Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, the 6th chapter.  

Glory to you, O Lord.

[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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so 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. 6 But 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so 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; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ. 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; 

in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”  

We pray for God’s mercy every time we come together to worship.  I open my sermons by greeting you with a prayer that God’s mercy and peace be with you.  We pray, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” in our prayers of intercession each week.

When I was in elementary school, our next door neighbors were Baptist and we sometimes went to church with them.  The neighbor girl, Sheila, was between my age and my sister’s and we played together all the time. Sheila lived with her grandparents and her older brother. 

One Sunday, her grandmother finally consented to have her attend Sunday School and Church with us.  We were all threatened with dire consequences if we didn’t behave at church.  We got through Sunday School just fine, and the first part of church.  Then we started singing the Kyrie, and Sheila got the giggles.  She had the giggles so bad we were scared for her, because we knew our mom would tell her grandma. 

Most of us are used to Lutheran liturgy, so sometimes we miss the importance of the words we sing.  You see, Sheila’s grandma was an elderly woman raising two challenging kids. Her favorite expression was “Lord, have mercy!” and she said it all the time.  Sheila was amazed that we sang it like that over and over in church.  

You remember the settings in the old red book.  The tune was a dirge.  The poor little girl just lost it.  She talked about it for weeks afterwards, finding it incredible that we sang “Lord, have mercy” over and over like that every Sunday. I am pretty sure she was never allowed to go to church with us again. 

Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, a psalm prayed as a confession to God.  We use it on Ash Wednesday to begin this holy season of Lent.  We pray in this psalm for God to have mercy on us.  The psalmist is asking for God to take pity.  We don’t know for sure what the psalmist did to feel so guilty, but from the tone of the confession, it was bad.

Some have said that this is a the psalm David wrote after Nathan confronted him about his behavior with Bathsheba and Uriah. It would certainly be an appropriate psalm for someone with that kind of guilt.  

We may not be guilty of the same things as David - stealing another man’s wife, then sending him to the front line to be killed - but we are all sinners and we know what we have done.  

There will probably be a line in the confession prayers today (tonight) that will hit each one of us.  None of us will be able to say, “Thank you God, that I am not like these other sinners here.” We all know what we have done, and so does God.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; 

in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”  

We have all been sinners for as long as we can remember.  Admit it, you can think of things you did even when you were a little kid.  Things your parents found out about, and things you are glad they never knew.  As adults, we know we have done things we should not have done, and we have ignored some things we should have done.  

The holy season of Lent is a gift from God for us.  God, who loves us as a mother and father love their children, wants us to be honest about who we are and what we have done.  God is not asking us to confess in order to punish us for our sins.  

God wants to change our hearts.  Our Old Testament ancestors considered the heart to be the center of our will, the seat of our decision making. Changing our hearts means opening them to the will of God, not our own selfish desires. While this might seem like we are giving up something - that is giving up our own will - it is not meant to be a sacrifice.

God does not want a sacrifice.  God is not interested in offerings if we are giving them to pay for our sin.  God can’t be bribed or bought off.  That’s not the kind of God we have. 

You see, God wants only what is absolutely the best for us.  God knows what that is better than we do.  Being open to God’s will, allowing the Holy Spirit to direct our hearts, is accepting the gift of this holy season of Lent. 

The Holy Spirit has given us the longing for something more than our own selfish ambitions.  The Holy Spirit has given us a longing to turn toward the One who made us, the One who loves us, the One who even died for us. 

The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of knowing, that when we do turn to God in confession, we turn to a merciful God.  We can dare to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  We would not dare to do this if our God were vengeful or angry.  

Yet, we do dare to come to God, begging for mercy, because our God is loving and kind and full of compassion.  God gives us the joy of knowing our salvation is in Christ alone.

We can come to this holy season in thanksgiving because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.