “I wish I could go longer” than “This is boring – when is it going to end?”

The idea was to start with half a minute of silence, just to slow down, relax, and open yourself up to the peace of God in your heart. Then you would turn to the Bible, read a short passage, and maybe try to find one thing you could take with you through your day – perhaps a promise to receive, or a command to obey, or an example to follow, and so on. Having done that, you would turn to a very short time of vocal prayer, based on the outline of the word ‘ACTS’ – ‘adoration’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘supplication’. ‘Adoration’ of course stands for worship and praising God. ‘Confession’ is admitting our sins to God and asking his forgiveness. ‘Thanksgiving’ is self-explanatory – naming our blessings and thanking God for them. And ‘supplication’ is simply asking God for his help – whether for other people or for ourselves.

The little booklet gave strict time allocations for this – half a minute for silence, four minutes for Bible reading, half a minute each for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, and then half a minute at the end again for silence. I started following that outline almost immediately. I was always a morning person, so I liked doing it first thing in the morning before anyone else was awake.

As time went by, of course, I found that seven minutes wasn’t long enough, and so it gradually expanded. I wanted to spend longer in Bible reading, thinking about the passage and maybe noting down specific things I thought God might want me to do about what I was reading. I wanted to pray about what I was reading, too. And of course, it didn’t take me long to think of far too many sins to fit into thirty seconds of confession – not to mention needy people I wanted to pray for. So without feeling any sense of compulsion about it, I found that as the years went by the time expanded until it gradually settled down to about half an hour.

I didn’t always feel anything special while I was praying. I didn’t have great mystical experiences of the presence of God, and a wise spiritual writer called C.S. Lewis taught me not to worry about that. Don’t try to manufacture a feeling of God’s presence, he said; let God worry about that. If he thinks you need it, he’ll give it to you, and if not, trust that he knows best. One thing I did almost always experience, though, was a sense of peace after my prayer time. I still experience that today.

So that was the first meal I discovered on the banquet table of prayer. The second meal came after I started working as an Anglican minister. That was when I became aware of the ancient discipline we call ‘the Daily Office’. The Daily Office was developed over many centuries in monasteries as a way for monks and nuns to pray together. Monks had seven daily services, but in the sixteenth century Anglican reformers wanted to make them more accessible, so they reduced them to two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Many of us who have been lifelong Anglicans remember when these services were used on Sundays, but they weren’t originally intended for that – they were intended for daily prayer.

The Daily Office uses set written prayers. At its heart is the praying of the psalms – one hundred and fifty hymns and songs written by people in ancient Israel, and quickly adopted by the Church for its worship. We still say the psalms in our services each week; they are by far the oldest part of our service, as they were all written before the time of Jesus. In the Daily Office we pray through the book of Psalms regularly – the joyful ones and the miserable ones, the loving ones and the cursing ones. It doesn’t matter whether an individual psalm fits for us on a particular day; the Daily Office is the prayer of the whole church around the world, and you can bet that someone, somewhere is feeling what that psalm says! So we join with that person in offering the cry of their heart to God on that day; on other days, they join with us.

The Daily Office also includes short readings from the Bible, canticles of praise for us to pray together, and intercessions for us to offer for people all around the world. You can find the Daily Office at the front of our Book of Alternative Services in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Many Anglican clergy and some lay people use these offices to help them through times in their lives when prayer seems difficult, as well as good times. If you’re interested, I’ve prepared a shorter form of the daily office in bulletin format, and I’ve put some copies of it on the table at the back of the church today.

As I mentioned, I find the Daily Office very helpful when I’m going through a dry time, or when I’m tired, or when I just can’t think of what I should say to God. Sometimes it’s a great way of ‘priming the pump’ and getting prayer going. And it gives a good sense of fellowship; even if you pray it alone, you’re conscious of hundreds or thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing. When we lived in the Arctic, in a very isolated community, I found that very meaningful.

So we’ve looked at two meals on the banquet table of prayer – the simple daily quiet time, and the daily office. A third one that I discovered was the prayer of silence, sometimes called Contemplative Prayer.

In one of his books, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a priest who noticed that an old man was coming into his church every day to spend an hour or so, just sitting quietly, looking up at the figure of Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the front. The priest noticed that the man just sat there quietly, not moving very much, and he didn’t appear to be praying, because his lips weren’t moving. ‘He must be praying in his mind’, the priest thought. Eventually after a few weeks of this, the priest went and asked the old man, “What are you saying to the Lord when you sit here every day?” The old man smiled and shook his head. “Nothing”, he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together”.

That’s a good description of contemplative prayer. We have a tendency to want to fil the universe with words all the time, but contemplative prayer recognizes that God is far beyond any words we can use. In contemplative prayer we simply quieten ourselves down, listen with our hearts, and open ourselves up to whatever it is God wants to give us. If we feel something or hear something, well and good. If we don’t, well and good too.

Some people find that quietly saying a verbal prayer in their hearts, over and over again, is a good way of moving into that contemplative silence. An old Orthodox prayer called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ is especially well known; it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The idea is to quietly say it in your heart, over and over again, until the repetition helps you to centre your heart on God. Some people like to coordinate it with their breathing, so that they’re breathing in for the first half of the prayer, and out for the second half. Eventually, when the verbal prayer has done its work, you can let it rest and just be quiet before God. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the verbal prayer again, to centre your mind and heart.

I have to say for myself that I find contemplative prayer difficult. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard work for me, so I don’t try to do it very often. That’s probably something to do with my temperament. We’re all different, and, as a wise prayer teacher once said, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t”.

So we’ve talked about three ‘meals’ on the banquet table of prayer: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, and contemplative prayer. Now I want to mention a fourth one that I’ve personally found very helpful: writing my prayers.


I learned this one from Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Bill is the sort of person who runs on adrenalin; slowing down to be with God is not something that comes naturally to him. He’s also discovered that it’s very easy for him just to say words without really thinking about what they mean. But he’s discovered that writing is a good way of slowing down.

Bill’s daily discipline is to journal and pray, one after the other. Every morning he writes a page of journaling, just looking back on the previous day, reflecting on his walk with God and how it’s going. He then writes a one-page prayer, thinking carefully about what he wants to say to God, usually using the same four-part outline I mentioned earlier – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s his practice to then kneel down and pray the prayer he’s written out loud.

I tried Bill’s method for a while and then I modified it a bit to fit my own preferences. I started with the journaling, and then I did my daily Bible reading, trying to be alert to any particular verse or teaching that God wanted me to reflect on a bit. I find that reflecting with a pen in my hand works very well for me, so it was easy for me to write out my meditations and underline the things that were particularly significant.

I sometimes found that my writing was turning naturally into prayer. I didn’t feel the need to follow Bill’s practice of reading my prayer out loud to God; I figured that God could read my writing quite well, thank you very much! Nor did I necessarily feel the need to cover all four of the prayer subjects – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. An ordinary conversation doesn’t go that way; it tends to be unscripted, and sometimes we’re surprised at the way it goes. But I did find, like Bill, that writing the prayer was a good way for me to slow down, think about what I was saying, and use words that meant something – not “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard by their many words”, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:7.

This prayer journaling is a very effective way of praying for me; it’s probably my favourite way of praying. As I said, we’re all different, so pray as you can, not as you can’t!

However, it’s not my most common way of praying. I know my sermon is longer today than it normally is, but this is an important subject and there’s one more ‘meal’ I want to lay before you. We’ve thought about the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, and written prayer. The last one I want to share with you this morning is regular prayer with someone else.

People who want to exercise regularly will tell you that there is real power in agreeing to exercise together with someone else. We don’t always feel like doing it, but our commitment to the other person can carry us through those difficult times. And prayer is like that. Monks and nuns meet together every day to pray – that’s how the Daily Office started. They have their private prayers too, but the daily corporate prayer keeps them going. And praying together can be a powerful way of bringing us closer together too.

Well, I’m not a monk, but I do have a community; it’s called a marriage. And so I’m very happy to share a commitment with Marci that we pray together each day. This is not something that we’ve been doing for very long. We tried it a few times over the years, but we usually fizzled out – often because we were trying to do it last thing at night, and sometimes when you’re tired, it’s easy to put things off. But about three years ago we decide to try praying together first thing in the morning, and it seems to have worked well for us. We make a cup of tea and then pray a simple form of Morning Prayer together. We use little devotional Bible commentaries that lead us through individual books of the Bible; sometimes we discuss what we’ve read, and sometimes we don’t. Then we pray out loud in an informal way, first one of us, then the other, bringing our thanksgivings and requests to God. If one of you has asked for our prayers, that’s when we pray fro you. We finish with the Lord’s Prayer, and then we start our day. I think we’re both grateful to have discovered this practice, and we would certainly recommend it to others.

Well, this morning I’ve laid out a banquet table for you. Here are five different ways of praying that God’s people have discovered down through the centuries: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, written prayer, and praying together with someone else.

Is it possible that this Lent God might be calling you to try one of these things? Maybe you’ve already got a regular habit of prayer, but you’re getting a little bored with it, you want to try something different, and something you’ve heard this morning has piqued your interest. Or maybe you don’t really have a regular prayer practice at all, and you can sense the Spirit calling you, saying, “Now’s the time”.

Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). That knocking that you hear this morning is the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper life of prayer. It’s probably one of the most powerful ways of welcoming God into the depths of our hearts. Psalm 8 says:

‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.’

Let’s not ignore that voice in our hearts. Let’s seek the face of God by going deeper in prayer. Amen.

‘Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth’

51Yn1eyacgL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_A very good introduction to the classical Christian disciplines. I first read this book not long after it came out in 1978, and it had a huge impact on me. I have not read it for many years, so it was good to revisit it.

This book is an entry level treatment of the disciplines. Foster organises them into three groups: (1) The Inward Disciplines (Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, and Study), (2) The Outward Disciplines (Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service), and (3) The Corporate Disciplines (Confession, Worship, Guidance, and Celebration). The chapter on meditation was considerably expanded from the original 1978 edition with a much longer treatment of meditation on scripture.

Richard Foster writes as a Quaker but he is well acquainted with a wide range of spiritual masters from across the Christian spectrum, from Roman Catholic and Orthodox, to Anglican, to Methodist and Quaker; he also has a warm charismatic streak which I found quite attractive, being a person who was much influenced by the charismatic renewal in the mid-1970s. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the way it introduces the reader to so many classical Christian writers (Francois Fenelon, Brother Lawrence, Thomas à Kempis, John Woodman, George Fox, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Ekhart, to name just a few).

This book repays regular rereading. Each time I have returned to it I have found that a different chapter has especially struck me, which Foster would say is evidence that Jesus our present teacher and guide (a phrase he uses frequently) is speaking quietly into the human heart. This time through the chapters on Service and Confession were the ones that spoke most clearly to me.

This book on the classical Christian disciplines is itself a classic, as are Foster’s other books. I highly recommend it.

I was reading the 1988 tenth anniversary edition. A 20th anniversary edition was also published, but I do not think there are a huge number of differences. It can be purchased at here.

Courting is a Pleasure

I’ve started a new series I’m calling ‘Folk Singles’. I’m going to record three or four tracks a year and release them as singles through CD Baby, Bandcamp, iTunes etc.

The first one is the old folk song ‘Courting is a Pleasure’ (information about this song is at Mainly Norfolk and Mudcat Café). My version is based on Nic Jones’ recording on ‘Penguin Eggs’, but I’ve done quite a lot of editing to the lyrics.

So far it’s available on Bandcamp here. I’ll update this page when not becomes available on CD Baby and iTunes.

Here’s my version of the lyrics:

Courting is a pleasure between my love and I,
And it’s down in yon green valley I will meet her by and by
Way down in yon green valley, she is my heart’s delight
Molly, lovely Molly I would stay ‘til broad daylight.

Going to church last Sunday my love she passed me by,
I knew her mind was altered by the roving of her eye,
I knew her mind was altered toward a lad of high degree
Molly, lovely Molly your looks have wounded me.

I went to her on Monday with a bottle in my hand
Saying, “Here’s to you, lovely Molly, for our courting is at an end.
So raise your glass, lovely Molly, raise your glass and then go free
Ten guineas I will wager that married we ne’er shall be”.

Farewell, Ballymorrie, likewise the sweet Bann shore
Farewell to your rolling hills I will never see no more
Americay lies far away across the ocean blue
But it’s there I’d go lovely Molly and never more see you.

Repentance (2016 Lent Sermon Series #2)

Well, I was going to preach a sermon this morning, but I’ve changed my mind.

That got your attention, didn’t it?!

It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it, “changing your mind”. It’s a figure of speech, of course. We don’t actually change our mind; what we change is the way we’re thinking about a particular issue, and that change of mind leads to a change of action. “I was going to marry so and so, but as I got to know her a little better I realized that we had very different goals in life, so I’ve changed my mind”. “I was going to start a new job with such and such a company, but then I discovered that their benefits package wasn’t as good as I’d been led to believe, so I changed my mind”.

A change of thinking, leading to a change of action: that’s actually very close to the meaning of the word ‘repentance’. And ‘repentance’ is our subject for today. In our service on Ash Wednesday we used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we are given six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves afresh to Jesus and making him welcome in our hearts. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits. We started last week with self-examination, and today we’re going to move on to the second one – penitence, or repentance. What does that mean, and how can we build it into our lives?

It’s good to remember sometimes that the books of the Bible were not originally written in English. The Old Testament books are mostly in Hebrew, and the New Testament books in Greek. Translating words from one language to another can be a tricky business. Linguists will tell you that it’s actually quite rare to find a word in one language that’s the exact equivalent of a word in another language; more often than not, one of the words will have shades of meaning not found in the other. So when we’re studying the Bible it’s sometimes helpful to explore what the word means in the original language; it can help us get a better idea of what the original author may have meant.

In the Old Testament there are two main Hebrew words used to describe the idea of repentance. The first word is naham, and it’s usually used to describe something God does; ‘The Lord changed his mind’. So for instance, when the Israelite people made a golden calf to worship at Mount Sinai, God was angry and told Moses he was going to wipe them out, but Moses managed to persuade him otherwise; Exodus tells us that ‘The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’ (Exodus 32:14). Obviously the author is writing from a human point of view; Moses received a warning from God, but in the end the plan wasn’t carried out, so God must have changed his mind or something! But this idea of changing your mind and following a different course of action is one way of looking at repentance.

The other Old Testament word is shub, and it means ‘to turn’ or ‘to return’. Obviously the idea here is that an individual or a nation is heading in the wrong direction; their actions are contrary to God’s will and are taking them further and further away from God. So God sends a messenger or prophet to challenge them; the people listen to the words of the prophet, and they ‘turn away’ from their evil deeds and ‘return’ to the Lord their God.

One verse in the Old Testament where both these words are used comes in the Book of Jonah. God sent Jonah to preach his word to a pagan city, Nineveh. Jonah expected the Ninevites to reject his message, but to his surprise, they didn’t; they repented, fasted, put on sackcloth and cried out to God for mercy. The result is described for us in Jonah 3:10:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’.

They turned from their evil ways, and God changed his mind and turned from his plan to punish them: two kinds of repentance!

In the New Testament, the Greek word we often translate as ‘repentance’ is ‘metanoia’; like ‘naham’, it means ‘to think again’, or ‘a change of mind leading to a change of heart and behaviour’. Mark 1:14-15 says,

‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”’.

So people are living in a particular way, with a particular set of beliefs about life and what’s important to them. And then along comes Jesus with an announcement to make: the kingdom of God has come near! God is king, and he’s about to work to bring about his loving rule in the world. People need to get ready for this, so Jesus challenges them to change their thinking and their behaviour. A new way of seeing the world – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ – leads to a new way of living – ‘repent and believe the good news’.

I want to share three biblical stories of repentance with you to illustrate these words.

The first is the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. A man has two sons, and the younger son says to him, “Father, I don’t want to wait until you die; I want my share of the property now”. So, amazingly, the father divides his property between his two sons. The younger son then takes his share and goes off to a faraway country where he squanders the money in what the King James Version calls ‘riotous living’!

Eventually the money runs out, and at the same time, a famine comes on that country. Pretty soon the younger son is in a bad way, and so he goes and gets a job with a pig farmer – which of course would be a little shocking for a good Jewish boy, pigs being unclean and all – and he’s so hungry that even the pig food looks good to him. Eventually he has a moment of epiphany. Here’s how Luke describes it:

‘But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’” So he set off and went to his father’ (Luke 15:17-20).

This is a decisive moment of repentance. The son has taken a certain course of action, but in a moment of clarity he realizes that it’s getting him nowhere, and the future is looking pretty dire. He thinks again, he changes his mind, and he turns from his foolishness and returns to his father.

That can happen to us, too. Maybe without realizing it we’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to something – alcohol or another drug, or a certain kind of destructive behaviour. For a while we manage to avoid facing the truth, but eventually something happens that makes it impossible for us to deceive ourselves any longer. We see ourselves as we really are, and we decide to pick up the phone and contact someone who can help us begin the journey of recovery. That’s metanoia – a change of mind, leading to a change of action.

Another New Testament story is the famous tale of Zacchaeus of Jericho, who, we are told, was ‘a chief tax collector and was rich’ (Luke 19:2). Tax collection in the Roman Empire was private enterprise and the tax collectors made their money from the commission they charged. Rome didn’t really care how much they charged as long as the empire got its proper cut, so you can guess how tax collectors lived and how they were seen by ordinary people!

When Jesus comes to Jericho, Zacchaeus is secretly quite interested in him. But Zacchaeus is a little guy and can’t see over the crowd, so he climbs a tree to get a good view. However, Jesus calls him down from the tree and says “Zacchaeus , I’m coming to eat at your house today!” Pharisees and ordinary taxpayers grumble loudly, but you can’t stop Jesus once he’s made his mind up, so off they go. And the next thing we know, Zacchaeus is making an announcement:

‘Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”. Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham”’ (Luke 19:8-9).

Here we can see that repentance is severely practical. Zacchaeus’ major sin is greed and theft; he’s been fleecing the taxpayers of Jericho, and their complaints against him are legitimate. Jesus isn’t going to let him get away with just going to an Ash Wednesday service and getting an ash cross smeared on his forehead! Repentance means putting right what is wrong, and Zacchaeus knows it. Maybe he’s a little flamboyant about the way he announces it, but Jesus knows his heart is in the right place, and I’m sure the taxpayers of Jericho appreciate it, too!

Once again, this tells us that repentance is practical and can be costly. It’s not just a vague idea of ‘I’m going to try to be a nicer person’. It means that we examine ourselves, as we saw last week, and we ask God to show us what the most important issues are in our lives. Then we put definite plans in place to turn from our sins and start doing the right thing. And sometimes it helps to do as Zacchaeus did and to make those plans known to someone else, so that they can hold us accountable for the commitments we make.

The third story comes a bit earlier on in the gospels, from the life of John the Baptist. John, like Jesus after him, has been announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God and calling on people to repent and be baptized. Some people in the crowd ask him to be more specific about exactly what repentance involves. Here’s how Luke tells the story:

‘And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”. Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages”’ (Luke 3:10-14).

John doesn’t mince words, does he? ‘If you’ve got two houses and you know someone who’s homeless, share with the homeless person’. ‘If you’re a tax collector, don’t charge a commission on your taxes’ (that would definitely have bankrupted a few tax collectors!). ‘If you’re a person in authority, don’t throw your weight around or use your influence to get rich – be content with your salary’. Notice how these are all what we would call today ‘issues of social justice’? Repentance isn’t just about my private morality; it’s about God’s will being done publicly, on earth as it is in heaven, and my part in making that happen.

So we’ve seen that repentance starts with our thinking: we’ve had a certain set of assumptions about life, but then Jesus challenges those assumptions. ‘The reign of God is at hand’, and that means God is the real ruler, not me, and not anyone else. It means that my life doesn’t belong to me; I’m accountable to God, and the day is coming when I will have to give account.

So I look at my life in the light of the Kingdom or Reign of God, and I see that my sinful behaviour is getting me nowhere; in fact, it’s going to make things worse and worse. So I decide to stop deluding myself, and I turn away from my current way of living and start doing things differently. That’s what repentance means, in a nutshell.

But there are two more things I want to say about repentance before I finish.

First, for some of us, certain milestones, certain times of the year, can be a real help. The idea of ‘new year resolutions’ is often mocked, but I would like to suggest that the usual problem is not in the ‘new year’ but in the ‘resolutions’ – people make unrealistic resolutions, or they make too many of them, or they don’t make concrete plans about how they’re going to put them into practice. “I’d like to lose weight this year” is not a good new year’s resolution. “I’m going to stop eating between meals, and stop having desserts, and take a daily walk” is much better, especially if we can enlist the help of another person to keep us on track.

For myself, I’ve very rarely had much success with making concrete changes in my life without the help of a milestone or a season. By ‘a milestone’, I mean ‘a new job’, or ‘a new home’, or ‘a new decade of life’. ‘Seasons’, of course, means something like new year’s, or Lent, or Advent. It just seems that for some of us, these things can give us just that little bit of extra impetus we need to make changes.

Lent, of course, is one of those seasons. So if you’ve got a pretty clear idea of some specific changes God is calling you to, why not jump on board right now, while Lent is still young? Make some concrete plans, ask for God’s help, and see if you can get someone else to help you by holding you accountable for the commitments you make.

The second thing, of course, is that little phrase ‘ask for God’s help’. We Christians know very well that, as the old prayer book used to say, ‘We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves’. We are weak, but God is strong, and he has given us his strong Holy Spirit to live in us. So we will want to call on the Spirit to fill us every day, and we will want to walk in step with him through the day, asking for his help over and over again if we find ourselves weak and tempted.

Remember what Jesus said when the disciples asked him, “Then who can be saved?” ‘Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). And Jesus also says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So let’s abide in him, and let’s call on his Spirit daily for help, so that, as John the Baptist says, we can ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).

I want to end this week with the verse I began with last week. Jesus is speaking to the members of the Church in Laodicea:

“Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

As I’ve been speaking to you this morning, is it possible that you’ve heard that quiet knock? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit has been whispering to you in your heart, saying, “This message of repentance is for you, you know?” If so, why not open the door and let Jesus in – and then ask him to show you what he wants practical repentance to look like in your life?

Self-Examination (Lent 2016 sermon series #1)

On Wednesday night, those of us who were here for the Ash Wednesday service spent a few minutes thinking about one of the most famous verses in the Bible, Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says to the church in Laodicea: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This verse has been used many, many times by preachers and evangelists to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Jesus is standing outside the door of our lives, knocking; he waits for us to open the door and welcome him into our hearts. This is what it means to become a Christian: to open the door and let Jesus into the centre of our lives, as our Lord and our Saviour.

Well, that’s true, but it can also be a cop-out for those of us who are already Christians. This verse has more to say to us. In fact, there are things that our Lord wants to say to each of us as we consider this verse and what it means for us.

You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to people who were already Christians, but who had allowed their love for Jesus to become lukewarm. Maybe at one time they’d been enthusiastic followers of Christ, but over the years, various distractions had come into their lives, and routine had taken over, and gradually their love had grown cold. Maybe they didn’t even realize it, but the truth was that Jesus was no longer welcome in the centre of their lives, among the things they treasured the most. Jesus had become a peripheral figure, a leisure time activity, someone to think about when they didn’t have more interesting or exciting things to do. But no longer could they say, as St. Paul had said in Philippians, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21). ‘That’s fanaticism’, they whispered to themselves; ‘I prefer moderation in all things!’

Is this you? Is this me? If it is, then I’m absolutely certain that the Lord is calling to us this Lent to do something about it. He’s calling us to make a decision, to stop running in the wrong direction, and to open ourselves up once again to his loving presence and his loving will. Are you ready to do that? Am I? Are we ready to turn from distractions, hear that gentle knock, and open the door to the Lord once again?

But opening the door isn’t just a matter of praying a prayer and leaving it at that. It’s about habits and practices. We understand that, because human relationships are like that too. We can tell someone we love them and that they’re important to us, but unless we build into our lives the habits and practices that bring growth, the relationship isn’t going anywhere. We can’t just say the right things and feel the right things – we have to do the right things as well. Or, as Jesus said to his disciples in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Real love is like that – it always leads to action.

In the Ash Wednesday service, we read these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete practices or habits we can build into our lives, as a way of opening the door to Jesus and making him welcome in the depths of our hearts. Six practices, one for each Sunday of the Lenten season – it might almost have been planned as an outline for a sermon series, don’t you think? So let’s start today with the first one: self-examination.

What’s the purpose of self-examination? This is an important question, because God has no interest in introspection for its own sake. Those of us who are introverts can sometimes fall into the trap of spending way too much time looking inside ourselves, while all the time we’re ignoring the needs of the people around us. But self-examination isn’t an end in itself; it’s meant to lead to change. Listen to what the letter of James has to say on the subject:

‘But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:22-25).

Here’s a beautiful picture of self-examination: looking into the mirror and seeing ourselves as we really are, not because we’re so fascinated with ourselves, but because we need an honest view of our condition, so that we can identify the things that need changing in our lives.

Actually, the phrase ‘self-examination’ can be misleading. It means ‘examination of the self’, but some people take it to mean ‘examination of the self by the self’. And the truth is that if I’m the only one doing the examining, it probably won’t be very helpful, because we human beings are not very good at this. In his spiritual classic The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about how easy it is for us to practice self-examination for half an hour without discovering things about ourselves that are perfectly obvious to those who live with us on a daily basis!

When we make self-examination a do-it-yourself affair, we tend to fall into one of two equal and opposite errors. The first is to make excuses for ourselves. We were tired when we said that. We were frantic with worry. We were going through so much stress at work. We’re only human. All true, maybe, but not too helpful if what we’re actually doing is making excuses to stay as we are.

The other error is to be too hard on ourselves. We look inside ourselves and we see so much selfishness and anger and pride and hate, and we find it hard to believe that God could possibly want to have anything to do with us. We’ve confessed the same sins so many times, and promised to change, but we haven’t. And so self-examination leads not to repentance but to despair.

What’s the solution? Well, listen to these words from Psalm 139:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24).

What we see here is a partnership. I turn to God out of genuine desire for real change in my life. I know I need God’s help, so I open myself up to God’s guidance. I call on the Holy Spirit for help. “Holy Spirit, you are the one who guides us into all truth. Today, please guide me into the truth about myself. Show me the sins I need to repent of. Bring to mind the most important issues you want me to work on. Help me not to be afraid. Give me the courage to face these things, and then guide me as I consider how to make the changes you want me to make”.

Sometimes it helps to have another human being accompany us on this journey – a soul friend, a spiritual companion, a person who can shine a light on our path from a different direction and help us make connections we might not make ourselves. Pastors and priests often do this, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a pastor or priest. Any wise and experienced older Christian can help us, as long as they’re willing, and as long as they are prepared to be both gentle and honest with us.

So how might we begin to practice regular self-examination?

It helps if we have a clear vision to aim for. Remember that passage from James we read a moment ago, the one about looking in the mirror? James said,

‘But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:25).

The Scriptures can act as a mirror for us, helping us to see our true spiritual condition. There are some wonderful scripture passages that that are very suitable for this purpose. Many Christians will think about the Ten Commandments, and they aren’t a bad place to start. Personally, though, I find the Lord’s two great commandments most helpful:

‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mark 12:29-31).

These two commands are used in our general confession week by week, and in fact that confession can be a very useful model for us for everyday self-examination:

‘Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’.

We can spend a few minutes in silence, intentionally slowing down and asking the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and insight. Then we can work our way through the words of this confession, line by line. How have my thoughts been today? Have they been generous or judgemental? Trusting or anxious? Loving or hateful?

What about my words? Have I told the truth, spoken gently, been helpful to people, in the words I’ve spoken or written? Those of us who use the Internet regularly, who leave Facebook status updates and comment on other people’s posts – have we written the sort of thing we’d be glad to share with Jesus?

And what about our actions? The confession talks about sins of omission and sins of commission – in other words, we sin by doing the things we shouldn’t do, but also by not doing the things we should do. Personally, I find the second category troubles me far more! What about that visit I should have paid to someone who was lonely? The loving, helpful action God was asking me to do for someone in need? What about the golden rule, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12)?

It’s so easy to excuse ourselves if we only think of sin as specific evil actions – lying, stealing, adultery, violence etc. But Jesus sets the bar a lot higher. I will find my true joy as a human being when I learn to love God with everything in me – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and when I learn to love others in the same way I love and care for myself. So I need to think about myself in the light of those two great commandments. How am I doing? How are you doing?

Personally, I find it helpful each day to spend a few minutes in self-examination using this general confession as a guide. But at this point in time I can hear some people saying, “Where am I possibly going to find the time for this?” And it’s true – some of us are very busy people. We work demanding jobs, we’ve got families at home, and some days it’s all we can do to fulfil all our responsibilities and then grab a couple of minutes at the end of the day before we collapse into bed and sleep the sleep of the just!

So what’s the solution? To do no self-examination at all, because we don’t think we have time for it? I don’t think that’s a viable option. One of the Greek philosophers once said, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’, and I think the biblical authors would have agreed with that statement.

Let’s be clear – we’re talking about fifteen minutes. I know a lot of very busy people seem to be able to find far more time than that each day to read Facebook updates – not just from friends, but from people they barely know! Can we find time to turn the computer off for a few minutes and turn to the prayer of self-examination? I’m a morning person, so I find it a lot easier to do it at the beginning of the day; others might choose a different time. Maybe you think you can’t do it every day. Alright then – try for two or three times a week to start off with. Two or three times a week is better than not at all!

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24). Is it time for us to start putting this biblical prayer into practice? Is it time for us to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit as he shines his searchlight into our hearts? Is it time for us to take the risk of honesty and vulnerability before God, and maybe before another human being as well? I suspect that it is.

But let me leave you with one more thought. For some of us, maybe this is a harsh teaching. Maybe we find this idea scary, like going to the doctor for our annual physical and being afraid of what we’re going to hear. But let’s remember that the Lord who we’re inviting to examine us is the Lord who loves us far more than we love ourselves. He’s the Lord who came and lived and died for us. He’s the Lord who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

That’s why we’re examining ourselves – so that we can make the changes we need to make in order to discover the way of life and joy and peace and love that Jesus is holding out to us. That’s not a miserable thing! It may involve some hard work, but the end result will be transformation and joy! So let’s not be afraid of self-examination. Let’s take the risk of asking the Holy Spirit to help us to know ourselves as we truly are, so that we can then take the next steps toward becoming the kind of people that he wants us to be – people who will find our true joy and happiness in finding his purposes for us, and putting them into practice. Amen.

‘Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community’, by Leah Kostamo

planted-by-leah-kostamoThis book is both the story of A Rocha Canada and also a good primer on a Christian approach to creation care. Early in the book the author names four theological principles on which the work of A Rocha is based: (1) The earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24:1), (2) Creation is good (Genesis 1:31), (3) Everything is connected (Hosea 4:1-3), and (4) We are to have hope (despite the fact that ‘knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical that they would be tempted to despair).

The data about the deterioration of our natural environment seems overwhelming at times, but nevertheless I came away from this book with a sense of hope and a feeling that there are things – maybe even just little things – that everyone can do. But I particularly resonated with Leah Kostamo’s three recommended attitudes: (1) Practice Gratitude, (2) Practice Generosity, and (3) Practice Keeping the Sabbath.

Like many people, I’m in favour of creation care in theory but often take the easy way out. This book gave me both a sense of hope and also a few things to be working on.

Leah Kostamo’s website is here.

Planted can be purchased from here.

‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’, by John Clare

IMG_1355‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ is a set of pastoral poems from the early 1800s (it was first published in 1824) written by John Clare, a native of Helpston, near Peterborough in the English East Midlands. There is one poem for each month, varying in length from six to twenty pages, written mostly in rhyming couplets. Clare describes the weather and landscape for each month of the year and then gives a series of vignettes about animal, human and agricultural life in the month in question.

Clare was a keep observer of landscape, flora and fauna and had a knack for apt comparisons that makes his poetry particularly vivid. The East Midlands rural dialect comes through clearly, but to me, this just adds to the charm. I particularly enjoyed some of the archaic words he uses – one of the reasons I enjoy traditional folk songs too.

If you need a break from the sort of poetry that goes to great lengths to describe the details of the poet’s emotions, and you’re looking for something that focusses on the outer world instead, you will enjoy this book. I expect that fans of Robert Frost and Wendell Berry might find a kindred spirit in John Clare too.

One warning, though – Clare uses very little punctuation, and this can make it difficult at times to figure out where sentences begin and end. I found I needed to pay careful attention to this, otherwise the images kept washing over me like a flood until they overwhelmed me. I found it helpful to read with a pencil in hand, so that I could place a mark where I thought each sentence ended.

John Clare was born in 1793 and died in 1864. He struggled with mental illness  and spent many years living in an asylum. Goodreads has this to say about him:

John Clare was an English poet, in his time commonly known as “the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”, born the son of a farm labourer at Helpston (which, at the time of his birth, was in the Soke of Peterborough, which itself was part of Northamptonshire) near Peterborough. His poetry underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century and he is often now considered to be one of the most important 19th-century poets.

For more information about him, see this Wikipedia page.

Open the Door (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Revelation 3:20)

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus gives a message to a local church in what is now Turkey. The Book of Revelation was written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is now speaking to the church through his prophet, John, the author of this book. Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This has been illustrated by a famous painting called ‘The Light of the World’. In the painting Jesus stands beside a gate in a garden wall. He’s wearing a crown of thorns on his head, and in one of his hands he holds a lantern. The other hand is raised, knocking on the gate. The gate is overgrown and has obviously not been opened for a long time, and there is no handle on the outside; it can only be opened from the inside.

This verse has been used in evangelistic talks for centuries, to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Preachers have talked about how Jesus is standing outside our lives, knocking on the door, waiting for us to open up and let him in. But he is a perfect gentleman and won’t force his way in; he waits for us to open the door to him. So to become a Christian is to open the door and let Jesus into our lives as Lord and Saviour.

I know there are hundreds of thousands of people over the years who have responded to this illustration and prayed a prayer opening the door of their hearts to Jesus and letting him in. But this verse has more to say to us than that; in fact, I believe that there are things the Lord wants to say to each one of us tonight through this verse, as we gather together for this Ash Wednesday Eucharist.

You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to a church, a group of Christians in a place called Laodicea. The members of that church had allowed their love for the Lord to grow lukewarm. So Jesus speaks to them, and this is part of what he has to say:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:15-17, 19-20).

So this passage makes clear to us is that it is possible to be a genuine Christian – a person who knows God personally through Christ, a person who has opened the door of their life to Christ and committed themselves to him their Lord and Saviour – it is possible to be a genuine Christian and then to somehow let our light burn dim, so that Jesus is no longer welcome in the centre of our lives. We get distracted by other stuff, like those Christians in Laodicea, who were rich and prosperous and thought they needed nothing. Maybe, like the seed that fell among the thorns in Jesus’ parable of the sower, we find that even though we have heard the word of God, still ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing’ (Mark 4:19).

This probably isn’t something that happens because of a major decision we make to disobey the commands of God and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s far more likely to be a series of small things, so small that we barely notice them. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his superb little book The Screwtape Letters. Do you know that book? It’s a fictional series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, cautions Wormwood, the junior devil, about his desire to persuade his ‘patient’ to commit some huge sin. The danger in that, Screwtape says, is that it can so easily backfire; the patient will wake up, see what he’s doing, and repent. It’s far, far safer to tempt him into a series of seemingly harmless and insignificant actions and attitudes that have the gradual effect of taking him out of his orbit around God. Screwtape says, ‘Adultery is unnecessary if cards will do the trick’.

We may not agree with Lewis’ assumption that playing cards could be a sin, but maybe we need to ask ourselves what other seemingly harmless habits have had that effect on us – gradually taking us out of our orbit around God, so that the Saviour who was once the joy of our lives slowly, imperceptibly, becomes ‘old news’ to us. Adultery is unnecessary if blogging will do the trick! All that matters to the enemy of our souls is that we slowly fall out of love with God. If he can persuade us to do that without noticing it, all the better for him.

So Lent is a time for us to wake up to our true spiritual condition and to do something about it. In our epistle for tonight Paul writes to a group of Christians in Corinth, all of whom had at one time or another heard the gospel message and responded to it by committing their lives to Christ in baptism; presumably, they were already reconciled to God. And yet he finds it necessary to say to them in 2 Corinthians 5:20: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’. In other words, ‘Wake up! Realize that even though you thought you were still close to God, in fact you have moved away without even realizing that you were doing it. Turn around and come back to God, because he is ready and willing to receive you back’.

That, of course, is what Jesus said to those Christians in Laodicea as well. ‘Be earnest, therefore, and repent!’ (Revelation 3:19). In other words, ‘Be serious about this! Turn away from your lukewarmness and your little compromises, and come back to your first love for Jesus and his gospel’.

In our service tonight, in a few minutes I will read these words from the liturgy:

We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I want to suggest to you, in the light of these scripture readings that I’ve shared with you tonight, that this repentance isn’t primarily about individual sins that we commit, in and of themselves. It’s primarily about our attitude toward God, and toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Has our love for Jesus gone lukewarm, so that it makes him feel like spewing us out of his mouth? That’s the big issue for us, isn’t it?

We know how that works in marriage. We fall in love with someone, and they become the centre of our world. We spend every waking moment thinking about them, and we begrudge every hour we have to spend apart. We look forward to the day when we can commit our lives to each other and live together as husband and wife.

And at first, our expectations are fulfilled; we can’t believe the privilege we have of sharing our life with this wonderful person who we love so much. But then, as the years go by, our love starts to cool off. Life goes on; we get jobs and lose jobs, kids come and take up our time and attention, we have to pay a mortgage and do daily errands and so on and so on. And before we know it, we’ve lost sight of the love that gave us so much joy when we first discovered it. We start to take each other for granted, and to skip our times together and the long conversations we used to enjoy so much.

So let me ask you: have you done that with Jesus? Have you allowed your love for him to grow lukewarm? Have you allowed yourself to neglect your times together? Have you become complacent about doing things that you know are not pleasing to him? Have you become slow to do the things that bring him joy?

Yes, you have – and so have I. That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why we have this season of Lent. It’s not to kick off our annual time of giving up chocolate or coffee or sugar in our tea or whatever. Rather, it’s a time for us for us to wake up to our spiritual condition, to repent of our lukewarmness, and to consciously change course so that, once again, our life revolves around the one who loved us and gave himself for us, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know – because we’ve experienced it before – that this road leads to joy. Repentance is hard, but the motivation is the best – the joy of knowing Christ and enjoying fellowship with him. When we try to get the best of both worlds – living as a Christian but keeping our foot in the old life as well – we end up getting the worst of both worlds instead. But when we learn to live the new life of Jesus, we’re learning to live in harmony with the way God created us in the first place. And when we live with Christ at the centre of our lives, we’re fulfilled God’s original intention for us. This is a hard road, yes, but it’s also a joyful road.

Jesus says, ‘There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’ (Luke 15:10). And so he says to you and me tonight, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. His greatest desire is for us to live in fellowship with him. He created us for the joy of knowing us, and he will not be satisfied until we also experience that joy.

So – shall we open the door?

Do I have to use ashes on Ash Wednesday?

No, of course you don’t. Ashes are just a symbol. Like birthday cakes, in fact. Or weddingash_wed rings. Or flags.

Wait a minute. Those symbols are pretty important. I like having a birthday cake at my birthday party (especially if it’s a carrot cake), I wear my wedding ring all the time, and I’m proud to wear my maple leaf pin on Canada Day.

This is what we human beings do. We have this tendency to take physical signs and give them non-physical meanings. A handshake means we’re friends, or maybe it seals the deal. A kiss means love (or should, anyway!). Shaking your fist means anger or hatred. We hold hands to say grace (or maybe bow our heads and close our eyes). Some of us make the sign of the cross, or kneel to pray.

Some of those signs are even more important, because Jesus has commanded us to do them. We baptize people in water to make them his disciples. We take bread and wine, give thanks to God, and share them together in memory of his death for us and as a way of entering into the power of his saving act. The Church has come to call those signs ‘sacraments’.

Ashes on Ash Wednesday aren’t a sacrament, but they are biblical. In the Old Testament people were a little more demonstrative than we tend to be. We read in several places of people tearing their clothes, putting on sackcloth instead, and putting ashes on their heads as a sign of their overwhelming sorrow. Sometimes it’s sorrow at some dreadful misfortune that has happened (David’s daughter Tamar did it when she was raped by her half-brother Amnon – see 2 Samuel 13:18-19). But at other times it’s sorrow at their own sinfulness and their need for repentance. So in Daniel 9:3 Daniel says,

‘So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’.

And then there follows the prayer of penitence that Daniel prayed on behalf of all Israel.

So our ashes on Ash Wednesday are a symbol of our sorrow for our sins and our desire to repent. They have no power in themselves – they aren’t a sacrament – but they are meaningful if our desire to repent is meaningful.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when we begin our forty days of penitence (more about this tomorrow). There are all sorts of opportunities to come together with our fellow Christians today. Some churches have noon hour services, some met in the early morning today, and many will have services tonight. Make time. Don’t rush this (I’m not a fan of the ‘ashes to go’ movement, because I think genuine penitence needs more than a quick prayer at a bus stop); take time to pray, to think about your life, and to ask God to guide you about the changes that need to be made. This will be our agenda for the forty days of Lent. Use the sign of ashes as a concrete symbol of your desire for this Lent to make a difference in your life.

May the Lord help us all to observe a holy Lent, in which we follow Jesus ever more closely in the ways of the kingdom of God.