Sermons That Work

During the Recent Commemoration…, Ash Wednesday – 2005

February 09, 2005

During the recent commemoration of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, in Poland, in a moment of almost eerie silence, a rabbi sounded the ram’s horn, the ancient “trumpet” of Israel. Sixty years after the Nazis were driven from that dreadful place, survivors mingled with world leaders to pay homage to the dead, and to warn the world of the reality of evil.

Few of us have encountered the sort of evil Auschwitz represents. Well over a million people died cruelly in that place at the hands of men and women shaped and molded in one of the most civilized countries on earth. Consciously or unconsciously we find racist excuses to dull our sense of outrage over the killing grounds of Darfur, the Congo, Rwanda, or Cambodia. Yet the brutality of the Nazi regime was one that emerged suddenly from a society that had enriched the world with its scholarship, music, literature, and much more; a society much like our own.

If we can’t come to grips with evil in its most dreadful forms; if we persist in believing that all is well today, Ash Wednesday may seem rather embarrassing or irrelevant. As we hear Joel the prophet shout:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near–
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!

we perhaps indulge in an escape to poetry. Our modern version of God is civilized, gentle, and all loving. We are similarly civilized, gentle, and loving. And yet we will leave here soon, marked with ashes, our sign of mutual and personal repentance.

As Christians, members of the priestly body of the church, we have been called to offer to God the world as it is, the whole world and not merely our own local community. In a sense today we take on ourselves all that is good and all that is dreadful in the world. We take on the terrified pregnant teen who fears to tell her parents; we take on the man who is abusing his family; we take on the Sri Lankan orphan, the Congolese family hiding in fear as they hear drunken, gun toting hooligans. We embrace the folly of governments and the bigotry of clans.

As Christians we take on the sins of our church and churches including this local fellowship. We confess that we have not sought for those who need our fellowship, we have not cared for those who have lapsed, and we have not loved those with whom we disagree. We have fought and divided, always for the noblest reasons!

We bring our own shortcomings, which we alone may name, if we dare so to do. All these things we offer to the God who has suffered and in whose Son, continues to bear the sins of the world. That’s perhaps all we can manage. To let our imagination go further would be a trip into Dante’s Hell. Perhaps our offering is hesitant: we can barely believe that God cares. Perhaps we have experienced the caring God in the midst of our own misery?

All this sounds very doleful. We are used to celebration in our worship. But this is a Wednesday and not a Sunday. This is the beginning of a yearly journey with Jesus into betrayal, suffering, and death. Sufficient for the moment, as we hear the ram’s horn, is a silent cry, Jesus Mercy!

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Christopher Sikkema


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