To the people of God, created from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Beware of doing your righteousness before men…” Jesus says. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “don’t do your righteousness before” but simply beware. As Jesus speaks to His disciples, as He speaks to you, He never says “don’t do these things,” rather He speaks and acts as though He expects the people of God to give alms, to pray, and to fast.
On Ash Wednesday, and every other day for that matter, God calls us to repentance as our calloused and unclean flesh is reminded that it is simply dust. This is why we confess our sin. Not so we can embark on some kind of spiritual self-improvement program. Not so that we can receive recognition and reward for spiritual or merciful efforts.
This can be a bit unsettling for us sinners who struggle with self-awareness and self-promotion. We want to be noticed. This fascination with how we appear to others comes from the need to justify ourselves. We constantly say to the world, “look at me, and look at what I’ve done.” We want the credit for the things we do – volunteering, giving substantial gifts, serving others – these things we want noticed. The world gives plaques, ribbons, bracelets, award badges, or bumper stickers to acknowledge the good gifts and accomplishments of sinners. We enjoy receiving these public recognitions.
Our hearts do not by nature trust God to give us our standing and our worth; we want to be in control. In our publicity conscious society, a church’s visible deed and programs are often trumpeted as what really matters.
Even during this time of Lent we struggle with self-promotion. “I am giving up this, or doing that for Lent.” If so, good for you. But you might want to read Matthew 6 again, as we just did.
Jesus speaks of the three traditional “works of righteousness,” – almsgiving, fasting, prayer. Things that we ought to always be doing, but seem to be given extra attention in the Lenten season. Doing these “works of righteousness” will not make us righteous; we are already that in Jesus. They are what the righteous do, and Jesus presumes that His justified disciples will do them too. Only He cautions against doing them in order to be seen and praised by men.
Our Lord begins with giving alms to the needy. When you give to the poor, and Jesus assumes that His disciples will be generous, Jesus says, sound no trumpet. Don’t even let your left hand (or your tax accountant) know what your right hand is doing. Don’t give with one eye on the books and one ear cocked for the applause. Give out of the abundance of God’s grace. Almsgiving is an antidote to the religion of money. The love of money is the root of all manner of evil, Paul says (1 Tim. 6:10).
There are many gifts and many needs. Monetary gifts are given, time is given within our vocations and gifts of service, our skills are used not for our benefit but for the benefit of others. While we are probably in some ways generous, there undoubtedly failure in many ways in which we fail to give.
Dear Christian, do you long for glory in your giving? Do you ever have hurt feelings for being under-appreciated or unnoticed? Would you willing give in secret whatever God asks of you? “I implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:30b)
Thus we repent and turn to the One who gives perfectly. He gives to us and expects nothing in return. He gave His life for you and I, the very people which took His life. You possess all things for you possess His righteousness. As one’s who have received all gifts from God, you have nothing to show off, you have no gifts of which to boast which are yours, yet you have the righteousness of God.
The Jesus moves on to prayer. When you pray, and Jesus assumes that His disciples will pray, Jesus says, don’t make a big deal of it, in the marketplace, on the street corner, amongst your friends or your household, or even in church. And don’t deal with God as though He were some kind of vending machine into which we plug the right combination of prayer and praise to get a blessing on demand. We not only often fail to ask God for our daily bread, but we also fail to intercede for our fellow Christians, for our church and school, for our hearts to be prepared for worship, as well as for our unsaved neighbors.
Dear saints of God, do you trumpet your prayers before men? Do you seek to gain glory before others as those who are seen as prayer warriors? Do you parents pray other than meal times with your families? Do you children pray other than when told to by others? Do you even stop and pray other than in church? “I implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:30b)
Christ perfectly prays for you. He intercedes on your behalf without fail. He often would go off and pray. He prayed with His disciples. He prayed even while being nailed to the cross, for our forgiveness. He continues to sit at the right of the Father and intercede for us in perfect prayer.
So we continue to repent. We repent for our lack of prayer and faith. Jesus does not mean that we may only pray behind closed doors. We pray here in the Divine Service as well as at family meals. We often pray with fellow Christians and family members. God commends such prayer. He gives us to pray with each other that we bear one another’s burdens. That we may serve as Christians, little Christ’s, towards each other in prayer that comes forth from Christ who dwells in us.
And finally, Jesus speaks of fasting. Many Christians disregard fasting as discipline. Yet, just as with prayer and with giving charitably, our Lord speaks as though He simply expects that His disciples fast. But don’t walk around groaning and complaining of your hunger, but keep yourself presentable and not disheveled.
Fasting is certainly fine outward training, as our catechism speaks on the Lord’s Supper. God uses fasting to teach us the discipline of the body and to keep us from the love of passing things of this world. And our dying and decaying bodies are left hungering for the bread of life. Hungering for the true body and true blood which nourishes us in true faith. Therefore, we do not fast before others. Rather, we fast to keep us mindful of our mortality and our total reliance on God. In fact, the matter of your fasting belongs between you and your heavenly Father who sees what is done in the secret.
Dear Christian, have you ever fasted and made such a monumental case over your fasting before others? Have boasted of your giving something up for Lent? Perhaps even more timely, do you have any discipline to be more focused on the gifts of Christ rather than things of this world? Could you even go without or has the things of the world become your idol? “I implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:30b)
Christ fasted perfectly for us. As we will hear in this coming Sunday’s Gospel, our Lord fasted 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan. Christ fasted perfectly, living not by bread alone but by every Word that comes from God, and that Word made flesh gives us the feast of His body and blood.
These things are good practices, done in secret, seen only by Our Father in heaven. That doesn’t mean these things are not noticed! Each time after wanting against putting on a show with hypocritical actions He said, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
God doesn’t squash our desire to be noticed. He notices! Our loving Father notices us so much that he made him who had no sin, to be sin for us. By Christ’s humiliating death of hanging on the cross he became sin for us.
He made Jesus, His sinless Son, to be sin for us. Your sin and mine. Jesus on the cross is the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the liar, the disobedient child, the fallen Christian, the sinner who says, “Look at me.” He became our sin. He embodied our death in His body, so that we, in Him, might become the righteousness of God. God has reconciled the world to Himself in the death of Jesus.
Jesus prays for us on our behalf. He prays with us as we pray, “Our Father.” Even as he was being handed over for us on the cross He prayed for us, “Father, forgive them.” Being obedient under the law, He fasted for us, fasting at the appointed times and as He did he went off and prayed. He gave alms. Alms that were seen by all, as His hands were spiked to the tree he knew what he was giving – the most merciful gift, treasure where neither moth nor rust destroys and thieves do not break in and steal. Treasure of his pierced body and shed blood which reconciles you to God and gives you the righteousness of God.
He sets us free from justifying ourselves before others. For He justifies us, He makes us right and holy before the Heavenly Father. He sets us free and gives us the gifts to love others. He gives you your reward, a reward that you have done nothing to deserve, the reward of the resurrection. For us who deserve death and deserve to be returned to the ashes from which we were created, we are returned to the Lord.
As you go home, marked with the ashes you will undoubtedly want to wash them off. Go ahead. As you do, remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Remember that little bit of dust as a reminder of what your body and life is, and yet that which it is marked, that which you received in Baptism, the sign of the cross upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ. As you wash the dust off, be remember your baptism, that washing which removes the dust but does not remove the inscription of that cross. As you see the dust and repent, trust Christ’s Holy Word which you have heard today, “your sins are forgiven.” As you wash them, remember your baptism which cleanses you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Remember the place in which these ashes came. These are burned palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. Our Hosannas of the coming Christ, as we began Holy Week continue to come to us, now to serve as a reminder of our sin and death and prepare us once again for the season of repentance as we look the cross and passion. Christ’s death and passion come to us over and over, year after year, season after season, week after week. All to give you restoration, to make you whole, to forgive your sin and give you life.
In the name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.