Ash Wednesday Sermon, 2017

Ash Wednesday, 2017
Matthew 6:16-21
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

I don’t think anyone’s surprised if I say that Christianity is about faithfully receiving the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.

I don’t think anyone’s surprised if I continue by saying that Christianity is about remaining faithful to Christ.

And I don’t think anyone’s surprised if I say that Christianity is about humility before and worship of God and not prideful self worship.

So, it should be of no surprise that Jesus says:

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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” (Matthew 6:16-18).

It shouldn’t be lost on us that the gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday—where we begin the season of fasting and repentance—when we, dare I say it, disfigure our foreheads with an ashen cross—it shouldn’t be lost on us that the gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday is where Jesus says, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16).

So let’s be real about what Ash Wednesday is and isn’t.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent.

Lent is a season of repentance where we do well to reflect on Jesus’ temptation and suffering and death—all as our substitute—all for our atonement, the forgiveness of our sins.

During Lent we do well to especially reflect on how we deserve nothing of what God has given us—and yet He gives out of a great bounty and great love, forgiving sinners and reconciling the world.

Ash Wednesday, then, begins this season of fasting and repentance with Jesus’ words from Matthew chapter six, the Sermon on the Mount.

How many of you agree with the following?

“The Christian life should and does include fasting, cheerful, charitable giving in support of the gospel, and prayer.”

And how many of you agree with this?

“My life as a Christian includes fasting, cheerful, charitable giving in support of the gospel, and prayer.”

In Matthew chapter six, Jesus doesn’t say “If you give to the needy…and if you pray…and if you fast…”

He does say, “When you give to the needy…and when you pray…and when you fast…” (Matthew 6:2, 5 and 7, 16). And, because no one understands all of what Jesus says, because so much is hidden from us, and because we don’t grasp all of what He teaches (cf. Luke 18:34), Jesus explains what fasting looks like.

The gospel lesson tonight corrects bad practice.

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16).

This flows naturally from how Jesus began this discourse. In verse one Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 6:1).

So, let’s be real about what Ash Wednesday is and isn’t.

Is an ashen cross on your forehead looking gloomy? Is it disfiguring your face that it may be seen by others?

Don’t be fooled.

It’s not.

Jesus warns us against practicing righteousness that we may be seen by others. He doesn’t warn us against practicing our righteousness, period.

In all the examples in Matthew chapter six, Jesus condemns the use of piety as a means of self-aggrandizement.

He doesn’t condemn piety.

Jesus is not condemning charitable giving when He says, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as they hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2).

He’s not condemning prayer when He says, “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” (Matthew 6:5).

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

And He’s not condemning fasting or ashen crosses when He says, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16).

Ashes, of course, could be co-opted for false and unfaithful purposes.

But the Christian practice of putting ashes on our foreheads is an act of repentance.

When the king of Nineveh heard Jonah’s lackluster preaching, he sat in sackcloth and ashes, repenting, trusting God to be merciful.

So when Man, who is dust, is anointed with ash, hearing the words, “Remember O Man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” (cf. Gen. 3:19), repentance and faith is what’s going on.

In repentance, we confess that we are nothing. That God is greater than we are. That His name is holy. That our name is not. That we have nothing apart from His grace and love and bounty.

You only get ashes from fire, and by means of the purifying fire of Confession and Absolution, we confess our sins and unworthiness before God in faith that He forgives us and loves us in Christ who died for us.

In faith, we trust that God’s death and a dead God hung on the justice scale of the cross, reconciling the world and earning our forgiveness.

An ashen cross doesn’t save us. It can’t.

But having heard of God’s great love for us in Christ, we confess that we are unworthy of it. And so, with the king of Nineveh, we sit in sackcloth and ashes, undeserving of God’s mercy and yet receiving it.

We sit with Adam after the Fall, eating food by the sweat of our brow, knowing that, one day, we will return the dust, since out of the dust we were taken.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return (cf. Genesis 3:19).

But you will not stay dust.

Christ our Lord redeems the world. He redeems the dust. And in the Incarnation we have the proof of our comfort and joy—Jesus became the dust, He joined Himself to our flesh—to bear our sin and be our savior.

That which He became, He redeemed.

Repent!

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, trust in Him.

Practice godly piety, as Jesus teaches it.

And you will be saved.

I had every intention of ending this sermon right there.

But—I said earlier—“Ashes, of course, could be co-opted for false and unfaithful purposes.”

Are you aware of the trendy “glitter ash” that seems to be a thing this year?

Some churches in the ELCA, and possibly others, are promoting LGBT-supportive Ash Wednesday services in using ash that’s combined with purple glitter.

Instead of humbly confessing their sin, and humbly practicing godly piety, they sound a trumpet, pray like the hypocrites and Gentiles, heaping up empty words, loving every minute of it, all so they can be seen by others.

I find glitter to be a perfect representation of everything that movement has to offer.

Glitter serves no good purpose. It corrupts everything it touches. Like the leaven of the Pharisees it seems to spread everywhere unless kept away. It begs to be seen, though it has no beauty. And, until Jesus comes again, it will not go away. That’s what I think of glitter.

Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.

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.

Repent!

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, trust in Him.

Practice godly piety, as Jesus teaches it.

And you will be saved.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

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