“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 our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, are you giving up something for Lent? We modern Christians don’t fast much. We don’t skip meals in preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper, we don’t withdraw from the pleasures of the flesh to focus on prayer, self-denial isn’t really a part of our piety. But we do often give something up for Lent; this practice, which both Christians and non- Christians participate in, oddly enough, is the last vestige of fasting left in our world. What will it be for you this year? Chocolate? Caffeine? Facebook? Steak? It’s usually something that won’t put much of a dent in our lifestyle, that we can give up with a little pain, but not too much, something we can mention in passing to our friends. There will be articles again this year, by Christians and non-Christians alike, touting the benefits of this Lenten ‘fast;’ no more Facebook? More time for jogging! No more sweets? You might lose a few pounds! Lent can help you become a healthier, happier you!
When teaching us about the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther instructs us to confess, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” He is simply echoing Jesus, “And when you fast…” Jesus assumes that His followers will fast, He assumes that this spiritual discipline will be part of their lives, not just in Lent, but in every part of the Church Year. And because His disciples will fast, they need some instructions. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Hypocrites fast so that others can see them; hypocrites fast so that their friends, their neighbors, their fellow church members will be impressed. Hypocrites fast to earn the praises of men, and they will get what they asked for. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Our reward will be given in full from our fellow men; they will be impressed, but not our Father in heaven. “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.” This seems like strange advice on a day when two pastors and a vicar lined up before the service to disfigure faces. We did not do this to make you all hypocrites, but we applied ashes to the outside of your body to point you to inward repentance; ashes stain your forehead for this one day as a reminder to you of sin’s penalty and sin’s destruction. If you are wearing the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone else how pious you are, if you are planning to wear them with pride back to work or to the store or when you go out to eat, go to the bathroom and wash them off. Repent. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” God thunders forth through Joel.
Quit playing around with the outward show, quit simply giving up things that have little real effect on the comfort of this life. What should you give up this Lent? How about your sin? Give up your sin this Lent. Repent. That is the Lenten discipline to which all Christians are called: repentance. Lent isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about death, dying to your sins in repentance. Turn from your sins, refuse their hold on you. Rend your hearts in sorrow over your sins and cry out to God for mercy, for He is merciful. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He will reward you not because you are so good at being repentant, He will reward you because of Jesus. In Joel we are told, “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He had pity on His people, He had pity on you, and sent you Jesus to take that sin and endure its penalty, leaving it nailed to the cross.
Lent is for sinners, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Those who do not think they have the disease see little need for the cure. Maybe you are one of those who steadfastly and publicly refuses to give up anything for Lent. Perhaps you cover it with a veneer of piety, pointing out how ridiculous the whole ‘giving something up for Lent’ fad has become in our culture, and you are right. But it goes much deeper than that. Luther said, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” which you interpret as ‘Fasting and bodily preparation are probably detrimental to your faith and are to be avoided at all costs.’ Jesus said, “When you fast…” which you interpret as ‘If you fast, and you probably won’t, fast this way…’ Why should you fast, why should you give up any of the pleasures that this life can offer, any of the things that you have earned? I’m a Christian, I go to Church, that should be plenty. The things I have, they are mine, to use as I please. Who has the right to tell me to give any of them up, even for a little while?
Jesus has that right as your Savior and Lord, and He calls on you to loose yourself from the bondage of your things. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” If you refused the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone how pious you are, if you did not come forward because you didn’t want to sully your head with a reminder of death, repent. No one is required to take the ashes, but if you refused them because you want nothing to do with giving up any of the pleasures of the flesh, repent. Give up your sins this Lent. Give up all that has a hold on your heart, that pulls you away from your Lord. Do not pile up your treasure on this earth, give it up, lay it aside, refuse to let anything of this world have its clutches upon you.
For you have a greater treasure. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Your treasures, your things, whether they are the praises of men or the pleasures of life or the things that you enjoy, will all fade, they will all be corrupted, they will not last. Not one thing that you own or enjoy will last beyond the grave. But what Christ has given to you lasts, it endures. It will not fade, because it is attached to Jesus, and He lives, never to die again. Nothing, and no one can destroy that treasure, for it belongs to you even now, and you will receive it in full on the Last Day. That is what Lent is all about: taking our eyes off the fading and fragile treasures of this world and fixing our eyes upon the treasure that lasts, the treasure that endures, the treasure held in heaven for us by the One who died and rose again to win it for us.
Are you giving up something for Lent? “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” training for a body consumed by sin. Fasting is discipline, discipline for the flesh, part of killing the Old Adam within you; fasting is always in service of repentance. Fasting from food or any other pleasure is not to help you lose a few pounds or to give you time to read a book, but to provide opportunity and focus for prayer, to lead you to repent of all the sin that entangles you. This Lent, die to yourself, examine your idols and in repentance cry out for God to break them. Lay aside all that holds you in the chains of sin, all that distracts you from receiving Christ’s precious Word. Repent and believe. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but they are worthless without faith. Luther teaches us to confess: “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”
Repent, and hear the Gospel. “The Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He was jealous for His land, His chosen Zion, and He had pity on you, you who are bowed low with sin, you who are subject to death. He had pity and sent His Son, His only Son, whom He loved, to die in your place to win you treasure in heaven, treasure that no moth or rust will corrupt, and no thief will ever break in and steal. That is what Lent is all about. The ashes on your head, a reminder of death, are in the shape of a cross, a reminder of who actually died that death. Jesus, for you. That is Ash Wednesday. That is Lent. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.