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Ash Wednesday February 13, 2013

Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In our first reading today, the people of God have returned from exile in Babylon and they are doing the work of rebuilding the temple. Scholars tell us that the people were getting into controversies about the details of how to worship. They were frustrated because God did not seem to be answering their prayers.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God is calling the people and us to show our faith in the way that we treat other people.  Isaiah writes, “Is this not the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah reminds us that God calls us to share our food with the hungry, to shelter the homeless.

When we do these things, Isaiah says, “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”  If our prayer and worship lead us to be compassionate toward our brothers and sisters, God’s light shines upon us and we are made whole. This is in harmony with our Lord’s summary of the law.  “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

As someone once said, the Christian life is cross-shaped. The vertical part reaches up to God. The horizontal part reaches out to others,

Paul is calling the Corinthians and us to be reconciled to God. “Now is the acceptable time,” Paul writes. This is the season during which we ask God’s help to remove anything that gets in the way between us and God. This is the season in which we focus on allowing God to help us to align our lives with God’s will for us.

In our gospel, we have another angle on this matter of prayer and spiritual discipline. Whatever we do as our Lenten discipline or as our general spiritual discipline, we are called to do it in order to grow closer to God, not in order to impress people, or for any other reason.

I know that we all take our faith seriously and we will all be giving up some thing or things and/or taking on some spiritual disciplines that we will do in order to be closer to God and more in harmony with God’s will. And yet, I think we also know that, even as we fast and pray, we are not going to go around looking glum or advertising that we are fasting and praying.

Yes, on this day, our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. This symbol goes back thousands of years. Centuries ago, people would wear sackcloth and ashes as a sign of penitence. We wear these cross-shaped smudges of ashes as a sign of our mortality, our weakness, our frailty and fallibility. These ashes remind us that we indeed are dust and we will return to dust.

This is a time and a season when we look inside ourselves and we acknowledge our sinfulness and our profound need for God. We remember being on the mountain just a few days ago, seeing our Lord transfigured, and we know he has called us to grow more and more into his likeness, and we also know that, if we are going to make that journey with him, we are going to need his grace, his guidance, his help in so many ways.

And yet, as we set out on this journey to the cross, we are going to put oil on our heads and we are going to wash our faces precisely because we have seen him on the mountain, we know the direction in which we are going, and we know he is walking right beside us. We are walking with him. He is walking with us. And that makes the journey much easier. Even as we fully acknowledge our sinfulness and ask for God’s help, the light begins to dawn and we feel God’s healing already and ever with us.

Lent comes from the root word for spring. May we have a Lent full of growth and light. May we  faithfully walk the way of the cross with you, O Lord. May we grow more and more into your likeness. In your holy Name we pray.

Amen.

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