Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
February 17, 2010
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s that time of year again. Ash Wednesday. Lent. Time to make my annual feeble attempts at practicing my Christianity more fervently. Time to go to church on Thursdays. Time for ashes on the forehead, and hymns like “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” Time to feel sorry for Jesus. Time to feel really bad about myself. It’s that time of year again. “Ho-hum.”
This is how a lot of Christians look at Lent. For many of us, Lent means a few minor changes in how the service is done on Sunday. For some it means “giving up something” like chocolate or kissing. But for the most part, it is just another season of the Church Year.
The sin, however, is not in how we observe or do not observe Lent. There is no command from God to change the way we do the service for a few weeks during the church year. You will not be sinning against God if you do not fast, or if you fast. These are traditions that the Church has used to remind Christians to take seriously God’s call to repent and return to Him, but there is no sin in doing them or omitting them.
The sin is in the attitude of our hearts toward God. This should be the real focus of Lent. Our hearts lack true fear of God, love for God, and trust in God. And because we do not fear, love, and trust in God as we ought, we misuse his name, we despise his Word, and we withhold love from our parents, our spouses, our children, our fellow church members, our classmates, our fellow workers, and all the other people that we interact with every day.
Thus the prophet says today: “Rend your hearts, and not your garments.” You have not properly observed Lent if you merely fast or come to church more often but have no intention of turning from the sinful attitudes and behaviors that damage your relationships and separate you from God and from others. Anything less than a whole-hearted rejection of all that is sinful in you and a whole-hearted return to the God who is gracious and merciful in Christ isn’t worth the effort.
Half-heartedness or just “going through the motions” is not what this Season of the Church Year is about. It is not enough. God says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To observe Lent is to take an honest look at ourselves in light of God’s Law, and confess that we have lived as if God did not matter and as if we mattered most of all. It is to look into the mirror of God’s Commandments, and to be horrified at what stares back at us. It is to confess that we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one of us to our own way.
Lent is a time for us to acknowledge with remorse and regret that we are not nearly the Christians that we ought to be. We can all be more faithful husbands and wives; we can always be more obedient children and citizens; we can all be better fathers and mothers, better and harder workers and students, and more faithful Christians, more fervent at prayer and more open to hearing God’s word. None of us has a leg up on another when it comes to keeping the Law. None of us can say that we are without fault. We must all remove the forest of logs from our own eyes, and take responsibility for the pain and hurt that we have caused others. Only then will we see clearly to remove the speck of dust from our brother’s eye. Which is to say, we should all consider our own sins and faults to be more serious than those of our neighbor.
“The wages of sin is death.” Hence, the ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” God promised Adam and Eve that they would see death if they ate of the fruit from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so they did. Death came into the world through sin, and it is not selective in its victims. “From sire to son the bane descends,” says the hymn. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And because all sinned, all died.
It is good for us to remember this. Our culture treats death as if it were the most natural thing in the world. For us Christians, though, death is something that would not have to be experienced except for sin. We die because we are sinners. It is the final consequence of Adam’s rebellion. We might get away with murder, as the saying goes. We might be able to pull the wool over the eyes of our parents or spouse or teachers. We might get away with an affair or a lie, but in the end we cannot escape death. God is judge, and He will judge the adulterer, the murderer, the fornicator, the liar, and the idolater. He has said so himself.
What does this mean? It means that “we should fear his wrath and not do anything against his commandments.” So says Luther. But it also means that “we should also love and trust in him and gladly do what he commands.” Why? Because we know that God loves and cares for us. He has proven himself time after time to be a faithful and forgiving God, a God who shows favor to the one who returns to Him. He relented from his fierce anger and did not always carry it out to its fullest extent, though the children of Israel certainly deserved it.
Most especially we should love and trust in Him because of what He did for us on the cross. In his rich grace and mercy God sent His Son into death for us and for our salvation. He became a curse for us. He took full responsibility for our sins, and allowed himself to be tortured and killed so that we might go free. This is the other side of Lent. “The wages of sin is death,” says the Lord, but the “free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” While we don the sackcloth and ashes of repentance, while we lament and mourn over our sins, we also rejoice in the life that Jesus lived on our behalf, and the death that he died for our sins on the cross.
Every Christian therefore can be sure that God has forgiven his sins. Every unkind word, every act of rebellion, every sinful desire has been atoned for by Christ. Every bit of unholiness in us was matched by the holiness and righteousness of Jesus Christ. That is why Scripture calls him our righteousness and our sanctification. Even our hypocrisy is forgiven. In the death of Jesus, the Father has declared us innocent.
The Scriptures tonight call us to “return to the Lord your God.” This is largely the focus of Lent. But it is hard for someone to return to God if he thinks that he is already there. It is often the case that those who think they are close to God are really far away from him. And those who think they are far away from Him are really close.
Let me give you an example from Holy Scripture. The teachers of the Law, as they were called, boasted of being God’s representatives. They believed themselves to be very close to God. They were like men who thought they were holy and righteous, but were blind to the filth that covered them. “Hypocrites,” Jesus called them. “White-washed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.”
In the Gospel tonight Jesus tells his disciples and us to beware of this sin of hypocrisy. “When you practice your righteousness, do not be like the hypocrites.” They made a big show of their almsgiving, their fasting, and their prayers, hoping to impress men. And they most certainly did. Very impressive were their acts of devotion. Impressive to men, but abhorred by God. Their hearts were still full of wickedness and evil.
Those who thought they were far away from God were actually very close to Him. Those who lacked the piety and devotion of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, those who saw no holiness in themselves, those who knew that they were anything but righteous in God’s sight—those were the ones who found favor in the eyes of Jesus. To use an earthly analogy, if Jesus was a buffet of forgiveness, righteousness, and mercy, the Pharisees came already stuffed; the others came hungry, starved in fact, and they feasted sumptuously not on their own goodness but on that of Jesus.
The purpose of Lent is to make us hungry, spiritually hungry, or rather, to reveal our spiritual hunger to us. It teaches us how destitute we really are on account of sin so that we might hunger more and more for the righteousness of Christ. And it puts before the eyes of the Church the blessed hope of salvation in the death of the only-begotten Son of God. It teaches us to look in faith to the Crucified One, for only in Him will we find relief and healing from the bitter curse of sin. If Lent does this for you, then it has done its job. Amen.