Sermon for Ash Wednesday, AD 2021

Matthew 6:16-21

Some of the best stories in the Bible involve fasting and ashes. In the book of Esther, before Esther goes to speak to her husband, the king, she fasts, and her cousin Mordecai sits in sackcloth and ashes when he hears the Jews are going to be destroyed. Esther successfully convinces the king to save her people. In the book of Jonah, after Jonah gets spit out by the fish, he goes to Nineveh to preach to the pagan Assyrians, “Repent, or in 40 days you will be overthrown.” This short sermon brings the brutal Assyrians to repentance, and the whole city of Nineveh fasts in sackcloth and ashes, even the animals, and God relents from destroying them.
         
Now these two are much different situations. With Esther, the problem is living under an oppressive regime. She and her people are victims of the work of the devil through the leaders of that nation. Fasting and taking on ashes shows total dependence in God in a lack of options. Mordecai can do nothing to change the situation except pray, and he takes on ashes to show he is a mere frail man with no power of his own. Esther fasts because coming to the king could mean death, and she must know that she is only dependent on the Word of God, not any king or ruler Satan could put against her. Ashes serve as a reminder of human frailty and dependence and fasting as a discipline of trust in God’s provision.
         
In Nineveh, the people are not the victims. The wickedness of that city has brought the judgment of God upon them. Yet in his lovingkindness, God still allows them to repent. They fast and put on ashes, again to show their own frailty and despondency. They also acknowledge they are nothing compared to God, and cannot do anything but for His mercy. At the same time they are mourning their own sin. They regret that they have put themselves in this situation and have nothing to offer God but sincere sorrow.
         
Why do we wear ashes today? We realize these words are true, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We take this day to realize that we are mortal. We are weak and frail and only live by God’s mercy. We are not strong enough to overcome the devil, the world, or our sinful flesh. In fact, we give in and sin often. Only God’s mercy in Christ can help us. We turn to him in repentance. Like Mordecai, we are oppressed by the world and the devil. Like the Ninevites, we know we sin and only deserve this oppression. This is why we wear ashes, and why we fast.
         
Yet let’s not think we can only get by with putting a little ash on our heads. As Joel says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” No outward show of repentance is ever sufficient. Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are the three central focuses of Lent, but Jesus tells us these can never be for outward show. To fast and wear ashes for ourselves, with the wrong motivations, is sinful. If we wish to use the Lenten disciplines to make ourselves feel more pious and holy than others, we are doing it wrong. For what is further from showing your own frailty and dependence on God than puffing yourself up? No, mere outward show, mere works will never do.
         
That statement is probably not very controversial, though. For our culture already hates hypocrites, at least as we like to define them. Religious people who are simply full of themselves are disliked by just about anyone you could find on the street. The warning against outward show is good to remember here, in our Christian bubble. Usually though, our problem is the opposite. We think since our good works, prayers, fasting, and almsgiving are worthless and damning if done with the wrong motivation, then why even do it? Better not to fast, than to fast as a hypocrite!
         
Yet hypocrisy is not aiming to attain something and falling short of it. That’s just humanity. That’s our sinful condition. Hypocrisy is having an outward show of something you never believed in the first place. Yes, everything we do is tainted by sin, but that is why we repent. Both inward and outward repentance are done continually, through practice. St. Paul compares the Christian life to training as an athlete. We are learning. We are not going to be perfect. The opposite danger of thinking we are perfect is to not try because we are not.
         
When Christ commands us not to fast as the hypocrites, he does not say so in order that we do not fast. God does not give us His law so that we refrain from good works. We fast not for the purpose of puffing ourselves up, but to train our bodies. We heard a couple weeks ago about the parable of the sower, that some seed falls and when tribulation and hard times come, it withers away. Hard times will come. There will be times you will have to fast. We choose to fast now, so we will be prepared to remain steadfast to God instead of our bellies. We choose to give to the poor now so when we have to choose between God and money, we already know money has no power over us.
         
This is the best investment for the future – for what is done in the community for the benefit of others lasts. St. Luke says when we give to the poor we invest in “moneybags that do not grow old” (Luke 12:33). Here our outer and inner repentance are completely connected. As Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” By wearing of ashes we realize we are mortal and we do not last on our own. By fasting we recognize nothing in this world lasts. The reality of this world is one of decay and destruction. As the hymn says, “change and decay in all around I see, O thou that changest not, abide with me” (Lutheran Service Book #878) Fasting recognizes that the reality of this world will be replaced by the reality of the next. That we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
         
The food of the next life is Jesus, the Bread of Life. He is sacramentally present with us now. In the Lord’s Supper we are united with and abide with him. Clinging to him, we have already died to death with him, and we have risen to the life of the age to come with him. For He died and rose are we are brought into that as well. Therefore we live the life which stores up treasures not for this world, but for the next. We can live freely giving and forgiving with our neighbor because Christ has freed us from the tyranny of those who would rule over us, whether it be money, our belly, or some oppressive government, as with Esther. As we forgive, we also
know that we are forgiven before our father in heaven. For forgiveness of our neighbor is a true sign of repentance. It is one we receive and practice now, hearing God’s word and living in love toward others. In the age to come we will see it was our true treasure, and the only thing that lasted.
         
Therefore, fast and put on ashes now. We are heading into lent. But at the end of Lent is Easter, and the resurrection. And then we will look forward to that day when we will rise and there will be no more fasting or repentance. For the bridegroom, Jesus, will have come for his bride, and we will live in that eternal feast forever. Amen.

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