Ash Wednesday: The Wrong Reasons

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There are many reasons for doing things in church.  One of them is good.  The others are not, and in our readings today we hear the difference.  The good reason is a sincere faith and a desire to draw closer to God.  Ultimately, everything we do together as Christians should flow from our faith and our relationship with God.  But all too often, it doesn’t.  All too often, we find ourselves doing things because we want to look pious, or because it’s what everyone else is doing, or just because it’s always been that way.  And from the outside, it looks much the same: you can’t tell just from looking at someone whether they’re in church on Sunday morning because they have a hunger for God, or if they’re just there because if they aren’t their family will nag them.  You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’re teaching Sunday School because they got dragged into it, or because they have a desire and a call to share the news of Jesus.  You can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they’re wearing a cross of ashes on their forehead to help them remember their sinfulness, or because they want everyone they meet to see what a devout Christian they are.

If there is a time of the church year most prone to doing things for the wrong reasons, it is Lent.  There are many traditions we observe during Lent without really knowing why we do them, what they are about.  We do them by rote, or we forget about them entirely.  How many of you have ever given up chocolate for Lent?  Did you know why you did it?  I know I used to give up chocolate without really knowing why.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the ancient Hebrew people had the same problem.  They knew all the right rituals and ceremonies, and they did them—but they didn’t understand why they did them.  They went through the motions, but their hearts and souls were not changed.  They looked on their religious rituals as a recipe for prosperity.  “If we fast on the right days, and eat the right foods, and offer the right sacrifices, God will like us and give us what we want.”  So they were very strict at keeping the outer observances and rituals strong … and yet, all their actions brought them no closer to God.

So God sent Isaiah to tell them what God really wanted, and it wasn’t what they expected.  You see, God wasn’t concerned so much with the rituals as God was with their entire lives.  God didn’t want empty show; God wanted whole lives lived with justice and mercy.  It didn’t matter what they did on the Sabbath if they spent the rest of the week exploiting and ignoring the poor and vulnerable people around them.  How they treated their fellow human beings had a direct connection to their relationship with God.  All the rituals in the world couldn’t bring them closer to God if it didn’t also bring them closer to their neighbor.  The rituals were not a way to score points with God; they were supposed to be a guide for how to live in a right relationship with God and all of God’s creation.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  Jesus put it this way: when asked which was the greatest commandment, he answered with two: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In other words, you can’t really separate love of God from love of neighbor.  Doing all the right rituals isn’t enough.  Being a faithful child of God means living our whole lives as children of God.  It means loving God and loving our neighbor, not just in words but in deed.

Jesus, too, had something to say about religious ritual, as we heard in our Gospel lesson.  We should give to those in need, and we should pray, and we should fast, but we should not do it to show off how pious we are.  Prayer, devotion, worship, giving, fasting, all of these should be things that point us to Christ.  The rites we practice should bring us closer to God and to our fellow human beings.  If you’re just going to church or giving up chocolate to impress others with how faithful you are, how good a Christian you are, you may well succeed in impressing the people around you—but God knows the difference.

In Lent, we prepare for Easter by acknowledging our sins, and our need for the salvation that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  We prepare for Easter by drawing closer to God, and fasting from those things that draw us away from our fellow human beings.  We prepare for Easter by living out those things we know we should do but seldom take the time for.  We prepare for Easter by taking a good, hard look at our lives, and seeing what needs to change to live as children of God.  There are many rituals that can help us do this; the ashes we are about to receive are one of them.  But the rituals are not the point; the rituals are signs to point us to Christ.

As you consider what you should do this Lent to prepare for Easter, here are some things to ask yourself: When I wake up on Resurrection Sunday morning, how will I be different?  Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of loving God with my whole heart or loving my neighbor as myself? How do I address that habit over the next 40 days?  Is there anyone in my life from whom I need to ask forgiveness or pursue reconciliation? What practical steps can I take to carve out time for daily contemplation?  What are some things in my life that I tell myself I need but I don’t?  Can I give one or two of them up for 40 days?  Why am I giving this particular thing up? How does giving it up draw me closer to God and prepare me for Easter?  What am I going to tell myself when self-denial gets hard?  Is it necessary or helpful for me to share the nature my fast with others or should I keep it private? What do the ashes mean to me this year? What does baptism mean to me this year?

We are all sinners.  We do things we shouldn’t, and we fail to do the things we should.  We ignore the needy around us, and we ignore God’s presence in our lives.  Too often, we worship God and study God’s Word out of habit or because we want to look good.  And yet, God loves us still.  We are not worthy to be children of God, and yet God claims us as God’s own.  Our sin and brokenness lead only down to the grave, but the grave does not have the final say, because Christ died for us.  Christ died for us, and rose again, and we are tied to his death and resurrection.  We will die, yes; we are dust, and to dust we will return.  But we will rise in Christ our Savior.


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