Readings: Joel 2. 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51. 1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b – 6.10; John 8. 1-11 (view all)
I wonder how it must have felt to be the woman in tonight’s Gospel Reading, whose name we never discover. Exposed and embarrassed before all those gathered around gloating and judging, ready to stone her.
Perhaps she felt guilty, ashamed. Perhaps she felt angry at those around her, and petrified of what they were intending to do to her.
We don’t know the full details of her circumstances. We’re told she was caught in the act of adultery. Was she entirely responsible for her actions, or was she co-erced, manipulated, abused by men who saw her, a woman, as less than human?
The liturgical language of a day like Ash Wednesday, and indeed during the whole season of Lent which we enter today, can often leave us feeling like this woman. The old-fashioned language of penitence can leave us feeling judged and belittled, or even angry and confused. ‘Why does the Church want me to feel so bad about myself?’, we might ask.
It all reinforces the picture, which we so often carry, of a God who sits as judge, albeit perhaps a righteous judge, over us. A being who is ‘up there’, exerting power over us, while we ‘down here’ are reminded that we are creatures of dirt.
But this is not truly the message of Christianity. The good news entrusted to us, is that our God is the God who comes to us. The God who, even in our sinfulness and brokenness, ministers to us. In fact, who ministers to us precisely because of our sinfulness and brokenness.
In fact, God seems to have a way of arriving in our lives at those moments precisely when we are overwhelmed by all the mess that is going on within us and outside of us. Just as Jesus arrives at exactly the right moment to minister to the unnamed woman.
When we are at the end of ourselves, God is able to arrive in our lives. When who we are is stripped away enough that we have no other option than to be vulnerable — with God and with others.
And when God arrives, God comes not as judge but as a minister. One who, rather than standing over, comes alongside bringing forgiveness and healing and the possibility of a new beginning.
We see this in our gospel passage. Rather than siding with those who would stand in judgement against the woman, Jesus silences them, pointing out their own hypocrisy, and sending them packing one by one. Until he is left to be able to minister to woman herself who is left behind. And rather than words of judgement and punishment, he brings words of grace and forgiveness, which open up the possibility of a new beginning. Of new life.
This is the God of the scriptures, whom we see, even in our Old Testament passage from the angry prophet Joel, is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
This is the God who stands alongside us in all that life has to throw at us, and invites us to minister to others as well, in Jesus’ name. Who is faithful, even in the face of the many sufferings which Paul describes: ‘Afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger.’ Because to be a Christian is to live vulnerably, open to the other, open to forgive and reconcile, to allow second, third and fourth chances, and inevitably often to get hurt in the process.
So what the liturgy of Ash Wednesday does is to invite us to be vulnerable and unguarded before God. To mark ourselves as dust and ash, in order to then receive Christ’s ministry at the Eucharist.
And the season of Lent does the same. Not asking us to enter the wilderness, but the admit the wilderness landscape of so much of our lives now. To be willing to be honest with ourselves, and honest to God. To stand before Christ with the mangled mess of stresses and strains, fears and worries, dreams and uncertainties that make us our lives, and to allow him to minister to us, drawing us deeper into his grace and forgiveness.
To journey with him into Jerusalem, and on out of the city to the cross, where he takes all those things that make up our human lives and allows them to be put to death. In order that we might journey on with him through the emptiness of death, and on into the new life of the resurrection.
So as we begin this season of Lenten preparation together, I pray that we might have the courage to hold our lives honestly before God, putting aside the fear of shame and punishment, in order to allow Christ to minister to us, bringing forgiveness and peace and healing. And opening up the door to new life and new beginnings.