[This message was shared during this evening's Ash Wednesday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In our gospel lesson for tonight, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Jesus warns believers: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
He goes on to say that when we give to the needy, we should seek to keep it quiet. If our aim is to impress others with our giving, the greatest reward we can expect is the applause of a dead world. If our aim is to honor God, our reward will be all the gifts an eternal God can give.
When we offer prayers only to be seen by others, we may impress a dying world. But that won’t help us in eternity, where God gives eternal rewards. We should pray to connect with, confess sin to, give praise to, and seek help from God.
When we fast, it should be done for the purpose of emptying ourselves of sin or to listen to God. If we fast to get spiritual brownie points from the people before whom we play out our religious shows, those brownie points, which have zero value in this world or the next, will have to suffice as our reward.
In other words, the question of motivation is important to Christians, even on Ash Wednesday. If we come to this service, receive the mark of the cross, sing the hymns, or partake of the body and blood of Jesus to impress other people or climb a religious ladder, we may receive some earthly rewards. People in the congregation may be impressed that you came to worship on a Wednesday night. People may see you at a grocery or convenience store you stop at on the way home and, noticing the cross on your forehead, think well of you or ill of themselves because of your piety.
But Jesus says that the only reward a Christian disciple should seek is the reward Jesus Himself won for us on the cross, the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life with God that belongs to all who believe in Him.
Jesus’ warning to watch our motives for things like giving to the poor, fasting, or praying raises another issue for some Christians, though. It subjects them to what has been called the paralysis of self-analysis.
There’s a story told of two actors, one a seasoned veteran with many credits, the other a celebrated up-and-comer. There was a brief scene in which these two were to appear together. The older one sat in a room. The younger was to enter the room through one door and exit through another. It would take all of five seconds. But rehearsal ground to a stop when the younger actor couldn’t figure out how to “play” the scene. “What’s my motivation for walking in and out of that room at that moment?” he asked. “What has my character been doing? What is he going to do? Why does he have to go through that room to do it?” Finally, the veteran actor had enough. “Your motivation,” he shouted, “is to walk through the room and get on with the scene!”
The younger actor was paralyzed from doing anything because he obsessed over whether he had the right motivation. Listen: Our motivations matter. But if we Christians wait to do anything before we’re certain that our motives are absolutely pure, we won’t do anything for God at all.
Remember how the apostle Paul wrestled with his own sinfulness? “...I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:21-23) Despite knowing that his motivations were adulterated by his sinful human nature, Paul continued to do the right thing he thought God was calling him to do.
Paul recognized that every baptized Christian, even the most seasoned and exemplary, has several things in common. First, we are all sinners. Second, we are all saints. We are sinners made saints not by what we do or by the pure motives with which we do them, but solely by God’s grace given to us through faith in Jesus Christ.
As we trust Christ and live in daily relationship with Him and His Church, God is transforming us. We can trust in that. He works within us as we turn to Him in daily repentance and renewal so that the sinner in us is daily subjected to death and the new us--the new you and me--is raised.
This is an ongoing process in the lives of believers in Jesus. It's called sanctification. But the final purification will only happen after we have physically died and been raised by God and we see Jesus face to face. The apostle John tells us, “Dear friends, now [today, although we’re still imperfect] we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
Ultimately, Jesus’ call to us in our gospel lesson tonight and in the season of Lent is simple: To get our minds off of ourselves and onto Him as the only one Who can give us life, forgiveness, purpose, and the desire to do things for His glory, not our own. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Galatians 5:1 tells us. And Colossians 3:23-24 puts it all succinctly: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
When we know that we have been saved from sin, death, darkness, and worry over ourselves through Christ, we are set free! We’re free to stop taking ourselves so seriously while taking our Savior’s call to love God, love neighbor, and love fellow believers with the utmost seriousness. We learn to be unafraid of death (even if we’re still afraid of the process of dying), unafraid of whether the world rewards us or not. Death and the opinions of us held by the world can make the final judgments over our lives only if we refuse to trust in Jesus.
Our freedom in Christ may be expressed in many ways, including, as Jesus discussed tonight, in giving to the poor, fasting, and praying. In fact, Jesus takes it as a matter of course that they will be expressed in these ways, since He says of them, “When you give, when you fast, when you pray.”
But through Jesus, we’re free from the have tos, the musts, and gotta do its of the world, the religious hoops we think we have to negotiate in order to please God (and impress others). In Jesus, we get to love. We get to be the people Christ sets us free to be. We get to live our lives in God’s charity, His grace, not by the world’s punishing standards. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Jesus says (Mark 16:16).
You may do a spiritual discipline for Lent, something you give up or add to your life. If that’s true, try not to tell anyone about it. Seek to do it not for yourself--there are few things more boring or spiritually pointless than a discipline adopted to bring self-improvement. Do it for Christ. Do it for God’s glory. And if you do it imperfectly, talk it over with God and don’t stew about it. Christ didn’t die for perfect people. He died for you and me, mortals created by God from ashes and dust, but mortals who, as we trust in Christ, have the reward no mortal could ever earn or deserve, eternity with God. There’s freedom in that, freedom from playing to the crowd, freeing from worrying over whether we’re good enough or worthy, freedom from sin, freedom from self. Jesus gives freedom. Sisters and brothers in Christ, live in that freedom!
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]