Ash Wednesday; Year B (2/14/2018)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2nd Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Prayer of the Day:
Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[Jesus said,] 6.1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Jesus Said Beware…

“Jesus said beware…” So begins the Gospel lesson I read every single year at Ash Wednesday worship. It seems a fitting beginning for this particular teaching section from Jesus about piety, discipleship, humility and true faithfulness. It seems a fitting beginning for the season of Lent — this time of honest, forthright self-evaluation. It seems a fitting opener for our Ash Wednesday conversation about the role these disciplines need to play in our lives and in our faithfulness.

So let’s start with the most obvious question: What is Jesus so worried about that he warns us to beware? In a phrase: the dangers of practicing our faith. This is familiar territory for Lutherans. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther cautioned us against any notion that somehow our faithfulness is what causes us to receive God’s grace. He would say, today, that we can’t earn our way into heaven. There is nothing we can do that causes God to love us any more or any less. We are, in the words of the Apostle Paul, saved by God’s grace, and nothing else.

This central theme of Lutheran faith has often been misunderstood. Nikolaus von Amsdorf, a valued colleague of Martin Luther in the early days of the Reformation, once complained to Luther about those who suggested that salvation could not occur without the presence of good works. Worried that this would lead Christians back to the notion that they had to earn their salvation, von Amsdorf, in a fit of exasperation, declared that good works were harmful to salvation; that one would be better never to perform a good work, than to imagine that doing so was a way to gain salvation.

Others have made the opposite point: that although our salvation is based on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, there is something we must also do. Fill in the blank with whatever we have to do in order to get God to give salvation to us: believe deeply enough, confess sufficiently, accept the true doctrines of the faith, give enough of our lives to Jesus…

Are good works a necessary companion to salvation? Is there something we have to do in order to be saved? Or can good works seduce us into believing that we, not Jesus, are the source of salvation? Jesus offers a response in today’s Gospel. Good works are, indeed, important. Giving alms (financial generosity); prayer, fasting: these habits of discipleship are crucial aspects of faithfulness. If we do them for the wrong reason (whether to impress our neighbor, or to win our salvation), they work to our detriment. But if we do them, out of love and gratitude, with the desire to draw nearer to God, we can find ourselves rewarded with an even more powerful experience of God.

During the season of Lent, God’s people are invited to embrace these practices: “repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love — the disciplines of Lent” (Ash Wednesday Liturgy), as a heartfelt show of our gratitude to God, who has done everything necessary for our salvation, and as a way to live more fully into the grace of God we have received in Christ. Beware: it won’t be easy! But Jesus promises that it will lead us into the very heart of God.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why does Jesus warn his listeners about “practicing their piety before others?”
  2. What results when someone tries to gain praise from others?
  3. How does Jesus encourage us to practice our piety in a way that is faithful?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What disciplines of Lent will I embrace during the coming forty days?
  2. How can my faith practices lead me astray?
  3. How can my faith practices draw me nearer to God?

The author would love to hear what you think about this post.