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The Disciplines of Lent

St. Matthew 6:1-21


Ash Wednesday
Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church  
Altenburg, Missouri

Wed, Feb 6, 2008
Ash Wednesday

Standard LSB A Readings:
First: Joel 2:12-19
Epistle: 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10
Gospel: Matt. 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm: Ps. 51:1-13 (14-19)


Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

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

1. It is traditional during the Lenten Season, that we, as Christians take on some practices that aid us in our repentance and reflection.  Very often throughout history, Christian men and women have given up some part of their worldly routine to remind them of their mortality.  Not so often though have they added something to their spiritual disciplines of practicing the Christian faith.  Tonight, in our Gospel reading, that's what Christ invites us to do.  With his words recorded in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ invites to be more dedicated in our life of faith.  He directs us to be secretly generous to help the needy.  He encourages us to pray in private, faithfully trusting that God knows our needs even before we pray for them.  And he invites us to fast with class, not making a show of how hungry or thirsty we are as we bring our bodies under control, instead of being controlled by them.

2. There is no doubt, we could all be more generous.  Sure, we give, and we give a lot.  But do we truly give in secret?  True charity and generosity is always done anonymously.  "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."  But how many people know how much you've given to your favorite charity in the past year?  How many folks know how much you give to church every week, because you make sure at least one person sees the number on your envelope before you drop it in the plate?  Maybe that's not you, but how many of you make charitable donations, and always insist on a receipt.  Then come tax time, you use your charitable donations as a deduction?  It's hard to give in secret and not make a show, one way or the other.  So Jesus reminds us this evening to give in secret.  Lent is a good time to add some generosity to your life of faith, and to add some true secrecy to that generosity.

3. When it comes to prayer, we are also lacking.  Sure, we say the words of the Our Father day after day and Sunday after Sunday.  We could roll them off our tongues right now if asked, even without thinking.  And there's the nature of our sin.  When we pray, too often we pray without thinking.  When we do think about praying, we think about what others will think.  We pray where others can see us because we want to be seen praying like the Pharisees, or like hypocrites, we refuse to pray in public because we don't want others to know we pray at all.  Jesus says, "Pray in secret.  Go into your own room, and there, say your prayers, and God who knows your needs even before you pray will answer you."  Lent is a good time to add some prayer to your life of faith, and to add some true attentive honesty to that prayer.

4. And then there's fasting.  Fasting?  Who even knows what fasting is anymore?  Fasting is refraining from food and drink, or cutting down on your eating and drinking in order to remind yourself that as a Christian, you can control the body God has granted you, instead of your body controlling you.  Fasting is eating only two meals a day, when your body demands three.  Fasting is drinking only one Coke a day when your body cries out for 3 or 4 or even more.  Fasting brings our bodies under a discipline that reminds us that our bodies are gifts from God to be cherished and well cared for.  Not just pandered to with food and drink.  Lent is a good time to add some fasting to your life of faith, and to add some class to your fast.

5. So there you go.  All you need for a successful Lent.  Give more, and don't let anybody know.  Pray more and keep it private.  Fast more, and keep it a secret.  Do all this and Lent will be . . . will be, what?  A failure.  If truly keeping Lent meant that we had to keep these three disciplines without failing, we would find that our Lent was truly a disaster.  Who among us can truly give and give only in secret?  No one.  Who among us can truly pray and pray only in private?  No one.  Who among us can truly fast and fast without making a show?  No one!  We could try all Lent long, but it wouldn't take forty days for us to experience failure.  Not that these are bad practices.  If you want to make an effort, go right ahead.  In fact, I encourage you to do them.  Christ encourages you to do them.  They can be extremely useful and beneficial in your life of faith.  But understand from the beginning that it is not these disciplines that are the focus of Lent.  It is Christ and him alone.  If you concentrate only on giving, praying, and fasting during these forty days, you will surely fail.  You and I will fail in our efforts to do these things perfectly because we are sinners!  The Old Adam in us will raise his head and say, "Hey, look how generous I am."  The Old Eve within us will bat her eyes and call out, "Over here, look how much I pray, and look what good it does."  The Old Sinner, regardless of who we are, will climb up out of the death-pool of your baptismal waters, put his foot down and declare, "I can out-fast you and everyone else," and then he will lead us home to eat like pigs while nobody else is looking.  Try as we might this Lent, we will learn that we are sinners.  We are sinners who are not generous as Christ calls us to be.  We are sinners who do not pray as Christ calls us to pray.  We are sinners who do not fast as Christ invites us to fast. 

6. Only when we realize that we are sinners do we begin to understand what Lent is all about.  Lent is about facing our sins and being honest about them.  It's about reflecting on our sinfulness and saying to God, "Because I am a sinner I am dust, and to dust I will return.  I am a poor, sinful being.  I need a Savior.  I need Christ."  Turning to Christ is what Lent is about.  It's about turning to Christ in repentance.  Especially at this time of the year we struggle to rend our hearts and repent of our sins and so return to the Lord our God, who is indeed gracious and merciful.  So we come to Christ with the sign of repentance on our heads: ashes made from the leaves of the palm branches used last Palm Sunday.  These ashes are an outward sign of our repentance.  They are a physical reminder of our need to make confession of our sins.  And so on this night, we mark the beginning of Lent by being completely honest with God and saying, "Lord, have mercy on me.  Christ have mercy on me.  Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinful being."

7. In that confession lies the beginning of faith.  As sinners, we realize that our sins are the source of the suffering of our Lord.  As sinners, during Lent we come to know that our lack of giving led Jesus to the cross.  We come to the realization that our poor prayer life drove the nails through Jesus' hands and feet.  We come to the cross and with sorrow and contrition confess that our gluttony brought about the death of Christ our Lord on the cross.  And as we meditate on our own sinfulness and on the Passion of Our Lord over these next forty days, we will see Jesus work a miracle: the forgiveness of all these sins.

8. During Lent, we see Jesus keeping the disciplines of Lent on our behalf.

We see Jesus' divine generosity as we watch him gather the apostles together in the upper room and generously host them at the Passover.  We, too, will be gathered together with the Lord through the Sacrament of the Altar and we will benefit from Christ's generosity as he gives us his true body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins.

Over the next forty days we will see Jesus praying as he calls on us to pray.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays until he sweats great drops of blood.  Alone, afraid, and destined for the cross, Jesus prays as we ought, and works forgiveness for our paltry lives of prayer. 

During this Lenten season, we will see Jesus fast for forty days and nights in the desert and then crush the head of the devil as he resists all temptation to sin. 

Through these actions of his, Jesus is forgiving us.  By his generosity, he is granting us forgiveness.  By his prayer he is building us up in the most holy faith.  By his fasting, he is strengthening us for every confrontation we will face against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  All these actions of our Lord lead to one place.  The sacred place where Jesus stores up treasures for us where moth and rust will never destroy.  It all leads to the the cross.

9. The ashes on our foreheads that remind us of our sinfulness are in the shape of the cross.  These ashes are a sign of our own sinful mortality that remind us that our Lenten destination is the cross.  The place of the execution of our Lord.  There on the cross, we see Christ, our substitute doing for us what we cannot do ourselves.  On the cross, we see Christ being more generous than we could ever be as he gives up his very life that we might live forever.  From the cross, we hear Christ praying his eternal prayer as he prays that we might be forgiven because we know not what we do.  As we meditate on the cross, we see the Christ begin his heavenly fast so that we may be fed with the forgiving bread of life.  Lent is indeed about giving, praying and fasting--It's about Christ's giving, Christ's praying, and Christ's fasting.  Lent is about the gifts God generously gives us in Christ.  It's about the prayer Christ continually prays for us before our heavenly Father.  These forty somber days are about Christ keeping the the fast on our behalf until we join him in eternity.  These acts of grace all culminate on the cross.  There, we see Christ keeping the disciplines of Lent to the extreme.  So much so, that in the end we see Christ give his life as a ransom for our sins.  We see him prayerfully commit his spirit into the hands of God the Father.  We see him begin the three day fast of death in the tomb.  On the cross, Christ keeps the disciplines of Lent as we cannot keep them because we cannot keep them.  And in his death on the cross, we see our forgiveness pour down his head and hands, his arms and legs, as his blood flows down his sacred body.  Christ keeps the Lenten disciplines as they must be kept, and as only he can keep them.

10. So during these next forty days, be generous.  Not because you will be perfectly generous, but because Christ has been so generous to you.  Pray in the privacy of your own room, and know that Christ is praying for you at the throne of grace on high.  Keep a fast and discipline your body.  It will help you understand the trials and tortures Christ withstood in his own flesh and blood for your sake.  And when you fail--not if, but when--return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love--The love of our Lord Jesus Christ who has kept the Lenten disciplines on our behalf, and by doing so has forgiven us all our sins.  In Christ's name.  Amen.

Blessing: The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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