Wednesday 5 March 2014

Sackcloth and Ashes

Sermon given at the Ecumenical service of Ashing
King’s College London, 5th March 2014
Revelation 10:9-10  So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, "Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth."  10 So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.
Revelation 11:3-4, 7-12  [And I was told:] I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth."  4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. . .   7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them,  8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.  9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb;  10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.  11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified.  12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, "Come up here!" And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 

Additional Reading:
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Does anybody ever listen to Steve Wright in the afternoon?
            I’m sure you know the style – Steve and his Posse laugh and applaud their way
                        through a show which is a mixture of humour, banter and features
                        All interspersed with a typically Radio 2 selection of Music
Well, a year or two back,
            Steve began each show in the season of lent with the phrase:
                        ‘Let’s give it up for lent’
            Followed by enthusiastic applause and whistling from his posse…

A terrible joke, I admit, but it made me…

And I wonder how many people actually give serious consideration
            to why it is that some people do actually ‘give something up’ for Lent

What is the point of, ‘giving it up’ for Lent?

Is it to demonstrate our pious lack of dependency on, for example
Or whatever other minor vice isn’t really troubling us all that greatly at the moment


For some, ‘giving it up’ for Lent
            will represent a more serious form of self denial,
                        carried out as a costly spiritual discipline
            in order to follow the path of fasting
                        taken by Jesus in his 40 days of wandering in the wilderness

For others, Lent is a time to give up comfort
            a time to be reminded that Christ walked a costly and painful path
            and that Christian discipleship
                        is sometimes similarly marked with pain and suffering

Some Christians have traditionally worn sackcloth for Lent
            as a symbol before God
                        of their commitment to the path of suffering discipleship
            and as a renunciation of the life of ease.

And this practice of donning sackcloth is nothing new
            with both the Old and New Testament speaking of those
            who wore sackcloth as a sign of mourning and repentance
                        (Ps 30.11; Jonah 3.5-8; Mt 11.21)
            often accompanied by the sprinkling of ashes on one’s head.

It is this idea of wearing sackcloth
            as a sign of mourning and repentance
            and as a sign of suffering discipleship
that lies behind the image of the two witnesses dressed in sackcloth
            who appear to John just after he eats the little scroll
            in chapter 11 of the book of Revelation

It’s as if the contents of the scroll
            are to be understood as the story of the two witnesses

This story isn’t written to be taken literally
            or even allegorically
            as if the sequence of events in this story
                        were supposed to correspond to a sequence of events
                                    in the church’s history

Rather, the story is more like one of Jesus’ parables,
            and it dramatises the nature and the result
            of the church’s witness

The two witnesses symbolise the church
            in its role of bearing faithful witness
            to a world that is hostile to the gospel of Christ.

In their death, the two witnesses graphically demonstrate
            that the price for being a faithful witness
            may indeed be that of following Jesus’ path to the cross

This parallel with the path of Jesus continues with the resurrection of the two witnesses
            which occurs after three days

The message of this, to those who have ears to hear,
            is that death is not the final word on the subject of life

Rather, the heavenly perspective
            is that death equals victory

Just as it was the slaughtered-yet-alive lamb
            who opened the scroll
So the story the scroll tells
            is that faithful witness may lead to death,
                        but that death is not defeat:
            rather, the way heaven sees it,
                        a martyr’s death is an eternal victory

No wonder John said he found the scroll both bitter and sweet.

The sackcloth worn by the two witnesses
            stands in sharp contrast with the white robes
                        worn by those who have come through the great ordeal (7.14);
the two witnesses are depicted still wearing their clothes of mourning and repentance,
            indicative of the sorrow and tribulation
            that remain part of the church’s present experience
                        as it bears its witness to the gospel of Christ.

The bitter reality of Christian martyrdom
            has nonetheless won people to faith
            throughout the history of the church

The death of the witnesses is a bitter-sweet victory,
            but from heaven’s perspective, a victory worth dying for!

So as we, today, here at the start of lent
            take time to consider our own response
            as those who bear witness to Christ
It is appropriate that we remember those
            whose witness in sackcloth
            leads them to the difficult path of suffering and martyrdom

In biblical times, the wearing of sackcloth
            was traditionally accompanied
                        by the scattering of ashes on the head
            as a further sign of repentance and mourning

In the Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday
            this has developed into the practice
of making a paste from the ashes of last year’s palm crosses
            and anointing the foreheads of those who come to worship
                        as a sign of repentance
                        and of recommitment to the gospel of Christ
                                    which finds its focus in the cross

The book of Revelation offers us an image of faithful Christians
            marked on the forehead
            with the seal of the living God

And although it’s not immediately clear what the nature of this ‘seal’ is,
            I think the Pauline epistle to the church in Ephesus,
                        one of the churches Revelation itself is addressed to,
            is helpful here

Because Ephesians speaks about believers being ‘sealed’ by God
            with the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14)

This sealing with the Holy Spirit is contrasted, in Ephesians, with the seal of Judaism,
            which is equated with the practice of circumcision (Rom. 4.11).

If this idea of being sealed with the Spirit ,
                        as the mark of the renewed covenant in Christ
            lies behind John’s use of the ‘seal of God’ in Revelation,
then it’s the presence of the Spirit with believers
            that marks them as the people of God.
and which empowers them for faithful witness to the world

So as we come for ashing in a few minutes,
            we will be anointed and marked for renewed service
            in the power of the holy spirit

And as we do so, we anticipate together the day when the great multitude
            drawn from every nation
                        from all tribes and peoples and languages
will stand before the throne of God,
                        and before the Lamb,
            robed in white robes of joy,
                        and not in the sackcloth of mourning and suffering,
            holding palm branches as they welcome their messiah
                        not with the temporary welcome of Palm Sunday
                        which so quickly ended in crucifixion
            but with the eternal welcome of those who have found their true home

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