Ash Wednesday St. John, Galveston 2/26/2020
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re gathered here this evening to begin yet another Lenten season. Look around you for a moment! Much of the way in which we recognize and observe this solemn day, what we call our piety, is outwardly visible. The paraments have been changed from the festive white of Transfiguration Sunday to the penitential colors of Lent, purple. If you came forward earlier you’re marked with an ashen cross on your forehead. Though the day is almost spent, you’ll leave here this evening and that cross will bear witness to what you believe and to whom you belong. There is a certain humility involved in having ashes smeared on your forehead, isn’t there? Those ashes are an outward sign of an inner reality. They speak, not just of a contrite heart and of repentance, they also bear witness to your baptism, whereby God covered you with His cross and marked you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified.
While there are many unmistakable signs that the season of Lent has come upon us, tonight, Jesus directs our attention away from the outward signs of our piety, to the inward condition of our hearts as He speaks about giving alms and praying and fasting in a way intended to illicit the praise of men. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
For us, this shift in focus from our works to the condition of our hearts is never very comfortable. In many respects, we would much rather appear holy and righteous outwardly and avoid altogether the scalpel of the Great Physician of our souls, as He works on the motives of our hearts, bringing about repentance and a deeply pious and rich faith. But, in the end, it’s in our hearts and minds that we examine our motives, our hopes and dreams and our expectations for life and most especially, for our life in Christ. It’s in our hearts and minds that the battle for faith rages. It’s there that the devil aims his arsenal of fiery darts to wound and ultimately to destroy our faith in Jesus. It is there that the solemn confession of our faith, a confession put there by God, through His good gifts, is tested and refined by fire, that it brings forth praise and glory to God.
The motivations of our hearts can be considered from many perspectives, but this evening, I’d like to address a couple of polar opposites that can both prove detrimental to our faith. On the one hand, we might consider our motivations to be of little, or, no consequence. In other words, what matters most is what we do, not what we think and believe. In this case, if we do something good in life, feed the poor, or, help someone in need, it doesn’t really matter why we did it, even if we did it for selfish reasons. The point is, we did the work!
This is exactly the issue that Jesus’ addresses in this evening’s Gospel reading from Matthew 6. In many respects, the Pharisees were guilty of this sort of mindset. Jesus spoke often of the error of the ways. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (And again, He says) Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
So, clearly, the motivations of our hearts do matter. God would have us serve others in order to please Him and not to please others. On the other hand, careful examination of our motives, without properly dividing the Law and the Gospel, can be as detrimental to our faith as a failure to examine our motives.
If we were to consider what St. Paul wrote in Romans 7, verses 22 to 24, in insolation, it would appear that he came dangerously close to the point of despair as he evaluated his life, both outwardly and inwardly. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” That’s a terrible place to be, isn’t it? “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit moved Paul to find hope and consolation in the Gospel. In the very next after his woeful lament, Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! He then began the next chapter of Romans, saying, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Let the angels rejoice, let the fatted calf be slaughtered, for we must celebrated the return of the prodigal. He was dead, but now he is alive!
The motives that fill up all the spaces of our hearts are never completely pure and holy, for, we are, at one and the same time both saints and sinners. This realization, while not something to hide behind, can be wonderfully comforting and liberating as we seek to live out our lives in Christ Jesus.
Many years ago, as I was considering going off to the seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was struggling with many issues. Some of them centered around my motivation for even wanting to go to the seminary. I was concerned that motives weren’t completely right. What I mean is, I didn’t go there because I was driven with an insatiable desire to take the Gospel to farthest ends of the end. In part I went there because I wanted to learn more about Jesus and the gospel. In short, I wanted to go to the seminary to feed my own soul.
I went to my pastor at the time, a very godly and pious man. I told him what I was struggling with regarding my decision to go the seminary. He leaned back in his chair and he said something to me that was strangely comforting. He said, “there is not a man in the office of the holy ministry with completely perfect and pure motives.”
I tell you this little story, not to minimize the importance of our motives for doing things in life, but to put our motives in perspective. You and I are sinners, saved by God’s grace so lavishly bestowed on us in Christ. Yes, we are a new creation, set apart for God’s own purpose, but we are also those who cry out every day, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Luther once said, “never aspire to such purity that you no longer wish to be called a sinner, or, to be one, for Christ died only for sinners.” That is the other side, if you will, of our struggle with the motions of our hearts. “Never aspire to such purity that you no longer wish to be called a sinner, or, to be one, for Christ died only for sinners.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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