Revd Caroline Taylor preached at our Ash Wednesday services. Her sermon is below.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. Traditionally, Lent has been a season of penitence and fasting in the church calendar, recalling Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, during which we prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter.
So this Acts passage (Acts 5:27-42) might seem a bit of an odd choice for Ash Wednesday. But the good reason we are going to spend a few moments looking at it, is because it is the first passage in the 40Acts Lent course that Lent Connect groups are doing this year. If you have not signed up for a Lent Connect group it is not too late to join one (https://www.stjohnshoxton.org.uk/make-disciples/connectgroups/).
Some context: All the disciples had been arrested the day before, but during the night an angel had released them from jail. The next day they returned to the temple courts and carried on preaching about the new life found in Jesus. They are then brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council – who have already told Peter and John not to preach about Jesus.
The bravery of the disciples is striking in this passage. Remember that just a few weeks before this, the disciples had deserted Jesus as he was arrested; they had run away. Even after Jesus rose again, the disciples had been scared and hidden away. Yet here we see transformed men. Because of the Holy Spirit, those men that had hidden and run away are now prepared to stand in front of the Sanhedrin, and defy them openly “We must obey God rather than men!”. They are not afraid to face opposition in preaching the good news of Jesus. In fact, it tells us that they were “Rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name”.
Am I brave enough to face disgrace for the Name of Jesus?
In this country we are unlikely to face flogging, though for many of our brothers and sisters around the world that is the reality of proclaiming their faith. At worst we may face some ridicule. Are we brave enough to keep the ash cross on our forehead as we go down the street, to work, back home? Are we brave enough to perhaps face someone asking us ‘What is that on your forehead?’?.
But perhaps the more pertinent question to ask as we enter Lent is whether we have the bravery to face ourselves?
Jesus in the wilderness had to face literal demons during His temptations. Whenever we take ourselves into wilderness places we often find ourselves facing our own demons. As we enter Lent, this time of fasting and repentance, a wilderness time, are we prepared to face ourselves? Are we prepared to do the hard work of looking at the reality of what we are like and asking God to send His Holy Spirit to help us become more like Him?
In Isaiah 58, we heard Isaiah speaking about fasting for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way; such as giving up something because you feel obligated to, or taking something up to impress others, rather than draw you closer to God.
By all means fast something; maybe caffeine, or facebook or eating late at night: or decide to do something; sign up to the 40Acts challenge, spend 5 minutes in silence a day, memorise a Bible verse a day. Just don’t use it as a means of hiding from yourself. It is all too easy to take on something or give something up in order to keep ourselves busy and distracted so we don’t spend time examining ourselves. Lent is about spending time intentionally to be better disciples. Remember that God knows our hearts already - we are not fooling God if we try hiding behind fasting or deeds done for the wrong reasons.
Whatever we choose to do or not do, if we are serious about seeking God in Lent, we will need the Holy Spirit to help us. The disciples had the bravery to face the Sanhedrin as they did because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. We do not have the bravery to face our true selves; our fears, failings, disappointments and sins, without the Holy Spirit. But without facing reality as it is, we cannot be effectively transformed to be more like Christ; and as disciples of Christ we should be longing to be more like Christ. So let us embrace Lent as a season of intentional seeking after God, by being prepared to face ourselves through the strength of the Holy Spirit.