First, we must approach God in penitence, acknowledging our sinfulness.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 6th March 2019 at 5:00 PM
In an interview on the television news a few days ago, a Dutchman Yago Riedijk, who had joined ISIS in 2014, was asked of his experiences in Syria and about the 15-year-old girl Shamima Begum he had married, who had just given birth to their third child, the first to survive. In particular, he was asked whether he had witnessed any beheadings. He claimed not to have done. But he admitted that he had witnessed a stoning, that is someone being stoned to death. The couple, currently in custody in different places, seem to have different ambitions for their future. Perhaps the Netherlands will take them in. Perhaps not. What horrifies is the casual response that, yes, he had witnessed a stoning.
The small incident quoted in St John’s Gospel, the account of which we have just heard, takes us immediately into a different thought world. The woman had been caught in adultery. The proper sentence, prescribed by Moses, for a woman caught in adultery, was death by stoning. But the Jewish law required two witnesses to the event for the law to take effect. Should she be put to death or not? It seems that the scribes and Pharisees who brought her to Jesus wanted to test him. If he was a great prophet and teacher, a true representative of God, would he or would he not condemn the woman to death? If he would not, he would, they hoped, lose face with the crowds of people whom he was teaching.
Jesus’s response to their challenge was not simply a piece of clever thinking, a get-out clause, to avoid the challenge, though it could appear to be like that. Jesus in his turn challenged the scribes and the Pharisees and the whole crowd. Yes, they could stone her to death, but only if they were themselves truly sinless. Thus he brought an entirely new perspective on the problem. The scribes and the Pharisees, and indeed the whole crowd, could not simply condemn and execute because they had seen a wrong done; they could only do so if they were themselves in the right with God. The people walked away one by one. Finally, Jesus was left alone with the woman. He saw that no one had condemned her and he would not himself condemn her. But he recognised her sin and told her to sin no more.
While the Jewish law could only allow her to be put to death in the unlikely event that two witnesses could testify that they had seen her in the very act of adultery, Jesus went further. If barbaric acts, such as stoning to death, were proposed, more than two witnesses were required; those carrying out the act had to be without sin. Thus Jesus taught that God’s justice is tempered with mercy. Our sins may be forgiven. God’s love and his pardon are always there for us. But we must first recognise our own sinfulness.
In a moment, we shall undergo the liturgy of penitence. We shall be invited to come forward to receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads. This is a symbol of the sackcloth and ashes of which we often read in the Old Testament, when people reflect on their sin and sit in penitence awaiting the forgiveness of God and his gift of reconciliation. In the book of Jonah, we read of the king of Nineveh recognising the sin of his people and his own sin and sitting in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of his penitence. Almost the only person in the book of Jonah who resists God is Jonah himself. Then, also, Job, after the terrible tragedies he had suffered with the loss of his children and his wealth and position, repented and sat in sackcloth and ashes. The Lord forgave him his sin and restored him to his position.
So, we this evening, receive the sign of ash on our forehead, and are happily not required to sit in sackcloth, covered in ash. But we are to repent, to recognise our sin and to offer our heartfelt confession to God. He will forgive us our sin and reconcile us once again to himself. But first we must approach God in penitence, acknowledging our sinfulness.
How far does this go?
The king of Nineveh offers us an example. Sin is both personal and corporate. It is not only our own sins that matter: our personal resentments against someone, often unexpressed but painfully felt; our little jealousies, often only half acknowledged; our occasional angry explosions, when something gets on top of us; our lies to get us out of trouble; our acts of vindictiveness against someone weaker than us; our casual heartlessness against a family member or someone we love; our unadulterated selfishness, whereby we put ourselves and our own needs and wishes and obsessions before anyone and everyone else. All this does matter. But there is more. Sin is not just thinking, saying or doing something wrong. It is also failing to think, say or do something to help others, to serve the wider community, to make life better for someone facing difficulties. Sins of commission and omission we call them: things we do and things we should do but don’t. Personal sins.
Again there is more: corporate sins are sins committed with others, maybe egged on by someone else but accepted and undertaken. And some of these corporate sins are about life at work; not really personal at all but something we know goes on that cannot be right, when we have no power to change things without making an enormous fuss or risking our own employment. Should we be whistle-blowers? Certainly sometimes yes. But it is often just easier to leave it to someone else.
So, today, Ash Wednesday, gives us a chance to get it all off our chest and offer our sorrow to God, as we listen to the familiar and hauntingly beautiful singing of Allegri’s Miserere, said to have been written down by Mozart after he had heard it sung at the Vatican. The choir sings in the original Latin, so it is easy for us to forget the power of the words of psalm 51. In the psalm, we recognise our sin and beg forgiveness from God. ‘I acknowledge my faults and my sin is ever before me. Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy spirit from me. Deliver me from my guilt, O God, the God of my salvation.’
And the psalmist pleads for the whole people, ‘O be favourable and gracious to Zion; build up the walls of Jerusalem.’ So should we this evening plead for our whole people, acknowledging the sins of our own communities, our city, our capital, our nation, our country. Here in the heart of our democracy, let us plead for decency and goodness in all our dealings internationally and within our own nation, the United Kingdom and wherever we live, wherever we come from. We are all involved; we all participate to a greater or lesser degree in our corporate sinfulness and weaknesses.
May God forgive all that we are, all that we think, say and do, all that we should think, say and do but don’t, and the corporate sins that weigh us down and our friends, our people. May God reconcile us in his love. May God give us his grace that we may live lives of beauty and goodness and love and be a blessing to all we meet. May God’s forgiveness and reconciliation launch us on a wonderful Lent, rich with renewed devotion and understanding, shot through with love.