Ash Wednesday – Rev Alison Way

Link to Service Video:
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17, John 8:1-11

In the name of God, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

In our encounters with the living God, we occasionally have opportunities to explore the deep, dark and often hidden places of our hearts. The not so good bits, the things we do wrong and the things we hide shamefully from others. Ash Wednesday affords us just such an opportunity, to reflect and take stock, in a way few other seasons and celebrations of our Church year reach. For on this day, we take more time to look at our lives through God’s eyes and to own up to these deep, dark secrets of our hearts.

The Ash Wednesday collect would have us exploring these depths by creating and making new and contrite hearts in ourselves.  Where contrite (which is not a word I would use every day) means feeling sorrow for what we have done. It goes on to have us – Lamenting our sins (forcibly and strongly regretting the things we know to be wrong). And if that were not enough to go on to acknowledging our wretchedness – Being honest and open about where we have fallen short. But to do all of this in the assurance that the God of all mercy will forgive us. That means taking on board our forgiveness from God for what we have done wrong, and moving on afresh and renewed. With new heart (and having forgiven ourselves too – rather than to continue to carry this stuff along with us expressing it in emotions like guilt and heavy heartedness for our wrongdoings!)

In our gospel, we had an example of Jesus reaching the deep, dark places of the heart. As he listened to the pharisees and the woman caught in adultery. He listened to God in his own heart and found a deep wisdom that transformed those it touched. It spoke so vividly of God’s forgiveness.

Let’s just recap the story concentrating on the forgiveness it offers. One day, the scribes & the pharisees came to Jesus dragging a woman, who they claimed had been caught in the act of adultery. They reminded him forcibly that the law of Moses said to stone such women. It is clear from what the gospel says, that they were doing this to trap Jesus and so some charge might be brought against him. The trap in this was that on the one hand, if Jesus condemned the woman, his reputation love, compassion and mercy would be shot. He would be at odds with the Roman authorities because it was not allowed for non-Romans to order or carry out the death penalty. But also, on the other hand, if Jesus pardoned the woman he would be encouraging a lax approach to the law of Moses, and even condoning or encouraging people to commit adultery. Pharisees and scribes would be able to have a field day with that too!

Thankfully their trap didn’t work in the way the Pharisees had wanted. Instead of choosing the two options the Pharisees had in mind, Jesus did something else. He knelt down and wrote on the ground. Seems a strange thing to do and what did he write.

I read an interpretation of this passage in a book by Michael Mitton, and he suggested this that the word used for write here is really the word for “write down a record against”. Therefore what Jesus was doing was writing down the sins of the men who had brought the woman to Jesus. So he might have looked one man in the eye and written theft and another and written hurting your wife. And so on – so each man present was shown a statement of the deep secrets of their hearts their own personal sins. Imagine how powerful that experience would have been. Jesus looking into your eyes and then writing the deepest, darkest, secret of your heart in the sand for all to see. Combine that with Jesus saying pointedly – Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. No wonder, if this is what happened, that one by one the men walked away…

Jesus also got to the darkest depths of the heart with the woman too. He probably saw a wounded and unhappy life, someone longing to be loved and who had been badly treated. Even by these particular men who had used her to trap Jesus. After all probably this story, should not be known as ‘the woman caught in adultery’ but the men caught in hypocrisy!

To help this woman to understand God’s forgiveness and mercy, Jesus is clear with her that no-one condemns her. None of them who brought her to him nor Jesus himself. But Jesus does make it clear, what he expects from her in the future. Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again. From the heart of God’s forgiveness for her, Jesus gives the woman a fresh start, another chance. The way Jesus treated her will have inspired her to live differently. Wisdom and love have come together in this event, and brought healing and renewal for her. And even the Pharisees and scribes if they had stopped, reflected and seen what was really going on here, they too would have the chance for the renewal and healing on offer here.

As that healing, renewal and transformation was available to all on that day it is just as available to us all today. For today it is a bit like this, Jesus is looking into our hearts, as he did with the scribes, pharisees and the woman. If he looked into our eyes – What would he write in the sand about us? Whatever it might be, whatever the darkest secrets of our hearts are – Let’s bring them to God in our prayers of penitence today, and then take on board the renewal and healing God’s forgiveness brings and let the Holy spirit transform us deep within.

It is important for us to let go of these things, assured that our God of compassion and mercy has forgiven us and then to move on with renewed heart into Lent, where we can concentrate on growing closer to the God that loved us so much. Amen

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995

Copyright acknowledgement Some material included in this service is copyright: ©  The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020

Collect (Ash Wednesday) ©  The Crown/Cambridge University Press: The Book of Common Prayer (1662)