Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 • Psalm 51:1-17 • 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

What does it mean to truly worship God?  The Prophet Isaiah is writing down God’s words. He tells Isaiah that the people of Israel are sinning, and that Isaiah must boldly prophesy against them.  What exactly is the sin? Not truly worshiping God.  The people of Israel would have argued.  What do you mean that we are not truly worshiping God?  We come to the temple every day. We are delighted to learn about God. We haven’t abandoned the laws of our God…we have fasted…we have been very hard on ourselves… and on and on and on. Rationalizing how they are being true to God and worshipping Him. 

The problem here is that God can see right through the nation of Israel.  He can see that they are only fasting to show how righteous they are…they fight and quarrel…they pretend to go through the motions of repentance – and covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes – but it is all a farce – it is all a stained-glass masquerade. 

It reminds me of a song from several years ago, by the band Casting Crowns.  Here’s the second verse and chorus:

Is there anyone who’s been there? Are there any hands raised?

Am I the only one who’s traded in the altar for a stage?

The performance is convincing, and we know every line by heart

Only when no one is watching can we really fall apart

But would it set me free if I dared to let you see

The truth behind the person you imagine me to be

Or would your eyes be opened, or would you walk away

Would the love of Jesus be enough to make you stay?

Are we happy plastic people, under shiny plastic steeples?

With walls around our weakness, smiles that hide our pain

But the invitation’s open to every heart that’s been broken

Maybe then we close the curtain on our stained glass masquerade

God warns the people through the prophet Isaiah that there is more than going through the motions of worship. The people were worshipping God but there were things in their life that were displeasing to God.  Isaiah calls some of these out – oppressing their workers, fighting and quarreling, wrongful imprisonment, not sharing food with the hungry, not giving the homeless shelter, not clothing the naked.  These are hard words to listen to – these are hard words to take. 

On Sunday, someone came up to me and shared a story – it made me really happy.  They told me that they were out and about and they saw a woman – on a very cold day – that was pushing or pulling a cart – but didn’t have any gloves.  They said, they felt a tug on their heart from God to give the gloves to the stranger. I thought that was cool.  We often here the line about giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus.  This was giving a pair of warm gloves in the name of Jesus.  The person said, I didn’t need to think about it or pray about it, I know what Jesus wanted me to do. 

When we do that, we are promised that God’s salvation will come and that your wounds will heal.  When we do things like that we become reconcilers to the world. Then Isaiah writes, “Your light will shine out from the darkness and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. 

We are warned in Matthew’s passage by Jesus, not to do our good works so that everyone can see them, but we are to do them in secret. It’s a strange paradox – give a cup of cold water in Jesus name, but keep it a secret.  Don’t do your acts of righteousness in front of people – but do them behind closed doors. 

It is important that our actions reflect the one we worship.  Our worship and our lives must always reflect Jesus.

As we celebrate this service this evening, I want you to think on three words – repentance – renewal – and reconciliation.  God desires that people – including believers – truly repent of their sins – this is a wonderful act of worship.  God also wants us to be renewed – or transformed in Christ.  Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “Don’t copy the behavior and  customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

Thirdly, I believe that God is calling Christians to be reconcilers – to be ambassadors – to call people to come back to God.

That is what tonight is all about – repentance – renewal – reconciliation. 

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