Ash Wednesday Sermon – Paula Clifford

Ash Wednesday 2021

Evening Eucharist

“Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2. 1-2, 12-17; John 8. 1-11)

 

That command from the prophet Joel is just what we see lived out in the story of Jesus offering forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery. It’s a familiar story that demonstrates how the old order represented by the Law of Moses was being replaced by a new order, shown above all in the compassion of Jesus for a sinner. Our personal needs and longings may make us want to put ourselves in the place of the unnamed woman and to experience Jesus’s loving forgiveness for ourselves, with our hearts bursting with gratitude. But to understand what it means to “rend our hearts”, maybe we should instead look somewhere else: perhaps we should go and stand alongside those other characters in the story, the scribes and the Pharisees, and see where that takes us. “Rend your hearts and not your garments”.

As he often did, Jesus has spent the night alone with his Father, on this occasion on the Mount of Olives, the very place where the Jewish people expected the Messiah to appear. From that intensely intimate experience in a space made holy by his presence, Jesus then returns to the Jerusalem temple, right at the heart of the Jewish religion. And let’s not forget that in John’s Gospel, the episode has already taken place where Jesus clears the temple of money changers and people selling animals for sacrifice. For John, this sign of a new order had to be set right at the start of Jesus’s ministry. And now, I would suggest, with the adulterous woman, we have another sign of that same change from old to new.

The reason the Scribes and Pharisees confront Jesus with the woman is a familiar one in the Gospel story – they want to test him: will he opt for the law of Moses which prescribed stoning for both the man and the woman (though the man is strangely absent here) or for the lesser punishment under the law of the Romans, which more usually related to the confiscation of property? The question of the application of the ancient law, though, quickly becomes irrelevant, as Jesus simply writes in the sand.

We don’t need to know what he wrote. The point is surely that this action is symbolic: Jesus is inscribing something – an action that quite simply suggests the giving of rules. But this time rules of, again, a new order. And then come his devastating words: “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. If you yourselves are sinless, then just go ahead.

And it is here that we find ourselves alongside the woman’s accusers. It’s here that the heart searching begins. The religious leaders had seen sin in the person of the despised woman but now they are invited to see it in themselves. Those scribes and Pharisees hadn’t come to the temple prepared for an act of ritual repentance. Yet this invitation rings out down the ages to them: “rend your hearts and not your garments”.

Then they went away, beginning with the elders. Was this an ignominious act, slinking away because they had failed both to trap Jesus and kill the woman? Or was it a moment of courage? They could simply have gone ahead with their stoning – it was within their law, even though there is no suggestion of a trial and the husband is absent. It was, I suggest, a moment of dawning self-awareness, led by the most senior of them: a moment in which to recognise their own mistakes, a time to go away and ponder them: a time for them truly to rend their hearts.

At the start of Lent, then, we are invited to focus not on the sins of others but on our own sins. To reflect on our haste to pass judgement on others without submitting ourselves to the same standards. To consider our failure to look at ourselves.

Repentance isn’t something to be left until we say formal prayers of confession on a Sunday or, in a different tradition, to be put off until the next visit to the confessional. Repentance has to be part of the fabric of our Christian being. Knowing ourselves, acknowledging honestly where our faults lie. When we do that, then we will enjoy nothing less than the full forgiveness of Jesus:

“neither do I condemn you … go and sin no more”.

This is the new order brought about by Jesus: Jesus who restored the temple to being a house of prayer; Jesus who responded to a woman not with harsh penalties but with compassion; Jesus who showed the leaders of his own religion where they had gone wrong. And Jesus who will say to us, “rend your hearts” and who, when we do, will respond with words of complete forgiveness, the sign of a relationship restored and renewed –

“go and sin no more”.

Amen.

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