Ash Wednesday: Matthew 28:16-20 & Psalm51:1-17

We have reached the end of the journey through the Gospel of Matthew with the help of our guidebook, Matthew for Everyone, along with its author, Tom Wright. He has made the journey fruitful because many of you have sojourned with us from the beginning to the end. Matthew intentionally wove an unbroken thread into the tapestry of his book: Jesus was a son of humanity. 

We were introduced to Jesus through his Family Tree at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Then we met him at the banks of the Jordan River as he entered his public ministry, initiated through his baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist. He loved being out in nature and immediately after his baptism, he takes a silent personally directed retreat for 40 days in the wilderness. 

This young itinerant Rabbi left the cloistered walls of the local synagogues for the hillsides of Judea where crowds of ordinary men, women and children almost daily flocked to hear him. He fed them, healed them physically, mentally and emotionally, as he breathed life into the promises of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures that many of them had only heard and were unable to read for themselves.

He confronted the Religious Leaders and they were infuriated because of the changes that were happening amongst the common people. They thought that he was just another itinerant Rabbi passing through. Maybe he would be gone just as quickly as his cousin, John the Baptist. But he proclaimed that he was the fulfillment of the prophesies of the Hebrew Text, and they responded that he was a fraud and a blasphemer.

So here we complete the book of Matthew as Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. His focus is no longer on the crowds, but instead it is on himself as he completes the journey to the cross. Again, we see him end his ministry as he began it, on a private retreat. This time with 11 of his 12 disciples. They found the all night vigil too much. Their eyes were heavy with sleep. At his greatest moment of need, they abandoned him and all that was left were the words of the Hebrew Text written deeply on his heart. 

On that first day of the Passover, his ministry came to an end as he died on a cross between two criminals. The only disciples that had the courage to be nearby were two women, Mary Magdelene and the other Mary. They had purchased spices and wanted to perform the last funeral rites for their leader. The Sabbath was drawing nigh and no work was permitted, and so they had to just be content that another woman had anointed his body while he was still alive.

As soon as Sabbath was over, these two women wanted to complete the job of the funeral rites, hoping that the body of Jesus would not have decayed too much. But an angel greeted them at the tomb and gave them this directive: “Do not be afraid. Come and see for yourself. Jesus is no longer in the tomb. Your job as funeral embalmers is redundant. Jesus has offered you a new position in his kingdom. He is risen and he wants you to be the carriers of that good news to his scattered disciples. Tell them that he will meet them in Galilee.”

The women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, running to tell the disciples. But Jesus called to them, they came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus re-affirmed the instructions of the angel: “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my disciples to gather in Galilee, I will see them there!” Matthew 28:8-10

What profound affirmation of the role of women in God’s kingdom. These two women who sat helplessly as Jesus was laid in a tomb have now been personally commissioned by Jesus himself to “Come and See. Go and Tell.” Matthew then added proof that they had fulfilled the commission as we see the scattered disciples now gathered at the base of the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. They saw him, they too worshiped him, but some doubted. He told them nevertheless, “As you go about your day to day living, teach others what you have learned from me. But most of all, remember, I am with you every single day right to end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

Final Summary of Jesus’ instructions: How do we teach others? 

We must first and foremost be learners. As we learn about Jesus, through the Community of the Beloved, they will commission us on behalf of Jesus to teach others as we continue to learn. We learn how to worship Jesus as we bow at his feet, indicating that we want to be his servant and that we want him to be master of our lives. In thankful worship we will work for him, sharing in his word and in his work.

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7
Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015
We have come to the end of the short Season of Ordinary Time and now we embark on a 40-day Lenten Journey. It harkens back to the same 40 day retreat that Jesus took just before he started his public ministry and just after his baptism in the Jordan by his cousin, John The Baptist (See Matthew 3:13-17).  Our Lenten Journey reminds us of the climax of Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus is the Passover Lamb who died for the sins of all the people. They no longer had to bring a lamb each year to the Temple where it was slain, and the blood given to the priest to take into the Holy of Holies, behind a curtain that symbolized that our sins separated us from God. That ended while Jesus was on the cross. Darkness engulfed the sky and in the Temple, the silence was shattered as the physical curtain was torn in two, ripping from the top to the bottom. Jesus in the same moment died. 

His death was not the end but the new beginning, the resurrection of new life. This is the transformation that has taken place so that we can have the confidence to approach God’s throne of grace without fear of condemnation. I can come boldly to God’s throne and receive mercy and find grace in my moments of greatest need (Hebrews 4:16 ). I am empowered with this new lease on life to be a disciple, to learn and to worship at his feet, and to teach others what I have learned.

The Season of Lent is a 40-day retreat that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends Good Friday, April 3, 2015 this year. During this time we want to be intentional about journeying with Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection as we grow in our own personal relationship with him. There are three main components that help us on this retreat: Fasting, repentance and sharing alms.  

Fasting is often associated with not eating particular foods during the season, but we may want to consider a “Fast and Feast”  for each week of Lent as suggested by William Arthur Ward (1921-1994):

  • Fast from judging others; Feast on the Christ dwelling within.
  • Fast from anger; Feast on patience.
  • Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation.
  • Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness 
  • Fast from worry; Feast on trust
  • Fast from idle gossip; Feast on purposeful silence.

Repentance is an important component of the Season of Lent. And this year we will use the Sunday Psalm Reading from the Liturgy as our guide. The Sundays of Lent, are very special because we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, therefore it is a Feast Day and not a day for Fasting. The Psalm Readings help us to see our sin and invite us to admit our sin. Then we receive the forgiveness of our sins and fellowship again with God. Here are the Readings:

Week of Lent                                      Date                                    Psalm
Ash Wednesday                                  February 18, 2015               Psalm 51:1-17
First Sunday of Lent                           February 22, 2015               Psalm 25: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Second Sunday of Lent                       March 1, 2015                      Psalm 116: 10,15, 16-17, 18-19
Third Sunday of Lent                           March 8, 2015                     Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 11
Fourth Sunday of Lent                         March 15, 2015                    Psalm 137: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Fifth Sunday of Lent                             March 22, 2015                   Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 14-15
Passion (Palm) Sunday                         March 29, 2015                   Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24

The 
other component of the Season of Lent is sharing alms with the poor and needy among us. Isaiah 58: 7-9 tells us how to do this: “Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and homeless; cloth the naked when you see them. And in response to you helping the poor and needy, when you call in your time of need, the Lord will answer your cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’”

Psalm 51: 1-17
The Psalm that opens the Season of Lent on Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51. It is rooted in a story about King David and his behaviour towards a newly-wed bride and her husband. You may want to read the story for yourself in II Samuel 11-12. David was feeling lazy and decided not to go to war as leader of his army and sent his army general named, Joab in his place. Lounging around with seemingly nothing to do, he looks out his hilltop window and sees what he has been waiting for. A beautiful young woman performing the ritual of bathing after her menstrual cycle. 

He knew her grandfather and her father, because they were part of his inner circle, and he also knew Uriah, her new husband because this young man just adored David and willingly went to fight with the army. David knew the law of Israel regarding newly-wed couples if the husband is in the army. The husband must not go out to war for one year so that he could enjoy his wife! But David sent her husband to war even before they could consummate their marriage.

David sent for this young woman named Bathsheba to come and see him and she went, having no idea what David had in mind. He slept with her and then sent her away. She reported back that she was pregnant. So David devised a plan with his army general, Joab to have her husband, Uriah come home hoping that he would consummate the marriage, and then would have to be declared father of the unborn child. But this young man could not go home to see his wife because he felt his loyalty was to David and the army.  So he just slept with David’s servants at the door of the palace. 

Finally, David entertained him and then sent him back to see Joab carrying a letter outlining how he should die. Once the evil deed was done, Joab sent back a report to David detailing that Uriah was dead. Bathsheba mourned for her dead husband and then David sent for her to be his wife, giving the appearance that he was a kind and caring man. 

David had a spiritual director named Nathan and he came to David and related a story about two men, one a rich man having lots of lambs and deliberately coveting the one and only lamb of the other man, who was poor, to feed a traveler that came to visit the rich man. David was angry at the rich man in the story and pronounced severe judgement on him. He should die, pay for the lamb four times over and no one should have pity on him! Nathan could not contain himself. He shouted, “David, that is you. You are that man! Look what you just did to Uriah.”

David responded, “I have sinned against the Lord.” This Psalm, Psalm 51, is the prayer of David’s heart as he deal with his sin. He realized that as King of Israel he had placed himself above reproof and no one had the courage to confront him of his sin, yet he had the power to judge and condemn another. But Nathan helped David to see that we can hide our sins from others, but we cannot hide them from God, and God is the final judge. The consequence was that the baby died a week after Bathsheba gave birth.

Just a reminder to all of us. When we devise sinful plans and are blinded to the consequences that will ensue as our plans come to fruition, let us remember that innocent people will be hurt. Bathsheba never enjoyed a life with her newly-wed husband, her grandfather and father were betrayed by David’s behaviour and she mourned the death of a child that was conceived through rape. 

This story has a redemptive component. Bathsheba would have other children with David and even though he had older children and under the law they had the right to be King of Israel after the passing of David, Bathsheba extracted a promise from David that her son, Solomon would succeed him to the throne upon his death. This son, Solomon is the wise man that wrote and compiled the many thousands of proverbs that you read to order your public life.  As for Bathsheba, every time you see her name mentioned in the Bible it is always coupled as Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. The greatest redemptive component is that her and her husband Uriah’s names can be found in both the Family Tree of Mary, recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel and in the Family Tree of Joseph, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

As you read through Psalm 51:1-17 note that as David recognized and admitted his sin, there is no mention of the other people in the story. David admits that his sin is against God and God alone. He was able to get away with his own laws, but he had violated the laws of God on several levels. It is easy for us to make excuses for our sins believing that no one will find out. And when our sins are uncovered, it is often the case that we deny them and name and blame others. There is a Scripture that we might want to become familiar with: “Be sure that your sin will find you out” (Number 32:23). 

David recognized that the consequences of his sin were beyond that fleeting moment of pleasure of intercourse with a virgin. Saying sorry would never bring back her husband or heal the broken relationships. In fact, Nathan, David’s spiritual director, told him that this would actually destroy his other children and there would be lots of in-fighting among them. The consequences ran both deep and wide beyond the pale of David’s ability to handle it.

All David could do was to ask God to be generous in love, grace and mercy. To scrub away the guilt that he felt, to soak him in the laundry till he came out clean. This would give him a clean heart, a new lease on life, and he could have joy in his heart again. Now he would sing aloud God’s praises because he delighted in God’s laws and not in his own. 

David has set out the guidelines for how we can deal with our sins. Here it is: Recognize and admit your sin. Admit them to yourself in private and in a public setting to one who will not judge you so that you can receive absolution. Allow God to re-create in you a clean heart as you let go of old ways of thinking and living. Immerse yourself in the forgiveness that only God can give. Do not dwell on the consequences of your sin. God has a hold on them as well. He will bring all the broken pieces of your life together for good in his slow work of grace in your life

Suggestions on how to take this Lenten Journey:

  • Have a Lenten partner or two so that you can share together about what the Psalm is saying to you.
  • Read the Psalm daily and you might even want to write it out using one or two other bible translations, such as The Message, The WEB, NLT.
  • Use a notebook to jot down your thoughts and feelings about what the Psalm is saying to you. Remember, David did not talk about the details of his sin, but about the details of his heart. He recognized the patterns of deceit and betrayal.
  • Share your insights with your Lenten Partner, whenever you commit to meet.
  • Write a personal prayer based on the Psalm each week.
  • Daily begin and end your personal devotional time by saying St. Ephrem’s Prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life
remove from me the spirit of sadness, despair, thirst for power and vain talk.
Instead, grant me, Your servant,
the spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love.

Indeed, O Lord and King,
grant that I see my own sins and not judge my brother or sister,
for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.