Last year on Ash Wednesday I concluded my homily with the reading a poem by one of the Caroline Divines, John Donne (1572-1631). He was both a fine Anglican clergyman and a truly great poet, yet he wrote a soul-baring poem about sin: his sin. Tonight I would like to begin with that same poem, as it sets a tone for Ash Wednesday that’s worth pursuing in the context of our lectionary readings. The poem is entitled: A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Why do I find this poem to be so rivetingly appropriate for this service? Because it brings together some of the most important themes that are to be on our minds this evening. Most obvious is the sense of remorse in the face of critical spiritual self-examination. Donne is writing about what we call “original sin,” the sin he calls “the sin where I begun;” but he acknowledges it as his own sin. Then he speaks of his personal bondage to sin, the sin through which he still runs even though he deplores it, language that immediately reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s testimony in Romans 7.
He further confesses to the fact that his sin is not self-contained: it’s sin that entraps others around him as well. He says that he has won others to his sin, something that I fear we all consider far too seldom. If misery loves company, sin loves it even more. Eventually even our most private sins negatively affect those persons to whom we are closest, our beloveds, whether or not it’s against our feeble wills.
Then, in the final stanza of his poem, Donne refers to our finiteness, our “last thread” before we “perish on the shore;” and in that context he pleads for mercy on the merits of God’s own Son, Whose righteousness alone makes us worthy to stand before God. And that’s precisely what Ash Wednesday is all about: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the acknowledgment of our finite existence, coupled with our commitment to “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Sin is a trap, a despicable trap, one that gains its hold on us as an addiction, yet one for which we make our excuses until we no longer find it reprehensible. In fact, it’s possible to become boastful and prideful about sin if only because we imagine that we’ve been able to get away with it for so long without being struck by lightning. Sin is sin, no matter how we re-label it. Sin is anything that distracts us from God and from the life that He would have us to live. Ultimately sin is separation from God, something even the devout John Donne feared.
We may find that we’re able to justify ourselves before other people, even vigorously; yet we all realize that we cannot do the same before God. In the end we all stand with John Donne, having “a sin of fear, that when (we) have spun (our) last thread, (we) shall perish on the shore.” When we all come here to receive the imposition of ashes, we hear loudly in our ears and hearts, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Not until we turn away from sin can we be faithful to Christ, and only then can we be rid of the “sin of fear.”
Sometimes it all sounds a bit hopeless, doesn’t it? I think it sounds hopeless. But then we turn to our Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday and here’s what we find. The prophet Joel wrote, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.”
That sounds nearly identical to what we read together in Psalm 103, where David himself, a person profoundly aware of what God’s forgiveness really means, wrote,
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
How can He do that? David suggests that it’s because the same God Who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west also “remembers that we are but dust.” And His lovingkindness “is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him... to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them.” It’s on Him, but it’s also on us. We know the terms of His covenant and we know His precepts, and that leaves us responsible to live according to them no matter what defenses we presume to put up.
What does our Lord Jesus Christ have to say on this subject? As expected, He doesn’t let us off the hook. Instead, He challenges our priorities head on. He makes no room for dust, provides no excuses for self-indulgence, leaves not an inch of space for keeping on doing those things that break His sinless heart. He puts it simply but directly and unequivocally, leaving absolutely no wiggle room. Here’s what He said:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Tonight is the moment that we’re ushered into the season of Lent. Above every single other thing that Lent has come to mean to us, the most important and essential aspects of Lent have to do with self-examination, repentance and preparation. Easter and Easter joy are coming. We await them ever more eagerly as the weeks of Lent pass by. But we’re not to let those weeks pass us by without doing some hard work on ourselves.
We like to say that it’s never too late to start, but our tendency is to use that as an excuse for postponing the hard work. This evening, as you hear repeatedly, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return: turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ,” let the realization sink in that at some point it will indeed be too late. Repentance begins now, reformation begins now, re-commitment begins now, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” May it be that we acknowledge Jesus alone as our “priceless Treasure,” the “Fount of purest pleasure.” Listen to these amazing and profoundly spiritual thoughts from another great minister and hymn writer of the 17th century:*
4. Hence, all earthly treasure! Jesus is my Pleasure, Jesus is my Choice.
Hence, all empty glory! Naught to me thy story told with tempting voice.
Pain or loss, or shame or cross, shall not from my Savior move me since He deigns to love me.
5. Evil world, I leave thee; thou canst not deceive me, thine appeal is vain.
Sin that once did blind me, get thee far behind me, come not forth again.
Past thy hour, O pride and power; sinful life, thy bonds I sever, leave thee now forever.
6. Hence, all fear and sadness! For the Lord of gladness, Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather, still have peace within.
Yea, whate'er I here must bear, Thou art still my purest Pleasure, Jesus, priceless Treasure!
This Lent, turn your eyes upon Jesus. In your self-examination, allow your focus to be on Him, your Lord and Savior, Who tenderly but persistently calls you to holiness and to changed priorities, priorities that reflect His own on His way to the Cross.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
*"Jesus, Priceless Treasure" by Johann Franck, 1618-1677