“He really telegraphed that pass.” Commentators for basketball and football games use this expression when a player throws a pass and it is stolen or intercepted. They use it to describe a situation in which the player locked onto and kept looking directly at the teammate to whom he was going to throw the ball. Alerted to the exact location where he was going to throw the ball, defenders were able to anticipate the throw and steal or intercept it.
In some ways, it is surprising that this metaphor still exists. The telegraph was, of course, a nineteenth century technology that used a wire to send a signal. A long line of poles carrying the wire extended from one location to another. It was obvious where the line was going. I’ve always assumed that it is point of connection for the metaphor. In an era when there were telephone lines, it still made sense. As new generations live in the wireless era of life, I wonder if the metaphor will die.
The sermon for Ash Wednesday is one in which I always feel like pastor telegraphs the point of his sermon. Congregation members know exactly what the pastor is going to say in the sermon before he even starts. They know exactly where it is going.
Now in one sense every sermon is like this. You know that every sermon is going to have Law and Gospel. You know that every sermon will be about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
But the content of the sermon is not always this obvious. Most texts have a number of different ways you can approach them as the preacher. There are certainly days in the church year when the general point of the sermon is obvious before the pastor starts. So, you know that on Christmas the focus will be the incarnation of the Son of God, and on Easter it will be the on resurrection of Jesus Christ. But even there, I think there are a number of different ways you can approach it based on the different texts that are available.
To me, preaching on Ash Wednesday feels very much like preaching for Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, you know exactly what I am going to talk about: giving thanks. And today, Ash Wednesday, you already know exactly what I am going to talk about: repentance.
And indeed that is precisely what I am going to do. I am because the primary focus of the season of Lent that begins today is repentance. It’s not the only one. Historically in the Lutheran church, and for that matter also the early Church, catechesis – teaching about the Christian faith – has also been an important part of Lent. But that is certainly secondary. The main focus – the emphasis of today and the whole season of Lent is repentance.
To repent is to recognize our sin; to be sorry about our sin; to confess our sin before God as we turn in faith towards Jesus Christ for forgiveness. We do this during Lent because the season prepares us for Holy Week and Easter. It prepares us to remember how Jesus suffered and died for our sins on the cross of Good Friday. Lent places our attention on the reason the Lord did this for us – our sin. When we do so, there can only be one God pleasing response: We repent.
Since we are talking about repentance, the beginning of our text may seem like a strange place to start. Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “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.”
You may be thinking: “No problem here. I don’t fast. I can’t be doing anything wrong.” Coming out of the Old Testament, fasting was part of Jewish piety. While Jesus and the New Testament don’t command fasting, it is clear Jesus assumes that his followers will be doing it. It was indeed a common part of Christian piety as well – and that includes Lutherans. After all, Luther writes in the Small Catechism about the Sacrament of the Altar, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” Fasting is about disciplining the flesh, and then the time that would have been be used eating is given to the reading of Scripture and prayer.
Fasting is just one of three common Jewish religious activities that Jesus talks about in this section of the sermon: he addresses the giving of alms, prayer and fasting. He introduces the discussion 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.”
Our Lord warns about making a show of our piety in order to draw attention to ourselves and make us look good in the eyes of others. He says that instead we should do these things in ways that so that only God knows. Then they are being done in faith and not because of sinful motivations.
Certainly, our Lord’s warning is something that we do need to hear. There is always the danger that we will do the right thing for the wrong reason. And when your motivations are sinful, it doesn’t matter if the action itself is a good thing. In God’s eyes, it is sinful.
However, Jesus spoke these words in a culture that highly valued faith in Yawheh and the practices associated with faith. A person wanted to be perceived as being pious and faithful. But what about our world today? Here, the opposite is often true. The pressure of the world sets itself against acting in ways that reflect the Christian faith.
For us Jesus could have said, “Be careful to practice your righteousness before other people.” In fact, he actually did because he said in the previous chapter: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
The real issue that confronts us tonight is the reason we do something or we choose not to do something. Our Lord says at the end of our text, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What we treasure – what we really value – is what will determine our actions. And you know what you call that?: a god. Do we avoid doing what is right because we want the world’s acceptance? Do we do what is wrong because we want the world’s acceptance? Both are sinful not just because of our action. They are sinful because of our motivation. They are sinful because we break the First Commandment as we fear, love and trust in something other than the one true God.
So on this Ash Wednesday we consider our lives according to the Ten Commandments. We consider what we do and fail to do in rejecting God’s will for our lives and world. We consider the reason that we do these things and fail to do these things.
We recognize our sin. We are sorry for it because it is sin committed against God. We confess our sin to God and ask for forgiveness. We turn in faith towards Jesus Christ, confident that because of his death on the cross he has won forgiveness for us. Our Lord said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ did give his life as a ransom for you. Your forgiveness and salvation did not come cheap. It cost his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.
Yet in his love, Jesus Christ did this for you. He received the wrath of God against your sin. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as he experienced what you deserve. And because he has done this for you, your sins have been taken away. When you repent; when you are sorry for your sin; when you confess your sin to God and ask for forgiveness, God does exactly that.
He does so because this is precisely what he wants to do. God is the One who said to the prophet Ezekiel, “‘As surely as I live,’ declares Yahweh, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” God calls us to repentance because he wants to forgive. He has done everything needed to give us forgiveness in the death and resurrection of his Son. God calls us to repent; to be sorry for our sin; to confess our sin to him as we believe in his crucified and risen Son. And he forgives our sins.