Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018
Before bibles like this were easily printed and readily available, if you wanted to hear the scriptures, if you wanted to know the stories of your faith, if you wanted to know the commandments and the promises of God, then you needed to gather together with others in a public assembly. The written word was precious and rare. People gathered together to hear it proclaimed and in those gatherings, in those communities, they also shared the unwritten traditions of piety and devotion. The learned how to interpret and understand what had been read. They were challenged to greater faithfulness. They learned that they needed each other. They needed to pray, not just for themselves, but for each other. They needed to help each other; to pick each other up when they are fallen and to help those who are too weak to approach God on their own, from the elderly to the nursing infant. As the prophet Joel says: “assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast.” The priests are instructed to weep and to plead for God on behalf of their people. There is an interconnectedness here. There is a recognition that in our walk of faith we need each other: for instruction, for comfort, for challenge, for strength, for inspiration.
Some things change, some things stay the same. We no longer need to gather in communities or assemblies to hear the word of God. The Bible is cheap, it is very often freely given away, you can download it on your phone if you want. Johnny Cash even recorded it on CD if you would rather listen to it. But even though the text of scripture is readily available now, we still need to gather in community for everything else. We need the community of faith for tradition, interpretation, love, support, guidance and even to challenge us from time to time.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the second commandment we hear in the summary of the law that Jesus taught. We as Christians are the body of Christ; we gather together as a community at the altar to share in his meal, we share in his promises, and we have responsibilities to each other. The second half of the ten commandments deal with our relationships with each other in this world, so we dare not ignore that, but…they still come second.
The first commandment is: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other Gods before me.” Jesus summarizes the first five commandments as this: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul…this is the first and great commandment.” This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it, the second is important, but this comes first. It is our belief in and love for God that fuels our faith and makes obedience to all the other commandments a desire of our heart.
You see, communities are important to our faith, but there is also a danger to practicing your faith openly. I don’t think it is any accident that the church has assigned two very different readings to this important day in the calendar. From the prophet Joel we have the instruction to gather a solemn assembly of the faithful, and then from Jesus we have a warning about the pitfalls of public worship: specifically self-satisfaction and the approval of others. Whenever we gather in community we are prone to become aware of how others see us, and that often affects how we see ourselves. We can get caught up in that. It can easily become a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety about what others are thinking that eventually shuts out the only person whose opinion really matters: God’s.
We are here to worship and adore God. That is where we must begin. That must be the fuel that gives energy to our faith. Our relationship with God, our love for God must be the driving force behind our actions. Our love for him should overflow into a love for his people; our obedience to his commandments will compel us to love others, but we must start with God.
Jesus makes it very clear that there is no substitute for a private, personal relationship with God. If all you really want is the approval of others, you can get that rather cheaply, but beware…you get what you pay for. Real devotion to God, like any living relationship, takes time and energy. It takes practice, until it becomes a part of who you are.
This bible has some wonderful commentary underneath the verses of scripture written by Matthew Henry, a seventeenth century divine, and in today’s gospel passage, underneath verse 4, that says: “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” it has this little gem: “When we take the least notice of our good deeds ourselves, God takes most notice of them.”
It isn’t those deeds that we are cataloging; it isn’t the deeds that others notice or pay attention to; it is what we do purely out of our love and devotion to God; the things that we ourselves fail to notice because our eyes are fixed upon God and not our own hands.
In our gospel today, Jesus discusses three important actions, sometimes we call them the “three notable duties”: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are ancient forms of piety that people of faith have practiced to nurture their relationship with God. Not just Christians, but Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths as well. I would point out that Jesus, when he is speaking to his followers, does not say “if” you do these things…he says “when” you do them. Jesus doesn’t tell us to avoid acts of piety, he assumes that we will do them, he just wants us to understand why we are doing them. They are first and foremost about strengthening our relationship with God. It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees our devotion, in fact it is probably better if they don’t.
Lent is about falling in love with God again. It is about taking the time to nurture and strengthen that relationship. Yes, there are times like this when we gather as a community of faith, but nothing, nothing can replace the private time you spend with God and the personal relationship that you have with Jesus. We must always remember that in the end, we are saved by God not by the opinion or the approval of others.