Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6: 1-6, 16 -21.
As we open your word tonight, open our minds to understand, our hearts to obey, and our hands to serve those with whom we share the planet. Amen.
Before I was old enough to know better, I used to believe that part of the presbyteral role of the clergy was to dispense words of advice and common-sense to those in whose care I laboured. On one such occasion I was encouraging a newly admitted member of the Church to spend some time each day alone with God, in the reading of the Scriptures and in prayer – I was met with an incredulous stare and told that in her household she could barely get alone in the bathroom let alone in the company of God.
In this sixth chapter of Matthew Jesus reminds us of our need of aloneness in the practice of faith – whether the giving of alms, prayer, fasting, or the practice of generosity – all these things are to be done furtively, in such a way that God alone is aware of them being done, that God alone can be the reward for our doing of them. It can be a lonely place – the practice of faith, rather like the desert that we are about to enter – walking alone together with God if you like. It is a profitable place to be, this is the place where God has so far begun all the great works which have been credited to him, the building of the nation of Israel, the coming of the Christ, if we would see the hand of God at work then we must get ourselves into the lonely places.
Only in the lonely places can we truly learn what is of God and what is our own, only here can we learn what faith really is. Only as we get into the aloneness, only as we leave behind those we depend upon for comfort, those things we rely upon for the support of life, can we begin to learn to understand how much or how little we need, what life is. We may not like it when we know but we will be the better for knowing.
For the nation of Israel it was a place of criticism and complaint – having lived for years on the word and whim of Pharaoh there were times when it felt like they had left the frying pan for the fire. During the forty years they spent wandering up and down they learnt that God could be relied upon, that for God word and act were one and the same. They might be no more comfortable than they were in Egypt but they could trust the One at the wheel.
Swearing off crisps and chocolate, counting your blessings and making a contribution to the lives of the unblessed may be a giant leap for us but it’s only one small step for humankind. The words of the prophet should make us squirm as we realise God’s view of the reality which we currently, and apparently comfortably inhabit. Whether our sense of discomfort is dietary or financial the real discomfort is the realisation of our failure – individually and collectively – to act against oppression, hunger, homelessness, and all those other evils that continue to blight the lives of so many in the twenty-first century.
Welcome to the desert, welcome to aloneness with God, it’s uncomfortable, it’s lonely, but it’s home for the next forty days, you get the Sundays off for good behaviour and this year the feast of Joseph of Nazareth and the Annunciation as well. We might like to talk about our troubles, just to let people know how much we suffer for our faith, we might like to share our blessings just to let people know how close we are to God. Here it’s just you and God, there is no-one else, here is the prospect and the possibility of a sense of proportion. It’s uncomfortable, it’s lonely – and God is here. May we learn his will as we walk his way.
In the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.