Into the Depths
Grace United Methodist Church
March 9, 2010
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21 (NIV)
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When I was growing up, I never went to an Ash Wednesday service. Now, this wasn’t because my parents didn’t believe in Ash Wednesday, and it wasn’t because I was a heathen. I didn’t go to Ash Wednesday worship because when I was growing up, we did not have an Ash Wednesday service in our church. In fact, most protestant churches have only started observing Ash Wednesday within the last two decades. I think I was probably college age before I took part in my first Ash Wednesday worship service. And though my Ash Wednesday observance began later in life, I do have school-age memories from Ash Wednesday. I remember some of my friends coming in to school in the morning with dark smudges on their foreheads. Or they would leave at lunchtime and come back sometime in the afternoon; again, with smudges on their foreheads. Although I didn’t realize it then, I recognize now that those were probably my Catholic friends, as the Catholics have been observing Ash Wednesday for a long time.
I also remember that whenever my friends would appear with those black crosses on their foreheads, the rest of us would “Ooooo” and “Aaaaaaah.” Our friends would explain to us that they had been to an Ash Wednesday service, but we didn’t really know what that meant. And though our understanding of the whole thing was quite limited, we all had a sense that these marks set our friends apart. I imagine we thought that because they had black crosses on their foreheads, there was something special about them.
And how often have we felt that way? How often have we walked out of church on Ash Wednesday feeling special, maybe even superior, because we have the mark of the cross on our foreheads? We don’t want to wash it off because we want people to know that we are good Christians. We want everyone to know that we have confessed our sins and turned in repentance. I confess to you that I have had such thoughts before, and I imagine that if we are all honest, we would admit to having the same ideas at times.
And yet, we all know this is not what Ash Wednesday is about. It’s not about simply having our foreheads marked as a sign of our Christianity. We pause here on Ash Wednesday to confess our brokenness before God. We come here to worship together with the hopes that through our penitence we will know God’s forgiveness. We gather here to begin together that long and difficult journey to the cross, even as we know that the life of resurrection shines just beyond that cross. We gather here to begin a season of opening ourselves as a community to the mystery of God. Lent is not about a show. It’s not about who can be the most pious by wearing their ashes the longest or by giving up the most stuff. Lent is about changing our hearts, not our diets.
Perhaps last night some of you observed Shrove Tuesday? The women of Grace certainly had a wonderful celebration at Brenda Mattox’s home. Shrove Tuesday is known in England as Pancake Day, and it is traditionally the last day for merrymaking before the start of Lent. Pancakes are thought to be a good way to get in the eggs and fat that faithful church people were supposed to give up for Lent. People observe the day in different ways. There’s a Pancake Race in Olney, England, where women race 415 yards with a pancake-laden frying pan in hand. They have to flip the pancake at the start and finish of the race. And, of course, we’ve all heard of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, one last blow-out before a season of denial. Through the years, Lent has become associated with fasting and denial. As I mentioned earlier, even now people talk about giving up something during Lent. Some stop eating meat. Some give up coffee. There are some who are brave enough to give up chocolate or desserts and even sodas. And that’s all well and good, but the real intent of Lent is that we should look within.
That’s what Jesus means when he talks about fasting in this passage from Matthew. Remember what he said? “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” God doesn’t want an outward display from us. It does not matter to God whether we walk from this place with ashes on our forehead. God doesn’t want us to change our eating habits, God wants us to change our hearts. God wants a change within.
The first task of Lent is not fasting or charitable giving. It’s not giving up sweets or going off fatty foods. The first task of Lent is repentance – repentance that brings us before the Lord with penitent and contrite hearts. That’s what Jesus is saying in this passage from Matthew. “Don’t put on a show with your acts of righteousness. Don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing. When you fast and pray, do it in secret. For your Father knows what is done in secret and will reward you. Lent tells us to repent of our sinfulness; to look within and purify our hearts.
We gather here this evening not simply to have our foreheads marked with ashes, but so that we can repent. And the cross on our forehead marks that repentance; our intention to turn back, to change directions, and to make a new start from an old life. As we begin this season of Lent, we are invited to bring our sins and lay them before the throne of God. We are invited to unburden our souls in repentance. We are directed to come before the Lord our God with open hearts and make a new start within.
Lent is about being intentional in finding God. Perhaps you who were here on Sunday will remember that I made the statement, “We have to be able to find God in the little things to be able to trust God with the big things.” Among other things, Lent is a purposeful effort to find God; to so bring ourselves into God’s company such that there can be no doubt of God’s eternal presence in our lives! Giving up soda and chocolate during Lent is certainly a valid form of fasting, but it only has meaning if we do it with a heart turned toward God, if we do it as a way of growing closer to God; not just so we can brag to people about what we have “given up.”
We live in a society where we seldom practice self-denial. This Lent, let’s all try to take our practice a step further. Let’s engage in fasting in such a way that we really understand what it means to hunger for God. Let’s give of our resources such that we understand the great sacrifice that Christ has made for us. Let’s pray, and worship, and study Scripture with a sincere desire to grow in our understanding and faith of God. Imagine practicing the faith from a point of depth, rather than a surface-level, outward appearance. Imagine participating in these practices of discipleship through a pure desire to meet God in great anticipation of finding God revealed in our world. Imagine not going to church because it is part of your routine, but because you crave learning more about the great mysteries of God.
This is what we begin tonight. We are here to confess our sins. We are here to mark our repentance, our turning from the old life. And we are here to begin the journey to the new life. So let’s commit to this journey together. Let’s abandon the shallow ways of the world, and jump into the depths of Christ’s ways. Let’s ask the tough questions. Let’s give the way God gives. Let’s seek God’s presence in our lives. Let’s follow Christ’s teachings, and let’s grow more and more into the people that God has created us to be!