A Sermon for Ash Wednesday from the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 58:1-12
Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 18, 2015
[sermon begins after the Bible reading from Isaiah]
Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
In the Bible reading this past Sunday, Jesus’ disciples asked each other the question, “What could this rising from the dead mean?” They asked this amongst themselves after Jesus told them that he was going to be killed and that he was going to rise again. The question for us today on Ash Wednesday, and for the next 40 days of Lent, isn’t so much about rising from the dead – although certainly the end of the story is reassuring. We will get to the resurrection soon enough in the Easter season. The question for us today on Ash Wednesday, and for the next 40 days of Lent, is much more about the first part of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about him being killed. The question for us becomes, “What could this Jesus dying on a cross mean?” Lent opens up space and time to ask that question. Ash Wednesday is a moment when we begin to ask it in earnest.
Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about the desire to be taken seriously and how that plays out in our lives. He writes, “We want to be judged because to be judged is to be taken seriously, and not to be judged is to be ignored…But at the same time we are afraid of being judged and found flawed, less than perfect, because our minds translate ‘imperfect’ to mean ‘unacceptable, not worth loving’.”
The language of judgment has fallen out of favor. You might read in an article or hear someone say, “I’m just describing that situation for now without putting a judgment on it.” Or, after you get done telling someone about something you’ve done, the person listening to you might say, “Just sit with it for a while without judging it.” These are often wise words that create some room around a volatile situation, ramping it down a notch or two so that necessary decisions can be made or so that a relationship might be salvaged.
However, being brought back around to something you have done or are still doing that hurts other people or yourself is exactly the kind of judgment that’s about being taken seriously. Not taken seriously by just anyone, but taken seriously by God. So that when you encounter sin from which you finally can’t escape, there is the hope of being taken seriously by God.
The Bible reading from Isaiah teases us with our seeming desire for God’s righteous judgment and delighting in drawing near to God. Then Isaiah flags the ways we play this out as self-serving, losing sight of God in the process. Isaiah begs the question, “If you’re wondering where God is in your life, is it possible that you’re pursuing the wrong things?” Ash Wednesday and Lent offer us a time when we’re able to ask this question together, accompanying each other as our flawed priorities and our very selves are marked with ash and called out as flimsy and fragile.
As you and your priorities are marked with ash, consider beginning a Lenten practice that signals a different priority. Isaiah gives us some things to choose from including letting the oppressed go free… sharing bread with the hungry, cover the naked, not hiding yourself from your own family…removing the yoke from among you by not pointing fingers or speaking evil and meeting the needs of the afflicted. Other options to add as a Lenten practice could include praying for others at Chapel Prayer here on Mondays mornings or Tuesdays evenings; praying for other people as a link on the Prayer Chain who receive the weekly prayer requests by e-mail; or showing up for the Making Sense of Scripture class on Tuesday mornings or Thursday evenings. There are many more practices across the Christian tradition that could serve as a reordering of priorities during Lent.
In the meantime, like the flawed people to whom Isaiah is writing, we come together before the God who says, “Here I am.” In God’s presence there is a holy judgment. A holy judgment that takes you seriously because you are so worth loving even, and maybe especially, when you least believe you are worth loving. You are so worth loving that God steps into the mix to show you just how much you are worth loving. God’s love frees us to ask the question in love, “What could this Jesus dying on a cross mean?” Let’s spend some time over the next few weeks asking it together.
 Mark 9:10 – So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
 Harold Kushner. How Good Do We Have To Be? A New Understanding of Love and Forgiveness. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1996). http://www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/howgood.html
 Matt Skinner on Sermon Brainwave for Ash Wednesday on February 18, 2015 at workingpreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594
 Isaiah 58:9 “…you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am.”