THE REAL FAST

Sermon delivered at the service of Imposition of Ashes and Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday the 10th February 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J G Sykes at St. Alban's Church, 461 Shedden Road, George Town, Cayman Islands

Scriptures: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17         2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10         S. Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel 2: 12f "Yet even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.”

The prophet Joel uses the characteristically Hebraic way of making comparisons when he expresses the Lord as saying in the context of heartfelt repentance, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” It was not actually a direction to his repentant listeners NOT to tear their clothes. Indeed, that was the recognised way for thousands of years of expressing grief. What he was saying, in effect, was “Be real about it.” If you are putting on a show by tearing your garments and there is no prayer or repentance of the heart, don’t do it! The Lord is not going to notice it. Whether or not there may be men and women who will measure the extent of your goodness by the cost of the clothing you have ruined, we can be 100% sure that the Lord is not like that. He knows what is in man’s heart. The “heart” in the Bible is the seat of man’s thinking powers, rather than merely his emotions. So if a man tears his heart, he is introducing a discontinuity to his thinking. He stops thinking in one way and starts thinking in another, and the prophet is observing that that is what needs to happen.

In Joel, we see the context of the prophet’s cry to his people to be the prospect of some terrible catastrophe. Many commentators consider it must be a swarm of locusts, but it is recognised that Joel’s language goes far beyond that at a number of places, even admitting that a plague of locusts is indeed a catastrophic occurrence. When the Church, the Body of Christ puts forward its Lenten expectation of almsgiving, fasting and prayer the Body of Christ also is primarily concerned with the state of our hearts, in other words, what our innermost intentions are. It is recognised that in St. Paul’s words, “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Yet we do consider that a man can do something, out of love, in the way of prayer, self-denial or charitable work to guide his heart along a Spirit-directed course. We also have a catastrophe in mind, the catastrophe of an adverse judgment by God upon our lives, particularly when the books are opened at life’s end. Of course, we might have some less ultimate catastrophe in mind as well. I am reminded that we actually did consider such a thing on Ash Wednesday 2004, the year of Hurricane Ivan. We wondered then here if our materialistic Cayman Islands society would face a catastrophe as result of years of the alienation by some parents of some of their children, or by governments alienating some of the people they purported to rule. Such an event would be a judgment upon any of us who could have done something about it, but did not. Perhaps there may have been some similar prophetic forebodings prior to the catastrophic weather conditions that both North America and Great Britain in certain areas have recently been experiencing, not to mention the current extension of drought conditions leading to threat of famine in central Africa. And let us ask also if there is not some aspect of the common life of the community, either here or elsewhere, to which we are called to stretch out a Christian hand of assistance or guidance. So we are to look into our hearts, our wills and our intentions, with a view to reforming them, or in an old expression, sanctifying them, in view of whatever catastrophe, ultimate (certainly) or even proximate, we face now. So the Lord Jesus does not say in the Gospel, Don’t give alms, don’t pray, or don’t fast. What He says is, when you do these things, don’t do them for the reward of man’s approval. Do them for the spiritual purpose of strengthening and making productive your discipleship of the Christ, the Son of God, and the Christ for others. We need to recognise that the strengthening of discipleship does not come automatically, without our intention. We do have to intend to walk the way of Christ. We do have to intend to put down those inordinate loves of earth’s goods, and pack our hearts’ assessment of “treasure” back into the heaven where it belongs. The Lenten practices are available for us to put teeth, as it were, into such intentions. It is possible that over recent years, some of the assumptions of our lives on which we have depended have been shaken, and while that is uncomfortable, Christians may be reminded by this to see it as a call to change the nature of their dependence to a truer sort. Ever with us is the acceptable time for genuine repentance and genuinely living and enjoying openly our divinely dependent lifestyle, a lifestyle of real repentance and genuine dependence on our Father who has given us such grace as reconciliation with Him through Christ. May we live this way in the face of whatever disaster confronts mankind and the world; for this age is not self-sufficient or independent. It can only live by drawing from outside itself, like a garden that needs tending. If we have been truly dependent on our Father as we are directed in today's Gospel, and as the Lenten disciplines can suggest to us, as part of our reward from Him we may be His helpers in tending this needy and thirsty garden.

In the second lesson today St Paul shows us a portrait of his life, a life which we can interpret as integrating all the Lenten disciplines before any of the Christian seasons like Lent were distinguished in the Church’s life. We see “afflictions, hardships, calamities”, general difficulties of a physical or spiritual sort. We see “beatings, imprisonments, tumults”, deprivations caused by other people, and we see “labours, sleepless watchings, and starvation”, his undertakings in order to further the gospel among men. He fasted, he prayed, he made himself poor to make others rich. I see in St. Paul’s life the great sign of Christ’s cross. For Christ Jesus Himself, more than His Apostle, whose words these were, was treated as an "imposter", yet was true: as a "nobody", yet was well known: as "dying", and behold, He lived; as condemned, yet unconquered by death; as the Man of sorrows, yet eternally rejoicing; as "poor", yet making many rich; as "having nothing", and yet possessing everything. Now, it was the One who was made sin who knew no sin, who could make exodus into the Resurrection life that was first poured down upon the apostles. The apostles then also bore their cross after Christ Jesus in order to communicate that Resurrection life to their charges. If we are to play our part in the communication of the Resurrection life to our charges, we too must bear our cross after Christ Jesus. Let our Lenten disciplines, then, be worked out of love into the bearing of the cross, so that we play our part in communicating the Resurrection life to any who look to us for guidance or example. Let us like St. Paul say with cross-bearing authority, we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. We have Good News to proclaim and to live and die for. Repentance is still a possibility. The Lord in His mercy may yet moderate or avert the catastrophes that threaten.