READINGS: Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21
It’s Shrove Tuesday. It’s a day of cleansing. the last day before the fast of Lent when people used up the ingredients they had that would go off over the next 40 days if left unused. Hence the pancakes! Words related to this are “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras. And he word “carnival” from the Latin carnem levare, meaning “to take away the flesh” – and was also associated with Shrove Tuesday.Traditionally viewed as a day of repentance, Shrove Tuesday has become the last day for celebration and feasting before the period of fasting required during the Lenten season.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent.
Ashes on the forehead remind us of our mortality. We are made from dust, hence “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes” which we hear at funerals. Many people take Lent and fasting or going without something for these days (excluding Sundays) until Easter Saturday.
Jesus didn’t seem to focus on special days.
He simply says
- When you give to the needy
- When you pray
- When you fast
Why all this secrecy? Praying behind closed doors and giving so that no one know you’ve given?
- It’s really about the people of Jesus’ day who did things for the wrong reasons.
- Showing off before others.
- Trying to impress.
Of course people will find out you’re doing good. After all Jesus also says;
Mat 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.
Mat 5:15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
Mat 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
People made their religion into the legalistic doing of things and wanted others to see them do it.
Jesus says – when you do these things – let them be a spiritual discipline that is in the background – quietly connecting you with God, with the really important things (fasting teaches you that – it keeps you aware of what really matters – and it’s not food or satisfying yourself).
All these things are normal. And he continues with these words:
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.
Lent is a time of reorientation of our lives.
And underlying these disciplines is the truth that none of it earns us points really.
John Newton knew that – he was the most wretched of sinners.
That’s why Amazing Grace is such a powerful song. Not because it’s played so often on the bagpipes. John Newton was English anyway – not Scottish. It’s powerful because it reminds us that we are undeserving sinners.
That’s why Grace is amazing. We didn’t find ourselves.
- I once was lost, but now I’m found – by God.
- Was blind but now I see – through God opening my eyes.
It’s actually in a more modern version of “Amazing Grace” that one of the original verses turn up that are not in the traditional version most people sing:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below, Will be forever mine.
Whatever happens – the whole world can end – but our relationship with God is steady. Nothing can separate us from His love in Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).
It’s the chorus that we love in that version:
My chains are gone I’ve been set free
My God my Saviour has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy rains
Unending love amazing grace
We fast, we pray, we give in response to the amazing grace and mercy of God.
Not to earn it.
During Lent we remind ourselves of what Jesus went through to achieve our salvation.
The 40 days lead us to the cross – where he suffers for us and pays the ransom price to buy us back for God.
In the last hymn we sing today by John Newton he writes about our faith as an experience of Zion – the city of God’s dwelling place. Zion was always about God’s presence with them,
And he writes about grace again in these words:
See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love,
Well supply your sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove;
Who can faint, while such a river
Flows to heart and mind engage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the giver,
Never fails from age to age.
And then in the last verse – reminding us of where our treasure is:
Solid joys and lasting treasures
None but Zion’s children know
May you have that certainty of his grace in your lives.
Ash Wednesday Reflection
- Mat 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
- Mat 18:2 He called a little child and had him stand among them.
- Mat 18:3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
- Mat 18:4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
- Mat 18:5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
- Mat 18:6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
What’s your earliest memory as a child?
I have this picture of an ice cream cake at a 4th or 5th birthday. Apart from a pleasant memory like that I remember my first teacher at school – who wore dingle-dangle earrings and had a cane! Scary lady.
Mostly I remember needing my parents – especially when I was unwell. I needed my mum! She seemed to know what to do. And I trusted her.
Becoming an adult meant you had to take responsibility yourself. And in time – if you were blessed with children – they had to trust you. And you had to care for them!
It’s not surprising that abuse of children makes us feel ill and angry. It shouldn’t be like that.
As we get older still – the hard thing is that we have to trust other people to look after us. Our children start parenting us! And we need care-givers again.
In the frailty of advancing years, we become angry once more when frail and dependent people are abused. It shouldn’t be like that!
In Matthew 18 he disciples asked this question: Mat 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus used a child as an object lesson when he brought a child to them and said: Mat 18:3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Mat 18:4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Mat 18:5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. Mat 18:6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
The “little ones” are all those who are dependent upon others.
One commentator (Elizabeth Johnson) says this:
Jesus then continues talking about “little ones” (hoi mikroi) in the figurative sense — those without power or status in the community of faith. With shocking imagery, he states the utter seriousness of causing the downfall (the Greek verb skandalizõ) of any of these “little ones who believe in me.” Indeed, he warns that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Johnson goes on to say: This text is well chosen for Ash Wednesday, a day that focuses on self-examination and repentance, remembering that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” Indeed, we are all “little ones” before God, completely dependent upon God for the breath of life here and now and for the life to come.
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent call us to repentance and renewal — to a drowning of the old self in the waters of baptism, with all the old self’s evil deeds and desires and potential for causing others to stumble, in order to be raised to new life from those same baptismal waters. This is dramatic imagery as well, but that which it symbolizes is much better than being drowned with a millstone in the depths of the sea!
The bottom line – for us – for the disciples of Jesus back then – and for those being martyred in this generation – is that we have to depend on God with the absolute trust of a child.
In a healthy family – children trust because they know that their parents are trustworthy. Jesus wants us to know that God is trustworthy too. That’s why he says elsewhere in His teaching on prayer: Luk 11:9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Luk 11:10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Luk 11:11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Luk 11:12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? Luk 11:13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
May we be able to trust Him like little children, in the knowledge that we all have sinned and are undeserving recipients of His love and grace. May we also repent for our part in any way in the hurting and abuse of others through our lives.
Sources: Elisabeth Johnson – Professor – Lutheran Institute of Theology, Meiganga, Cameroon