February 17, 2021 Ash Wednesday The text is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
(Jesus said), 1 “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. 2 “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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “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. 6 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. 16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we gather this evening to begin our Lenten journey, I find myself tending to drift away somewhat from the Scripture lessons that we’ve just heard. Matthew’s words are selected every year because they speak to what faithful Christians should always be doing as their spiritual practice, especially during Lent. But I’m sure you will agree that this hasn’t been like every other year.
Yet, the church celebrates the several liturgical seasons every year, the current situation in the world notwithstanding. And the timeline is essentially the same every year. And there is a great deal that happens in a rather compressed period. It seems such a short time ago that we were in Advent, awaiting Christ’s birth. And it was only eight weeks ago that we rejoiced at the arrival of the baby Jesus on Christmas. And now we find ourselves only seven weeks away from Easter, when we will again gather in joy to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Thus, tonight we begin the season of Lent, which will last for the next five weeks. And during this time, we are called to focus on our mortality as we continue our walk with Jesus. We are encouraged to consider our sinful nature, practice repentance, and seek forgiveness; all the while maintaining faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace.
And on Ash Wednesday, as Lent begins, the imposition of ashes serves to signify that we acknowledge the passion that Christ endured on our behalf, the suffering that plagues humanity, and the understanding and acceptance of our mortality. The powdery, cross-shaped smudge upon the forehead is a reminder of Christ’s cross; signifying his death and more importantly, his rising on the third day. We are admonished to reflect on the meaning of the ashes as we consider the struggles that define human life. But, like I said, this hasn’t been like every other year. It’s fair to say that we have all been living Lenten-like lives for twelve months now. The world has spent a great deal of time considering its sinful nature, hopefully practicing repentance, and actively seeking forgiveness; all the while maintaining faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace.
Part of the Lenten observance is the focus on self-reflection, and in many Christian denominations (including Lutherans) this includes refraining from some “thing” or some action. I remember my Catholic friends in school asking me what I planned to “give up for Lent”. Now, this wasn’t part of my early Presbyterian upbringing, yet this act of self-denial as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice is a worthy spiritual practice. That said, we’ve all “given up” quite a bit these past twelve months; this “year-long Lent” we’ve found ourselves in. So perhaps we might be better served if we consider the ashes that announce the beginning of Lent as the visible symbol of all that has befallen the world during the pandemic.
But since there has been so much struggle due to the virus and so much has been denied to people, we’d be even better served if we allow the mark of the ashen cross to symbolize for us the Christ who has risen from it. Again, the calendar reminds us that Easter is right around the corner. No matter how much has been withheld from us, no matter how much has had to be “given up”, we cling to the acknowledgement that defines us as followers of this Jesus; we are “Resurrection People!” Our God has promised us life everlasting and our Savior has secured this promise for us. So, whether we wear the actual ashen smudge on our foreheads this year or not, we are still able to keep the image of the empty cross vivid in our hearts and minds. Even as we maintain the Lenten practices that admonish us to examine the current reality that is our earthly existence, the image of the cross from which Jesus Christ rose symbolizes the heavenly life to come. And no matter the condition of the world around us, that can never be taken from us; we will never have to “give it up”.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious and holy God, you have sustained us in times of great trial, in which much has been denied your people. Even as we acknowledge and come to grips with our mortal lives in this realm, we cling to your promise of a perfect existence in your kingdom to come. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose empty cross we look to as the fulfilment of your promise to renew all things. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.