We'll be looking mostly at Matthew 6 this morning if you would like to turn there.
So, first of all, what is Lent?
Lent is the 40 day season of fasting, self-denial and self-examination leading up to Jesus' passion, crucifixion and ultimate resurrection at Easter. It mirrors the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the dessert, the 40 days Noah and his family were in the ark and Jesus' 40 day fast after his baptism. The Sundays in lent don't count as part of the fast. Sunday marks the day of Jesus victory over death in his rising again and is always a feast day.
Two, what's with the ashes?
The ashes are a symbol, a visual reminder of death.
In a culture and time when we do everything we can to avoid the reality of death, this morning,
we will mark ourselves out as not only going to die, but as deserving of that fate.
Adam was formed out of the dust, by the hand of God and his whole being depended on God for life. As long as he lived in obedience and love with God, he would live forever. His sin, his disobedience was a decision to cut himself off from the source of his physical and spiritual life.
He rebelled against, he rejected God, and the result of that decision was death.
As the children of Adam we,
generation after generation,
family after family,
person after person,
have joined Adam in sin,
have walked that furrow deep into the ground.
And so we also die.
Not usually because of some particular sin that we commit,
but in the cosmic way that a people separated from the source of life
The death we die in sin is in two kinds.
We die fist spiritually.
The result of turning away from God is a heart of stone,
a heart that cannot feel,
that cannot judge rightly,
that cannot love God,
or other people,
or even the self.
And the second death is physical.
Our bodies die and fall back into the ground, into the dust.
Part of turning around and repenting, of saying sorry to God for not loving him, for not doing what he says to do, is acknowledging that we deserve both deaths, that he has a right to judge us for sin, that we really have done wrong.
The ash smeared on your head in the sign of the cross is a mark of your sorrow for sin,
your desire for God himself to bring you back to life himself—your heart now, your body at the resurrection of the dead. This new life comes through Jesus who, in dying, lifted the sin off of you and took it on to himself.
He died so that you might live.
He paid the just penalty for sin.
When you give yourself to him, his perfect life, his atoning death count for you.
God looks at you and sees you covered by Jesus’ perfection and makes you alive in Jesus, now and forevermore.
Third, therefore, what can one do during Lent?
Let's look at Matthew 6 to answer that question. This chapter is part of Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount. In this section of that sermon he is addressing three things he expects his disciples to do. In each of the three, you'll notice in verses 2, 5 and 16, Jesus does not say, 'if you' give, pray, fast he says, 'when you' give, pray, fast and then he instructs as to the manner in which he wants you to do those things.
Let’s look at the first verse.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order sto be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Beware, be warned off.
You might be tempted to engage in these actions because you want other people to notice and like you or be jealous of you.
You may be doing them as a means to an end,
to get something for yourself,
acclaim, or power, or recognition.
You may like to use your work to bargain with God,
thinking he may owe you if you 'really sacrifice yourself'.
Don't do that, says Jesus.
You will have 'no reward from your Father who is in heaven'.
The reward that is worth getting will not come from making a show
and getting other people to feel bad that you're doing it
or notice you and puff you up,
or from doing it and complaining all the time.
The good reward comes from your Father in heaven who,
we find out in verses 4 and 18,
'sees in secret'.
You do them in secret,
unseen by the world
and he sees you.
You don't know or perceive that he sees you
but he does see. He does know.
I think so many of our choices
bad and good
come from a deep loneliness,
of not feeling known or seen or understood by other people.
The first three sins after God created the world—
Eve's doubt of God's goodness,
Cain's murder of Able—
were not born out of a desire for material things particularly,
but from a doubting that God really sees,
is really acting in love,
and that his goodness and love are enough.
Jealousy, pride, despair, gluttony, lust, covetousness,
all these grow out of the root of poverty,
that God is not love,
that he is not good,
that he himself is not enough,
that he is not here,
that he does not see,
that he does not care.
That we can do better than him,
that we do not need him nor owe him anything.
These three, giving, praying and fasting cut at the root of that lie. They say that you cannot and do not want to live on your own power and strength,
that you trust him to provide for you,
to sustain you.
And you trust that he sees you that he hears you that he cares for you.
So, when you give,
you give because you believe that God has already given you what you need and that he will go on giving.
You don't give trying to get something,
like guilt from other people, or acclaim and recognition,
you give out of love and dependence.
And Jesus says, in secret, The Lord sees you.
So also your praying.
Pray in such a way that either seen or unseen by men,
your heart and mind are fully fixed on the one to whom you pray,
to the Father who not only hears your prayers, he hears them before you pray them.
The prayer Jesus gives here is a prayer that encompasses every part of the material and spiritual life, it is a prayer of dependence on and trust in God who sees you and hears what you say.
And finally, when you fast. That is the kicker.
I've always had a whole bunch of good reasons why I could not fast. I'm pregnant, I'm nursing (well, ok, those count), I will literally die because of my metabolism.
But what if your desire for God,
your need to be with him in prayer,
your sense of despair about yourself and your ability to fix your own problems,
and ultimately, your loneliness,
those moments when you look deeply at your heart and know
that not only does no other human person know you,
love you to the depths of your need,
and not only so
but you do not love yourself,
you do not know yourself
and you cannot explain to yourself or to other people why you act the way you do,
why you are choosing the things you are choosing,
then a fast of some kind will maybe be a great help to you.
In fasting there might be at least two gains,
or rewards given to you which cannot be taken away or be ruined.
The first gain is that in denying yourself something,
say food for one meal,
or some food or activity you feel reliant on to get through the day,
you gain the discovery that Jesus is able to sustain you without that thing.
You don't have to provide for yourself emotional health and well-being,
or material needs,
or spiritual salvation,
he will provide them for you.
You don't need to reach out and take the fruit of the tree that you think you need,
he can give you what you really do need.
The second gain is that in taking something away,
you are making room for Jesus where you haven't had room before.
You are preparing a place for him to know you and be known by you in a deeper way.
I have one final thought to close us out.
Some of you may be uncomfortable with the dissonance
between Jesus commanding all these spiritual actions be done and if possible done in secret,
which is essentially action born out of humility and love—
praying, giving, fasting done only for God to see,
only because you love him—
and then come up here and have a smear of ash in the shape of the cross applied to you that everyone can see.
Let me suggest that this sign is actually a sign of humility.
It is a sign of mourning, of sorrow.
Let me recall to your mind a peculiar detail from 2 kings 4.
One of the bad kings of Israel was walking along the wall during a siege by the Syrians.
The people were so hungry because of the siege that they were eating their babies.
And then the writer tells us this about the king when he discovers that babies are being eaten,
" When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body. "
The sign of his mourning was made bear and the people saw it.
As you come forward for the smear of ash,
for the sign of death, to bear the mark of sin and mortality on your head,
let the public sign be an occasion for true inward sorrow.
Rend your heart open before God
and let him see the darkness of your soul and mind.
Confess to him the thing that hurts you most to bring into the light of day.
even after the sign is washed away,
walk the next forty days as if you are stepping behind Jesus as he wends his weary painful way to Jerusalem. Why is he making this journey?
Why is he bearing up under the splintery hard cross?
Why is he willing to die?
Isn't it because he loves you?
Isn't it because he knows that His Father is enough to bind up his wounds?
The way of the cross is the way of life.
It is on the cross that all the sin,
all the bad motivation,
all the rebellion,
all the darkness of our hearts and minds can be wiped clean,
can be forgiven.
The sign is worn for a night,
the sorrow endures for a moment.
But life with the Father through the work of the Son, in the power of the Spirit endures forever.
You may leave here in mourning bearing the sign of death
knowing that Jesus has conquered death,
that it has no power over you.
Though you die, you will rise with The Lord of life
who sees what you do,
who loves you,
who forgives you,
who feeds and strengthens and provides for you.
The steadfast love of The Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. He is faithful. Hear his voice today, turn to him and live that his glory may extend over the whole earth.