Ash Wednesday – March 5th, 2014
In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
The old adage is that if you want a conversation to say polite, there are two things you don’t talk about. Religion and politics! Of course, it seems like folks are still willing to talk up politics, given the popularity of Fox News and MSNBC – but discussions on religion and God and Jesus and faith have been… pushed aside.. Overall, Jesus doesn’t get a lot of mention in public discourse these days in our country, whether we’re talking about politics, the weather, the economy, education, life or death, or anything else, or if He does, it’s just a passing nod without really saying anything. Generally, Americans take their religious convictions to be private and personal. Even otherwise devout Christians keep Jesus in that Sunday-morning box and bring Him up not at all the rest of the time - Pastor Hall, who used to be at Redeemer, would refer to this as “functional atheism”.
This differs entirely from the view expressed repeatedly in the Scriptures: Psalm 105 “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples”; or Psalm 96“Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”. We who bear the name of the Lord are exhorted to confess it, to make know the reason for the hope that is within us. And yet, when the time comes, we can clam up, be silent. What is the problem? Why do Christians speak of Christ Jesus, our God and Savior in hushed tones, even with one another? What has driven our speech about the Lord so far underground? Who did this to us?
There is no single answer to all these questions. Obviously, the devil has played his evil role, and he still plays it. The modern world has been mounting its attack on Christianity for a quarter of a millennium and more. Yet you may be surprised who else did this to Christians. In many ways, we’ve done it to ourselves. We did it, and we continue to do it, when we take on habits of speaking about God and thinking about Him that simply trivialize him. We make Him out to be less than He is and to do so much less than He does. As a result, God ceases to be very important to us. Then He becomes so easy to brush off that it’s downright scary. He can be absent not only from our speech, but also from our hearts.
The modern world has no monopoly on trivializing God, though. We find it in the text. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to three key elements of Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Our Lord observed that folks would make a big show of the fact that they were giving alms. They would pray in the most public places so they could be seen quite readily. They would make themselves look terrible while they were fasting because they wanted others to notice them and sympathize with them. In short, as these people were engaging in all their religious acts, their thoughts hardly centered on God. Their intentions scarcely had the goal of praising Him. They were hypocrites, Jesus pointed out, like actors playing parts. The purpose of their piety was not for them to praise God but instead for them to use God for something they wanted: to be praised by people. They trivialized the great God to be noticed by mere humans. In the end that was all they got: “they have received their reward,” Jesus said repeatedly. Thus Jesus warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven”.
Think about church life today. “How many Christians have had their feelings hurt because they didn’t receive ‘the recognition they deserved’ for their service in the church? How many dollars would have been withheld if there had been no memorial plaque in honor of the person who donated the money Soli Deo Gloria, ‘to the glory of God alone’?” It is terrible to use God in an attempt to obtain approval from people. The approval may not follow. But it can be equally bad when the approval does follow, for the approval itself might grow to be the big prize in our eyes, and God ends up being pushed aside. It’s a hollow victory. You get your recognition, and that’s all.
This point applies more broadly; we can trivialize God in other ways to get what we want. Theologically shallow times can persuade us that God’s role in our lives amounts to making us happy or giving us some sort of fulfillment. If this is the way we start thinking, it won’t be long before we find that a nice vacation trip or exciting new job can also give us happiness and fulfillment. The nice warm bed on Sunday morning can give us rest and peace. And we are tempted to settle for that, and that is the reward we receive. The Lord offers us so much, yet in our sin we can settle for a great deal less. Then that’s all we’ll get.
The problem is unbelief, and under God repentance forms the only solution. He has not ceased to be the one with whom we must reckon. Before his judgment we stand, even now. Yet this almighty God remains our Father. The word “Father” is used of God ten times in the first eighteen verses of Matthew 6. He does not want us to be left as orphans. He is and wants to be our Father. He, the “Father of lights,” stands behind all blessings. From him comes “every good gift and every perfect gift”.
Still more, he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He sent his Son into the world and thereby loved the world supremely. Everything Christ did, he did so that he would be your Lord and so that God would be your loving Father. This includes—at the beginning of Lent we recall how it especially includes—Christ’s own suffering and death.
In fact, Jesus is single-mindedly fixed on the death and burial in which he would give his own life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28), for you. His death and burial stands at the heart of the Gospel. He wasted no time or thought trying to make these things look pretty. It didn’t matter whether his actions met with the approval of people wanting to serve their own purposes. Jesus stood out as different. He was determined to serve his Father. He was determined to do the Father’s will, rather than His own. All he wanted, for himself and for the world, was the approval of God the Father. That was all he needed, and it meant everything.
For a while it appeared impossible to get, when darkness covered the land and Jesus cried out that God had abandoned him (Mt 27:45–46). Yet this was part of carrying out the plan. Christ took your place. He died the death that you should die. St. Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. This all became clear on the third day, when the burial tomb was empty and the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus, who had been crucified, was risen as he said. The Father had approved. He approved of Jesus, and in his Son He approves of you.
There is nothing that tops this. The world might hold out riches before us, our friends might threaten their disapproval if we get too religious-y on them, temptations might come aplenty, but the truth remains, Christ has died and risen for you, you are Baptized into Christ, and God is indeed Your Father, and in Christ, you are His beloved son, His beloved daughter.
And as a child will ask his father, so too you have been given the ability to call upon your Heavenly Father in prayer – indeed, your Heavenly Father wants you to pray to Him. This is one of the most astonishing things in the world – God Almighty, Maker of all things, actually wants you to bring your requests to Him. If we actually thought about this, it would astonish us. How many of us might get a little tongue tied if suddenly talking to a judge, or a celebrity, or even just normal public speech. And now, God Almighty says, “Go ahead and talk, I’m listening.”
This is why Christ Jesus teaches us to pray. This is why He gives us the Lord’s Prayer. He knows that prayer can be daunting, that often words fail us, that we get confused and lose focus. And so, He teaches us to pray. And the rest of this Lententide, we will be focused on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. Now, because we are doing a rotation, we’re going to jump around a bit. Next week, Pastor Ray from Garber will preach on the 5th Petition, then Pastor Dorsch on the 1st, then Pastor Whittenberg on the 2nd, then Pastor House on the 3rd, and finally Pastor Orr on the 4th. I’ll get to finish up the 6th and 7th on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So, this Lent, we will mediate upon Christ Jesus, His love for us, and the wonderful gift of prayer that His love has won for us. God be with you through these upcoming midweek services, as you grow and learn more of His love for you in Christ and His gift of prayer. In the Name of Christ the Crucified +