"Not Your Works, but Your Heart" - Ash Wednesday
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
February 14, 2018 at 7:15 PM
Central Passage
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Not Your Works, but Your Heart


            Since today is Valentine’s Day as well as Ash Wednesday, picture a spouse or significant other or a friend getting you a gift. And not just any gift, but something you have always wanted. It is perfect. You never expected to get this gift. Just as you open your mouth to say, “Thank you,” your spouse or SO or friend holds up a hand and declares, “Do not thank me. Getting you that gift was my duty.” Or they say, “Glad you liked it. Now where’s mine?”


            Kind of ruins the gift, doesn’t it? Few people want to receive a gift simply because someone felt obliged to give it or because they actually wanted something from us. We want gifts that come out of genuine love or appreciation. It isn’t as much the gift that matters, but the state of the person’s heart behind the gift.


            Jesus reminds us of this basic fact in our Gospel reading this evening when he comments on three spiritual disciplines – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – that have become the three classic disciplines of Lent. Note that Jesus assumes that the faithful will do these things. It’s part of what marks them as people of God. People of God are generous. They pray. And from time to time, they fast from food in order to feast upon God’s Word. What Jesus speaks against, however, is the abuse of these practices. Jesus has little patience with those who use such practices for their own immediate benefit. Works done out of a sense of obligation, or a desire to manipulate a blessing from God (as in our Isaiah reading), or out of a hunger for public acclamation are harmful to our souls, not helpful. They estrange us from God and from each other. They help perpetuate the lies we tell ourselves: that we can get God to do something for us if we just act a certain way, or that we can earn God’s grace and favor. If we’re going to go about the Christian life that way, we’re going to find ourselves on the never-ending merry-go-round of self-righteousness, which is doomed to break down in our despair.


            Instead, Jesus tells us to do these practices in secret. What does that mean for us, on this, the day when we literally wear our piety on our foreheads?


            Perhaps it isn’t just that we try to avoid parading these practices in public (after all, there is a difference between praying in public and making a spectacle of prayer in public). It may also be that these practices are intended to work upon our hidden, secret self. They are means to letting the Word of God work upon our hearts to bring about repentance. It is the inner person – the true self – the heart – the soul – that needs the most work. Just a minute of honest reflection on how well or poorly we have followed the Ten Commandments, according to Luther’s explanations, ought to convince us of that. Besides, Jesus reminds us in Matthew 15 that it is not what we take into ourselves that defiles us; it is what comes out of us that does. These practices, when done “in secret”, are a means to letting God work on the secret part of ourselves from which all these evil thoughts, words, and deeds come from.


            And when we permit God to have God’s way in our hearts, however briefly, however tentatively, God makes us like his Son. God continues to form us, more and more, after the only Being who was and is perfectly human.


            “You lost me there, Pastor,” you might be thinking. “What do you mean that only Jesus was human? Surely we’re perfectly human too, right?” No. Jesus wasn’t just fully God, he was also more fully human than any of us are. We all have subhuman urges that linger in our souls – desires to use others, to scrape, scratch, and claw our way to glory. We say, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” but it is precisely in our erring that we show just how animalistic we can be sometimes.


            And so, Jesus lived and lives among us – not just to show us the way back to the Father, but to take us back to the Father. The living Christ is among us still, working within us, not just to forgive our sins, but to change our hearts. After all, our whole hearts are what God desires most in all creation. Not your money. Not your gifts. Not your good works. All those things are simply means for us to continue to give God our hearts and to let God continue transforming us.


            And God will transform us into the image of his Son. That is an ironclad promise. The only ones who can prevent God from having God’s way within us are…us. It’s a cliché for a reason – we are our own worst enemies. God comes to reconcile us with himself, as well as among and within ourselves. As we receive the image of the cross on our foreheads with those words that remind us of our mortality, let’s remember the promise as well. We will all die one day, but throughout this mortal life and beyond the grave, God’s promise to form us in Christ’s image holds firm. All our tomorrows are in his hand – and he will do what he says he will.


            Let us pray.


            Lord, open our hearts to the working of your Word. Turn us toward you, for only in you can we be complete. As we enter the season of Lent, help us use whatever disciplines we find helpful to bring us closer to your transformative grace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.