Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58.1-12 2
Corinthians 5.20b-6.10
John 8.1-11

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden
25 February 2004

Lent has been around for a long time and it is no wonder that it has drawn to itself quite a rich tangle of themes. The scriptural readings themselves offer a rich variety of possible directions for thought. Nowhere, as far as I can see, do they offer much encouragement for the most popular way of keeping Lent, where it now gets mixed up with weight-watching and the cult of self-control in a society of consumers.

But at least these gestures of fasting remind us of how Christians now stand out as different from society as a whole. Once upon a time, everybody kept Lent, and all over Europe the butchers' shops closed for forty days because the eating of meat was forbidden. (The first Queen Elizabeth indeed used to extend Lent to other parts of the year, but only to encourage the fisheries!) Now our little fasting does not get near the serious fasting of the Muslims in Ramadan; but at least we are not tempted to boast of any heroic achievements in this area.

Of the three readings, only the passage from Paul raises this question of standing out from the world around. It tells how he felt all at variance with the way society ticked - and actually rejoiced in being different and being misunderstood. Not many of us, I guess, could echo his sense of being free and fulfilled in the midst of opposition and danger. It takes a very special kind of confidence, and above all of belief in the rightness of one's mission and one's place in God's scheme of things: "having nothing and yet possessing all things".

And yet we all know something of this sense: if we're Christians, we do not just slot into the common grooves, and we do have a particular slant on life, a particular sense of what counts and what does not. And we may even share something of Paul's lightheadedness of faith: being free in God's world. To come to know that would be a worthwhile achievement for Lent.

The Old Testament passage is really one in the eye for the standard view of Lent: the little self-denials and the small morsels of austerity. Think big, and the prophet says, and think generously. 'Is this not the fast that I choose, to undo the thongs of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house?...Then shall your light break forth like the dawn'. So the message is: rise to the daring vision and do not be content with small things. Think big, and you may do something worthwhile to meet the world's needs. 'Then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.'

But we are individuals whom God, if he so wished, could catch out in sin and failure: none of us is without complex weaknesses of will and purpose. And can God do anything with us? What he can do and will do is to love us all the same; and that love is our deepest need and our most precious gift. And if we accept and know it, can we not indeed rise up in the darkness? So that our Lent is itself our Eastertide. All this the wonderful Gospel story assures to us: the Woman taken in Adultery.

In the Picture Gallery at Dulwich in South London, there is a painting of the scene by the Italian painter Guercino. On the face of Jesus, there is a look which combines contempt and pity for the wretched men who point the finger at the woman. (You might even make a list of people you would like to visit with a look such as that!) 'Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone....Nor do I condemn you', says Jesus, 'go and do not sin again'. It is the liberation of God's love that we all need; and Lent is for resolutely putting ourselves in the way of it, by whatever means - prayer, study, fasting, generosity, as may meet our case, so to bring us face to face with God's love.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

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