“What Are We Doing?”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday has to seem as a bit of a mystery to many people in our communities, maybe even our families. Lent as a whole has taken on a whole new meaning today.
Now, people see Lent is about giving something up. Some people give up chocolate. Others might try coffee or smoking. It’s almost like it’s the new New Year’s Resolution. But thankfully, it’s only until Easter! Which, ironically, is longer than most people keep their resolutions.
What is Lent really about? What’s its purpose? What is the significance of us coming here tonight and getting ourselves dirty? What are we doing?
Way back when, Lent used to be about getting prepared for Baptism. It used to be about learning. It used to be about the catechumenate, praying for and fasting with those who were preparing to become Christians, and it used to be quite an involved ritual. They had lots to learn and prepare for the special service of welcoming them into the church. They had to be educated in certain areas, some had to undergo a certain type of exorcism exercise, they to offer certain prayers and they had to be prayed over, it was quite the process. And these are just a few examples!
Lent was also a time for penance. Lent would begin with people confessing serious sins to the Bishop and then being assigned their penance to be carried out over a period of time. They often wore special robes, and when their penance was completed, they would have a prayer of absolution offered by the Bishop within the community showing they have been reconciled for their sins.
So I ask… who wants to confess first?
I’m kidding of course. The meaning of Lent today isn’t quite the same as it used to be. Today, Lent tends to focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how our sin ties into the events. We gather on this night to begin this journey. The journey that leads to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And we start with ashes.
Why ashes? What is the significance of using ashes and marking ourselves with the cross?
Ashes in the Bible are used for exhibiting outward signs of mourning or repentance. Often we see examples of people wearing sackcloth and ashes when they feel convicted by hearing the Word of God. We continue this tradition today. We gather here tonight to mark ourselves with ashes to outwardly show the repentance we wish to convey, the guilt of the sin we hold within ourselves. We also take this mark upon ourselves to show we are beginning a journey.
I guess part of the giving something up is to help us remember we are on the journey. It’s kind of funny to hear people about what they are giving up, like this is the biggest sacrifice in their entire lives because they won’t be eating chocolate for the next 46 days. Tomorrow the countdown begins… only 45 more to go! I have to say, hearing about this over and over again, “No I can’t have coffee today, I gave it up for Lent”, it sounds a little ridiculous to me. What is the point to giving up these things? What is going to be the outcome of this exercise? If you are doing this because you are recognizing Jesus in the desert, he gave up everything. He left house and home, he left food and water, for forty days in the desert. Hot days, frigid nights, and in the end he was tempted by the devil. How does this compare with what Jesus did?
With the 2 bucks or whatever it is you save each day, what is this doing for you spiritually? Isn’t this what Lent is about, a spiritual journey of growth and learning as we approach the redemptive cross of Jesus Christ on Good Friday and then celebrating his victory over sin and death on Easter morning?
What does coffee, chocolate, meat, smoking, whatever have to do with this journey?
Well, I suppose one way to start is to give the money you save to a charity. It’s a start. But what about the spiritual part of Lent? Where is the recognition of spiritual growth behind what it is you are doing?
In recent years I’ve heard a movement where instead of giving something up for Lent, the practice has evolved into picking something up. In the time you save from whatever it was you gave up, like maybe watch less television, you take that time and work on spiritual growth. Spend it in prayer. Read the Bible. Read some other book on spiritual growth. Spend time getting to know Jesus.
I guess what I’m trying to say is we need to get back to some of the original intent behind Lent. We need to get back to the learning and growing aspect. The Catechumenate was used to train people to be proper Christians in the world. Maybe we should start looking back to this as a start.
If there’s one thing the world needs these days, it’s more Jesus. We need more people who are understanding of the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the cross. The world needs a spiritual revival, and not one of these self-help, new-age style movements either. The world needs true revival spurred by the Holy Spirit to bring people back to God in the name of Jesus Christ.
So when I hear of these people who continually mention what they have given up for Lent, I can’t help but think about the example in our Gospel reading today. It starts off pretty direct, Jesus says,
“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven… And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The spiritual journey is not to be played out on the grand public stage. The journey is for you, with God. The journey is one which is to help you grow in relationship with God, the Father, through his son, Jesus Christ. There is no need to go around seeking pity or adoration for the sacrifices you are making. If you are growing in relationship with God, your life will show it to those around you naturally. You will be transformed by God and your actions will reflect it as your relationship with God changes and grows.
This is all the public display you need to make. People will see a change in you and they will be more inclined to ask you about your journey than if you just tried to look all pious and righteous in their company. This is not how Jesus acted. Jesus was as natural in his interactions with others as any man could ever be, and people responded by the thousands to his teachings.
Imagine if we all sought to be closer to God; to put our trust solely in the one who gave us life and sent his son to die for us. Imagine if we set our face towards heaven, the place of true treasures, greater than anything we can find here on earth, and let God reward us with new life in him. Imagine how the world would respond to a great spiritual awakening led by people moved in the Spirit of God.
What are we doing? We are starting a journey. A journey to live and grow with the one who gave his life for us so that we may know the way to gain eternal life. A journey that will change the way we look at our own lives and the lives of those in the world around us.
It’s not an easy journey. It’s a scary journey because it means we are giving up control to God. We are letting God move and direct us in the way we should be. It may mean giving up some things we hold dear in our lives, some of our treasures we love so much, but the reward! The reward is greater than anything we can buy. Besides, it’s already been bought by Jesus Christ on our behalf.
What are we doing? We are seeking to live as children of God by taking lessons from the one he sent to show us the way. We are deepening our understanding, our relationship with him through as we walk with Jesus towards the cross.
The good news? The journey is just beginning, and it doesn’t end at Easter, this is a lifelong journey, one that will not end.
This is what we’re doing. And tonight is a public proclamation of our intent as we take the mark of the cross with ashes as a display of our inside desires to be cleansed of our sin and become one with God.
It’s not about what we’re giving up, it’s about what we’re gaining in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us pray:
Father, tonight we are starting our journey. Our journey to further deepen our relationship with you. Tonight we acknowledge the deep yearning within our souls to be reunited with you. Tonight, O God, as we offer our confessions to you, as we take the mark of the cross on our bodies, may you place your mark in our lives. Bring us ever closer to you, Lord. Help us to see the love you have for us and for your creation, allowing us to share this love with those we meet on our journey. Help us to be pure in heart so when people look at us, they do not see our own desires, but may they see Jesus Christ and the love you have for all your children. Help us to see, O God, that we are doing here tonight is worthy of your blessing as we so deeply want to know you more and more. Tonight, O God, may we start this journey, a journey that will continue our whole life long, until we enter the glory of your presence. Father, for all these things we give you glory, praise and thanksgiving, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.