(Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
(watch here: http://youtu.be/Le15EwsiW6I)
“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.
Today we celebrate Ash Wednesday and begin our 6-week Lenten journey to Easter. It is an important journey we set out on and not only because it leads us to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. Yes, the end result of Jesus atoning for the sin of the world and conquering death is of utmost importance because it puts us back in right relationship with God. But are journeys only important because of where they lead to? Can’t journeys be important for the mere sake of being journeys? We are setting out on a journey and the journey itself will change us. We will learn and grow and deepen our relationship with God along the way and there are few developments more important than these.
Our journey begins with a passage from the book of Joel. Recall that the prophet arrived in Israel during one of the nation’s worst plagues of locusts. He witnessed the sheer devastation on crops and livestock and set about warning the people of Judah. The locusts eventually befell Judah and sent the nation into a terrible famine. In the opening verses of our reading, we hear Joel warning the people of the impending plague. He proclaimed, “Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” The ‘army’ of locusts was so thick that it blackened the sky. Yet notice that Joel didn’t specifically declare the impending plague as “the day of the locusts.” Instead he proclaimed, “The day of the Lord is coming, it is near.” As a result, Joel’s prophecy transcended the specific time and place of that Judean plague of locusts. Joel’s prophecy took on a much larger event: the day of the Lord.
Whether Joel intentionally attributed the “day of the locusts” to “the day of the Lord” or not, we don’t know. Indeed, the day of the locusts WAS the day of the Lord for many people at the time. They either met their untimely deaths or suffered so greatly from the locust infestation that indeed they met our Lord. Nevertheless, attributing the plague to the “day of the Lord” makes the prophet’s words relevant to us today. We, too, await the day of the Lord. And not just the victory of our Lord on Easter morning. We await the day when our Lord conquers evil in this world. There will be a day when there is no more evil in our world. God conquered sin and death on the cross yet evil remains in our world.
Joel spoke of the darkness caused by the locusts but there is a far greater darkness in our world. It is a darkness caused by evil. In the last couple weeks we’ve heard of Jesus’ encounters with the sick and demon-possessed. These were encounters with the evil forces in our world. They’re forces that only want to break apart and tear down and Jesus didn’t allow them to take hold of him or those around him. Jesus is all about strengthening and building up his faithful followers. Jesus encourages and provides hope to the brokenhearted. Jesus continues to fight the forces of evil in our world and one day he will conquer them once and for all. The day of the Lord is surely coming when evil will be no more! Jesus already conquered sin and death. It’s only a matter of time before evil is conquered too.
In the meantime, we are called to reflect on the evil each of us brings into the world. We are called to reflect on our sins and how they are channels for evil to enter into our world. Joel tells us to return to God “with all our hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” We are to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” God gives us these 6 weeks to reflect on our lives and what keeps us from giving Him all our hearts. Let us put to death our sinful natures and cling to the steadfast love of God on our journey!
Joel urges us to prepare for the day of the Lord but David teaches us how to go about making such preparations. If anyone knew how to stay in God’s good favor, it had to be David. It helped that David had a healthy self-awareness. He knew both his strengths and his weaknesses. He knew he was a great leader for God’s people. Indeed, God had blessed David with many abilities that enabled him to be a fearless, confident, and generous leader. But David struggled with sins just like the rest of us. David allowed pride to overtake him at times. Power and prestige often bring an enormous amount of self-pride. It’s easy for powerful people to believe they’ve earned their power through their own efforts and that they deserve whatever power gives them. That’s pride speaking to them. Pride isolates us from each other and from God. Pride makes us behave foolishly. Pride made David behave foolishly with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. He believed he deserved, he earned, Bathsheba. No one was going to keep him from having what he deserved, including Bathsheba’s husband. David allowed pride to consume him, behaved foolishly, and lived to regret his behavior.
The passage from Psalm 51 gives us insight into the remorse that David felt for his sins. More importantly, the passage gives us a model for how we are to carry a contrite heart for the sins we commit. Anyone who’s ever been in a 12-step recovery program knows that the first step to recovery is admitting the problem. They admit that the addiction exists and has taken hold of their lives. This is the hardest step for many people. They don’t want to admit that the addiction controls their lives. They believe that because they can function well enough to meet their daily demands then they are masters of their addictions. They don’t realize that functioning well enough isn’t good enough. The addiction holds them back from living the life that God wants them to live. Yes, they can function. But they can’t function the way God wants them to function. God wants us free to fully enjoy Him and all that life has to offer. Our sins are no different. They hold us back from fully knowing God and God’s abundant grace and mercy. They’re not only channels for evil to enter our world but they also keep us from fully knowing God’s love.
David would have succeeded in the 1st step of a 12-step program. He sang, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” David was fully aware of the sins in his life and kept them out in front of himself, begging for God’s forgiveness. He was tired of trying to hide them. Not that God didn’t see David’s sin. God sees ALL of our sins whether we like it or not! God was well aware of David’s sin. But the road to recovery begins with acknowledging sins and their power over us. We are powerless over our sins. The only power that can conquer sin is Jesus.
We prepare for our journey by acknowledging our sins and asking God to cleanse us of them. Also, along with David we sing for “a clean heart” and for “a new and right spirit within us.” With David, we sing for the joy of God’s salvation to be restored within us. Sure, we can function well enough with our sins. But that’s not good enough. We should want the pure joy of God’s salvation living within us and guiding our days. We set out on our journey admitting our powerlessness to sin and asking God to change us along the way.
Admitting our powerlessness to sin doesn’t have to be a major public event. Sure, we have gathered here tonight as a group to publicly admit our powerlessness to sin in our lives. I pray we haven’t gathered necessarily to be seen by each other and show off personal righteousness. God doesn’t want us to admit powerlessness as a means of gaining power over each other. We are ALL sinners whether we gather together or not!! And we will ALL continue to be sinners after we have gathered! We gather to ask for God’s grace and mercy in spite of our sin. We gather to know Jesus better and take delight in God’s abundant grace and mercy. We gather to acknowledge that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” as both the prophet Joel and King David remind us.
Matthew wants us to be aware of our powerlessness to sin but cautions us not to make it a point of making others aware of our powerlessness. Others are just as powerless as we are and there’s no purpose in reminding them of our powerlessness other than to claim power over them. Just because we know Christ and that Christ conquered sin and death for us doesn’t mean they can’t know it as well. Rather than boast our powerlessness we ought to boast Christ’s powerfulness! Christ conquered sin and death for ALL people, not just those who come to service throughout Lent!!
Matthew offers several cautionary suggestions as we set out on our Lenten journey. We are to give our offerings, pray, and fast without others being aware of our behaviors. Just as God is fully aware of each and every one of our sins, God is also fully aware when we reflect on our sins and give our praise and thanksgiving to Him. God rewards us for our reflection and offerings but not in ways we might imagine. God’s rewards are hard to see or feel. God’s rewards are unlike any rewards in this world. This is why we are cautioned by Matthew to not store up treasures on earth but rather treasures in heaven. God’s rewards aren’t of this world. God’s rewards are of heaven. Let us not be concerned with rewards of this world but rather God’s rewards in heaven.
Tonight we set out on our Lenten journey. We’ve been given useful wisdom and words of advice from Scripture. Let us boldly enter the wilderness of self-reflection knowing that God is pleased that we want to get to know Him better.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.