Ash Wednesday

Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews


She stands hunched against the expected blows, against the exultant looks of those enjoying her shame. Her hair covers her face and she is glad of its thin curtain which affords her a last shred of privacy. They can’t see her flushed cheeks, her tears, though she is sure they must be able to see the fear that makes her heart hammer against her ribs.


She is alone, the presence of the crowd of onlookers serves only to highlight her separation. Around her the pious men, so pleased with their scheme to trap Jesus, bask in their self-righteousness. Others look on intrigued and curious, hoping for a show. Her shame and her sin are made public. There is no hiding it, no denying it. All there is to do now is wait while this power game plays out around her, wait for her sentence.


It’s hard not to feel pity for this woman. The Law demanded that in cases of adultery, both parties be charged, but here she is left to face her accusers alone; her lover has scarpered. And these righteous guardians of the law show by the fact that they have allowed him to escape that they are less interested in upholding the law than in using it to trap Jesus, whose increasingly bold claims they find blasphemous and seditious. They don’t care about the woman: she is just a pawn in their game, disposable and dispensable. Her life hangs in the balance as they jostle for power.


And who among us wants to be in her place, our secret sins laid bare for all to see? Who would choose the judgement, the contempt, the enjoyment of the crowd? If we were hauled into her place, what sentence do we fear might be passed against us?


Lots of us, I think, fear the truth we believe about ourselves. We hide it from others, from God, from ourselves. It is all too easy to believe that our identity lies in the worst thing we have done, or that has happened to us; in the secrets we work so hard to protect and conceal.


But Jesus has no truck with that. He gives us our identity, and when we mess it up, he restores it. The Pharisees look on the woman with contempt: she is worthless because of her sin. Jesus looks on her with love. He sees the sin – there is no hiding it, no excusing it – but he will not let her sin determine her. Her only possible futures before this encounter had been to keep the sin hidden, or to face its consequences. Jesus gives her a new future beyond secret and sentence: a future of forgiveness; a new and clean heart.


This is the future Ash Wednesday invites us into. It marks us as sinners but it does not leave us there. ‘Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ’, we are bid. And we are given 40 days to learn how to walk into this new future he makes possible. Lent is not a time for beating ourselves up about being miserable sinners. It’s a time given to us to learn what it is to be forgiven, to reacquaint ourselves with our identity in Christ. For just like the woman caught in adultery, each of us is known and loved by God. We are each of us a beautiful creation in his eyes, made for life with him. Too often I’ve used Lent as a chance to try to show God how good I am, or to make amends for all the ways I know I’ve failed him. That was all a way of keeping God at a distance, of putting space between him and the self I feared him seeing. Then one day I stopped running, stopped hiding, dared to let him see me. There were tears: of truthfulness and contrition, of relief and of gratitude. And there was freedom, the freedom of knowing that your true identity is in Christ, and that you are never beyond the reach of his love.


The Gospel reading, and the marks of ash on our foreheads, tell us that none of us is qualified to throw stones. And that the only one who is so qualified chooses not to. To turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ is possible because he neither leaves us alone in our sin nor sentences us for it, but instead beckons us into new life, into a future where our identity lies in him, where the truest thing about us is that we are loved. When the woman finally dared to lift her eyes towards Jesus, she found not condemnation but love looking at her. It is that same love that looks at us, too, if we will take courage from the woman and lift our eyes to Jesus, who makes of dust and ashes a dwelling for his glory.