Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday the 1st March 2017 by Bishop Nicholas Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 58: 1 - 12     2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:10     S. John 8: 1 - 11

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

The intention of the season of Lent, as we have heard, is to provide a focus on personal growth in our discipleship. The New Testament places considerable weight upon perseverance in the faith. Like a serious sportsman or trainer, those who truly desire growth in discipleship must be prepared to engage in the training, which consists of the various “races” or “exercises” that the Lord provides us with daily.

Now, small ceremonies such as the imposition of ashes are not at the heart of the training, but sometimes such ceremonies can be useful in giving us a certain perspective or outlook that nudges us to take the training seriously. Dust and ashes remind us (as some of us have otherwise been reminded recently) that as human beings we are not invincible: in the first place we are formed from the so-termed "dust of the ground", the physical elements, and secondly we are all in the process of physically dying. Without intervention that process of dying will one day take us over and cause our bodies to revert to the elements from which we were formed. However the training to which God calls us will help us become more aligned to the life that God’s intervention in Christ, culminating in resurrection, has called us to and caused us to be baptised into. This is the life that as well as benefiting us (in spite of any cross that God calls us to bear), also benefits or edifies our neighbours. This is because God has intervened out of His love for us, and in Christ has begun the work of placing His love at the centre of our lives. If we with the love of God love our neighbours, whether within the fellowship of the Church or outside it, our neighbours will benefit or be discomfited in various ways from that, just as we ourselves also have been touched and benefited, and sometimes discomfited, by the love of God. So in his list of apostolic travails in the second lesson today St Paul speaks of the endurance and afflictions of God’s servants, as well as the spiritual fruit of God’s love within His servants such as purity, discernment, forbearance, kindness, a holy spirit and so on, as having a positive purpose of reducing possible obstacles to people receiving their ministry. God’s servants, he says, are considered to be poor, and yet they make many others rich. It is for us to hope that whatever Lenten exercises we engage in this year will bring forth more of the spiritual fruit of God’s love within us, so that our “neighbours” (in every sense) will be affected (whether comfortably or uncomfortably) by the increase of that love.

Our first lesson from Isaiah speaks of both a fast that God does not choose, and a fast that he does choose. The prophetic word does not distinguish practices or ceremonies, but distinguishes attitudes, or the spirit in which such fasting is done. A practice or ceremony that God does not choose is one in which the spirit of someone is selfish, seeking his own pleasure, and oppressing those who serve him. A practice or ceremony that God does choose is one in which there is a liberating spirit, a spirit of sympathy with the needful and action on his behalf. And so, if our Lenten practice serves to increase such a spirit within us, that is a divinely chosen Lenten practice. The traditional practices are prayer, self-denial and works of charity. We should focus on these areas and select certain things to be done. And at the same time we must remember the crucial importance of the spirit in which any such thing is undertaken. That will, according to Isaiah, show whether God has chosen it or not, whether the origin of the chosen action is within the will of God.

One Ash Wednesday practice is called "Commination", which the Prayer Book explains as "Denouncing of God's Anger and Judgments against Sinners." This is in the form of a reading of the general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered from Deuteronomy Ch. 27, and elsewhere. We should take into account that the Prayer Book does not consider such persons necessarily to be unbelievers, as it expresses hope that the souls of persons being punished in this world might be saved in the day of the Lord. With that thought to guide us I believe we must consciously include within the orbit of commination the cowardly criminals that break into various premises and rob at gun-point, and even more, those who commit murder. They are evidently included within the "unmerciful", the "covetous persons" and the "extortioners" of the last Curse. We also should be impelled to include those who without regard for rules such as speed limits or for the conventions of lane etiquette drive without discernible regard for others. It is from these that often enough the young and inexperienced gain those dangerous habits that end up with someone getting killed. But as we make these solemn declarations of God's Law, we may pray that they and we may hear God's gracious call to amendment, and indeed that such scarlet red sins may in due course be made white as wool.

The Gospel reading about the woman taken in adultery illustrates the contrasting spirit of Jesus and of those who were urging the woman should be stoned. The Mosaic condemnation involved stoning, but Jesus’ first attack and condemnation of sin were by means of the self-examination of all who were there, which in its effect was a sword that impaled the woman’s accusers before any could condemn her. The woman herself too was repentant of her own sin, and Jesus commanded her not to repeat it. So we can see His spirit to be in full opposition to the sin both of the woman and her accusers, and acting to liberate them all from their condition. Let us pray to the Lord that Lent will be for us as well a period marking the growth of our spirits and attitudes into those that are liberating in their intention and effect, akin to His, opposing and healing deterioration into selfish and oppressive pharisaism (represented in the account by the woman’s accusers), or deterioration into godless libertinism and materialism (represented by the woman’s sin from which she turned), both of which continue at large in our society and throughout the world today.


1. Identify some Lenten practices that might help our spirits and attitudes to grow.