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Monday, 20 February 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012

This year, New Years' Day fell on a Sunday, and so we went to Church. We were staying with my parents, and went to their village church; some of King's Acre have seen it. And I was very interested in what the vicar had to say in his sermon, because he said that New Year's Resolutions could be selfish. They could be all about you. I am going to give up smoking. I am going to lose weight. I am going to take exercise three times a week.... you know the scenario. How much better, he said, to resolve to be God's person, to resolve to put God at the centre of your life, to resolve to let God love you.

And isn't it the same about Lent? Perhaps you are planning to give something up for Lent – it might be chocolate, as a friend of mine does every year; it might be alcohol; it might be meat; it might even be social networking. But why? Why are you giving these things up, if you are?

When I was little, we were only allowed to give things up for Lent if we put the money we would otherwise have spent on them to a good cause. Which, since I found – and still find – it impossible to determine how much I might have spent on, say, chocolate, which I only buy irregularly anyway, since I found it impossible, I never gave anything up! And I am quite sure that, were I to give up social networking, I'd not spend the time in prayer or devotional reading, but faffing about playing computer games!

But self-discipline is a good thing. So we are told, and so it is, of course. But if it is all about you, all about me, that's not much good, is it? And, of course, as we heard in our reading, it's all too easy to do things for all the wrong reasons. If we start complaining about how much we're missing chocolate, or booze, or whatever it might be, that's not the idea at all. The idea is to keep it totally to yourself, don't let anybody know unless you have to. Keep it between you and God.

I personally prefer to do something positive for Lent, like reading a devotional book, or finding something to be thankful for each day, or something. But whatever you do or don't do, the idea needs to be that it brings you closer to God. And if it doesn't do that, if it doesn't work if you keep it secret, then leave it.

And so we turn to our liturgy for tonight. The beginning of Lent always feels so solemn and penitential and miserable. But it shouldn't be like that, not really. The idea is to get right with God, not to wallow in our own sinfulness! And what could be nicer than being forgiven and cleansed, and at peace?

Confession isn't really about telling God the nasty things you've done, said or thought. It can involve that, of course, but I think it's deeper than that – it's about facing up to the fact that you are the sort of person who can say, do our think such things: I have to face up to the fact that I am the sort of person who will snap at her family, given the slightest excuse to do so, or that I tend to be very greedy and lazy, as you can doubtless tell just by looking! But without God's help I shall always be these things. God knows what I'm like – it's no surprise to Him. But I need to face up to the fact that I'm like that, and ask God to help me change.

And, of course, we need to let go of anything someone else has done that has hurt us, to forgive them. And that can be horrendously difficult, too, especially if you're still angry at them. Again, it's not really something you can do by yourself – you need God's help to do it. God can take the anger and the hurt and even the hatred, and transform it – but you have to be willing to give it to him, and sometimes you have to start by asking for help to make you willing to let go of it! That's all part of confession.

And sometimes, it's God himself who we need to forgive. Which sounds awful, but what about those times when something awful happens and we don't know why? I know there have been times in my life when bad things have happened, and I've been very angry with God. Who, thankfully, doesn't mind – admitting our anger is, as always, part of confession.

And sometimes, of course, it's ourselves we need to forgive. We find it very hard to accept we are the kind of person who can snap at others, or who can waste a lot of money in the shops, or on on-line gambling sites, and when we catch ourselves doing something like that, we feel we've let ourselves down, and we find it very hard to put it behind us and allow God to help us carry on. Again, admitting that is part of confession.

The second part, the repentance, isn't just about saying “Sorry” to God, although that's where it starts. It's about turning right round, and going God's way rather than our own way. This may well involve changes in our behaviour, but mostly it involves changes in our deepest being, in who we are, in what's important to us. And that doesn't happen overnight, of course, and won't happen at all without God's help.

We're not just telling God how ghastly we are and promising to change in our own strength. We're asking God to help us grow and change. If we try to change in our own strength, we shall surely fail. Sometimes we get it twisted, and think we have to make ourselves perfect before we can come to God – er no. We must come to God exactly as we are, and allow Him to come into our deepest levels and help us to grow perfect. It won't happen overnight, but as long as we are open to God, it will happen.

It occurred to me that sometimes we feel really weighed down with things that come between us and God – the old classic “Pilgrim's Progress” depicted the Christian as having to carry a huge burden which rolled away when he came to the Cross of Christ.

So what I've done is collected some stones – just ordinary stones from the beach – and I hope you took one when you came in. If not, get one now. The stones are to represent all that weighs down your relationship with God, whether it's a bad habit, an addiction you can't overcome, a personality trait you really dislike in yourself, or whatever. It doesn't matter what – you know, and God will know. So I want you to sit and hold your stone, we'll have a little time of silence and then the worship group will sing.

And when you know what your stone represents, you're going to give it to God! We'll collect the stones, and as you put them in the bowl, give God all the bad habits and the things that are worrying you and weighing down your relationship with him. And then we will gather round the table and receive the ashes on our foreheads if we wish, as a sign of repentance – and then receive Holy Communion as a sign that we are forgiven. And then, my friends, we can go into Lent rejoicing! Amen!