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LSB Ash Wednesday Sermon – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

February 14, 2016

February 10, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“When you give to the needy…. And when you pray…. And when you fast….”

Once again, the Church has come to the holy season of Lent. The Ash Wednesday Address reminded you of the purpose of this season: “From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.” Devotion, self-denial, and repentance often take on the form of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—acts that are all mentioned by the Lord Jesus in the Gospel Reading for this day. Jesus gives instructions to His disciples concerning how they are to engage in these practices. The instructions commend these three acts of piety. But they also guide Jesus’ disciples in how to avoid errors in performing them.

Jesus’ instructions on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are prefaced by His 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.” His warning is clear: acts of piety are not to be for show. They are not to be done for the purpose of gaining recognition from others on earth. Jesus illustrates what seeking recognition from people looked like, as He speaks about what some were doing in ancient Israel: “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…. 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…. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”

The issue with such public displays of piety is not that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting displease the LORD or violate His will. Far from that! But Jesus points out how individuals were taking what should have been a pious act to please the LORD and using it for a different purpose. Public announcements of these acts were done so that people could receive commendation from their fellow man. Instead of conducting themselves in ways that gave honor to the LORD, they were seeking honor for themselves. This moved such acts from worship of LORD to service of the self. And that is what Jesus defines as hypocrisy.

Jesus’ warning is meant for His followers now. As Jesus’ disciples, you are called to devotion, self-denial, and repentance. Your piety can be put into action by almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. But the warning is given: don’t do such things to gain honor and recognition on earth. If you make piety a public show, you may well receive praise and approval from the community. After all, people have no problem in expressing what they think about what others do. But what does Jesus say about those who practice their righteousness in order to be seen, “that they may be praised by others”? He says: “They have received their reward.” The people wanted praise from their neighbors, and they got it. But that is all that they would receive.

Jesus teaches a better way to His disciples: “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.… When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…. 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….” Jesus gives these instructions because there is a greater reward than honor and recognition from mortal men: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What the Father in heaven can give is of greater value than what mankind can bestow. And Jesus wants His followers to receive that greater gift.

You know what Jesus states is true. It is part of your experience. Think about it. Honor and recognition given by people will ultimately fade away. Medals tarnish. Certificates tear. Engravings erode. Statues crumble. Pictures fade away. Those who remember people from the past go to their grave, along with their memories. Such is the way of the temporal world.

That is why Jesus teaches you: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves 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.” The honor and recognition that the Father in heaven will give endures for eternity. It does not fade away. It is not lost.

Jesus desires you to have the enduring treasure in heaven. But that treasure is not obtained by acts of piety done to receive honor and recognition from others. No, if that is what motivates you to give alms, pray, fast, or perform any other virtuous act, then you will have a reward that is only temporal. People will praise you, as you desire. But your treasure will be on earth, not in heaven. But if your acts of piety are done as part of a living faith that trusts in the reconciliation that the Father has given you, if they are done out of gratitude for the salvation that the LORD has granted to you, then the reward is an eternal one. Like the other acts driven by faith—like rending the hearts in repentance instead of clothing—even your good works don’t need to be made showy.

That is the point of Jesus’ exhortation: “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.” Your righteous status has been given to you. It has been accomplished because of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Full pardon and forgiveness has been made yours because of this. The graciousness of your Father in heaven has made it so. And that divinely-given status sets you in a new way of life.

Your righteous status is enacted by what you do, including almsgiving, praying, and fasting. But these activities aren’t done for show. You don’t need the recognition and honor of men. You already have God’s recognition and honor because of Jesus’ work done for you; that recognition and honor has opened Paradise for you. You can receive God’s recognition and honor in the world to come; the glory that you will have in the future is given by Him in relation to what you do on earth.

So don’t seek what can be destroyed or stolen, lost or taken away. Instead, seek the reward that will endure. With that as your desire, your hearts will be set on things above. You will seek what the world cannot give. And the acts of your piety will be the expression of your belief that your Father in heaven gives all good things, even rewarding the good works that He sees you do in secret.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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