Good evening, and welcome to this Ash Wednesday service. Tonight, we are going on a journey. We are going to start when it all went horribly wrong, right back at the very beginning. Then we will travel via God's plan for putting it all right again, and how that worked out, to get to the place where we put ourselves right with one another in a celebration of the Peace, and there will be an opportunity to receive the Ashes as a sign that we wish to be right with God, and then finally we will celebrate the ultimate closeness to God in the reception of Holy Communion.
Let us pray:
Father God, be with us and bless us on our journey together this evening. Help us to be aware of your love for us, and your presence with us, and lead us to a new level of closeness to you. In Jesus' name. Amen.
So we begin with our first reading, that tells us how it all went wrong.
Reflection 1 (Genesis 3:1-13)
And that's the story we tell to explain why our relationship with God went all pear-shaped.
The man and the woman did the one thing they were specifically asked not to do, eating the fruit from the one tree they were told not to touch. “If we eat it, we'll die,” the woman explained to the serpent. And indeed, in the end, death came into the world because they ate it. It was not immediately poisonous, but it poisoned their relationship with God. They hid from him, and couldn't face up to him.
Well, okay, Adam and Eve in the garden is only a story, but on another level it is profoundly true. We still question “Did God really say?” We still think we know better than God. We still find our relationship with God is sometimes poisoned. We hide from God, because we know we've done something that we ought not to have done, or because we have let ourselves down in some way or another. We have not lived up to our own standards, whether or not these are God's standards, or self-imposed.
And no matter where we are in our journey towards God today – whether we are far away or really close – we are probably not yet perfect.
So as we take our first steps on this journey, let us sing together “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.
Reflection 2: Galatians 4:1-7
Although the Man and the Woman had to leave the Garden of Eden, God didn't abandon them. Really quite the reverse. Genesis tells us that God showed them how to make clothes from skins, so much warmer than the fig-leaves they had managed with until then.
The rest of the Old Testament tells us of God's dealings with His people, specifically with the Israelites, who we are told are His chosen race. But over and over and over again they fail at being God's people. They find it so much easier to worship other gods, gods who don't demand more than ritual in worship, gods who don't expect you to follow them when you're not actually engaged in worship. They don't want to follow a God who is actually interested in who they are and what they do – that is too difficult, too intrusive. And eventually the inevitable happens, and most of the Kingdom of Israel is conquered by other peoples, never to be seen again. Even the Kingdom of Judah, the remnant, is taken into exile for a time, but eventually returns to Israel.
And by New Testament times, they were the People of the Law. They knew that God had set out written rules and regulations about how you were to live your life, and over the centuries their scholars and teachers had endeavoured to explain what the various laws meant, and how you should keep them. They had really become burdensome and, worse still, they were beginning to replace the ideal of a two-way relationship with God that had been God's plan from the foundation of the world.
And so God sent his Son, born of a woman, to free us from the law and from sin. And we will be enabled to become children of God.
Our next song is “Oh Lord, the clouds are gathering.”
Reflection 3: Romans 5:6-11
St Paul, I always feel, has a knack of putting things into words. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The point is, we don't have to get perfect before Christ accepts us and loves us. We are already forgiven; all we have to do is to accept that forgiveness. We are not responsible for our own salvation. I'll repeat that: we are not responsible for our own salvation. All too often, we talk of “being saved by faith”, as though it was something we do. No, our faith doesn't save us – Jesus saves us! Yes, we need to acknowledge this, to own it for ourselves, of course we do. But while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. It was all God's idea, not ours!
The worship group will sing “I am the God that healeth thee”; do join in if you know it, or sit quietly and listen if you don't.
Introduction to the Peace
So, on our journey, we have come to the place where we need to make God's love and forgiveness a reality in our own lives. And, as much as anything, this involves getting right with other people. Jesus told us, you remember, that if we knew someone was at outs with us, we should make things right before even worshipping God. So we are going to take a few moments to wish one another God's peace, and then the worship group will sing again as we prepare for the liturgy of the Ashes.
Final Reflection: Hebrews 10:19-23
Confidence! We may enter God's presence with confidence, since we know that we are right with God. It is not because we are perfect, but because we are forgiven. It's not because we love God, but because God loves us. So, dear brothers and sisters, Nadine is now going to lead us in prayer as we celebrate the Lord's Supper together.