Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

6 February 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 6:1-6, 16-21 (Joel 2:12-19, 2 Pet 1:2-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If you want a snapshot of yourself, consider what it is you treasure. We live in a culture of cars, houses, jewelry, electronic gadgetry, sexuality, worship of the body, a cult of youth, and competition for attention. Are these things more important to you than giving alms, fasting and praying?

And which of these things will last to eternity? Those Hannah Montana MP3s? Those Pearl Jam CDs? Those Beatles 8-Tracks? Those Fats Domino 45s?

Will your beautiful house do you any good after you die? Will it even be standing after a category 5 storm? How about your car? Will it be such a status symbol five years from now? Will you always be the top dog at work or the popular kid in school? And do any of these things mean a thing to God?

What impresses God? Do you think God cares about your stock portfolio, your youthful looks, your smarts, your popularity, how many toys you have, or who you know?

For that matter, is God impressed by how much you give alms, how often you fast, or by how fervently you pray? Is God impressed because you have come to church today and gotten an ash cross on your face?

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Our Lord doesn’t command us to give alms, to fast, and to pray. Doing these things will not save us, impress God, or make us Christians. Our Lord Jesus simply assumes we do these things: “When you do a charitable deed…. When you fast…. When you pray…” This is simply what Christians do. These acts flow from the Christian life. Since Jesus has died for you, and since you are not commanded to do these things, that’s exactly why Christians do them.

Christians don’t give alms to get a pat on the back – giving to charity for the sake of good P.R. or in order to get thanks and praise from other people. Christians don’t fast to get attention – the way some people use their aches and pains as a bid for sympathy, or the way others will recount all the drugs they are on as a boast of their trendy neediness. Christians don’t pray to be glorified by men or to get attention – like the religious showboating that happens in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday, or by politicians who suddenly get religion on Super Tuesday.

Christians should be giving alms, fasting, and praying for the same reason that fish swim, birds fly, and flowers open. That’s just what they do. And their treasure ought not to be with the passing things of this world – be they wealth, health, or status.

So what should we do? The prophet Joel has told us already – if we are willing to listen: “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.”

Our kind and merciful God created all things and declared them “good.” Even the dust of the earth was good – and God made us from this good earth. We had it all. The treasures of the world were eternal treasures. In Paradise, we had eternal wealth and health. We had no aches and pains, no desire for attention, nor death itself. We wanted for nothing. We didn’t obsess about youth, or sexuality, or holding on to riches. We did not compete for the attention of God and men. But after we sinned, all of these things became counterfeit treasures “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” In our sinfulness, we desire and run after the rotting and temporary even as we turn our noses up at the glorious and the everlasting.

After choosing death over life, Adam was told “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Reversing the elevation of the good dust to a greater man, we now see creation’s opposite – the greater man has fallen back to dust – even a dust that has been defiled by sin. Adam (which means “man”) decays into adamah (which means “dust”). And dust blows away and is forgotten.

Our houses, cars, TVs, music collections, libraries, coin collections, bank accounts, stock portfolios, and toys of every sort will end up as dust. Even the people we love, even our pets, even our churches, our Bibles, memories of the saints, and even the holy fonts, altars, and pulpits will one day be dust. The heavens and earth will be reduced to rubble.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This one sentence makes every other pursuit in this world seem frivolous. Promotions, raises, praise of men, money in the bank, status symbols, toys, and every sort of temporary carnal pleasure don’t seem all that important when you realize that your days are numbered, that you are basically a death row inmate, and not one of these earthly treasures will last forever. In fact, when the pursuit of worldly treasure takes you away from your heavenly treasure, from a life of charity, of self-control, and of prayer and meditation – these things are even worse than worthless. When your job keeps you from the Lord’s Supper, when your hobbies separate you from God’s Word, when your children’s education is more important than praying with them – you are putting your treasure “where moth and rust destroy.”

But the Word of God, which does endure forever, offers us a better way. God’s Word places before us eternal treasure that will not be reduced to ashes and dust, will not be destroyed by moth and rust, and can never be stolen by any enemy – human or supernatural.

In our epistle, St. Peter promises: “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”

Dear brothers and sisters, dear men and women of dust, listen to St. Peter! Heed the Word of the Lord! You will return to dust, but you will be restored to eternity – to be a “partaker of the divine nature” – made incorruptible and never again to fall to ashes. Where your treasure is, there is where your heart is also. At this font, at this altar, and from this pulpit you are given treasures beyond all treasures, treasures that will never rot, fall out of fashion, be stolen, or return to dust. For the Word of the Lord endures forever.

The Lord Himself pleads with us: “Blow the trumpet in Zion. Consecrate a fast. Call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the nursing babes, let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests who minister to the Lord weep between the porch and the altar, let them say ‘Spare Your people, O Lord.”

In this repentance, in this baptismal grace, in this putting away of foolish things, in this turning from sin, “the Lord will answer and say to His people, ‘Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil, and you will be satisfied by them; I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations.”

In the life of repentance, the dust of death and the ashes of sin yield to eternal grain, wine, and oil, material riches that last forever and will truly satisfy us. We will no longer fret about being accepted and popular, for the Lord Himself will honor us before all nations. And as St. Peter proclaims: “for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Having been given the kingdom, we can cease our hording and remain confident that the Lord will provide for us materially, freeing us to share by giving alms. Having been given abundance in food, we can cease our gorging and remain confident that the Lord will provide our daily bread, freeing us to fast and exercise self-discipline for the sake of feeding others. And having the Lord Jesus Himself interceding for us by prayer, we can cease focusing on ourselves and remain confident that the Lord Himself gives us all that we need in this life, freeing us to pray for the needs of others.

That, dear brothers and sisters, is eternal treasure: where moth and rust and thieves have no power to destroy. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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