Photo: Crocuses at Blarney Castle (February 2011)
Sermon for Ash Wednesday. Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Mentioning ‘Lent’ to people will provoke differing reactions. For some, it is the chance to give something up, such as chocolate, smoking, alcohol, (or churchgoing)! For others it is the chance to start doing something good and positive, going for a brisk walk every morning, reading Deuteronomy and Leviticus before breakfast or giving some time or money to a charity. For others still, even mentioning ‘Lent’ will result in arms being folded and statements of defiance such as ‘Well, I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”
I have to say that over the years I’ve tried various things with limited success, so I was pleased about the appointed reading for today because it is one that I have for years found in equal measure comforting, encouraging and challenging. This reading gives us help with some of the great themes of Lent that have been practised by Christians down through the centuries, these are: Giving to the needy, Prayer, Fasting, and the way we view possessions.
The Lord Jesus begins by teaching about giving to the needy. Even just mentioning this may make us squirm! It used to be that the needy were people who you lived amongst, orphans and widows and beggars on the streets were near where you lived and may have been known to you personally. Now to a large degree, the needy are much more remote from us, they live in far away places, we are distanced from them in language, culture and creed. As such, it is easy to forget about them and as it were to pass by on the other side of the road. If we have a conscience however, the needy will never be so far away from us that we are unable to help. Not only does the Lord Jesus want us to give to the needy, He wants us to do it in secret. He says:
“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. 2“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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (v.1-4)
The Lord does not want us to be hypocrites, where we only do things for outward appearance – ‘Look at me aren’t I great for giving all this money away!’ Haven’t we all felt that temptation, when we have done something good or given something away, we want people to know about it? Of course, if people can find out about our giving and it looks like we were trying to keep it a secret all the better – ‘O how holy I am!’ I love the phrase ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, our motive for giving must be pure; we must genuinely not even secretly want some kind of reward in return. We give because of God’s love, God’s love for us and for the joy of being used by God to bless others in return.
The next great theme of Lent is that of Prayer, the Lord says:
5“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.6But 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. (v.5-6)
Again, we are not to be hypocrites, putting on prayers for show to be seen and heard by others. I learnt my lesson about this at the Christian Union meeting I used to attend in my student days. For some reason I got it into my head that God was impressed with long complicated prayers and so when we used to have prayer times I would set off on these really extended ridiculous prayers with what I thought were long and impressive words and rich metaphors – it was all very ridiculous and I am ashamed as I remember it. Nobody said anything to me about it but one day, in mid prayer it suddenly dawned on me what I was doing – I was trying to impress God, and I was trying to impress my fellow students and I was a big eejit! I felt so stupid and it was many months before I could pray out loud again – normally and honestly and without hypocrisy. Of course this is even more important in our personal and private prayer; like our giving of money, our personal prayer times should be in secret, behind a closed door out of sight and hearing of anyone else as much as possible.
Have you ever tried to fast? If you want some way to make yourself as grumpy and as irritable as possible I highly recommend it! No seriously, fasting is something that is a very good habit indeed, though one that seems (for many) to have fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times. There are lots of different ways of doing it but here is what I would suggest for someone who would like to give it a go: A simple way to do it is to fast for 24 hours, so when you wake up in the morning don’t have breakfast, just a couple of glasses of water and the time that you normally would have spent preparing and eating your breakfast spend in prayer and Bible reading. Then for your elevenses the same, a glass or two of water and the time you would have normally taken with your coffee and ‘Kit Kat’ spend with God in the place of prayer, same for lunch, same for dinner and the same before bed. The next morning, have your breakfast, but just have a small bowl of cereal or slice of toast, if you go for the ‘full Irish’ you will probably be sick! Fasting has a strange effect; you will find yourself getting grumpy as you get hungry but this will go because of the extra time spent in prayer and in that prayer you will find all sorts of things that need dealing with coming to the surface. Talk to God about all the stuff that comes up, tell him what you are feeling, just let it all out and tell him. People who fast often find it invaluable and actually look forward to it as a time of blessing and fellowship with God. Again, the Lord Jesus wants our fasting to be done in secret – we don’t make a fuss about it so we plan the fasting for a quiet day when we would be at home rather than a day when we were invited to City Hall for a banquet!
The fourth great theme of Lent that the Lord teaches us about is our attitude towards money and possessions. It’s a bit of a cliché (but one that we have no doubt witnessed), that the more money people have the more tightly they try and hold on to it. So often people who are very wealthy are also very unhappy. Conversely, people who are not at all wealthy are often much more happy. I have also seen how often it is the poorest people who are the most generous in their giving of both money and resources; they have learned a lesson of which the rest of us can only be in awe of, that true happiness is in giving away what God blesses us with, that we might in turn bless others.
As we look at these things, the giving of money, praying in secret, fasting and our attitude to money and possessions it can be overwhelming. We can despair at our weakness: We try to give money away but we can’t even afford to pay our bills first, ‘I want to be able to pray but I don’t think God would listen, he’s too busy and how could he love me after what I’ve done anyway; fasting, I’m a million miles away from that, it’s just for monks and people who have loads of spare time on their hands; money how can I worry about money, I don’t have any to hoard in the first place!’ I know, I know. Look, just begin with small steps, like a child learning to walk, holding his Father’s big hands and looking into his Father’s kind and loving eyes. Just take one step at a time…
I’ll finish with this amazing true story that I came across recently:
A man called Craig had been an alcoholic for more than a dozen years. He’d lost everything he had, including his wife and son, due to his selfishness and addiction. Things began to change after he gave his life to Christ, but he still fell regularly into his old habits. It didn’t help that he’d lost his well-paying job and was working at a local grocery shop that was well stocked with alcohol. After a few years of going back and forth between Christ and the bottle, he finally cut the ties, and, out of obedience to Christ, quit his job.
With no income and hope only in Christ, he was in desperate condition. After an interview with a sheet metal company down the street from his new church, he cried out to God. “God, if you give me this job I will give you my first pay check.” Surprisingly, he got the job.
He clearly remembers the day when he got his first pay check. Stacks of bills needed to be paid. Penniless but determined, he wrote his name on the back of the check and endorsed it over to the church and walked it to the church office without waiting for the Sunday offering. That was the moment, he says, that changed his life because now he understood what it meant to trust God.
As of today, Craig has been sober for 25 years, he’s a manager at that sheet metal company, and he serves as an elder at his local church.
With God’s help, all things are possible, even for me and even for you. Amen.