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A Lenten Sermon: Break Forth Like the Dawn

Several years ago I heard, for the first time, the Easter homily (c. A.D. 400) of St. John Chrysostom. It was unlike any sermon I have ever heard. It had no seminar-room smell at all; St. Chrysostom didn’t expound Holy Scripture. Instead, he used it as a vehicle to fly the listener into the glorious atmosphere of Easter. The sermon was filled with the distinct Easter aroma—as the house at Bethany was filled with the fragrance of the perfume when Mary broke the jar and anointed Jesus’s feet.

Four years ago I set out to do for Ash Wednesday what St. Chrysostom did for Easter. Not that I thought I could do it nearly so well. But I set out with the idea of getting my head into the Lenten atmosphere, using various texts appointed for Ash Wednesday to get there.

Here is the fruit: the only sermon I have ever written, or am likely to write.

Lent: Break Forth Like the Dawn

Do you receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday? You do well: for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Do you fast? You do well. For even Jonah’s Ninevites, who did not know their right hand from their left, declared a city-wide, forty-day fast, and God relented from unleashing the calamity that was the due penalty for the city’s wickedness.[1]

Do you weep, and fast, and mourn, and rend your heart rather than your garments? You do well. For so the prophet Joel charged the people of God to do—to plead “spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, where is their God?”[2] By regarding lightly the testimonies, the judgments, and the statutes of the LORD, we have borne His Name in vain. We weep, fast, mourn, that we may see his Name and heritage no longer given to open reproach, but publicly vindicated again, in our time and always.

But do you disfigure your faces, and put on a show of fasting before men? Then the Lord Jesus tells you that their seeing your disfigured face will be your reward.[3]  Are you fasting for such a reward?

So wash your face, and anoint your head, that your fast may be secret, and that your Father may see in secret and reward you.

On your fast day, do you bow your head like a reed, and spread sackcloth and ashes under you, and stop at that?  Then the prophet Isaiah tells you that your voice “will not be heard on high.”[4] But if you fast as the Creator God would choose, loosing the bonds of wickedness, giving the bread you didn’t eat to the hungry, finding room in your house for the homeless poor, covering those who have not enough clothes even for their own backs,

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.[5]

When you find yourself cast out into the wilderness, there is Christ, cast ahead of you by the Holy Ghost, your vanguard and your rear guard, parrying the crafty arguments of the Evil One.

When you set yourself to fast, to mortify the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions, there before you is Christ, setting His face to go to Jerusalem — in Whom there is more life hidden for you than there is mortification in your fast, and more light than the noonday.

Praise be to Him forever. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3-4.

[2] Joel 2.

[3] S Matthew 6:16-18.

[4] Isaiah 58:4-5.

[5] Isaiah 58:8-11 (ESV).

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