Ash Thursday-Meditation on the Word of God as an aspect of Penance
St. Matthew 8:5-13
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let me read to you a poem.
“Sweet Blackberry” by Nikki Grimes
Danitra says my skin’s like double
Chocolate fudge ’cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might think
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.
I never cry, but inside there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me, “Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
Now, that’s what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more.
The girl speaking in the poem is Zuri. She was oppressed by words. The kids at school said the dark shade of her skin indicated she was nothing. They took away her value. Zuri’s mother gave it back with words of her own, words that revealed the dark skin indicated Zuri’s special quality, that there was something desirable inside of her. With words she gained power. The kids at school no longer teased her but admired her for her dark skin. For “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
The poem is fiction, of course. But as all good poems, it speaks the truth. Words have power. They can hurt or they can heal and even inspire. They can comfort and encourage. With a simple clever phrase the dark skin that made Zuri feel ashamed, like nothing, became alluring and desirable. Why? Because of how she was described, because of the words she used. With a simple phrase, with words, her mother gave her a defense and dignity.
Words are what separates us from the animals. Dolphins and squids might communicate, but they don’t speak. They don’t give voice to abstract ideas. They don’t write poetry. We do. We do so not because we have developed more fully than the animals, but because we have been made in the image of God who is Himself Word. In the beginning He was Word and He called all things to be. Names still have power. That Word has become Flesh, and dwelt among us, was nailed to a cross and put to death, and rose again to life as a Man. As a Man, as one of us, He ascended into Heaven. But He is still, and He is forever: The Word.
His Spirit was breathed into men who wrote the thoughts and words of God for other men and when we read those words we read the mind of God. He reveals Himself to us. For man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The Word that has proceeded is that Word breathed into them and placed onto the page. And there — from the page — we have life, we have forgiveness, we have communion with God, the Holy Spirit. For there on the page we have a trustworthy Word, something solid and real and enduring, a Word full of grace and truth.
The Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, that which must sustain us lest we die, is not heard in the tum-tum tree or in our vain imaginations, not in self-analysis or the glories of nature red in tooth and claw. The Word that proceeds, the Word by which we live, the Word we so desperately need, is the Word that God has breathed into men of old that we might read and hear and know God’s will and grace. It is an objective Word, a solid thing, a reality before us. It is not given to the vagaries of fickel men or passing time. It might be abused and lied about and hidden away in dark ages, but it endures and it frees the hearts and tongues of men. All other things pass away.
Consider our brothers in Russia. The Soviets reigned for 70 some years, but have now gone the way of Babylon and Rome and the Nazi party in Germany. They persecuted and oppressed. They destroyed churches. But now they are gone and the Russians still have the Word of God, unchanged. The Soviets did their worst, but they could not overcome the Kingdom of heaven. The Word of the Lord, which endures forever, sustained the Russians.
The Word accomplishes what He was sent to do: He saves. He will not be stopped by heretics or politicians or back-sliding, compromising priests. He does not return void. He ascends into heaven with the prize, with the devil defeated and death emptied and all mankind as the reward for the Cup He drained. He comes to speak us righteous with His Word, to declare us pleasing to His Father by His Word, to pronounce us forgiven and clean and reconciled at last on account of His Word. By His Word we are free of death and accusation, free to bask in this spoken grace, free of lies and sin.
So while you fast, while you deny yourself these Lenten weeks some of that bread by which alone you do not live, fill up the hungry places with the Word, the Word that satisfies and makes full, that nourishes and strengthens and encourages and teaches and invigorates and endures.
And when you hide your hurting places inside and hold back your tears, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” may be of some comfort. For you need not have skin as beautiful as the night for that sentence to now comfort you. But you will face more than bullies. And you need words to overcome the hurt, to drive off the fear, to restore the dignity and value and courage once again. Nikki Grimes’ poetry is not a bad place to look. But don’t stop there. For your Father in heaven has also given you words, such as:
“The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.”
“God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
“For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.”
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Those might help on the playground or in the cafeteria. But for the lonely nights I suggest:
“No temptation hath taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above what you are able; but will, with the temptation, also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long suffering toward us , not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
“Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
But best of all for what may ail you, I think there is nothing better for any of us than: “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
Whatever hurts and threatens you, the Word of God will sustain you. The devil won’t be teasin’ you no more.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen