Ash Wednesday 2009

Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-21

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

Early in the sermon on the mount Our Lord says: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” (NKJ Matthew 5:30)

And we all say, “Amen.” But none of us takes Him literally. None of us advocates mutilation or thinks that cutting off a hand will stop us from sinning. We recognize that Our Lord is speaking about the need for us to take action against sin, to separate ourselves from tempting situations, and to discipline our bodies. We are against cutting off body parts. We know that sin does not abide in our hands, but in our hearts.

It is much the same later in the same sermon when Our Lord says “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” (NKJ Matthew 6:16)

He is not contradicting the prophet Joel who called for a public, communal fast. Nor is He dismissing the entire Old Testament or calling Jeremiah, for sack cloth and ashes, hypocrites. He is not forbidding us from talking about fasting with our friends, or observing traditional fasts, as though it is okay to fast but tell anybody you’re doing it or you are somehow violating the sermon on the mount. Rather sharing the fast with your brothers is a good and helpful thing. Because Christians are meant to encourage one another and never do anything alone.  Our Lord also warns us against vain repetitious prayers. But in the same breath as the warning, He gives us a prayer to repeat, “Our Father who art in heaven . . . ” And even though He has warned us against public prayers meant to impress men, He teaches us to pray, in public, “Our Father” not necessarily, in private, “My Father.”

In all of these cases, He is warning us against false religiosity, against good deeds, prayers, or fasts that are meant to impress men.

But for all that, He does expect us to perform good deeds, to war against sin, to pray, and even to fast in public. He expects us to actually help the needy, to join our brothers in petitions and praise, and to discipline our bodies and bring them into submission. He expects us to heed the prophets Joel’s call to a public fast and the third commandment’s admonition to public prayer and worship.

But there is the possibility of abuse. There is a danger in these things. Our Lord speaks against the abuse. If you do these things to appear righteous before others, then you have your reward. How sad would that be? Because others never think you’re righteous. So as impressive as you might imagine your good works to be, they are not. They impress no one. If that is why you have done them, you have your reward, which is nothing. But if you do these things, fasting and such, to become aware of your weaknesses and in the desire to become more dependent on and aware of the grace that God gives in Christ Jesus, you also have your reward, and it is a good thing.

So unless you’re going to start cutting of body parts, don’t use the sermon on the mount as an excuse to not perform good deeds, to not war against sin, to not come to Church and pray in public, or to not fast.

Certainly these things fall within our freedom and the exact form they take is not prescribed. To some degree, you get to choose what good deeds to do, what charities to support, when and how and where to pray, how to discipline your body, and what fasts. It is your choice.

But what almost everyone here has chosen are table prayers. We might consider them a form of fasting. Table prayers are an external discipline. God does not demand them. It is not necessary to thank God for the food He gives before you put the first bite in your mouth. Nor is it necessary to fold your hands, bow your head, or to close your eyes. Those are outward expressions, even to the point of not eating a single bite before the formal, out-loud, family prayer help bring your heart and mind into line, to discipline the body. Your desire is to eat the second you are hungry and to eat while it is hot. That pause, to wait for others, that small denial, used to give thanks, to recognize that God is the Giver of all we need, to be respectful and reverent before what He has provided, denies the baser desires. It is not the natural thing. Throw your dog a piece of meat. He will not pause to say thanks. He will snatch it up greedily, quickly. He is an animal. But you are not. You are controlled by your stomach. You belong to God and are Holy. Thus you discipline your body. You make it wait. You do not do this to somehow impress men. If you do, then you have your reward. Rather, you offer table prayers because it helps you remember who God is and that you are dependent upon Him and His mercy. You pause and deny yourself out of respect and thanksgiving. That is the whole spirit and desire of Lent and its many customs.

For the over-arching reality, that which defines your entire existence, is that God has laid up for you treasures in heaven where Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, has ascended on your behalf. Moths and rust will not destroy Him. He does not decay. He has defeated death. And he who would steal your soul, our ancient enemy, has been slain. He is defeated. And even your body has no control over you. Your Lord lives. Soon your heart will be one with Him, free of death, of ashes, and of penance. The fast will end. For unlike the pharisees you do not yet have your reward. Now is the time of fasting, of denial, of temptation, but it will end. Easter is coming. Not just the commemoration of Our Lord’s Resurrection, but your Easter is coming. You own coming resurrection from the dead, your freedom from bodily passions and desires, and the fulfillment of what God has called you to be in body and soul. Your sins are already forgiven. Now you wait for the good work begun in you in the waters of Holy Baptism to be complete. It is not the autumn of your life, waiting for the end, for death. It is the Spring. Soon you will bud and deliver the hundredfold harvest and go where you belong, to live forever in the warmth of God’s love  For Jesus Christ has already delivered you from the Law’s punishment. Soon He will complete the good work He has begun in you. He will fulfill your faith. You will go not to that which you have earned or deserved but to the reward that Jesus Christ has won for you by His perfect life and death. That is your treasure, Jesus Christ. Soon your treasure and your heart will be together.

Remember, O Man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But you will rise from the dust and the ashes and live before God forever. For you have been bought with a price and your Father is well-pleased.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen

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