Ash Wednesday – a step ahead of the pack (service on Tuesday 12 February @10.00am)
Readings: Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
The beginning of Lent – is often seen as gloomy time of repentance. The focus on human sin and frailty. Traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies focus on the brevity of life and remind worshipers that they came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. The Pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each person and speaks theses words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
I’m not sure that we need that reminder – most of us are quite familiar with our frailty and have experienced death in our family and friends circle. (I saw a sign in shop yesterday reminds us – Don’t take life too seriously – nobody gets out of here alive!)
The Gospel reading for tomorrow reminds us of some important things in our Christian disciplines however. There is a focus on the positive.
Mat 6:1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Mat 6:2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Mat 6:3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
Mat 6:4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Mat 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Mat 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Mat 6:16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
Mat 6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
Mat 6:18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Mat 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
Mat 6:20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
Mat 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Note the assumptions – when you give (v2), when you pray (v5) and when you fast (v17). These are a normal expectation for Christians and an ordinary part of the Christian life.
The text is set out as a serious of contrasts – not dos and don’ts, but don’ts and dos. In fact there is a lovely poetic rhythm to the whole passage.
If we have anything to repent of it’s the fact that we are not good at these things – not all of them at any rate. Giving, praying and fasting.
Our hearts are trapped in other worries. They consume our energy and time.
So after this reminder of the routine spiritual disciplines and how we should do them mainly in the secret place before God, Jesus gets to the heart of things – literally.
He talks about treasure. The things we cherish and value – which are vulnerable to moths, rust and theft. Either way they perish or land up in someone else’s house – only to perish there. They can only go to the op shop a couple of times really.
Investing time in giving, praying and fasting, is investing in heaven – in God’s economy. And he ends with this: Mat 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In one of the hymns we will sing today there is the line – take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I behold. The writer of the hymn revisited that verse prayerfully and gave all her jewelry (except for one brooch) to the Church Mission Society of the day. She knew about treasures in heaven.
So where will your heart be over these next 46 days until Easter? (The 40 days excludes the 6 resurrection day Sundays which are not fast days historically).
I’m not even sure that we have to give up things. I think that misses the point as our whole life is meant to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12).
Maybe we can engage life more worshipfully – be more thankful – invest in some things that need attention – like appreciating the beauty around us, being thankful for the good people do even if we get irritated by their bad points. So we can give up grumbling, but not just for 40 days!
Maybe we should die to self more and take more risks – caring for those who are not easy to care for – reconnecting with people we have neglected (pick up the phone) – stopping to notice the good things that we take for granted. Praying more – criticising less. So we can give up criticising – but not just for 40 days!
Make your own list of 40 things – and you may find it’s not all dust and ashes. It’s a remarkable world – and it didn’t happen by chance. The people in your life are not an accident or there by chance either. God has put them there to teach you things! 🙂
There are too many wonderful things to celebrate – we should be much nicer to be with most of the time – with a revived attitude of gratitude.
Treasure the things that are treasure.
Make it a great 40 days – and it won’t matter that you and I will be dust one day. There is too much to be thankful for now and too much to look forward to when we die. Easter has settled that!