06 February 2008

Homily - Ash Wednesday

From Play-Acting to Children
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

So…what kind of people are you? The answer will color how you think of God.

What kind of people are you when you do your deeds of charity, that is, give to the needy? What kind of people are you when you pray? What kind of people are you when you fast? You will show who you are and whom you think God is when you do these things.

When you do your deeds of charity and mercifully give to the needy, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not sound the trumpets in church or on the street corners, but you still like to be noticed. Let’s say you help out at a charity fundraiser. If the organizers publicly thank those who helped, and if they leave out your name, you do feel slighted. Let’s say you give money to someone who is hungry and needs some food. You do expect a “thank you.” And if you don’t get it, you think the person you helped is a bit rude. You do like to be noticed.

When you pray, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not stand on the street corners and shout your prayers to the top of your lungs, but you still like to be noticed. You like it when other people find out how devout you are. You like it when you are commended for simply going to church. You like it when people marvel at things you do in your prayer life. You might even enjoy telling someone else, “I’m praying for you” for that little sense of accomplishment and appreciation. You do like to be noticed.

When it comes to fasting, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not walk around sad or smear dust on your face, but you still like to be noticed. Actually, you might be proud of the fact that you don’t fast. It’s a lost art of devotion in our world of fast food, hectic schedules and instant, Internet gratification. After all, if you fast, you might be considered a “religious fanatic” or one of those “other Christians” that none of us wants to be like. You just don’t want to be noticed the wrong way.

Jesus uses one word to sum it all up: hypocrites. What’s a hypocrite? In ancient Greece a “hypocrite” was a stage actor. One actor would often perform two or more roles in a play. To do this the actor would have different masks. He would hold the right mask in front of him at the right times for the different characters he would play. When he played King Oedipus, he would hold up the King Oedipus mask; when he played daughter Antigone, he would hold up the Antigone mask. So, a hypocrite would be a play actor, one who wears a mask and even changes masks.

So how can Jesus call you hypocrites when you do your deeds of charity? How can Jesus call you hypocrites when you pray? How can He call you hypocrites when you fast? Simple! Because it’s who you are; it’s the kind of people you are deep down. You want to be noticed for the kind deeds you do for the needy, for the prayers you offer, or for the way you treat fasting. But it’s all a cover up—one big mask. You’re using your acts of devotion to please God, to make Him smile on you. You think God is your audience and you must do whatever it takes to make Him laugh and enjoy you. But you’re using your good deeds to mask one simple fact: by nature you and I are actually, truly, absolutely sinners before God—filthy rotten to the core.

The issue is not “What do other people think about your acts of kindness, or your prayers, or your fasting?” The issue is “What does God think about them?” Your masks of good deeds and prayers and fasting may please people around you. They might even look very good. They might even help other people out. But they won’t please God. He sees behind the mask. He sees in secret. He sees the truth, not the stage act. God sees that you are dust and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19).

Does this mean you should refrain from doing acts of kindness, or from praying, or from fasting? No, not at all. But it does mean that you cannot use such good works as masks to look good before God. Psalm 51 teaches us to pray and tell the truth before God: “Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being…. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:6, 17). The prophet Joel says the same thing: “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful…” (Joel 2:12-13).

What kind of people does God want you to be? People who tell the truth about yourselves. It’s what Ash Wednesday is all about; it’s what Lent is all about—telling the truth. “Yes, Lord, I am lifeless dust! Yes, Lord, everything I do is contaminated and polluted with the filth of my sin.” God delights when the masks come down. God sees what is hidden in the secret places of your heart. God loves it when you quit hiding it but rather expose it. “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to You all my sins and iniquities…. What troubles me in particular is….” That’s what delights God: confessing, telling the truth, about yourself and your sin.

Then God is free to do His acts of mercy. You see, your play-acting masks of good deeds and prayers and fasting only get in the way of God’s acts of mercy. Once the masks come down, you can see God’s genuine acts of mercy. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. That’s the promise for you.

What acts of mercy does God do? For starters, He created you to be His genuine children, not a company of stage actors. But when you started acting like God—not just playing grown-up but trying to be grown-up—then God decided to show His mercy by sending His Son. God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). We can call God’s act of mercy “the blessed exchange.” God sent His Son into the world to take up, soak up, and absorb your sins and death into Himself. In return, your Lord Jesus gives you His life, His forgiveness, His rescue from sin and death. This is how your heavenly Father restores you to your place as His children. Everything wrong about you is nailed to Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And everything right about Him is now given to you.

So, now, when you do your acts of charity, your praying, and your fasting, you are free to do them honestly, without masks. You are free to admit your sinfulness. You are free to acknowledge your sin, even by going to your pastor for Confession and Absolution. Lent is prime time for going to confession so that you can receive and rejoice in the Absolution. Your acts of charity for the needy, your praying, and your fasting are indeed stained with your sin. But the blood of Jesus cleanses them. The blood of Jesus cleanses you so that you may do your deeds of charity, your praying, and your fasting with a clear conscience.

Jesus and His suffering and death strip away the masks. His acts of mercy reveal who you really are: God’s beloved children. Now you may do your good words of devotion—your acts of charity for the needy, your praying, your fasting—not as play actors, but as blessed, free, genuine children. Amen.

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