Ash Wednesday (February 17, 2021) -- Pr. Phil Tonnesen

[Link to full ELCA Worship in the Home with Links to Music and Pr. Phil Tonnesen's Sermon]

Prayer of the Day:  Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent.  Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Matthew 6: 11-6, 16-21

Concerning Almsgiving

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Some thoughts from Pastor Phil:

Back in the 1960’s, researchers at Stanford University began the Marshmallow Experiment in which children were asked to decide whether they wanted a small reward immediately or a greater reward later.  In other words, eat one marshmallow now, or wait until the researcher came back, and get a second marshmallow as well.  Years later, researchers discovered that test subjects who had been able to delay gratification as children were higher achievers in multiple areas of life skills.

Friends, as we begin this season of Lent, we might expect sermons about self-denial rather than about rewards.  But in today’s text, Jesus puts acts of self-denial, such as giving to the poor, praying and fasting, in the context of rewards we hope to gain.  He tells us to choose the rewards our Father in heaven gives rather than those that come from people on earth. 

And lest we think desiring rewards doesn’t sound spiritual, Jesus states three times that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  And later in this same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that when he comes in his Father’s glory with his angels, he will reward each person for what he or she has done.

So then, the natural question is:  How can we gain such rewards? Well, before we answer that question, let’s look at the rewards Jesus says hypocrites seek. The hypocrite wants to be noticed, to be seen.

Let’s remember that from the time we are born we crave attention. It’s part of the survival mechanism that causes a baby to cry when she’s hungry. As infants become toddlers, we often hear them say, “Watch me, Daddy!”  “Look at me, Mommy!”  They want to be seen, to be known, to feel important. We seek approval and validation.  And that’s not all bad.

But hypocrites carry this behavior to the extreme.  They perform acts of public charity, pompous prayer and flashy fasting, not to exalt God or care for people, but to be noticed.  They want people to see their religious mask and conclude that’s who they really are.  In fact, the word “hypocrite” refers to an actor wearing a mask that hides his or her true identity. 

The hypocrite might carry a huge Bible for show, but never read it. The hypocrite might announce a large gift to charity in a press release or visit sick children as long as news cameras are present. As someone recently said, “No job is complete until the selfie is posted.”

I recall a true story about something that happened several years ago.  Six, 15- foot-tall palm trees that lined a major boulevard in Miami were chopped down by vandals.  Well, Eastern Airlines donated six new ones, grander and taller by a good 20 feet. But it wasn’t until the replacement trees were planted that it became clear that the giver may have had an ulterior motive. You see, the new trees completely hid a billboard promoting their competitor, Delta Airlines.

So, it seems that some people in Jesus’ day tooted their own horn when giving to the poor, supposedly to let them know where to come for help, but really, they were calling attention to themselves to get recognition.  And when they donated to support the temple, they didn’t put anonymous envelopes in the offering plates, but dropped their contributions into treasury boxes just outside the worship area where everyone could see how much they gave and admire them.  But Jesus saw the poor widow and said she had given more than all the rest, for she gave all she owned.  And so, we are reminded that God sees what we do in secret. God doesn’t see as mortals see, but God “looks on the heart.” 

And so, friends, I think the issue Jesus is addressing in our text goes to the question of motivation.  Why do we engage in religious activities?  Any acts of self-denial we perform during Lent give us no cause to boast, since they cannot save us. 

I’m reminded of what author Max Lucado once said, “The maker of the stars would rather die for you than live without you.  So, if you need to brag, brag about that.”

Friends, if we believe that, that God would rather die for us than live without us, then we will be satisfied to serve in secret, not for show. For Jesus advises us to perform our acts of piety in secret, for then the God who sees in secret will reward us.

Now, some of you may be wondering if your Heavenly Father designed you to play a role that doesn’t get much applause.  Author and pastor John Ortberg once asked this question, “I know I’m supposed to be humble, but what if no one notices?” But Jesus is saying that if we have a behind-the-scenes assignment where we are assisting others and not getting much glory, then we should be content to serve in such a way because God sees that service. 

After all, it seems to me we must continually be asking ourselves, “just who are we doing these good deeds for?  For Ourselves or for God?”

I recall an interview that ESPN did with Serena Williams after she won the Wimbledon tennis tournament for the first time in 2002.  A reporter asked her if she was bothered by the fact that many of the English fans rooted against her. “No,” she said.  People had rooted against her all her life. “Besides,” she added, “my dad was sitting in those stands, and I knew he was rooting for me and I wanted to please him.”

Who do we hope will see what we do? Jesus reminds us in our gospel text for this Ash Wednesday that God sees what we do, even when no one else does.  And he promises that God will reward us.

And so today, dear friends in Christ, as we begin our Lenten Journey, we choose to wear a little smudge of ash on our foreheads.  We do so not to call attention to ourselves, but as a personal act of devotion between ourselves and our God who sees in secret.

And that is why I invite you to carry with you during this Lenten Season, a nail. For it is a nail that reminds us that we look to Jesus, the one whose death on the cross purchased for each and every one of us the promise of a new beginning. 

And then on Good Friday, since we will not be able to gather in person, I invite you to hammer that nail into a tree on your property to be reminded that the burden of sin and death has been lifted off of you because of what Jesus did for each and every one of us when he was nailed to the cross.  May we, during this season of Lent, be reminded that if we are going to brag, let’s brag about Jesus.  Amen.

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