Skip to comments."Renewed in Practicing Your Righteousness" (Sermon for Ash Wednesday)
Posted on 02/06/2008 2:48:49 PM PST by Charles Henrickson
Renewed in Practicing Your Righteousness (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21)
Every year the church has a season of renewal, and its called Lent. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, the first of forty days. During this time of year, the sun is getting stronger, the days are getting longer. Thats how Lent got its name, by the way. This is when the days lengthen, and so its called the Lenten season. And just as Lent begins in the dead of winter and presses forward into spring, so the Lord will bring his people from deadness to life, from coldness to warmth, from night into light. The new day is coming! Easter is on its way! And so we pray that God would renew our zeal in faith and life. In this way, Lent is a season of renewal, a time of renewed and increased devotion in our lives as Christs disciples.
Today that season begins. It begins with a call to repentance. Ash Wednesday sets the tone, and the whole season of Lent can be heard as one long call to repentance. For repentance--true repentance--inevitably leads to renewal. It is the only place where renewal can begin. For without repentance, without a deep recognition of our own sinfulness, we will feel no need for Gods renewal. So God must first speak his word of Law to us to show us our sin and bring us to repentance, in order for us then to seek and desire his renewing power.
Repentance leads to renewal. Or looking at it from the other side, as we seek to live more devoted lives as Christians, which we know were supposed to do, we come face to face with the ugly, resistant, old man in us that does not want to live for God, or who will twist that service of God into a form of self-service by doing it to look good in front of others. And when we confront that Inner Pharisee inside all of us, we must cry out, God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
Coming to grips with your Inner Pharisee--this is what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading for tonight from the Sermon on the Mount. He warns us against self-righteousness and exposes our hypocrisy. He says: Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.
Now in Pharisaic Judaism, practicing your righteousness often became a matter of self-righteousness, doing pious acts in order to look good in front of other people. The practice of righteousness traditionally consisted of several main activities, such as giving alms, saying your prayers, and fasting, which is going without food for a time. These three--giving to the needy, praying, and fasting--these were considered the pillars of personal piety. But in each of these activities, Jesus shows the sinful motive that can lie behind an apparent good work. Jesus pulls the mask off our hypocrisy, so we can see the sin that lurks in our heart.
He first deals with the matter of giving: When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Giving is an area where our love for honor can easily emerge. Especially if we have been blessed with a degree of wealth, the temptation is there to use our offerings to gain prestige. Why, hes a big contributor to the church, dont you know! The word gets out, people find out, and our chest puffs out. On the other hand, if we dont have so much money to begin with, maybe we take pride in how sacrificially we give. Why, I bet I give a bigger percentage of my income than those other guys do! But really, this is just the same kind of hypocrisy--only the arithmetic is different.
Like giving, prayer is another religious activity where hypocrisy can creep in. Jesus addresses it: And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Prayer, worship, personal devotions--these are seen as really pious practices. The really spiritual Christians have a strong prayer life. So this then becomes an obvious place where we can put on a show and impress people, in order to gain respect and admiration. Religious showmanship, so as to look good in the eyes of others. But if thats all it is, then its nothing more than hollow hypocrisy.
Giving. Praying. Fasting--a third religious activity: And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Literally, it says, they make their faces unsightly in order to make a sight. And so, human hypocrisy being what it is, we see how an act of righteousness can really be just that--an act.
Now about this time, you and I may be saying to ourselves: God, I thank you that I am not like those Pharisees. You dont see me giving to gain prestige. You dont see me praying in order to be seen. You dont see me fasting to make a show. But maybe theres another sentence we could add to that list: God, you dont see me doing those things . . . at all!
You see, theres an opposite danger here. Instead of doing these religious activities for show, we end up simply not doing them at all. Its like we think that Jesus said, Beware of practicing your righteousness . . . period. But thats not what he said. He said, Beware of practicing your righteousness . . . before other people in order to be seen by them. Jesus assumes you will be practicing your righteousness, that is, doing these religious activities on a regular basis. The point is how and why you are doing them, not that you are doing them.
Neglect is not much better than hypocrisy. Notice that Jesus does not say, I know theres a danger of hypocrisy, so dont even bother giving, praying, or fasting. No, Jesus assumes that his disciples will be doing these things. He says, when you give, when you pray, when you fast. But do we? Do we give much to the needy? Do we pray regularly? Do we fast, even at all? And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There other practices of righteousness that we may have been neglecting: Regular worship every Lords Day. Frequent Communion. Diligent study of Gods word in Sunday School and Bible class. Acts of kindness toward family members, church members, and neighbors. The list could go on and on.
Whether ours is the sin of hypocrisy or the sin of neglect, either way our sinfulness is plainly and painfully evident. Which brings us back to repentance. Its Psalm 51 time, time to pray: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. . . . Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
My friends, God our heavenly Father has had mercy on you! He gave his only Son to die for you! And for his sake, he does forgive you all your sins. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Whats more, God has made you his new creation in Christ. In Baptism, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who day by day purifies your heart and renews your zeal. Empowered by the Spirit, then, this Lent will indeed be for you a season of renewal.
Let this Lent be a season of renewal in doing those very acts of righteousness. Renewal in your giving: Giving to the needy, through the churchs works of mercy. Giving for the churchs work of spreading the gospel. Renewal in your praying: Setting aside time every day for meditating on Gods word and for prayer, prayer for this congregation, for the church at large, and for the nations of the world. Renewal in your fasting--or maybe I should say, newal, rather than re-newal, if you havent done any fasting before. Fasting is voluntarily going without food for a time, as an accompaniment to prayer, as a discipline over your desires, as a reminder of your mortality, or as an expression of sorrow over sin. Fasting is commended in our catechism as a fine outward discipline. Notice I said, commended, not commanded.
Disciples of Jesus, practicing your righteousness in the form of giving, praying, and fasting--when these activities are done humbly as expressions of faith, they are received as good works in Gods sight and, by his grace, they will be rewarded at the Last Day.
Of course, any act of righteousness is bad if its only an act. And its bad if your source of righteousness is bad: Self-righteousness is no righteousness at all. But the beautiful thing is, you have been given a righteousness far greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees. The righteousness of Christ has been given to you, and that, as a free gift. Christ kept the holy law of God, purely and perfectly, in your place. And he paid the price for all your unrighteousness, all your hypocrisy, all your neglect--he covered it all by his death on the cross. Now your sin is taken away, and his righteousness is transferred to your account.
The Holy Spirit has been given to you, as well. You are a new being in Christ, created for righteousness. So now be who you are in Christ. Live in the power of the Spirit. Put your faith to work by practicing your righteousness. Not for show, certainly. But simply as the fruit of faith, out of love for God and love for others, the love that springs forth from those who have received Gods love for them. Then men will see your good works and give glory--not to you, but to where it belongs, to your Father in heaven.
When you give, when you pray, when you fast. Not if, but when. Now when you go ahead and seek to put your righteousness into practice in these ways, and you find yourself bothered by guilt because you missed a day--neglect, or the opposite problem, hypocrisy--you sense that Inner Pharisee trying to get out and be noticed . . . at those times, remember that you are always covered by the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness he won for you by his mighty acts. He kept the fast for you, for forty days in the desert. Jesus prayed for you, in agony in Gethsemane. Jesus gave himself for you--gave the full amount, not skimping anything--giving himself into death, on the cross. And now he gives himself to you in this Holy Supper, for the forgiveness of your sins. This forgiveness will cover and cleanse both creeping hypocrisy and complacent neglect.
Forgiven for Christs sake, energized by the Spirit, and safe under the Fathers care, Gods purpose now is that you go from here renewed and refreshed for practicing your righteousness.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Thanks for pinging me; a good read for me, today. :)
Our town is completely shut down due to the snow, so I couldn’t get to church if I wanted to...everything is canceled and traveling is impossible with this FOOT of snow and 35 MPH winds. Brrrrr!
Thanks for posting.
This year I want you to give up eating lima beans for Lent. I know this is a huge sacrifice but I think you have to willpower to do it.
Snowed in here, so my bride and I will be using this for our devotions tonight!
"God, I thank you that I am not like those Pharisees. You dont see me giving to gain prestige. You dont see me praying in order to be seen. You dont see me fasting to make a show."
After a life time of thinking myself safe from the greatest sin it stunned me to recently discover my own pride as an unintended consequence of a Steve Boriss article.
Gossip about the troubles of the wealthy, sexy, and successful help us even-up the score with those we envy, feeding our pride to make our own mediocre lives seem more acceptable.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.