Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Religion, Ritual and Relationship: A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Hymn version of Psalm 51
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

You might call Ash Wednesday Holy Communion and Lent the church at its most religious and ritualistic.
Here we are in a church building doing religious stuff.
I’m all dressed up.
It’s a liturgical service with prayers and hymns and so on.
There’s the option of the ritual of ash crosses on the forehead.
And we’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

So what are we to make of religion and ritual?

For some, even for some Christians, religion and ritual are almost dirty words.
Religion is seen as the opposite of relationship with Jesus Christ.
And ritual almost means empty formality.  

But a certain amount of ritual and ceremony are inescapable.
Individuals and societies have habits and conventions whether we like it or not.
Any kind of culture and civilisation depend on shared ways of doing things.
Shaking hands and eating with a knife and fork are ritual matters.
Manners are rituals.  
What we wear, or not, makes some kind of statement, whether we like it or not.

So it’s not really possible to get rid of all ritual, even if we wanted to.
Even churches that don’t have a written liturgy usually have a pretty set way of doing things, whether it’s a prayer hymn-sandwich or 15 minutes of singing worship songs.
The most informal and spontaneous can be formulaic and predictable.  

So what can we say from our readings and elsewhere in the Bible about religion and ritual?

Certainly we must say that:
True Biblical religion is not just a matter of outward observance or ritual practice.

In our Old Testament reading, God rejects the people’s religion.
Day after day they apparently seek God out but they only seem eager to know him (v2).
Their fasts, their bowing down and their lying in sackcloth and ashes are unacceptable to God (vv3-5).  

You can have ritual without reality.
It is possible to be very religious, but very far from God – not at all in a right relationship with him.

Jesus quotes from earlier in the book of Isaiah where God said to the people:
“These people come near me with their mouth and honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13)
As we shall see, according to Jesus, above all, it’s the heart that counts.
Get our hearts right, Jesus says, and our mouth and lips will take care of themselves.

In the gospels, Jesus’ disagreements with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are so often about a false religion that is merely outward.
We are not to do our acts of righteousness before people to be seen by them, Jesus says.
If we do, Jesus warns us, we might get the reward we want from others, we might impress them, but we won’t get any reward from God. (Matthew 6)
Rather, such hypocrisy, such play-acting, provokes God’s judgement.
God sees through the masks of false religion and showy ritual.  

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls the Pharisees and the teachers of the law “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.”
In the same way, he says, on the outside they seem to everyone to be really righteous, but on the inside they’re full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
 (Matthew 23:27-28)

Jesus says to these highly religious people:
You can give a tenth of everything you get to God, even of your spices, your mint, dill and cumin, and neglect the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
They’re very religious – but they miss the main point.

So, it is possible for religion and ritual to be impressive and outwardly faultless, but to be empty.
We can merely go through the motions.
According to Jesus, we might care a great deal about the finer points of ritual and care nothing for God.

As our Psalm makes clear, true Biblical religion is first of all a matter of the heart and the spirit (v10).
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart (v17).
What is God looking for?
A humble heart that will receive his grace, not someone who thinks they can notch up merit with God by doing good stuff, ritual or religious.

Remember Jesus’ summary of the law:
Love God and love your neighbour.
Biblical religion is above all a matter of love.

Jesus tells us that:
True Biblical religion is partly an unseen secret matter between you and God your Father.

In the same chapter we read from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to give and pray and fast in secret and says to them your unseen Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Secrecy can be a safeguard of our motives.
If no one else knows what religious thing you’re doing, there’s less danger of you doing it so that they’ll know about it and think how marvellous you are.

In effect, Jesus specifically outlaws going over the pub with an ash cross on your forehead!
It’s misguided, I think, to announce on Facebook what you’re doing or giving up for Lent.
Better to keep these things between you and God.

At the heart of Biblical religion is a relationship – a relationship of trust between the believer and God, our loving heavenly Father.
Everything flows from that.
Trusting God as your father, Jesus says, keeps you from living like a hypocrite or a pagan.  
Relationship with God through Jesus Christ and true religion are not enemies.
Right religion flows from right relationship, which is only possible through depending on the death of the Lord Jesus in our place.

And at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel is a prayer for forgiveness – the forgiveness which Jesus won for us on the cross.

True Biblical religion is looking to God for mercy and forgiveness, not depending on our performance.

Our Old Testament reading was a call to repentance and the promise of light breaking forth like the dawn and of healing coming quickly (v8).
Then the glory of the LORD will be your rear-guard and the he will hear your cry for help.
The LORD will guide and satisfy and strengthen and restore you, if you will turn to him in repentance and faith.

Likewise our Psalm is the prayer King David, a murderer and an adulterer, seeking mercy because of God’s unfailing love (v1).
Because of God’s great compassion, David dares to hope that he can be made clean (v2).
There can be joy and gladness and rejoicing for the worst of sinners when God blots out his sin (vv8-9).

As I’ve said before, true Biblical religion is about what God has done for us in Christ before it’s about what we must do.

Nevertheless, true Biblical religion is also about what we do.
Or, we might say, true Biblical religion includes what God will do in us and through us by the power of his Holy Spirit.
It affects our whole life and all our relationships.
Jesus forgives our sins, but he tells us not to live in them any longer.
He changes us and enables us to live a renewed life – not faultlessly but really.

The Bible is very down to earth and practical.
It will allow no super-spirituality as if only religion and ritual and maybe my private relationship with God count.
True Biblical religion is not just a matter of church services and hymns and prayers and rituals or mystical experiences.
You can’t compartmentalise life into the sacred and the secular.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  
All of life matters to him.

According to Isaiah, true fasting means doing what is right and keeping God’s commandments.
It means not exploiting your workers (v3).
It means avoiding quarrelling, strife and fights (v4).
Real religion is not just for a day, or even for a period of 40 days, but for every day.
The fasting God says he has chosen is loosing the chains of injustice, setting free the oppressed, sharing with the hungry and providing shelter for those who need it (vv6-7).
It’s clothing the naked and caring for your own family and people.  

James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:
to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
(James 1:27)

These actions flow from a heart transformed by Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).
Who we are overflows into what we say and do.  

So let us pray that God would grant us repentance and a true and sincere religion that is acceptable in his sight because it flows from a heart transformed by Jesus Christ, not only this Lent but always. Amen.

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