Water and Ash

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

A sermon for 22 February 2015 – First Sunday during Season of Lent
Click here to read scripture first: http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+1:9-15

I know we Presbyterians prefer to have it all decently and in order, but thanks to the weather of this week, we’re a bit out of order today. It’s the first Sunday during the season of Lent, but before all’s said and done today, it’s going to feel a bit more like Ash Wednesday/Sunday. . . . The act of the ashes traditionally begins the season of Lent. Having the cross traced on our foreheads in the stuff that symbolizes our mortality reminds us of the mystery of our faith. But for the grace of God: poof. We are just a pile of ash. Each year we are to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But, thanks to the gracious love of God, that is NOT the end of our story. The gift of Ash Wednesday brings us back to our truth. And the gospel for the first Sunday during the season of Lent brings us back to our baptisms. It’s Jesus’ baptism actually, according to the gospel of Mark this year. So that, thanks to the turn of events in our weather this week, here we are today with water and ash.

One thing brings the two together. Oil. I know we don’t often use oil anymore in the Sacrament of Baptism. But it is called for according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. In fact, it was an important part of baptism for early Christians. As far as we know, after an adult was fully immersed in the waters of baptism, they would kneel before the priest who would mark their forehead in oil with the sign of the cross. Laying hands upon them, the priest then would recite something close to what our baptismal rite calls for directly after the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Marking one’s forehead in the sign of a cross – in oil if able – the pastor says something like: “Child of the covenant, you are marked with God’s sign and God will keep the promises made to you in this sacrament forever” (modification of PCUSA’s Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 414). It’s why we likewise begin funeral services with a reminder of a person’s baptism. Even in death, we are marked as God’s own.

You don’t see the oil we mix with the ash of Ash Wednesday. But it’s there: to ensure the ashes stick to your head. Perhaps a more practical presence for the oil, but we know of biblical traditions that call for the use oil on our faces during times of penitential fasts. We’re not to call attention to ourselves in our faithful discipleship of Christ. Matthew 6, the gospel text assigned for Ash Wednesday every year, instructs not to fast as hypocrites who are trying to clamor for attention over their holiness. Rather, Matthew records: “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret” (Mt. 6:17-18a).

Oil had another use in ancient Israel. For all we know, oil was how God’s kings were anointed. First and Second Kings both record the coronation of kings, Solomon and Joash. Trumpets are blown. Oil is used for anointing. And all the people shout: “Long live the king!” (I Kings 1:38-40 and 2 Kings 11:9-12). The kings were not God present to the people – they weren’t deified. But they were considered sanctified – made holy and empowered by God. Anointed with oil for the work to which God called them. (For further details, see http://www.jhom.com – Coronation in ancient Israel.)

The intriguing thing is: this one, Jesus, the Anointed One of God, isn’t anointed with oil – at least not at the start of his ministry. Unlike Israel’s ancient kings, this new King, Jesus of Nazareth, claims the sign of water as that which sets him apart. Along with the long line of sinners standing on Jordan’s banks, Jesus begins his work “with his descent into the waters of baptism” (Leah McKell Horton, Feasting on the Gospels, Mark; p. 9). As one commentator writes: “This (king), who has come to save God’s people is not marked for his role in the ordinary way (of kings). Jesus, the Messiah, takes on an unexpected identity right from the start. Rather than being set apart from the rest of us sinners, he partakes of the same baptism, joining all the unclean there in the waters” (Ibid., p. 11). And so the work God gave him to do begins.

We are called to meditate upon it. The season of Lent is the church’s annual, intentional period of reflection. Marked with these signs: the waters of baptism and the ash of our mortality, we are called to live out our roles as sons and daughters of the King. We are not mere mortals – the signs on our foreheads set us apart. So that whether we remember or not, when God gazes upon us, God sees it clearly. I like to think of it that if God had a thumb, then the Holy One has trace right upon each one of us: I love you (in the sign of the cross). Marked with God’s sign, we’re heirs of the covenant. Children of the kingdom whose lives belong in line behind the One who lived and died and lived again.
In a time of silent reflection, let us ready ourselves to receive again, and thereafter live, God’s sign . . .

© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)

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