Sermon for Ash Wednesday, AD 2022

Matthew 6:16-21

Why not be a hypocrite when you fast? Of course, no one wants to be known as a hypocrite, but Jesus doesn’t give instructions about hypocrisy for everything. Matthew speaks about hypocrisy in prayer, fasting, and judging others without your own repentance. The pharisees are often called hypocrites for this kind of judgment. Jesus says they outwardly want to be seen as keeping the law but break it in practice.

So that brings us back to fasting – Jesus speaks about hypocrisy in other places, but when he speaks about fasting, we only know three things – Jesus fasted at least during his temptation in the wilderness, the disciples did not fast when Jesus was with them, and Jesus’ only instruction to us is to not be hypocritical.

Jesus gives much more instruction about prayer than fasting. We know from scripture to pray continually. In the Psalms especially we get many prayers which the Holy Spirit inspired men to write. There is no greater prayer than the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus himself gives us to pray. We don’t get nearly as much information for fasting. Nowhere does Jesus tell us how to fast, or when to fast, or how often to fast. He assumes we will fast, for he says, “when you fast,” not if you fast. Other than that, it’s up to us.

Historically, churches have gone one of two ways with fasting – either completely legalistic, as in making up their own laws about it, or completely ignoring it. The former is what Luther had to fight against in the reformation – the Roman church made laws that it was a sin to eat meat or other foods on certain days, even when scripture does not say so. Yet many protestant churches, and often the practice in the Lutheran church, is to ignore fasting altogether. After all, we are free from those legalistic rules, and Jesus only gives us instructions of how to mess it up!

Jesus does not warn against hypocrisy in fasting to dissuade us from fasting altogether. Just as Jesus shows us that our Father wants us to pray and to pray to him well and without hypocrisy, so he shows that he wants us to fast well and without hypocrisy. Hopefully it would seem absurd to you to never pray because you are worried you cannot do it right. Even if you are unsure about praying in public, you can acknowledge that Jesus does not tell you how to pray in order that you never pray out of fear of praying wrongly. Jesus does not want you to just never pray. He wants to encourage you to do so, because it will help you in growth in faith in this life.

The point of Jesus’ warnings about being hypocritical in prayer and fasting is that growth in faith is not something you acquire like adding training levels or getting more academic degrees. Growth in faith is not something you can advertise to others. It is not like piling on recognition or accomplishments. Growing in faith is growing to live less for self and more in dependency on God. The Father who sees your fasting in secret rewards you because by fasting in secret you are moving to greater trust in him and less trust in yourself or any other false gods.

Prayer, fasting, almsgiving – the traditional practices of Lent – all focus your attention on storing up treasures in heaven instead of on earth. Jesus warns against hypocrisy – the hypocrite is the one who is looking for the acclaim of other people, an acclaim which does not last, and a treasure on earth. Treasures on earth are not just physical treasure but anything that turns your fear, love, and trust to someone or something besides God. Whenever your trust goes to something besides God first, you are saying that the greatest reality is the thing you trust in. You are putting the reality of this world above the reality of the next.

Fasting confesses that the reality of this world will be replaced by the reality of the next. It indicates that there are treasures greater that whatever worldly pleasures we can find. When these spiritual disciplines are done purely, they reinforce to you your dependence on God. You are reminded that ultimately what he promises in the next life is greater. Christ says, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is the reality we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.” We ask God for the good things that already occur in heaven to come among us now on earth, to come to we who suffer with the consequences of our own sin.

This is why we put the ashes on our heads today. Not to be seen by others, for that would be hypocrisy. With the ashes we remember “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Just like moth and rust eventually destroy every treasure on earth, so every person will one day return to the dust from which we all came. The ashes remind you that maybe things that return to moth and rust and dust should not be your priority after all. Maybe pleasing the one who made and sustains all these things should come first.

The thing is, outside of Christ, no amount of fasting you can do will ever please God. Even if you fast in secret and forgo every worldly pleasure, such man-made works won’t bring you closer to the Father. You only come to the Father through the Son. For the works which please the Father are the works that the Son, Jesus Christ has done. In Jesus, the Son of God took on human flesh, the same dust we are part of, and lived and suffered death on a cross. He took on our sins and made peace between God and man. His body was subjected to decay and death. Yet he did not remain dead. For you know at the end of Lent comes Easter, and the resurrection from the dead. So Jesus, obediently following the Father’s plan, suffered death and then, as the sinless one who did not deserve death, conquered it!

Now you have been called by the grace of God through the work of Jesus to be more than just dust. You are dust that has been redeemed. You will return to the earth, but one day when Christ returns, you will arise with a new body. Baptized into Christ, you shall be resurrected with him. So you share even now in his life. For those who believe, God sees not your righteousness, but Christ’s. There is no need for you to work to please God because with faith in Christ, you are already perfectly pleasing to God. For Christ has taken all your sin and given you all his righteousness.

So trusting in Christ, we can fast and pray and give alms, all recognizing that our certain hope is not in this world, but in the next. While here, we are sustained by Christ’s Word and Sacraments. Fasting and other spiritual discipline is like our athletic training. We are learning to shed our sinful desires and trust God more fully, even knowing that we are completely saved in Jesus. So with the Holy Spirit as guide through the Word, discipline yourself to become more of who you are in Christ. You can pray imperfect prayers because the Holy Spirit has made your prayers perfect before God. You can fast imperfectly, because Christ by his fasting has given more merit for it than you could ever gain. The point now is the training, the imperfect practice as you look forward to when you will be made perfect in the resurrection from the dead.

So this Lent, I encourage you to try to discipline yourself in a small new way. Pray at least once a day, or one more time a day than you usually do. Or fast from something. Give a little more away than you usually do. We are all practicing, and the imperfect practice will be made perfect in the life to come. Most of all, read or listen to a little more of God’s Word, for that will sustain any practice in this life more than anything else.

This is not a challenge you need to write down or sign up for or tell me or anyone else. Don’t worry about human recognition. Yet also don’t worry about imperfection. For you have a God who is happy to forgive when your confess your sins to Him. For Jesus Christ has reconciled God and man. He thought it was worth dying for dust like us, therefore we can trust his great and precious promises by holding to that work. Amen.

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