Repent for Lent – Ash Wednesday 2019

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Sermon Text

Christianity must contain eschatology. That is to say, Christianity is a religion that is meaningful because it has an ending. The resurrection of the Christ allows us to see forward to our eventual resurrection. The purification of our souls through Christ’s redeeming blood is our salvation, and the sign and seal of that salvation is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We cannot simply live in the peace of Christ dying for our sins, without the challenge and promise of his resurrection.

We do not enter into a season of happiness now. We enter into a season of quiet, a season of contemplation. Now is the time where the Church all over the world should commit itself to setting things right. Lent, the preparation for Easter, is a long stay in the tomb with the crucified Christ. Here we look inward at the reality of our brokenness, the sin-sick souls that we have no hope of healing on our own. Now is the time of weeping, now is the time of deep and penitential  prayer, now is the time to make ourselves aware of our bonds so that when Easter finally comes, we can leave them in the grace – folded up, set at the foot of the slab where we had laid ourselves down in our sin.

Christianity is given meaning in its ending, a time where we know Christ will return and right all wrongs. This the promise that we will be vindicated, that God will wipe all tears away, and that all will be as it was meant to. However, it is also a time when we must own up to all the wrongs we did. If we believe in Christ then we are indeed saved from our sin, but that does not mean that there is no recounting of them. The redeemed, though they stand free from damnation are nonetheless put to judgment, no one is spared the walk up to the Master, to be told to go either to the left or to the right.

We all have done wrong, otherwise, the cross was in vain. We all sin, or else we are lying to ourselves. If we decide that we, being washed in the blood, now have no need to repent – to change our ways, then we are mistaken. While I have no doubt that Christ is sufficient to save anyone who believes in him, I also believe that Paul is correct in saying that this can be a salvation, “But from the flames.” In which, all that we have built up in this life is burnt away and we enter heaven empty-handed. Yes, we inherit the fullness of God, but there is something in the teachings of Christ and of Paul which suggests that the Kingdom does have levels of benefit for certain peoples.

Does this mean that heaven is a meritocracy in which only the holiest find joy? Of course not! However, it does mean that we can enjoy the full benefits of heaven in the now and the hereafter if we are only willing to, “build up our treasures in heaven.” This is not a statement to make the poor feel like their poverty is a blessing, that they should grin and bear the here and now, but instead a strong statement against those who hoard wealth. Those of us who have too much, who benefit from the ability to be at rest, who surround ourselves with trinkets and gadgets, constantly upgrading them and wasting money on our stomachs rather than on our neighbors.

Jesus goes further in today’s scripture that there is something wasteful about the way in which we usually go about doing good. That’s right, there is wastefulness even in the way that we do good. The examples presented are not meant to strike at the hearts of the elite only, although if we are honest Jesus had the most problems with those at the top of the proverbial latter. No, these were trespasses that anyone could commit, not just the rich and powerful. The sins of the heart which are common to all people are here laid out for us.

Do you give to the poor? Not just to the church, though tithing is important, do you give to the poor? The people who are by the side of the road, panhandlers and window washers. Do you see them and have pity on them, do you see them and give good things to them? I would hope so, but the reality is that many of us do not. Still more, when we do give to the poor, we find ourselves telling others about it as soon as possible. It is not satisfactory enough that we have completed Christ’s command, “give to whoever asks of you what they ask of you,” but we must also have glory for it. How many posts do we make about “paying it forward” on Facebook, or how many stories do we share in which someone tells of the good they’ve done for someone.

There is an entire culture around what some call, “Inspiration Porn.” While this may seem like a strong title I think that it is fitting, it takes the good actions of humanity and commodifies it. We are able to take in good feelings just by reading someone recounting what they did to help someone else. This is not to say all sharing is bad, and certainly elevating others who do good is a noble pursuit. What I am saying is that we should not be wrapped up in our own self-promotion, or encourage others who want to show the world how holy they are. You can share the article that was written about you, you can tell people the organization you work with and what they do, but be careful that you do no chase after feeling good for being good.

In the same way, praying should not be something we do for show. Jesus is not, as some have interpreted, saying that all public prayer is wrong. What he is saying is that, much like with giving, if you go out of your way to pray in such a way that people will see you and think, “Dang… That’s one holy person.” Then you are in the wrong.

How many times do we, because we don’t want to look bad, raise our hands during a worship song? How many times do we look extra contrite during a sermon lest someone look at us and thinks we’re not engaged? Jesus wants your prayer to be authentic, you worship to be really about you, God, and the community you’re in. He goes so far to say that if you are gonna be caught up in the pressure of public prayer, you would do better to pray alone. We all can get pressured into religious expressions we are not feeling, but Jesus is telling us to be authentic.

Not feeling like singing a praise song? Stand up, join in with the community, but do not feel bad if you frown your way through “Marching to Zion.” If a sermon is not touching you, do not nod your head or shout amen just to look engaged. Worship is communal, so yes we should strive to be on the same page as much as possible, but if have to choose between being authentic and looking like you have it all together – then pick authenticity.

The final point Jesus makes, and what I will use as the launching point for our Lenten sermons going ahead, is that when we fast we should not do it in a way that’s obvious to the public. Not only this, but Jesus says that you should look better when you fast than when you’re eating. Take that extra step to look presentable, not just because it helps keeps your piety private, but because you are doing a good thing. You are taking steps toward God. By willfully holding off from food, you are allowing God to speak to you in new ways. If I’m going to be seeing an old friend, I try to look a little more presentable, and I’m usually happy about that meeting. So, do not look sad when you fast or you’ve given something up for God, be happy. It means you get to meet God in new ways.

We are entering into Lent. We are facing up to what we have done wrong. We should not engage these forty days with pomp and circumstance. No, today begins a period of time when we inhabit our death. “Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.” What is born from that dust, what is born out like a phoenix shaking off the ashes of its parent, that is for God to work within us. We should be contrite, we should not broadcast our contrition to the world. We should seek to repair relationships, we should not tell that to people so that they congratulate us. We should pray more, but not so that people think better of us. We should review what we have, and give more, but not so that we seem like more generous people.

We should repent for Lent. Forget what you will, “give up” in terms of chocolate or sugar or whatever it may be. Still do this to train yourself in discipline, but focus more on your soul. “Rend your heart, not your clothes.” Be kinder, own up to what you have down wrong, ask forgiveness and give it freely. Lent is a season of prayer, of fasting, and above all else of returning to God. As we sit in the ashes of our sin, the garden that we have burned, we look toward the restoration of all things Christ has promised us. So let us commit ourselves to the works of God, not so that others will know we are good, but that we may turn to God and find blessings where once there was desolation. That in all our conduct we make it obvious, that God is good. – Amen

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