Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Who Do You Put First?

[This was prepared for Ash Wednesday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Matthew 6:16, 16-21

In tonight’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

He goes on to give three concrete examples:
  • When you give charity to the poor, don’t make a show of it. 
  • When you pray in public, don’t pile phrases one on top of the other in order to wow the people around you. 
  • And when you fast—that is, give up food for a time, don’t let your outward appearance call attention to your “sacrificial” religious devotion.
Spiritual disciplines are meant to draw us closer to Christ, deeper into His orbit, and to create habits of dependence on God within us.

When we give, we’re trusting God to keep providing for our needs even though we have less.

When we pray, whether publicly or privately, we’re acknowledging our complete dependence on God and not ourselves.

When we fast, we’re seeking freedom from what we want and asking God to give us only what we need, what Jesus calls “our daily bread.” (And that, above all, means Him.)

Spiritual disciplines aren’t meant to give us bragging rights, so that we can show the world how faithful we are.

All of that is easy enough to understand. It’s easy to understand too, when Jesus says that those who make shows of their acts of religious piety get the very shallow, meaningless rewards they seek: People notice them.

But the notice of people, the applause of the crowd, won’t get us what only Jesus, Who bled and died and rose again for us, gives.

To those who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Him, Jesus gives the only rewards that last after the cheering has stopped, after the crowds have turned away. Those rewards include forgiveness of sin, eternal life with God, and purposefulness for the living of these days.

Don’t forfeit the only reward worth having, Jesus is telling us in tonight’s Gospel lesson, by allowing your life with God to boil down to things you do for show.

The fact is that what people think of us doesn’t matter. Jesus commands us to play to an audience of One. The opinion Jesus Christ has of our beliefs and motives is the only opinion that will count on judgment day, when He will return to the world to judge, as we say in the Creed, "the living and the dead."

The apostle Paul knew all of this. The first century church of Corinth that he founded, after a time, became a dysfunctional mess requiring him to send at least two letters of correction, both of which the Holy Spirit has inspired the Church to include in the New Testament portion of the Bible. One dispute among many that existed in the Corinthian church was between those who liked the teaching of Paul and those who preferred that of a preacher who came along after Paul left Corinth, named Apollos. Paul wrote to say that such arguments were silly. Paul hadn’t died for their sins and Apollos hadn’t risen from the dead for them. Only Jesus could save them, Paul reminded them.

In the midst of this conflict, some of the Corinthian Christians who aligned themselves with Apollos said nasty things about Paul. Paul couldn’t have cared less. He wrote, “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you…I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord Who judges me.”

Paul knew well what Jesus is getting at in this evening’s Gospel lesson:
  • Don’t worry about showing others what a good Christian you are; just be a Christian. 
  • Don’t call attention to your acts of Christian devotion; just be devoted to Christ.
We could end the sermon right there, I suppose. But, as Lutherans, we believe that we can’t just take pieces of Scripture and leave them as isolated proof texts for the hobbyhorse of the day. Martin Luther said that we should let Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, a single verse of Scripture, without consideration of the witness of the whole Bible, can be used or misused to say anything. Do that enough with single passages of scripture and you distort the whole Bible and the entire Christian faith.

The distortion to which Jesus’ words for us this evening often get subjected seems especially popular among we Lutheran Christians. Historically, Lutheranism has its roots among the people of northern Europe: Germans, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians. These aren’t folks known for being talkative or demonstrative. So, Lutherans have often taken Jesus’ admonition to not make a show of religious piety to mean that we're to never talk about our faith, never tell a friend what Jesus means to us, never invite others to come and see what God is doing in our church family. This is why Lutherans are sometimes called “the frozen chosen.”

But in what Jesus says to us tonight, He isn’t telling us not to live our faith in Him out in the open where the whole world can see it. Pull out a pew Bible and turn to page 553, please. Take a look at a passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we discussed a few weeks ago, Matthew 5:14-16. Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Now, turn to page 557 in the pew Bibles and look at Matthew 10:32-33. Jesus says: “Therefore whoever confesses Me before [people], him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before [people], him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

Then, turn to page 572, and find Matthew 28:19-20. There, the resurrected Jesus, about to ascend to heaven, gives the Great Commission to all who believe in Him. The Great Commission is of equal importance for us as the Great Commandment, which Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40, to love God and love others. In the Great Commission, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

We are to live our faith out loud. We are to share Christ with others. We are to seek to make disciples of our neighbors, friends, and family members. Jesus commands us to do these things. But what He says to us this evening is a simple admonition: “Watch your motivation. If you’re out to glorify yourself and not Me, Your religious observances are meaningless.”

These are great words for us to remember as we begin the season of Lent. I knew a guy who gave up all sweets during Lent. He seemed to tell everybody he knew that he had given up sweets for Lent. “Want a cookie?” someone would ask him. “No,” he’d say, “I gave up sweets for Lent.” “Want a piece of cake?” Same answer. “Want a can of pop?” Same answer. The first twenty or so times he said, “No, I gave up sweets for Lent,” the response was predictable. People applauded him for his discipline and self-sacrifice and altogether upright behavior. He basked in their compliments. But after a time, people quit asking him if he’d like a cookie, a piece of cake or candy, or a can of pop. Without these offers and the opportunities they gave him to brag about his Lenten discipline, he found it harder and harder to stay away from sweets.

This fellow's desire for compliments isn't unique. Just yesterday, I read about a study conducted by scholars at Ohio State who determined that receiving boosts to their self-esteem was the thing that college students loved more than anything. The compliments of others can be addictive.

Taking on a discipline for Lent (or at any other time of the year) can be a fine thing. But, Jesus says, if it’s all about getting compliments, we’ve got it wrong.

The other night, Ann and I saw an interview on TV with an educated, middle clas Libyan man who had never before held a gun in his hand and, despite having so much to lose, had enlisted in the fight to bring down the dictator Moammar Gadhafi in his country. He said that, for him, it boiled down to a simple sentiment: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We who confess Jesus as our God and Savior belong to the Kingdom of God. Tonight, Jesus challenges us to set our egos aside, to ask not what our acts of religious devotion can do for us, but how our acts of religious devotion can make us more submissive to the will of God and how they can help us to tell the whole world the story of the God Who loves all so desperately that He became one of us, died for us, rose for us, and gives everlasting life to those who dare to put Him first in their lives.

That’s the dare Christ lays before us this Lenten season, the dare He lays before us every day we live: Put Him first just as He did when He went to a cross for you two thousand years ago. Jesus characterizes His call to us in this way: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Don’t ask what’s in it for you; just follow the God revealed in Jesus, whether anybody else notices it or likes it or not.

May seeking God’s kingdom and the righteousness that belongs to followers of Jesus be our chief motivation this Lenten season…and our whole lives. Amen!


Jesse Harmon said...

"....a single verse of Scripture, without consideration of the witness of the whole Bible, can be used or misused to say anything."

I like it, Pastor Mark.


Mark Daniels said...

Well, it's just basic Lutheran theology, Jesse. God bless!

Mark Daniels said...

Although that basic Lutheran theological insight appears lost on much of the contemporary Lutheran church, resulting in some very poor "hobby horse" decision-making. The ELCA would not be as fragmented as it is today if the whole of Scripture were taken into account.