2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, John 8:1-11
Ash Wednesday
St Barbara’s Church; 14.02.18
Ian Leitch

Our Gospel reading told us about a married woman who had committed adultery. There could be no doubt about it – she had been caught in flagrante by a group of Scribes and Pharisees. And they could see her only as a sinner who deserved to be stoned to death, as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Nearby, in the temple, Jesus was teaching a crowd of people. The woman was dragged before them all, as the Pharisees challenged Jesus to pass sentence, so that it could be carried out there and then. She stood there in front of everyone – named and shamed, humiliated and alone.

What did Jesus do? Did he condemn her to death by stoning, and pick up a stone, along with all the other religious leaders? No, He challenged each of them to search themselves, and the person who had no sin to throw the first stone. One by one the whole crowd melted away. Condemning people does nothing to heal inner wounds; it merely causes more pain.

Jesus dispelled her shame and humiliation, as He shone the light of truth into her life. Yes, what she had done was wrong and destructive, and she needed to be set free. He said, “Go and sin no more”. That’s the difference between guilt and shame. The woman was guilty, but Jesus did not shame her. He forgave her and sent her out to live a new life for God.

One of the jobs of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our guilt; to shine truth into the dark corners of our life where we are hiding in shame, and to pronounce a “Guilty” verdict. But then the Father lifts us up, reminds us that we are His children, and tells us, “Go, and sin no more.” No shame, just freedom from sin. The slate is wiped clean.

The truth is that each of us has dark places in our life, and Lent is a time to let the light in to dispel that darkness. Ash Wednesday marks the start of our observation of Lent. As we heard in the Introduction to this service, Common Worship calls us to observe it “by self-examination and penitence; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.”. In the Eucharistic Prayer that we will use throughout Lent, we pray that Our Father will lead us on a journey “into the desert of repentance that, through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline, we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again. [That] through fasting, prayer and acts of service”, we may be brought back to His generous heart. That is our prayer; but in what direction does our path lead?

In his present Sunday morning sermon series Tulo has been teaching about some of the spiritual disciplines, but each begins with self-examination, that is examining our life in the light of Christ. Of course, we all conduct some self-examination – none of would be able to make our confession, if we had not already thought about the things for which we need to seek forgiveness from God. A couple of weeks ago, Tulo reminded us about the method that St Ignatius called the Examen, a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence with us and to discern his direction for us. Yes, by one means or another we each examine at our life day-by-day. And when we do, things readily spring to mind that we have left undone, and even more readily we remember the things we ought not to have done – by thought, or word, or deed. But during Lent we need a self-examination that also looks at the larger picture – a self-examination that considers our whole lifestyle, one that re-examines our basic values and priorities. But self-examination isn’t an end in itself; it is meant to lead to change.

In self-examination we need to look at ourselves as we really are, so that we can identify the things that need changing in our lives. And that is not easy. In his The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out how easy it is for us to “practice self-examination for half an hour without discovering any of those facts about ourselves which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house as us or worked in the same office”.

Self-examination requires us to ask ourselves some hard questions. Perhaps we should start with: Is God the source and centre of life, the one upon whom everything else depends? Of course, we all want to answer, “Yes” to that.

And so, we look more closely: Do I really seek God single-mindedly? Do I strive to serve Him? Am I truly dedicated in praying to Him and in listening to his Word?
If we are, it will be evident throughout our Christian life: Does God really come first in the actions I take? Do I even intend Him to take priority over all else? Do my hopes and wishes really please Him?

Many of us, perhaps even most of us, find it hard (if not impossible) to surrender total control of our lives to God, and so we must ask ourselves: What loves do I cling to, that block God out of parts of my life? Or even work against Him?

Often the answer reveals an uncomfortable truth: How far is self-regard the real motivation for my actions? Self-regard that works secretly and silently with an insatiable appetite? How often do I serve my own desires, when I should be serving others in service to God?

And that takes us back to basics: How diligently do I pursue those spiritual disciplines that will let the Holy Spirit shine a light into my heart and mind?

When we begin to ask ourselves such hard questions, we can fall into one of two equal and opposite errors. The first is to make excuses for ourselves. We tell ourselves how busy we are. Or how stressed by work or family. Or simply how tired or worried we get. After all, we’re only human; we can only do so much. All true, maybe, but not very helpful if we’re really just making excuses to resist change and stay the way that we are.

The other error is to be too hard on ourselves. We look inside ourselves and we see so much selfishness and anger and pride and hate, that we find it hard to believe that God could possibly want to have anything to do with us. We’ve confessed the same sins so many times, and resolved to change – but haven’t. And so, our self-examination leads not to repentance and change, but to despair.

The solution lies in realising that God knows all about our thoughts and actions before we do. At any time, we can turn to God out of genuine desire for real change in our lives. We can seek help from the Holy Spirit, to guide us into the truth about ourselves, to show us the sins of which we need to repent, to help us keep in mind both the things that need to be changed and the way to make the necessary changes, and to give us the courage to make those changes without fear. One small step at a time, we can seek a closer walk with God.

You see, {God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17)}. We saw that message in action in our Gospel reading; Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman nor the Pharisees, but told each one of them to examine their life and to live a new life for God. This Lent let each of us ask the Holy Spirit to help us to know ourselves as we truly are, so that we can become the people that he wants us to be – people who find true joy and happiness in discovering his purposes for us, and putting them into practice in serving Him.