Ash Wednesday 2008

Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-21

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A man who goes to the gym to be seen going, who makes sure to talk about his exercise routine at the coffee pot and carry around a gym bag, and so forth, in order that his co-workers would think he is a disciplined athlete, might get the grudging admiration of his co-workers for a time. That will be his reward. But they won’t be that impressed, or care that much, and it certainly won’t last. The opinions of men are fickle and fleeting. Doing good works in order to impress men is pitiful.

Better than seeking approval from others, would be to perform good works for the goodness of the works themselves. This was Aristotle’s view. The purpose of man, according to Aristotle, is to achieve happiness. Happiness is gained by virtue. Nothing immoral is ever expedient. So men should perform good works because good works are good. Since they are good they are fulfilling and satisfying. Thus does virtue, or good works, deliver happiness.

There is a truth in Aristotle’s thinking. There is a reward in keeping the Law and it is good. If we’re talking exercise at the gym, Aristotle’s model would be the people who make the sacrifice and do the hard work. It doesn’t matter if anyone is impressed with them or sees their muscles, because the sacrifice itself was good and because of it they are fit and in good health. The keeping of the Law is its own reward and it is good.

Consider this from a civil perspective. You cannot go into the courthouse and demand a reward because you stopped at the red light and went on the green. That is what you were supposed to do. If you did then you probably received the benefit of not being hit. You were part of the traffic flow, in the order, in harmony and cooperation with the other drivers, things worked as they should, and it was good. No one got hurt. That was the reward.

But that is a far as the Law or Aristotle can go. There is nothing more there. It is a far better reward than having your neighbors temporarily and slightly impressed. But it doesn’t do much for sinners who have broken the law, who have run a red light or were too lazy to work out. Nor is it much good for those who stopped at the red light but were hit by a drunk driver who didn’t. The most the law can do is deliver a reward of fleeting satisfaction where moth and rust destroy. And no matter how diligent you are at the gym, no matter how great a sacrifice you make, no matter how well you follow the rules, you cannot escape the inheritance of Adam. Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Those who seek to impress men by pretending to keep the Law and those who actually do keep the Law have their reward. But not so you. For your treasures have been stored in heaven. You do not get your reward. You get the reward of Jesus Christ, what He earned and deserved for you. He bestowed this upon you in the washing of Water and Word, at the speaking of the Holy Absolution, at the breaking of the bread. Thus do you pray “Our Father who art in heaven . . . forgive us our trespasses . . . deliver us from evil.” What the law could not do, God has done for you in Christ. He has not only reconciled you to the Father, so that your sins have been put to death on the cross, but by taking on your nature and ascending into heaven He has elevated your status. You call Him Brother and Bridegroom. You call His Father our Father and you will follow Him out of the grave and into the mansions He has prepared for you, not back to the garden of Eden, but into heaven, to His home and inheritance, not to receive your reward, but to receive His reward. For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. He spares His people.

Thus are you free to keep the Law, to do charitable deeds, to pray and fast, not only for the reward they give in themselves, because they are good, as noted by Aristotle, but because Our Father in heaven is merciful. He extends His mercy to the world through you. You do them not just because they are good, but because they are useful to your neighbor. Salvation is a gift. God has sacrificed His Son in your place and declared you righteous for His sake. He has stored up treasures in heaven for you. He gives the Jesus’ reward to you for free. But to lack good works, prayers and fasts and charitable deeds, is to be shortsighted, even to blindness. For again: Our Father in heaven is merciful. He extends His mercy through you. You partake of the divine nature and thus partake of mercy, of grace, of compassion. You are joined to the Godhead through the Man Jesus Christ. And have thus, having partaken of His Divinity, you gain for free what Adam vainly sought to steal: you are like God. He is merciful. In Christ, so are you. He is holy. By Divine declaration, so are you. He is true, and by His grace, by Divine partaking, by His Holy Word, so are you. Your heart is in Him and He is in you.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen

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