“He’s not safe, but he is good.” Ash Wednesday

by Fr. Blake

This sermon was preached at CSMSG at all the liturgies here on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Much of the content owes a great deal to Rowan Williams’ recent book on C.S. Lewis and Narnia, The Lion’s World. If you find value in what follows, you will find much more of value in that book!

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

If you’ve ever read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you may remember a particularly strange scene at the beginning of The Silver Chair. Jill and Eustace, our heroine-hero duo, have just arrived in Narnia to rescue the lost prince, and Eustace has gone on ahead. Narnia is very new to Jill, and she hasn’t yet heard or understood about Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the emperor-beyond-the-sea.  

For Lewis, Aslan functions as a kind of introduction to what God is like, for those who have never heard and especially for people like you and me who may have gotten so used to talking about God that we may have lost sight of how surprising it all is.

Jill has no idea about Aslan or about God, but the journey to Narnia has made her very thirsty, so naturally she goes looking for a stream of fresh water. When she finds one, she is surprised to see a ferocious looking Lion standing between her and the water’s edge. Of course the Lion is Alsan, but Jill doesn’t know it. He says, “If you’re thirsty you may drink.” But Jill is afraid and asks, “Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” The Lion replies, “I make no promises.”

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,’ said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

In his recent book on the world of Narnia, Rowan Williams remarks that this scene is one of the keys to understanding the whole series, and how Alsan (God) seems to interact with you and me. Today, Ash Wednesday, I want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about the two principal themes of the day: mortality, and grace.

First, mortality. One of the repeated phrases in Narnia is that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” Or, at other moments, characters reflect that “He’s not safe; but he is good.” This scene with Jill is a great example. She is thirsty, she needs a drink of water. But Aslan stands between her and what she needs.

If you’re like me, God can often seem to stand between you and what you need, between you and your life. And when that happens, God can appear like a threatening gatekeeper, who is just as likely to destroy you for daring to approach as to help you get where you’re trying to go. Aslan makes no promises to Jill as she approaches the water. He does not reassure her that everything will be all right. He makes it very clear that she is taking her life into her hands to approach him, and equally clear that she must take the risk, or else die of thirst.

How often God appears to us in the same way! In a few minutes we will approach the altar and receive the imposition of ashes: “From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return.” Why so grim? Why does the church insist on this ritual once a year? Why does we persist in thinking of God as a risky venture, potentially the source of our undoing?

Because for one thing, asserting our mortality is simply a true statement: each of us will die one day, sooner or later, and the church should never shrink from the truth about human nature, least of all from our universal susceptibility to death. And, more importantly, because the church believes that our mortality – like Jill’s thirst – is not just a sign of our weakness, but an invitation to a world where God meets our vulnerability, our need, and fills us so full to overflowing that weakness itself is undone and transfigured into strength; where death itself is undone and transfigured into life.

But it’s a risky venture. The world as we know it, our lives as we know them, are so thoroughly constructed around mitigating weakness — controlling it, ignoring it, sublimating it, manipulating it — that when we do meet God face to face, we risk destruction: destruction of all our favorite ways of hiding, of giving the right impression, of passing off blame, of thinking we’re just fine thank you very much and if God is going to play Gatekeeper at the river of the water of life, then I can very well find another.

On Ash Wednesday, the Church says, with Aslan, there is no other stream. You and I are going to have to risk losing some of the things that we hold most dear about ourselves if we are going to drink from that stream, from that Cup. We risk death itself, and receive ash on our foreheads, ash in the shape of a cross, to drive the point home.

Encountering God is dangerous because it brings us inescapably into touch with the weakest, darkest parts of our mortal nature even while it exposes us to the searing presence of God’s judgment and worse, his forgiveness –worse because it sets us on a path we cannot totally see or control.

But if meeting God is a terrible risk that brings us to the brink of death, then the same encounter reveals grace in an equally surprising way.

One of the New Testament’s principal images for Jesus is the great Liberator, breaking both the bonds of sin and the gates of death, leading his people into eternal life. When Jill finally drinks from the stream, she finds herself strengthened beyond any capacity or potential she could have imagined. The Lion gives her a special task and instructions to follow; she sets off to meet Eustace; they rescue the prince, and all grow very much in the process, as they witness both the depths of darkness and the power of resurrection even in the midst of corruption, death, old age, and grief.

Jill’s encounter with the dangerous Lion has been painful, but it has revealed new depths in herself, and, through her mission, it has delivered the whole country of Narnia from bondage to decay into new and fuller life.

Today, Ash Wednesday, Lent stretches out ahead of us, a dry and barren wildernesses in which we will encounter our sins and temptations afresh in many challenging ways. What will we do when we find God standing across our path, threatening death and destruction if we come near? Approach him, go nearer, as if your life depended on it, for so it does. With fear and trembling go nearer. You cannot control the outcome, you cannot predict what will happen. You may face a very painful moment when your favorite preconceptions, excuses, or fantasies are demolished; your ego will hurt, and your pride may not survive.

But one thing you can be sure of: our God may not be safe, but he is good. Whatever death you face in the encounter, whatever you become as a result, you can be sure that God will open doors you could not otherwise have known, and that life will be on the other side.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.