(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
(watch here: https://youtu.be/yflDmHZJJek)
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“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. 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. 16“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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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. 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Tonight we celebrate the start of another Lenten journey of self-awareness and discovery. For six weeks out of the church year, we reflect on not only the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross but also on the reason why he had to make such a sacrifice. It wasn’t just a small sacrifice that Jesus made. He didn’t just give up sweets or coffee on our behalf…he gave up his life on our behalf! That’s a fairly major sacrifice to make on behalf of another person. But his sacrifice had to be major in order to atone for the major sins of the world. It is our because of our major sin that Jesus made such a major sacrifice. So we reflect on both Jesus’ sacrifice and our sin that demanded such a sacrifice. Naturally, this season isn’t the most uplifting season of the year. Sin and sacrifice aren’t two topics that generate a lot of happy feelings. But we can’t fully know Jesus unless we recognize the sacrifice he made for us on the cross. And we can’t fully understand the necessity of the sacrifice unless we recognize the full breadth and depth of our sin. As unpleasant as they are, sin and sacrifice are essential topics of our faith understanding. We need to talk about them and we will in the weeks ahead.
Not surprisingly, our readings for this evening lift up a word that underlies both sin and sacrifice—reward. We are rewarded when we sin just as we are awarded when we sacrifice. So why do the rewards feel different? Why do the rewards of sin feel much more gratifying, much more immediate? Why aren’t the rewards of sacrifice more enticing, more desired? After all, the rewards of sacrifice are much more sustaining and fulfilling than the rewards of sin. This is because the rewards of sin ARE more immediate. We have to wait to experience the rewards of sacrifice and we just don’t like to wait. Nevertheless, there are rewards associated with both sin and sacrifice so let us use our time together to discuss the importance and necessity of rewards.
But before we begin, I want to lift up a funny story I read in the Reader’s Digest. It’s about a preacher who, after he died and went to heaven, noticed that a New York cabdriver had been given a higher cloud than he had. “I don’t understand,” he complained to St. Peter. “I devoted my entire life to my congregation.” “Our policy is to reward results,” explained St. Peter. “Now what happened, Reverend, whenever you gave a sermon?” The minister admitted that some in the congregation fell asleep. “Exactly,” said St. Peter. “And when people rode in this man’s taxi, they not only stayed awake, they prayed.”
No, I don’t believe that heaven rewards results from life in this world. But heaven is different than this world. In this world, results are rewarded. In this world, sin and sacrifice are rewarded. In heaven, there is no such thing as sin and sacrifice…there is just love. But in this world there is sin and sacrifice and love and rewards and punishments. There is right behavior and there is wrong behavior. There is good behavior and there is bad behavior. Rewards do matter in this world! Just ask our 6 year-old daughter who gets rewarded with a $5 or less treat on Fridays for good behavior at school throughout the week. Those rewards help guide her behavior. They are the necessary encouragement she needs to listen and learn and play well with other kids in her class. Each of us needs rewards to encourage us and help guide our behavior. Rewards are important for building our self-confidence and courage and hope. Rewards reinforce productive, life-affirming behavior. Rewards enable growth and development. Without rewards, we’re stunted, fearful, unproductive, hopeless people. No, we need rewards to grow and develop and empower and encourage.
In our first reading, we heard the prophet Joel proclaim powerful words about the day of the Lord coming to the people of Israel, “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” No doubt there were many and are many today who fear such a day of judgment. But is it only a day to be feared? Is it only a day of destruction? Is it only a day of pain and sorrow and suffering? For some, it will be only these things. But for others it will be a day of revelation. It will be a day that reveals our faith in God and God’s faith in us. It will be a day of rewarding, when we experience firsthand how the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” The day of the Lord will be a day of great reward to those who are faithful.
In the 51st psalm, we hear David ask for the rewards of his faith in the Lord. He sang, “Remove my sins with hissop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be purer than snow.” David wanted a clean heart, a right spirit within him. David humbled himself before the Lord and acknowledged his sinfulness. It is only when we humble ourselves and acknowledge our sinfulness that we begin to experience a clean heart and right spirit. For most of us, these are two of the greatest rewards that God can give us for our faithfulness. A clean heart and a right spirit are what we need to thrive in this life…not just survive, but thrive!
Jesus understood that a clean heart and a right spirit are, in essence, secret rewards. They can’t be seen like trophies or ribbons. They’re secret rewards for faithful living. He warns us not to loudly give our alms or loudly pray or loudly fast. He encourages us to do these things secretly, “and [the] Father who sees in secret will reward [us].” God knows our hearts. God knows our spirits. God wants us to have clean hearts and right spirits. But God can only give us these if we first recognize our unclean hearts, our wrong spirits. We need to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross. When we acknowledge these things, we are showing God our faith and trust in Him. God rewards our faith and trust in this world through clean hearts and right spirits.
So, as we set out on our Lenten journey, let us boldly acknowledge our sinfulness and need for Jesus to go to the cross on our behalf. Without Jesus, we would be lost in our relationship with God. We would be nothing more than sinful, ungrateful, unknowing, brutish creatures. Through faith in Jesus, we are rewarded with clean hearts and right spirits. We need such rewards to help us grow and develop and encourage us. Finally, let us become more self-aware and discover knew things about God and the world around us this Lenten season.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.