Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-21
We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NIV)
On September 26, 1944, 21 year old Ray Hamley, an RAF bombardier guided the pilot of an American B-25 to drop bombs on the town of Kleve just inside Germany's border with Holland. The targets for the bomb drop that day were the railway
station and a number of Nazi factories. Photos of the raid showed that the bombs had also hit a church.
Many years later someone handed Ray a newspaper clipping that showed a picture of the bombed out Church of St Maria and he began to wonder what had happened in Kleve that night when 8 bombs dropped on the town. He couldn’t get that small town out of his mind.
He tried to logically convince himself that this had nothing to do with him, “Orders are orders”. He rationalised saying, "Come on, Ray, after all, the Nazis bombed innocent children in London; it was wartime; they were the enemy. It was years ago; forget it, Ray, and get on with your life." But he couldn’t.
So on 24th August 1984, Ray wrote a letter to the Mayor of Kleve, explaining the string of coincidences and admitted that he must have been the RAF bombardier who destroyed the local church. He wanted his letter passed on to the present parish priest. He wanted forgiveness. In November, he heard from the Mayor, “We accept your apologies as a sign of your sympathy and your compassion. The church has now been rebuilt … you are most welcome to come and visit us.”
He didn’t answer the letter because he didn’t know how he could possibly face the descendants of those who died that night.
Then a package from St Maria’s parish priest arrived. He had read out Ray’s letter at all four masses one Sunday, telling his congregation, “If you think you are able to forgive this man, please sign the letter at the back of the church.” More than 500 people signed, including Liesel Megens, whose parents lived next to the church and had been killed by Ray’s bomb. The package contained the 500 signatures.
Ray was still unsure if he should go to Kleve as he felt some things were best left undisturbed. The parish priest encouraged him. He said, “Just as you need to be forgiven, others need to forgive.”
On the morning of August 10th, 1986, the St Maria church was packed. Many wept as Ray gave a short address in which he asked for God to forgive him. “Many years ago, I deeply hurt the folk of this town …Thank you for guiding me to this place where I through you have found so much kindness and friendship … and most of all peace in my heart.” Outside the church afterwards Ray was introduced to a short red haired figure; Liesel Megens. They were yards away from the spot where her parents had died … the two simply wrapped their arms around each other.
After the service, Liesel Megens said, “The greatest gift Ray Hamley brought Kleve is the gift of peace. His war service in bombers must have called for considerable bravery. But I believe it took greater courage to reach out to us and seek reconciliation.”
The word ‘reconciliation’ also sits at the heart of our devotion and worship tonight. The Apostle Paul speaks directly and plainly to the Corinthians, “We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God”.
Reconciliation implies that there has been
estrangement, argument, or separation. I dare say that there is not one person
here who has not had some sad and bitter experience of being estranged from
family members or friends or even members of the church.
We are all aware of the pain and hurt that such an alienation from others
causes us –
we talk about it with others,
we lay awake at night thinking about it,
we are slow to take steps to make things right again.
Too often we put it in the too hard basket and hope that things will turn out for the better in the future with the passing of time. Reconciliation is hard for us.
One aspect of reconciliation that is really hard is when one person reaches out to restore friendship and the other refuses to accept it, especially when both are Christians.
This is a sad state of affairs but there is a situation that is far worse and has far greater consequences than any separation on the human level – the separation between humanity and God. Humanity has been hostile to God, that is, it has fought against him, or at best ignored him and refused his hand of reconciliation. What is just as serious is the fact that so many are not even aware that they are estranged from God. They ignore how their sin has affected their relationship with God. They talk as if sin doesn’t matter to them and so it doesn’t matter to God.
Sin does matter to God. If he didn’t care whether we are sinners or not then he wouldn’t have gone to the extreme measure of sending his Son into the world and to die a horrible death on a cross.
Paul talks about the task of the church as a ministry of reconciliation – that is getting the message out that in Christ God has confronted the whole matter of reconciliation head on. He boldly states that even though we are sinners who don’t deserve God's love, nevertheless Christ died for us. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has brought us back into his family as his dearly loved children.
Jesus tells a story about reconciliation. A rebellious son rebelled against his father and wasted his inheritance on wild living, and yet the boy’s father didn’t stop loving him. The son repented of his stupidity when he remembered how good he had it at home. Timidly he returns home. There is no hint of anger, aloofness, a desire to punish this lad, turn his back on him, or reject him. The father shamelessly runs out to hug his boy and welcomes him home. The son has nothing to offer except his shame; the father offers complete reconciliation.
A word about God and us and reconciliation.
Sin is what divides God and us. It’s a barrier. Like the barrier that is caused when one person hurts another. Something comes between them and something needs to be done to restore their friendship.
Read the story of humanity from the first pages of the Book of Genesis and you find that in the Garden of Eden it wasn’t God who broke off the relationship with humanity. It was humanity and its involvement in sin that created the gap between the Creator and all people.
Paul’s words, “Be reconciled to God” are not a command to perform a hopeless task. Reconciliation would indeed be hopeless if it were up to us, because the issue is so one sided. We are the ones who have gone away from God and caused the separation between God and us. Any attempt by us at reconciliation is always tainted with the evil that is in our hearts and minds. And besides – unlike what happens in many of our human reconciliations when we meet each other halfway in order to be friends again, God doesn’t meet us halfway and we meet God halfway – if that were possible. Humanity has gone so far away from God and God has to come all the way and done everything to achieve reconciliation.
Even though he is the one what has been sinned against, he is the one who takes the first step to make things right again. Jesus doesn’t just talk about reconciliation; he goes to the cross to do something about it with his own body and blood. The cross is God going all the way to destroy the barrier that stands between him and us. This reconciliation with God is the best gift that we can ever receive.
Friends, it has been done.
You are reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. This is a radical reorientation of your whole being.
You have been given a new direction, a new context of living.
You have been born again in Christ; you have been reconciled with God, and in this renewed relationship you are now heading for eternal life.
The process of reconciliation continues. Daily you step out and sin again, and daily God offers you his forgiveness all over again.
The Old Testament reading tonight calls us to repentance. Yes, we are made right with God through the blood of Christ but at the same time we are still sinners while we are in this life. Our thoughts and will, our actions and our minds are always too willing to follow evil ways and so every day we need to hear the call to turn away from sin and turn back to God.
We heard the Old Testament prophet say, “Come back to the Lord your God. He is kind and full of mercy; he is patient and keeps his promise; he is always ready to forgive and not punish” (Joel 2:13).
From a New Testament perspective he is saying, “Come back to God with empty hands that have nothing to offer, no excuses to give, and receive from him all that Christ has done for you on the cross. Receive from him this precious gift and let it change you, and break down all the barriers that selfishness and stubbornness create”. Be reconciled to God and to one another.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th February 2015