Ash Wednesday: Living in Shades of Grey

Ash Wednesday 2021 Reflection


John 8:1-11
Psalm 51

My reflection for Ash Wednesday is focussing on John 8:2-11 and this amazing piece of art painted by Peter the Bruegel in 1565. It is entitled ‘Christ and the Women Taken in Adultery.’ This Gospel story has been painted by many others – but none quite like Bruegel.

Courtauld Gallery, London

What is striking is that this panel (which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London) is painted in different shades of grey. Bruegel used the greys to represent the human response to sin and to point out the hypocrisy and the virtue of mercy that this Gospel story highlights so well.

At the centre of this picture and in the most amount of light is Jesus. He is kneeling and writing in Dutch. Jesus is the best lit and most exposed person in this picture.

The woman has literally been dragged from an adulterer’s bed and her sin has been announced to all. This was an offence punishable by death according to the law of Moses. Where was the man, she was adultering with?

Oh the humiliation – maybe you have been caught out publicly for something you did and can relate to this woman. The woman is intently watching Jesus with a slightly blank expression. She is not looking at the crowd; but she is not looking directly down either. Her left ear is slightly cocked towards the crowd – maybe listening to what people are saying to her or about her.

The crowd – according to Bruegel – are showing the human reaction to being confronted with sin. Those closer to the front are much m ore exposed, lighter – than those at the back. Some are turning away, wanting to stay hidden, unexposed.

I have been wondering about the two men on the right – both very exposed – but notice their hands – one has his hands hidden under his cloak and the other’s hands are in darkness. Their faces and mouths might say one thing – maybe their hands are telling another story.

Every person in this picture – except for Jesus – is a sinner. Everyone here this morning/tonight is a sinner as well. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story for any of us!

If you could place yourself in this picture – where would you put yourself? Serious question!

Many people fear being ‘found out’ – whether for having done something wrong or by not being the person they present to the world. Some people have a view of God as being out to get them or expose them for their sins. God is the angry Father just waiting for a mistake to be made.

But in this story – it is not Jesus who does the exposing but the scribes and Pharisees. He cares for this woman, protects her from death and puts her on a new path. He does not condemn her as the crowd did. She doesn’t get off the hook as she is told to ‘Go and sin no more.’ She had some work to do!

Tom Wright says this about her forgiveness: “If she has been forgiven, if she’s been rescued from imminent death – she must live by that forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. Being forgiven doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t matter. On the contrary: forgiveness means that sin does matter – but that God is choosing to set it aside.” The same is true for us – if we have been forgiven – then we must live by that forgiveness.

Psalm 51 is known as a ‘penitential psalm.’ It is an extended confession of sin and an anticipation of new life grounded in divine forgiveness. It was written by David during his tragic downfall – he yielded to temptation and committed adultery with Bathsheba. He then tried to cover up what he did with lies, deceit and eventually murder. David’s sin was exposed to him by the prophet Nathan. Psalm 51 is David’s confession and anticipation of forgiveness.

Despite David’s actions, the response to the uncovering of sin is exemplary: I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13). In Psalm 51 – David’s first request is for mercy – David knows that God is generous, is merciful and whose love is steadfast. God is abundant in all of those things. Then David’s confession goes on for the first 9 verses. David comes to know that God desires truth and wisdom – and this is where David begins to see a new beginning beyond his failure.

By verse 10 the psalm moves from confession to petitions addressed to the God
of mercy and steadfast love – this is an act of hope for a renewed and restored relationship with God. Words like – create in me, put, do not cast, do not take, restore, sustain. David is anticipating a clean heart, a new and right spirit. We can all have this – a clean heart and a new and right spirit. But we have to do some work first.

Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect and pursue forgiveness of our sins. This has traditionally been played out in various fasting rituals that some Christians engage in. Historically in the church this meant meat, dairy, eggs, – the staples of life – rather than the ‘luxuries’ of sugar, caffeine, alcohol or the evils of fatty fizzy drinks and Facebook.

The overall point of the exercise is to draw nearer to God. As Christians, the bigger issue is that we let things interfere in our relationship with Christ. It might seem small or insignificant but if we don’t tend to these things or issues – they can blow up at an exponential rate.

Ash Wednesday offers the chance to sit down in the ashes in some form of repentance to address our sin and brokenness. Sit down before you fall down. As we have seen from both the Gospel and the Psalms – sin gets exposed. Sometimes rather publicly.

To come to a place of repentance is no small feat and is not for the faint of heart. It takes real courage to review ourselves and our actions – and acknowledge where and when we have been wrong, been sinful. And then have to do something about it. But apologising is only half of the process. Repentance literally means to turn in the other direction and committing to change. It is only through Christ and being in Christ that death and sin are defeated – that is the lighter news.

But what if good was to come from the times spent in the dust and ashes?

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it can lead us to both lower our gaze to that which in us needs refocusing and correcting. Then – at the same time – we can begin to raise our gaze to the dazzling beauty and light of Christ. There is no need to be ashamed of those things that need to be ashed out – sit with them for a while and let them go.

Use this season of Lent to trade them in for the generous mercy and steadfast love that God has for you – there is nothing that He wants more from you than to be close to you.

Summer Reading: Trinity 4

Back at it again! Today I went really Old Testament on 2 fairly unsuspecting congregations in the parish I cover services for on the 4th Sunday of the month. They are in a vacancy at the moment as their former Priest has moved on. I do enjoy surprising them with my sermons – I’m not quite what they are use to! In a good way – I hope!

This morning my focus was on David & Goliath.  Every one – young and old – were given this on the way into the service…

Image result for david and goliath

1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Psalm 133
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

You might have noticed that you were given a David & Goliath colouring sheet on your way in – which you are indeed welcome to colour at your leisure (now or later), or make a shopping list, etc. I did this to make my first point that when it comes to the OT many people have a Sunday School view of the stories.

We are told these stories as children and we hold them there. Some cite that the OT is too violent, boring, hard to understand, etc. I hope to go some way in dispelling that for you this morning. These Sunday School stories have far more going on in them!

To summarize the OT, I often describe it as the story of a people who screwed up over and over again and the God who loved them anyway. Israel was God’s chosen nation and people – not totally sure why – but they were. God would provide their every need if – if – they would fear him, serve him, listen to his voice, stop rebelling and follow him. Behave!

But they couldn’t – Israel proved over and over again to be unfaithful, they wanted to be like the neighbours with their own king, they disobeyed God and went their own way, making bad decisions. They were punished for it – until God finally had enough. And sent Jesus to rescue us from ourselves and our sin.

Second point – we can’t separate the OT from the NT. The whole of the OT is orientated towards the coming of the Messiah. He is prophesied about, spoken of – Jesus is very much present in the OT.

This morning we pick up in the middle of 1st Samuel – set in 10th Century BC and it describes the rise of the prophet Samuel and the reigns of Israel’s first two kings – Saul and David. At its heart the books of Samuel tell about God’s involvement in Israel’s history and highlights the fallibility of human choices. Israel gets what they ask for (human kings) and the consequences that follow.

That is a brief explanation of the OT and books of Samuel very widely. Now we focus on the particular story of David and Goliath.

Saul – Israel’s first king is still alive, on the throne but has fallen out of favour with God due to bad behaviour and disobedience. David – Israel’s second king has been anointed by Samuel. As he is maybe 13 or 14 years old and the youngest of 8 brothers – he has been relegated to the sheep fold until he was called into Saul’s service – armour carrying flute player to calm Saul’s tormented soul.

Then the Philistines show up – again. Philistines have been a problem for Israel for about 200 hundred years. Samson did battle with the Philistines – particularly their women! God had forbidden intermarriage between Israel and other people. Problem goes back a while!

More recent to our story – God had told Israel (via Samuel the prophet) if they would return to Him and stop worshipping other gods – He would get rid of the Philistines. There is a brief period when the Philistines went away and didn’t bother Israel.

But – then – Israel fell back into her old patterns and the Philistines returned!

I think this says something about getting to the root of any problems or issues we may be facing– if we don’t get to the root of them – they will inevitably grow back.

At the start of Ch 17 – the Philistines are back! Problem not gone away and bigger than ever. We can use Goliath as the working example. I want you to imagine for a moment what Goliath might have looked like. If he were alive today he would be over 9 feet tall or 3 metres tall!

The Bible describes him as a ‘champion’ but doesn’t tell us what for or why. The rest of the description we have about Goliath is about his armour – his helmet, armour, javelin, spear and sword. Goliath is a giant and well-armed problem standing in front of Israel – pointing to their inability to fear, serve, listen and follow God.

What do we learn from David and Goliath:

First – doing nothing is not always an option. Sometimes the situation we are in simply won’t go away. This current situation between the Philistine’s and Israel has been going on for 40 days when David gets involved. They are each camped on mountains with a valley in between them. Every day, twice a day, the same thing would happen – Goliath would stand up and yell at the Israelites. They would do nothing.

Somebody needed to do something! We will all face situations where we must act – must go and stand in the valley. This can be quite scary and comes with a lot of responsibility. It is David who steps up.
Often in the Sunday School tale he is an angelic little boy – I kind of imagine Prince George! However – think about 13 or 14-year-old boys that you might know! Crazy teenage brains!

David is seriously angry at this situation. He is indignant that the Philistines are defying the armies of the living God. Angry enough to do something about it! According to his brothers, who are in Saul’s army and not stepping up themselves – David oversteps the mark with his comments. David answers his brother ‘What have I done now?’ So not the first time he has spoken out. Yet these words make it back to Saul and David is sent for.

David learned some things in the sheep field – how to defend himself and protect the sheep, he learned about fighting lions and bears. David’s moment has arrived! ‘Don’t let your hearts fail because of him (Goliath) – I’ll go and fight him’ declares David.

He is not going to let what is standing in front of him – defeat him! David took opportunities when they came – despite circumstances. By taking these opportunities David was building up his skills – maybe not realising how they will be useful one day. We need to take the opportunities that come to us to learn new skills, new ways of thinking, being or doing. You never know when they will be helpful, but we can be prepared for whatever comes. No education or experience is ever a waste – even if we can’t see at the time what the point or purpose of it was.

Saul wants to help David by putting his armour on him; but David knew that wearing Saul’s armour isn’t going to work for him. It wouldn’t help him. Sometimes doing things that other people suggest just won’t help us in our situations. Other people might really want to help us, but their advice or help might not be what we need. David knew what he needed – 5 smooth stones and his sling. We know what happens next – words are exchanged, the beautifully ruddy boy slings the rock into the giant Philistine’s forehead and its lights out.

The story is not about the size of Goliath or stones & slings.

The biggest thing that David had going for him was his trust in God. David’s confidence was in the name of God – this was God’s fight. The same God that David trusted and had confidence in – is the same God we have today. He is completely trustworthy. He wants to help us face our challenges. We can trust Him with whatever we are facing, bring it to Him in our prayers and ask for help.

God will calm the storms – the Gospel reading for this morning is Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee. The gale comes up, Jesus is sleeping peacefully the disciples (most of whom are fishermen who knew the Sea rather well) freak out and wake Jesus up. Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, then asks them ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ The wind and waves obey him! Giants submit!

David was not afraid to face Goliath – not because of what David could do himself but because David knew that God would help him and be with him. The disciples saw first hand the power of the one who can calm the wind and waves.

There is no challenge to big that we cannot face when we have God with us – even if he is sleeping in the boat.

Who is our confidence in – as people, as Christians, as a Parish – St Mary’s/St Thomas? That is – at is most basic – what these two stories are about.