Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 9, 2011 (Ash Wednesday, Series A)

Why do you come to Church? Why do you volunteer your time and money and effort to see to it that God’s Word is preached and His Sacraments administered? Why do you come not only on Sunday morning but also on Wednesday evenings during certain seasons? Why do you give of your time, talents, and treasures for the projects and programs of the Church? This is the question that Jesus asks us in the Gospel lesson for this evening. Tonight we stand at the beginning of the season of Lent. During Lent many people give up certain types of food or drink or other things they enjoy in order to remember that our Lord gave up everything for us. In Church, we give up the Alleluias and certain other, more joyful, parts of the liturgy. In most congregations, Lent is also marked by an additional number of services, with the Wednesday night Lenten services being added to the Sunday morning Divine Services. Now, the fact that all of this takes place is good and helpful. But we still need to ask ourselves what our motivation is for doing all of this. Why do we do what we do during Lent? Why, for that matter, do we do what we do in relation to the Church the rest of the year for that matter?

Our old sinful natures have an answer to that question. The answer that we by nature would give to that question is, “Because it will impress others, and maybe even God, with how holy I am.” We like others to think well of us. Our old selves are always concerned about our own reputations. In the realm of religion, that means that we like others to think that we are pious and holy. We like others to look up to us, to see how much we are doing for God. That’s the way the Old Adam deals with things relating to the Church. If he can’t stop you from participating in the things that have to do with God’s blessings to us, he’ll warp your motivations and your thoughts about what your are doing so that you end up doing these things, not for God, but for yourself, to show off and get praise from others. That’s how sneaky the Old Adam in us can be. He doesn’t just try to do bad things, he also tries to put the wrong motivation on good things. And so Jesus warns us today, at the beginning of this season, that what we do, what we give up, in order to observe this Lenten season, is not for others to see. It is for God, so that we can remember what Christ our Lord gave up for us, and so that the message concerning Christ’s journey through death to life will have fewer thorns and rocks to contend with as it enters our hearts and begins to sprout.

But when I say that whatever you do during Lent, or during any season of the Church Year for that matter, is “for God,” I don’t mean that you are doing something to try to impress God. That would be just as bad as trying to impress other people by your actions. God doesn’t need your good works. Rather what I mean is that what you do for the Church, and whatever you may do as part of your Lenten discipline, is just that: discipline, outward actions that help you be a better disciple, a better hearer of God’s Word. It’s all for the sake of being able to hear and be nourished by God’s Word free from the distractions of the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh.

And so Jesus exhorts us not to lay up treasures on earth, not to try to impress other people, or God for that matter, with our own outward actions, but rather to lay up treasures in heaven. But what does that mean? After all, if nothing we do is going to impress God or cause Him to give us any rewards, then how can we lay up treasures in heaven? What treasures are there to accumulate? The answer is, those treasures which come to us as a free gift. First and foremost among these is the forgiveness of sins won by Christ through his pain and suffering. Any other treasure we may have in heaven is only ours because we have this primary treasure, Christ Himself and the forgiveness of sins that He grants unto us. And having that treasure, we have all the other riches of heaven as well, riches which will not rust nor fade away nor be stolen by any thieves, which don’t exist in heaven.

As I said, this treasure comes to us as a free gift. It comes to us, however, not through feelings, not through God speaking in our hearts, but through God speaking in our ears, through God washing us with water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word, through the bread and wine which are His body and blood. Because this treasure comes to us through such ordinary-looking Means, and we can’t see the effects of this treasure with our physical eyes, it is tempting to despise it and instead focus upon things we can see. But that’s part of the reason why Lenten discipline is helpful, because it keeps our eyes focused on those treasures in heaven, especially when we give up, or at least temporarily give up the enjoyment of, some of our treasures here on earth.

After all, as I hinted earlier, the events that we are leading up to through our Lenten journey are events in which Christ our Lord gave up everything for us. His entire state of humiliation, from his lowly birth in a stable in Bethlehem, through His rejection by the religious leaders of the day and ultimately even by the people, and finally His painful and unjust persecution, suffering, and crucifixion, were all for us. We take this journey through Lent to Easter because He took that journey for us. He didn’t just give up meat on Fridays as many folks do, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He didn’t just give up alcoholic beverages or desert or what have you. He didn’t just give extra money to the Church or come to an extra service per week; He gave up everything. He, the Lord of heaven and earth, subjected Himself to a human life that involved all of our poverty and sickness, all of our little pains and hurts, all of the anger and bitterness that sin has created between us and our fellow men. He went through all of that, lived for more than thirty years a life in the midst of that sin and sorrow and trouble, and then gave up even that life so that we might be saved. That’s why we give up certain things for Lent, so that the treasures in heaven, which He won for us by that sacrifice, can be more fully and completely appreciated. After all, since we have those treasures, we have it all, and so the pains and sorrows of this world, including whatever Lenten discipline we choose, will not truly affect us, since our heart is with Him and not with the things of this world. We have Christ. Our hearts are lifted up to Him, and He is with us. That’s all that matters. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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