Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; 2 Peter 1:2-11; Joel 2:12-19

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period of preparation for The Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, Easter Sunday. The forty days of Lent are patterned after Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of the devil by His trust and reliance upon the Word of God. Thus, you already begin to see what your preparation is to be like. For, you also must learn to trust and to rely upon the Word of God and not your self or your own works. Indeed, your Lord’s Word to you this day is “Beware,” “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”
But, what does Jesus mean? Truly, we often hear of our being made righteous by God’s decree on account of the innocent shed blood of Jesus, but what does Jesus mean by “practicing your righteousness?” Well, just as no one will call you a runner if you do not run, and no one will call you a singer if you do not sing, so you are not righteous if you do not practice righteousness. That is to say, if you do not bear the fruit of righteousness in your life, words, and deeds, then you are not righteous. That is what St. James means when he says that “faith without works is dead.” And, that’s what Jesus means when He says, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And then, Jesus goes on to exhort you to three very specific ways in which you practice your righteousness: Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These have come down to us as the traditional Three Pillars of Lent.
Now, typically, Protestants, and even some Lutherans, have been quick to call the observance of the Three Pillars man made Roman Catholic tradition. While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are the largest Christian fellowships that still encourage and practice the Three Pillars, it is simply false to conclude that the Three Pillars are merely the doctrines and traditions of men. They are not, but they are Biblical, even taught by our Lord Jesus Himself, which you heard for yourself in today’s Gospel. Additionally, Jesus doesn’t make these disciplines optional. He doesn’t say, “If you give to the needy,” but He says “When you give to the needy,” “When you pray,” and “When you fast.” However, while they are not optional, Jesus also teaches that they do not constitute righteousness, but rather, they are the practice of righteousness. Thus, you do not give alms, pray, and fast in order to earn or merit righteousness – for, you could never give, pray, or fast enough to make even a small movement towards righteousness – but you give alms, pray, and fast because you are declared righteous by God in the innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ.
That is why Jesus warns you to “Beware,” “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” But, note, the warning is not to beware practicing your righteousness, but the warning is in regard to the reason you are practicing your righteousness. If you are practicing your righteousness in order to be seen by other people so that they will think you righteous, then, Jesus says, you already have your reward; you have the admiration and praise of men. In that case, even though your righteousness comes from God alone through Jesus Christ, you give men the impression that righteousness comes from yourself, or from other men.
And, so, you can easily see why giving alms, praying, and fasting have become traditional Lenten disciplines, for, they are selfless acts, that is to say, they are not turned inward upon oneself, but they are turned outward towards both God and neighbor. Moreover, these disciplines place you in a receptive mode, in a mode in which you are receptive to what God freely provides and gives to you. These works of yours are not your righteousness, for, that comes from the LORD alone, but they are the fruit of your God-given righteousness and, thus, the practice of your God-given righteousness.
The Lenten disciplines serve to reorient you to the two tables of the Law and the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” For, you cannot obey the second table, about loving your neighbor, until you obey the first table about loving God. Consequently, if you obey the first table, then obedience to the second will follow naturally as fruit. You will, without even having to work at it, be laying up treasure for yourself in heaven. And, where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.
God knows that you have strayed. I have strayed too. But, do not despair. Rather, take heart and return to the LORD. For, your LORD still says to you, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and nor your garments.” “Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Truly, this is what Lent is all about – repentance. Repentance means, “to turn back,” and repentance, turning back to the LORD, is what it means to prepare for Easter. Lent is an opportunity to reorient yourself in relation to your God. It’s a First Commandment opportunity to return to having no other gods before Him, not even yourself, and to fearing, loving, and trusting in Him above all things.
For, the LORD remains jealous for you. He will not share you with another god, not that there is another. Therefore, “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” In fact, what He desires for you is “that you may become partakers of His divine nature.” Thus, because you could not become what He is, divine God, He became what you are, a human being, in the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ – God became man, that man might become God. And, the Lenten disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, along with other forms of selflessness and self-sacrifice – faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love – “keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But, you must practice these disciplines, and do so with this promise, “if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Yes, practice righteousness, but always recognize and remember that righteousness comes from outside of you, the free gift of God in and through Jesus Christ. So whatever you give away, whatever you pray, and whatever you abstain from, do these things, not because you believe that they please the LORD or merit His favor, but do them because of the righteousness you have received as a free and perfect gift in Jesus Christ. Sacrifice yourself now because of the sacrifice God has made for you in His Son Jesus, who gave up all things rightfully His out of love for His Father and for you, believing, knowing, and trusting that the LORD who made all things and who gave us life is able and willing to give you all things.
And, so, when you give, pray, and fast, you lose nothing at all, but you gain more of what your LORD graciously desires to pour into you. But, He will pour into you and fill you to overflowing so that you will have much to share. Thus Jesus teaches “when,” not “if.” “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” This is true all the year round. But, during Lent, it will be a blessing to you to be intentional about believing and trusting in the LORD and His Word. He desires to bless you. May you receive His blessing and be a rich blessing to others to the glory of His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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