An Ash Wednesday message from Pastor David Jacobson
Since this is a service where we do a lot of confessing– I have a confession to make. I hope this don’t scandalize anyone… I hope you don’t think less of me. Over the past few months, I’ve let my car get really messy. In retrospect I see how it happened, but along the way I hardly realized it was happening. Just a couple months ago I had vacuumed the whole thing out and it was squeaky clean. But I’ve picked up a few bad habits. First, I frequently take a can of soda with me when I get in the car. Ok, no big deal. But then, 90% of the time, I forget to take the empty can out as I exit the car. Add to that the fact that I have kids who will frequently want to take a snack in the car. We then forget to take the empty packaging out of the car. So one piece of trash at a time, my car gets messy. And of course I can’t handle having a little trash bag, so the empty soda can goes on the floor of the passenger seat. Sorry passenger. I’m not typically ready at a moment’s notice for passengers. Yes, I have a long way to go.
But today I cleaned up. I finally decided to deal with the mess that I’d made for myself.
Similarly, I’ve got all types of stuff in my basement. Things that we used to use years ago but no longer do. Even some things that we’ve never used. And so we’re in the process of cleaning out our basement. And of course we’re rummaging around for the things that are important, but forgotten, or things might have value to others, say, for a rummage sale.
So between my car and my basement, I’m thinking a lot about the ways that we make messes in our lives. At a spiritual level, we make messes in our lives. We make bad decisions. We choose to do the wrong thing. And it doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but just like my trash piled up one piece at a time, our bad decisions pile up one decision at a time. At some point, we have to look at the pile and say, “wow, I’ve got one big mess on my hands.”
Lent is a time for us to purge the junk that has accumulated in our lives, as well as to find some of the treasures that we’ve forgotten or neglected. Lent, of course, is the season of the church year that runs from today until Easter. And just like lots of us go and clean out our basements and closets ahead of the rummage sale, we need to do some soul clean out work ahead of Easter.
We need to deal with those things that are separating us from God. That’s what this whole service is about. It’s not a cheery service because we’re getting serious about turning from our sins.
At the same time, Lent isn’t just about throwing out the spiritual trash in our lives. It’s also about filling our lives treasures that we might have been neglecting– with things that glorify God and cultivate a deeper relationship with God. Jesus highlights three very specific practices for his disciples that are meant to draw us into closer relationship with God.
The first is almsgiving, which is simply giving money to the poor. Giving money to the poor means that we won’t have that money later. And so even as God is using us to provide for someone’s needs, we learn to trust that God will provide us with the grace we need to be content with less.
The second practice that Jesus teaches on is prayer. Praying cultivates dependence on God. It’s a giving over to God those situations that we either can’t or shouldn’t control, and trusting God for the result.
Giving money to the poor. Praying. So far so good, right? And then there’s the third one…. The one that I’m pretty sure only applies to people that don’t like food as much as I do: fasting.
Fasting is simply choosing to not eat in order to seek a deeper relationship with God. We make ourselves feel physical hunger so that we have to turn to spiritual food for nourishment. And then our prayers take on an earnest desperation: “Fill me, God. Stay close to me in my discomfort. Don’t forget those who are crying out to you because of famine.”
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These are all things that Jesus seems to expect his followers to do. But he also knows that all three of them can be warped to do exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to keep us looking at God and our neighbor, but instead they often get warped into a way of showing off how generous, how pious, and how earnest you are as a believer. And so in each of those cases, Jesus says to those people, “you’ve received your reward– don’t expect anything from God.” Jesus is essentially saying, “by all means, give alms, pray, and fast. But do these things in secret so that you’ll know that you’re not doing them for any other reason than to seek a deeper relationship with God.”
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. I want to challenge all of us to commit to making a particular effort to do one of these things during Lent that we don’t usually do. Every time we do one of these things, we take a little treasure out of our earthly storehouse and deposit a little treasure in heaven. And so, during Lent, at the same time that we’re removing the junk that we’ve accumulated in our lives, due to sin, we’re also amassing for ourselves enormous riches in God’s kingdom. Our treasure will be with God in heaven, and that’s where our hearts will be too.