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Sackcloth and Ashes


The Crucifixion by Georges Rouault


Sermon given at the Ecumenical service of Ashing

King’s College London, 5th March 2014

Revelation 10:9-10 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, "Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth." 10So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

Revelation 11:3-4, 7-12 [And I was told:] I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth." 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. . . 7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10 and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, "Come up here!" And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them.

Additional Reading:

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Does anybody ever listen to Steve Wright in the afternoon?

I’m sure you know the style – Steve and his Posse laugh and applaud their way

through a show which is a mixture of humour, banter and features

All interspersed with a typically Radio 2 selection of Music

Well, a year or two back,

Steve began each show in the season of lent with the phrase:

‘Let’s give it up for lent’

Followed by enthusiastic applause and whistling from his posse…

A terrible joke, I admit, but it made me…

And I wonder how many people actually give serious consideration

to why it is that some people do actually ‘give something up’ for Lent

What is the point of, ‘giving it up’ for Lent?

Is it to demonstrate our pious lack of dependency on, for example

Alcohol

Chocolate

Caffeine

Or whatever other minor vice isn’t really troubling us all that greatly at the moment

Maybe…

For some, ‘giving it up’ for Lent

will represent a more serious form of self denial,

carried out as a costly spiritual discipline

in order to follow the path of fasting

taken by Jesus in his 40 days of wandering in the wilderness

For others, Lent is a time to give up comfort

a time to be reminded that Christ walked a costly and painful path

and that Christian discipleship

is sometimes similarly marked with pain and suffering

Some Christians have traditionally worn sackcloth for Lent

as a symbol before God

of their commitment to the path of suffering discipleship

and as a renunciation of the life of ease.

And this practice of donning sackcloth is nothing new

with both the Old and New Testament speaking of those

who wore sackcloth as a sign of mourning and repentance

(Ps 30.11; Jonah 3.5-8; Mt 11.21)

often accompanied by the sprinkling of ashes on one’s head.

It is this idea of wearing sackcloth

as a sign of mourning and repentance

and as a sign of suffering discipleship

that lies behind the image of the two witnesses dressed in sackcloth

who appear to John just after he eats the little scroll

in chapter 11 of the book of Revelation

It’s as if the contents of the scroll

are to be understood as the story of the two witnesses

This story isn’t written to be taken literally

or even allegorically

as if the sequence of events in this story

were supposed to correspond to a sequence of events

in the church’s history

Rather, the story is more like one of Jesus’ parables,

and it dramatises the nature and the result

of the church’s witness

The two witnesses symbolise the church

in its role of bearing faithful witness

to a world that is hostile to the gospel of Christ.

In their death, the two witnesses graphically demonstrate

that the price for being a faithful witness

may indeed be that of following Jesus’ path to the cross

This parallel with the path of Jesus continues with the resurrection of the two witnesses

which occurs after three days

The message of this, to those who have ears to hear,

is that death is not the final word on the subject of life

Rather, the heavenly perspective

is that death equals victory

Just as it was the slaughtered-yet-alive lamb

who opened the scroll

So the story the scroll tells

is that faithful witness may lead to death,

but that death is not defeat:

rather, the way heaven sees it,

a martyr’s death is an eternal victory

No wonder John said he found the scroll both bitter and sweet.

The sackcloth worn by the two witnesses

stands in sharp contrast with the white robes

worn by those who have come through the great ordeal (7.14);

the two witnesses are depicted still wearing their clothes of mourning and repentance,

indicative of the sorrow and tribulation

that remain part of the church’s present experience

as it bears its witness to the gospel of Christ.

The bitter reality of Christian martyrdom

has nonetheless won people to faith

throughout the history of the church

The death of the witnesses is a bitter-sweet victory,

but from heaven’s perspective, a victory worth dying for!

So as we, today, here at the start of lent

take time to consider our own response

as those who bear witness to Christ

It is appropriate that we remember those

whose witness in sackcloth

leads them to the difficult path of suffering and martyrdom

In biblical times, the wearing of sackcloth

was traditionally accompanied

by the scattering of ashes on the head

as a further sign of repentance and mourning

In the Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday

this has developed into the practice

of making a paste from the ashes of last year’s palm crosses

and anointing the foreheads of those who come to worship

as a sign of repentance

and of recommitment to the gospel of Christ

which finds its focus in the cross

The book of Revelation offers us an image of faithful Christians

marked on the forehead

with the seal of the living God

And although it’s not immediately clear what the nature of this ‘seal’ is,

I think the Pauline epistle to the church in Ephesus,

one of the churches Revelation itself is addressed to,

is helpful here

Because Ephesians speaks about believers being ‘sealed’ by God

with the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14)

This sealing with the Holy Spirit is contrasted, in Ephesians, with the seal of Judaism,

which is equated with the practice of circumcision (Rom. 4.11).

If this idea of being sealed with the Spirit ,

as the mark of the renewed covenant in Christ

lies behind John’s use of the ‘seal of God’ in Revelation,

then it’s the presence of the Spirit with believers

that marks them as the people of God.

and which empowers them for faithful witness to the world

So as we come for ashing in a few minutes,

we will be anointed and marked for renewed service

in the power of the holy spirit

And as we do so, we anticipate together the day when the great multitude

drawn from every nation

from all tribes and peoples and languages

will stand before the throne of God,

and before the Lamb,

robed in white robes of joy,

and not in the sackcloth of mourning and suffering,

holding palm branches as they welcome their messiah

not with the temporary welcome of Palm Sunday

which so quickly ended in crucifixion

but with the eternal welcome of those who have found their true home


By Simon Woodman

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