A railroad steam engine is a massive machine. You can see them pictures, but until you stand next to one you don’t really grasp how big they are. They are gigantic steel beasts that once burned with an intense heat in their firebox as they exuded steam and belched out smoke and cinders.
But leave one outside for any length of time, and rust soon begins to consume them. The rain, ice and snow begin a process of oxidation that in a brief time mars the appearance of the engine, and after awhile seriously damages it. One of the great challenges of railroad museums seeking to preserve these pieces of railroad history is that the only really safe way to store and display them is inside a building. Since steam engines are so big, that means you need a very large building to display more than a few, and not many museums have the financial resources to build such a structure.
In our Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, Jesus makes reference to the destructive power of rust. He does so in order to illustrate the transitory nature of the things of this world, compared with the eternal blessings that God will give to his people. Yet the reason our Lord needs to say this, is because our focus constantly drifts to the things that won’t last.
Our Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount begins with a strong note of Gospel. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Our Lord describes those who recognize and admit their spiritual condition – that of ourselves we are fallen and sinful people who have nothing to offer and can do nothing for ourselves.
Yet Jesus says that just such people are blessed – they possess God’s end time blessing, because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. By his death and resurrection he has conquered Satan, sin, and death. He has brought forgiveness and life to all who confess that they are spiritually poor. He has brought the work of his Spirit to them.
And then at the end of this first section, usually called the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness to which Jesus refers is the God’s saving action in Christ to put all things right. You know that through faith in Jesus Christ you are justified – that you are righteous in Gods eyes. Our Lord says that even if you face persecution because of this faith you are blessed – you possess God’s end time blessing. You do because the kingdom of heaven – the saving reign of God is yours.
This beginning establishes the way we are to hear the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us that because the kingdom of heaven is ours – because we know of God’s saving work in Christ – this is what our life will look like. That is what it will produce in our life.
While this is certainly true, unfortunately things are not quite so simple. That is what Ash Wednesday is about. While we are the new man in Christ through the work of the Spirit, there is also still the old Adam present. As St. Paul told the Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” The old Adam – the fallen sinful nature that still clings to us - continues to show up in the way we live. When we listen to Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount we hear a description of the way we want to live. We hear a description of the way we do live at times because the Gospel.
But we also hear words that reveal the times and ways that we don’t. We hear words the Spirit uses like a mirror to show what is really going on – words that show us our sin.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent, a penitential season in which we confess our sin. We confess our sin as we prepare for Holy Week and the remembrance of how Jesus gave himself on the cross as the sacrifice for us. And our text tonight certainly shines a bright light on the sin we need to confess.
Tonight, I want to focus on the second half of our text where our Lord says: “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 tells us to consider what our treasure is – what do we value most? There is no doubt that there are many earthly things that take on this role. We want a house that is in right location and the right size. And of course, that house needs to have décor and features that are essential – the right kind of floor, the right kind of kitchen with the right kind of appliances; the right kind of bathroom with the right kind of finishes. Then of course, there is the need for the right kind of furniture and decorations. Each thing needs to be “just right,” because if it’s not, how can a person be really satisfied? There are tv networks and YouTube channels that fill our head with ideas.
Or course, we also need the right clothes. We need the right car. We need the right tv, surround sound and computer. We need the right smart phone and watch. We need the right gaming system, and we need the new games. We need the right implements for our hobbies and sports.
It’s not just that we spend money to get these things. It’s that they become the focus of our thought and attention. Think back over the things I have just mentioned and consider how much time you have used in thinking about them and choosing them. By comparison, how much time have you spent thinking about God’s Word and in prayer?
Jesus says, “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.” First, our Lord calls upon us to recognize the transitory nature of these things. They wear out. They lose their shine. They become obsolete or out of style. And the problem is that once we have these things, we consider them to be necessary. And so we are caught in the perpetual cycle of attention and acquisition.
Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There is nothing we value more than our time and our money. Those things towards which we devote our time and our money are our true treasure. And Jesus says that “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” Where our heart is, there you will find a god. Our Lord goes on to say just after our text, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Jesus’ words tonight confront the false gods in our lives. They reveal many of the things we fear, love and trust in more than God. In response, there is only one thing we can do. We must confess the sin in our life. We must repent and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness. In faith we return to our baptism, for there we were buried with Christ into his death. In our baptism we have the means by which God continues to wash away our sins, because we have received a share in Jesus Christ’s saving death for us.
And tonight we come to the Sacrament of the Altar, for here Jesus gives us his true body and blood, given and shed on the cross for forgiveness of our sins. Here in the Sacrament, Jesus applies this forgiveness to each one of us. He gives us the very price he paid to forgive our sins.
Yet our text tonight is not only about repentance and forgiveness. When we turn in faith to our baptism, we are turning to the means by which the Holy Spirit has given us rebirth, joined us to Christ and continues to be at work in our life. When we receive the Sacrament of the Altar, we are receiving food for the new man by which the Spirit strengthens us to live as those who are blessed because the kingdom of God is ours. These are the gifts by which the Spirit enables us to live in the ways that Jesus describes.
In our text Jesus says, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Our Lord doesn’t say lay up treasures in heaven because they are going to be waiting there for us. Instead, this statement means that they are secure with God. They can’t be lost as we look toward Jesus’ return and the Last Day.
And what are these treasures? They are first of all the assurance of forgiveness, salvation and resurrection. When what God had done for us in Christ is the focus of our life, these are the treasures that are sure and guaranteed. And then beyond this, there is also the works that we do in Christ.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his believers that what they did mattered. He said, “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.”
Our good works bear witness to faith in Christ. They give glory to the Father. And even though it is only God who made them possible in the first place, Scripture is clear in stating that God takes account of these things. By his grace, he even chooses to count them in our favor in the Last Judgment and in the eternal life of the resurrection and the new creation. We don’t do good works get this blessing, but we seek to live the life that Christ describes confident that God does care about what we do, and that he even chooses to reward the life of faith.
In our text tonight Jesus says: “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.” In Jesus Christ we have our greatest treasure because through his death and resurrection for us he has given us forgiveness and eternal life. Blessed with this Gospel, through work of the Spirit we seek to live in ways produced by faith in Jesus.