Ash Wednesday 2016 – Matthew 6
In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
What reward do you wish? What's your goal, O Christian? What do you want? I ask this question this Ash Wednesday night, because this is the question that is at the heart of our Gospel lesson for tonight. It's how Jesus starts this section of the Sermon on the Mount. “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.” There it is – reward talk. What reward are you seeking – an earthly one or one from your Father in heaven? When you strive to do all the things that a Christian is typically supposed to do, what folks think a Christian ought to be doing – what reward, what goal are you seeking?
And Jesus spells it out, and it cuts against our own pride and desire to be praised. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Well, Pastor – I guess I'm scot free since I haven't sounded any trumpets lately when I've done stuff. Really – has it been that long since you've tooted your own horn on your generosity? Because Jesus hits the nail on the head – when we do good, we want recognition. In fact, our society loves recognition! In fact, as a society we train folks that they ought to receive public recognition whenever they do anything. Wednesday is small town paper day – I get three of them in the mail box. Anyone want to bet me whether or not I'd find some pictures of some nice folks who have done nice things, and isn't that just the nicest write up in the paper. Here's your ribbon, here's your gold star. It's how we operate as a culture. Now, getting recognized isn't bad in and of itself, but Jesus here reminds us that our focus should not be getting the praise of men; if we are giving to the needy, if we are helping someone out – shouldn't they be our focus?
And Jesus continues – And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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. Not only your charity – what's the purpose of your prayer? Why do you pray, what's the goal? Indeed, why do you even come to church? Are you here to be seen by the other people here – so they can tell what a good Christian you are? Do you like it when folks say, “Ah, there they go – such nice people, off to Church again.” Is that the point? Do we come here so folks in the town will think we're nice, pious folks? Now, let's be honest – don't we really sort of kind of care what the folks out there think of us? And not just us as individuals – but as a congregation! We don't want them to think we're too weird or different, kind of want to fit in – yeah, those folks at Trinity are good folks. Not the point. We don't pray here to be seen, we don't yell when pryaing grace before a meal at the restaurant to be heard, and we don't do our personal prayers to be seen by everybody and their brother. If you are praying so that people think better of, you've sort of missed the point.
Now, our Gospel lesson tonight jumps – it skips the Lord's Prayer. Fear not, we'll touch on to that in a bit, but let's continue on in what we heard. Because the Gospel lesson jumps to the third thing that we can twist around towards our own glory. We've had charity, we've had prayer – and now, fasting. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by everyone. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.” Well, see Pastor – now I know I'm off scot free on that one because I'm a good little Lutheran and I wouldn't be caught dead fasting like those Roman Catholics. Except Jesus kind of assumes that we'll be fasting at some point because He goes to to say: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When. Guess Jesus sort of assumes that sometimes you'll be fasting. Now, before I give anyone heart attacks because they hadn't planned to give anything up for lent – remember what fasting was in the Jewish and Ancient world. Fasting was just the physical practice that went along with repenting. If you were repenting, you'd fast, you wouldn't party. This is what we see in Jonah – oh, we best repent, well, part of that repentance is fasting. In fact, if you've got a prophet coming and saying God's ready to smite you, you throw in some sack-cloth and ashes. And the point that Jesus is making is this – we are so perverse, we are such glory hounds, that we can turn even our repentance, our sorrow over our sin into something that seeks glory. Back in the day, a good pious Jew would fast twice a week – Tuesday and Thursday – just to cover their bases – ah, and look, there's Yakov fasting again, what a good boy. Well, Pastor – we don't do that today, so there's no need to get on our case about that! Okay – and I'm sorry. No, no, I'm really sorry. I want you to know just how sorry I am, see how sorry I am, I really really mean it, you've got to believe me and know that I am just so sorry – you know, I told them over and over again how sorry I was but they just wouldn't listen. Yeah, we can trumpet our repentance even today, just in different ways. And if the point of our repentance is that people see how repentant we are... well, we missed the point.
So it should be abundantly clear that the point is not to be seen by men, to receive praise and pats on the back from them. But there's still a very serious way to misunderstand this text – and that is to think that we should receive earthly rewards for our piety here and now. Well, Pastor – it does say over and over that your Father who sees in secret will see and will reward you. So, I've been nice and quiet about the nice stuff I've done for folks, and I don't draw attention to what a good little Christian I am (only God sees that), and I haven't be trying to look miserable to impress folks. So... where's my reward? Why wasn't the hymn of the day, “O Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” Pastor – I want my reward. Again, not the point.
The point is not the here and now. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Whenever we think that our actions, our worship should make life here better – whether we want our neighbors to give us rewards now or God to do it – we miss the point. It's putting your heart, your treasure in the wrong place. The point, the goal, the reward is eternal life, given to you by Christ Jesus. Jesus will use that same word for reward a few chapters later on in Matthew in the parable of workers in the vineyard that we heard a few Sundays ago – they all went at the end of the day and received their reward, their wage. That same reward that they all had in common, no matter how long they worked in the vineyard.
My dear friends, your true treasure, your true reward is Christ Jesus and the forgiveness and life that He brings. We don't need to butter up either neighbors or God for earthly stuff – have we not been taught that He will give us our daily bread? That His kingdom will come and His will shall be done? No, our works of love, our prayers, even our repentance are not meant to change our neighbor's opinion of us, or God's opinion, but rather they are to change our attitude, to change our focus – to remind us to focus upon Jesus and His mercy and forgiveness.
Think about it. When you give alms, when you show love – why is that? Is it not because Christ Jesus first loved you? It's not you trying to cause something, but rather it is Jesus working good in you and through you as a result of the love He has shown you. He is the Vine, you are the branches, and you will bear fruit. Even your works, your kindnesses, ought drive you back to Christ Jesus. Or our prayers – do not our prayers throw us and drive us back to Jesus – for we pray in Jesus' Name! We pray as He has taught us. We go before the Father not on the basis of our own merits, but as His Baptized and redeemed children, covered not in our own righteousness but in Christ's. Our prayer is to be about Christ. And indeed, our repentance – when we see our sin, our weakness – that's just the old song – they are weak, I am weak, I see my weakness... they are weak but He is strong, yes, Jesus loves me. Everything in our lives as Christians is designed, is meant to focus us upon Christ, to fix our eyes upon Christ Jesus, to make us know nothing but Christ and Him Crucified – to fix us upon His calling and His election of us and His forgiveness for us.
Because that is your treasure – that is what the Father wills to give you. Life and salvation in Christ Jesus through His death and resurrection. That is why the Father sent His Son into this world; this is why we see Christ Jesus stride towards the Cross. And everything in our lives is a reflection of that, is us taking up our Cross and following Him, not to earn divine brownie points, but because we are focused upon Christ, because we are joined to him in Baptism – do you not know that those of you who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death? We are given Christ in His Supper, for whenever we eat this bread or drink this cup, we show forth His death until He comes. This Lent, God be with us as we see Jesus more and more, as we see the great I Am. +