Familiarity breeds contempt.
‹Aesop›
Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.
‹Mark Twain›
Atlantis: the domain of the Stingray
17Feb
2010
Wed
23:00
author: Stingray
category: Sermons
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Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return."

As we begin this 40-day season of Lent, these words ring in our ears this Ash Wednesday. We have received the imposition of ashes, a reminder that we are dust—that we are created out of the same stuff as Father Adam, and that like him, we will return to that stuff.

Then, why do the lessons appointed for this day not speak of this fact? Why are we instead pointed to almsgiving, praying, and fasting? Simply put, it has been traditional in the church for these activities to increase in this season.

Lent is a time of reflection and introspection. It is a time set aside to look within and take a bit of a self-assessment. "What do I have? Why do I have it? What have I done? What haven't I done? What can I do? What can't I do? Why have or haven't I done something? Why can I or can I not do something?" To say that the focus of Lent is on the person—on the self—is not too far off, but we must be certain why the focus is there.

Charitable giving and good works have always been part of the Baptized life; we are taught that the second table of the Law can be summarized as love for neighbor. Increased charitable giving is one result of this Lenten introspection and self-assessment. A more common tradition for Lent is to "give something up"—a form of fasting (which we'll get to in a moment). Consequently, that void has often been filled with doing good works—doing extra good works, if you will. And, as a result of that personal inventory, if one finds that they have an abundance of something, they look for someone or a group who is lacking in that regard and gives to them.

But then we hear Jesus' words:

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

Do your good works, give to the needy, but take care not to be seen doing it—don't sound a trumpet to announce your deeds. In other words, don't be showy. When you give, give without pomp and circumstance; don't draw attention to yourself.

It may seem innocent enough. I mean, what's wrong with letting people know you gave to a charity or gave to the poor? Well, nothing, I suppose. But, why do you want to let people know? What's the point of sharing how much you have given? If it's to draw attention to yourself and prop yourself up as being a better person than another, then your motive for giving is all off. If it's to draw God's attention to yourself in an attempt to put a check mark next to your name in the Book of Life, then you're way off! These are the desires of a sinful heart and turn an otherwise noble thing into a sin.

Conversely, don't stop giving and doing good. It has been said that the only way to be certain that you're not doing a charitable deed for the wrong reason is not to do charitable deeds. Again, this thinking is way off and sinful if we are to believe Ephesians 2:8-10 and James 2:18 and following.

Don't worry about whether or not others see you giving or doing good; give and do good because you have been given to and been done good to in Christ Jesus and His death on the cross. Others don't need to know what you've done and you don't need God's attention toward your good deeds for salvation.

Praying is also usually on the increase during the season of Lent. Once again, when we look inward, we usually see that we haven't prayed enough. We find times that we haven't thanked God for the good that He has done to us—or for a particular good He has done. We find that we haven't gone to Him in those times when we should have sought His aid, guidance, and comfort. (And how many times have we heard one pastor or another confess that he would like to spend more time in prayer? Yeah, I'm in that boat, too—I have heard it many times, and I confess the same). The Law works on our hearts to convict us of not always obeying the command to pray; as a result, we wish to make it right and spend more time praying in this penitential season.

And, as he did of charitable deeds, Jesus speaks of prayer:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Say your prayers, but, again, take care not to be seen praying—don't go standing on the street corners and start praying to God in order to be seen and heard. In other words, don't be showy. When you pray, pray without pomp and circumstance; don't draw attention to yourself.

And, again, it may seem innocent enough, as there is nothing wrong with simply letting people know that you pray (and even kind to let others know that you're praying for them). But, again, why do you want to let people know? Doing so in order to set yourself up as being a better Christian than another is done of a motive that is off. Doing so in order to display one's level of dedication to God is done of a motive that is way off. These are the desires of a sinful heart and turn an otherwise noble thing into a sin.

And, just as with charitable deeds, it can be said that the only way to be certain that one is not praying of a sinful motive is not to pray. This is also way off thinking and sinful. We are commanded to pray in a number psalms (which are, themselves, prayers).

Don't worry about whether or not others see you praying; pray because you have a need to pray for—pray for the joy that you have in Christ, because you are cleansed by His blood; pray because God wants to hear from you. Others don't need to know that you pray or how often you pray or how eloquent your prayers may be.

And if you're at a loss for words, look at what Jesus says in the portion of Matthew 6 that was omitted from tonight's Gospel lesson:

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Finally, there's the Lenten fast. There has long been a practice of "giving something up" for Lent, usually something that people have some sort of extra desire for or that could otherwise be considered extravagant or unnecessary, such as sweets, television, or computer time. In days past, people would observe a couple of days each week when they would abstain from eating anything. Avoiding meats and dairy products on certain days is also a common fasting custom.

There are usually two reasons for observing some sort of fast during Lent. The first is that it is a remembrance of the fast Jesus endured for 40 days in the wilderness while being tempted by the devil (we'll look more at that on Sunday). The second is that with Lent's focus on the self, there is an increased focus on spiritual discipline. Part of this spiritual discipline is to deny oneself. A physical representation of denying oneself is to omit something, be it as simply as something pleasant or the more hardcore, dedicated fast of no food, water, etc.

And, that brings us to Jesus' words in tonight's Gospel:

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

Observe your fasts, but take care not to be seen fasting—don't appear to be suffering for denying yourself something. In other words, don't be showy. When you fast, fast without pomp and circumstance; don't draw attention to yourself.

Once more, it all seems so innocent. And there is nothing wrong with simply letting other people know that you are fasting. But why do you want to let people know? Do you wish to be recognized by others for your dedication and discipline? Then your motive is off. Do you wish to proclaim to God that you are doing this for Him? Then your motive is way off. These are the desires of a sinful heart and turn an otherwise noble thing into a sin.

Likewise, it can be said that the only way to be certain that you are not fasting for the wrong reasons is not to fast—that the only way to be certain that you are not self-disciplined for the wrong reasons is not to be self-disciplined. This thinking is also way off and sinful. Fasting is a fine external discipline, we are taught in the Small Catechism. Both Paul and Peter wrote of the Christian virtue of self-control—of self-discipline. So, this kind of thinking is also way off and sinful.

Don't worry about whether or not others see you fasting. Fast because you want to practice a form of self-discipline—self-discipline you can enjoy because of the joy you have in Christ Jesus, who suffered far worse than you ever will and gave you the benefits of His suffering and death on the cross. Others don't need to know that you're fasting or what kind of fast you are practicing or what you are denying yourself.

The point of all of this is that doing anything for the wrong reasons is sinful. In other words, sin pervades all that we are and do and say, turning what would otherwise be noble things into a sins.

For instance, "anoint your head and wash your face," Jesus said. Why are you wearing that smudge of ashes on your foreheads? If you are doing so to show others how penitential you are or to gain some sort of favor with God, you might as well leave now and wash that smudge off of your face. If you are doing so even to merely show others that you are a Christian, go and clean your face!

I tell you the truth, however, that smudge of ashes is on your heads to remind YOU that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Yes, this season of Lent focuses on the self. Yes, we look inward during this time, take our personal inventories and self-assessments. We do all of this in light of the Word of God. And I'll tell you what we find. We find that we are empty without the one thing needful. We find that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed and are in need of a Savior. We find that we are devoid of hope without the work of God in Christ in us, to us, and for us. That is why you wear ashes this evening, and why beyond this evening, you will not be seen with ashes on your foreheads again.

Because you do have that one thing needful. You do have that Savior. You do have that hope, for God in Christ has done a good work in you, to you, and for you. You rejoice this evening, ash imposed even, because God has given you the benefit of his most charitable deed, because God in Christ prayed before His Father in heaven for you (and even now pleads for you at the right hand of God), because God in Christ made Himself nothing—emptied Himself—and took the form of a servant, denying Himself the glory of Heaven for a while, for you. God meets us where we are, even where we find ourselves as a result of this penitential reflection—God descends to us in the person of His Son—and lifts us up restored, renewed...forgiven.

Ultimately, the goal of the Lenten season is to be prepared for the joy that we have in Christ resurrected—the joy that we have in the victory won over death (and that joy and victory is yours even now and throughout Lent). But, we cannot have a Christ resurrected without a Christ crucified. That is what we see a need for as a result of this Lenten reflection and introspection. Thanks be to God that He has given us what we need. Christ is crucified (and Christ is risen) for you.

Now, through Him can you give alms in a motive that is right on. Now, through Him can you pray in a motive that is right on. Now, through Him can you fast and be self-disciplined in a motive that is right on. Now, through Him can you because in Him, crucified, risen, and ascended, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


audio recorded on my digital recorder and converted to mp3
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