Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Mt. 6:16-21

Ash Wednesday
                                                                                                            Mt. 6:16-21

            Moving from the Chicago area to southern Illinois involved a great transition in religious culture.  Now it’s not as if this was a complete surprise.  I knew that I was going into an area that would be dominated by Baptist, Methodist and non-denominational churches.  However, I will confess that I was na├»ve about how big a difference there would be.
            I came from an area that was filled with Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.  A catholic – the one with a lower case “c” – way of approaching the faith dominated the religious culture.  The start of Lent was a big deal – it was the beginning of a significant time that everybody recognized.  Of course here in southern Illinois that is not so much the case.  There are of course churches down here that observe Lent.  But I think it is safe to say that they are the minority.   
When I served my first parish in Lyons I used to hear questions like, “What are you giving up for Lent?” and statements like, “This year I am giving up chocolate for Lent,”  all the time.  The practice of giving up something – usually a food item – for Lent was a carryover from an earlier time in the Church when Lent was commonly a time of fasting.  Fasting was part of the broader spiritual discipline of Lent.  It physically enacted the restraining of the flesh in order to devote oneself to prayer and meditation on God’s Word.
Each Ash Wednesday, as I listen to the Gospel lesson, I am always struck by the irony of this practice of discussing what people are giving up for Lent.  People discuss and make known the things they are depriving themselves of.  Yet here in our text, Jesus tells his followers that when they fast they are to keep it a secret.  They aren’t to make it known and instead they are to take actions to conceal it.  Our Lord’s words warn us against the ever present threat of pride and hypocrisy, even as he goes on to draw our attention to the basic issue of the First Commandment.
The Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday is taken from the center portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  In this section, Jesus is teaching his followers about how they were to engage in three of the most fundamental practices of Judaism.  He teaches them about giving alms to the poor, praying and fasting.  Our text picks up the last of these where Jesus says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
As our Lord treats each of these topics, he warns his disciples against hypocrisy and pride.  He begins the section by saying, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” 
Hypocrisy and pride are a common trap in the Christian life.  Living the Christian life means acting in ways that stand out from the world.  Now on the one hand this can bring the world’s rejection.  But it can also bring the recognition from others that we are religious and spiritual people.  There is a sense that many in the world respect a “religious” person who lives out their spirituality.  And if they do, how much more do other religious people.
The problem is that our own pride eats that attention up.  And it takes very little for the Old Adam to twist the motivation for doing those activities into that of “practicing our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”  The motivation for the actions shifts from being generated by the Spirit to being the product of our sinful, fallen flesh.  And in fact that center section of the Lutheran Witness which deals with news about the Southern Illinois District always brings this to mind for me.
You know the section I am talking about, the one where pastors and churches send in pictures from their events and activities.  Now on the one hand this is in and of itself a good thing.  Churches share what they are doing and the Church as a whole rejoices to see it.  But when I have submitted items like that, or have contemplated doing so, I have always had an uneasy feeling.  Because if I am honest, I know that mixed in with all my good motives is the desire to have people think: “Look at what that church is doing, wow that pastor is really doing a great job.”
Jesus tells his followers that they are not intentionally to make a show of their piety such as fasting.  He says, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  These actions are to be done out of faith in God and it is God who is pleased by them when they are.
This basic issue of whether we are doing things because of  God or because of ourselves runs all through this section on the Sermon on the Mount.  And in the second half of our text Jesus goes on to say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus raises the question about what our treasure is.  He cautions about setting our focus the things of this world.  We know how that goes.  We want stuff – and frankly, there is a lot of really cool stuff out there.  And when we are talking about stuff, we are talking about wealth – we are talking about money.  Wealth, and all that it entails, becomes the treasure that we seek. 
But Jesus warns against this.  Instead, he says that we should store up our treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  When our Lord speaks about heaven, he’s not really referring to a place.  Instead he is a talking about God. He is contrasting a life that fears, loves and trusts in God above all things with a life that puts other things first and God second.  The things we treasure – the things we consider to be really important reveal our true gods.  And those gods show up in surprising places.
Let me use an example that will strike home with this audience. The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitchers and catchers have just reported for Spring training, signaling the start of a new baseball season.  Between now and the end of the coming season.  Which one will receive more of your time, your energy and your attention: watching, reading about, thinking about and talking about the Cardinals, or attending church services, reading Scripture, praying or talking about the faith? When you answer the Cardinals, you have met one of your idols – one of your personal false gods.  And of course, it is not Cardinals fans who have a monopoly on this.  Substitute Indiana basketball and throw in a deep tournament run and the same idol can be found in my life.
That realization needs to lead us to confess.  It needs to lead us to repent. And that is what Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent is all about.  As we enter into Lent and prepare to watch our Lord be tortured and crucified, we need to acknowledge why this happened.  It happened because of you.  It happened because of me. It happened because we are people who live in pride and hypocrisy all of the time.  It happened because we fear, love and trust in something or someone other than the true God all the time.  And there is a word to describe this.  It is sin.  Now our inclination is to minimize these things – to act like they are not really that big a deal.
But every time we think, or act, or speak in a way in a way that violates God’s will, we give offense to the creator of the cosmos.  More than that our sins are sins committed against the holy God.  And sinners who sin against God receive only one thing – they receive God’s damning wrath.
Sinners who sin against God receive receive God’s wrath. And the goods news of the Gospel that that God did just that.  He sent his Son into the world to become the sinner in our place – to become sin for us.  St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  He became sin so that he could receive that the damning wrath of God.  On the cross he drank the cup of God’s wrath to its last wretched dregs as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then, as we will celebrate on Easter, he rose from the dead.
            As Paul tells us, the just God, justly punished sin.  Yet in doing so the gracious and merciful also gave us forgiveness and salvation.  God’s word of Law confronts us in our sin.  It moves us to confess.  Yet we do so in repentance because this confession is tied to the encouraging knowledge that because of Jesus Christ God forgives sins.  Because of the saving action of our Lord that we are preparing to remember again during Lent, Holy Week and Easter, the words of the psalmist are true for us: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
            The Lord forgives. And he leaves no doubt about it.  He just forgave you in Holy Absolution.  He speaks his forgiveness now through the proclamation of the Gospel. And lest there be any doubt about whether that forgiveness really is for you as an individual, he will give his true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins into your mouth.  He leaves nothing to chance; nothing to doubt.
On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins. We repent.  But when we confess our sin we approach the God who says in our Old Testament lesson, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  We return to him knowing that in his grace, mercy and steadfast love he gives forgives to us through his Son, Jesus Christ.



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