“Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Ash Wednesday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, the first time I had ashes placed upon my forehead was my freshman year at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. Though it was a new practice for me, I think that I understood why we did it, and so I wore the ashes all day. In fact, the ashes became a billboard for myself and many of my fellow students. It loudly declared to everyone else that I had been to chapel that day. Hey, look at me- I’m repentant! While I can’t say that those not wearing ashes were stigmatized, we definitely had something to say or think about the ones with clean foreheads. We were good Christians, we were truly pious, we were truly repentant, and those other people, well, they were slacking.
Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday. Jesus opens our text with His theme statement: “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.” The first place we can do this is when we give to charity. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” When we serve our neighbor only to look good for the papers, only to get our name on a brick or on a building, then we’ve really used them, right? They’ve become a tool or instrument to get me what I want, namely the praises of others. I’m not serving them, I’m serving only myself. The neighbor in need is then only a rung on the ladder to make me look good in the eyes of the people around me. Now, having your picture in the paper isn’t a sin, nor is winning a good neighbor award, but how do you act toward your neighbor when no one else is looking?
“And 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.” Prayer is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus has given to us; through Him we can pray to God as our Father. But when we use it as a way to impress others, then we are guilty of using this wonderful gift as simply a means to an end. We want to look good before others, and so we pray and come to church simply so that other people can see us and be impressed. Jesus isn’t going to tell you to quit coming to church, but instead to examine your motives. Are you a Christian when you’re alone?
“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.” Fasting is unfortunately something we have quit doing as Christians. This practice is intended to remind us of our dependence upon God, to focus us on Him. As Christians fasting also reminds us that we have a banquet awaiting us in heaven and spiritual food on the altar here on this earth, where Jesus, the very Bread of Life, is both host and meal. Fasting serves those wonderful purposes, especially during Lent, but once again, if we use it as a tool to gain favor before others, we have already received our reward. That reward is the praise of men, the admiration of others. That is all the reward that is coming, for God is not in the habit of rewarding selfishness and self-righteousness.
Instead, God looks to the heart. The outward acts that impress men have little effect on Him, for His concern is with what motivates those acts. Do they come from faith, or do they simply flow from a selfish desire to exalt ourselves? “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God is hidden, He sees the inner recesses of our hearts, and what does He see? Mixed motives. Selfishness. Self-righteousness. Sin. He sees what we see if we examine ourselves closely this Ash Wednesday, that not even our most righteous deeds come unstained by sin. Even when we help the needy, even when we pray, even if we fast, we never do so without sin. What Isaiah said so long ago still applies today: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” And so what is the message of Ash Wednesday? Repent! Repent, for you see your sin before you! Repent, because you cannot hide your sin from the hidden God!
Jesus called God “your Father who is in secret.” This secret God Jesus intends to make known, to reveal to us, and He will be revealed as the God of love. The message of Ash Wednesday is one of repentance; that’s why you bear ashes on your head. But Ash Wednesday is also the beginning of a journey, a journey that has a destination. I could’ve just smeared the ashes on your forehead; I could’ve made a frowny face or perhaps written the word ‘sin’ there, but I didn’t do any of those things. No, instead ashes were placed upon your head in the shape of a cross. It is at the end of this Lenten journey that Jesus reveals the secret and hidden God, and He does so only through His suffering, His death, His sacrifice on the cross. It is on the cross, as a beaten and bloodied man dies in humiliation, that God Himself is revealed. Do you want to know what this hidden and secret God looks like? You look at the cross, and you see God revealed in love, in forgiveness, in salvation. The very character of our Triune God is made manifest at the moment of the cross, as Jesus opens wide His arms in love for you and for me. Every sin is encompassed at the cross, every mixed motive is wiped out, even the selfish and self-righteous have their sin paid for by the sinless Son of God.
Therefore, we have no need for earthly treasure or praise, for Jesus has won for us an eternal, heavenly treasure. This is a treasure that is everlasting, it will never fade for the One who gives it rose from the grave never to die again. Nothing can touch the treasure given by our crucified and risen Lord: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Christ has given to you His own righteousness, the righteousness that avails before God in heaven. You are righteous, you are forgiven of all your sins because of His death on your behalf. We return to the deep wells of His forgiveness each and every day, for we know that none of our deeds are pure; we need what He gives. Repentance and forgiveness is the rhythm of our life before God, in Lent and every season.
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, for many at Concordia Seward, including me, ashes on the forehead was a way of showing our righteousness before men, to be seen by them. I was finally made aware of this my senior year, when some of my fellow pre-seminary students were talking about getting rid of the ashes altogether. But there was no need to toss out this practice simply because students abuse it. Jesus doesn’t say to stop giving alms, quit praying, and stop fasting. No, instead He says ‘When you give to the needy,’ ‘When you pray,’ and ‘When you fast.’ This Lenten season, you are encouraged to pray, you are encouraged to give to the needy, you are even encouraged to fast. Lent is a season of reflection and repentance, and those are good and salutary ways to serve your neighbor and worship God. But we do not do these things in order to show off to others. For this reason, I will encourage you to wash the ashes from your head as you depart this evening. As we do so, we remember our baptism, where the hidden God revealed Himself as your heavenly Father, forgiving you for the sake of His Son. Through Jesus you are set free from demonstrating your righteousness before men, for you have the righteousness that He won for you. In your baptism you have a treasure that is far beyond any praises this world can give. In the name of the One who gives such treasure, who won them for us when His own Lenten journey ended at the cross, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.