Peace and grace to you all from God the Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen!
Thank you all for coming tonight, and let me say, welcome to Lent. Lent is a season of the church that marks 40 days before Easter, and is usually observed through fasting, prayer, and repentance. Some people might even give something up or take on spiritual practices for the next forty days in order to grow closer to God. That being said, our gospel text today shows us how to do Lent right.
As the old saying goes, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Typically, this expression means: If you have a great body, don’t hide it under modest attire. Show yourself off for the world to see. If you have a brilliant mind, don’t be humble and unassuming. Expose the genius within. If you have money, spend it so that people know you’re rich. Perhaps you can see the problems with the notion, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Yet, for some strange reason many Christians assume that this expression is also valid in the realm of faith life. It’s common for Christians to brag about how much they give, how much they pray, how much they serve, and how spiritual they are. Honestly, we’ve all been guilty of this behavior. It’s easy to be spiritually smug and let pride enter into our lives. We all want to be recognized and appreciated for the things that we do. We all want to impress people with our gifts and devotion. Yet, the Bible is clear that we must seek to impress God alone. What this means is that we must check our motives, and take a look at where are hearts are as we do the things we do.
So, looking at our text today, Jesus starts the lesson with principle: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven. There, I said it. Do I need to preach the rest of this sermon? But Jesus goes more in depth about what he means by this. You see, the Pharisees and other religious leaders at the time had a bad habit of making themselves known when they were performing their religious duties. To them, it wasn't about helping others or growing closer to God. It was about looking the part. When Jesus says that they should not practice faith to be seen, he is telling them that their reward is the temporary adoration of the people watching. God will not reward them for it. They have already gotten the attention that they were seeking. Jesus speaks out against several practices in these verses. First, there's giving alms. This means that when we give to the poor, we should not shout out about how good we are. I live in a generation where there is the question “if you don't post about it on social media, did it really happen?” But what Jesus is saying in this text is that we are not to make a big deal out of our actions. The second thing that Jesus speaks out against is showing praying in public. There is a verse in Luke, about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in public, and the Pharisee puts on a big show about how important he is. The tax collector, by comparison, stood aside and said “God have mercy on me, a sinner. Jesus gave honor to the lowly, because of their intention of getting closer to God. Jesus never knocked at the righteous, only the self-righteous.
So, today for Ash Wednesday, we will be doing the imposition of Ashes. You may be wondering if this sign of ashes is contrary to everything I just said about making public displays of piety, but hear me out. In bible traditions, ashes were put on a person's head as a sign of mourning. The shape of the cross is to remind ourselves of our baptismal promise, and that Christ died to atone for our sin. And because we share in a baptism like Christ, we share in a death like Christ. We use the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as we make the cross to remind us of our sinfulness and mortality, and thus, our need for God. This is to start a season in which we remember what God has done for us through Jesus. So, as we journey with you this Lenten season, I would encourage you to remember the reason for why and how you worship God. And for all that God has done for us, we can turn and say “Thanks be to God.” Amen.