2-14-24 Ash Wednesday

Bible Text: Matthew 6:16-21 | Preacher: Pastor Christian Preus

Jesus wants us to live our life before God, not just before men. It’s not simply other people we have to deal with. It’s God. In fact, Jesus says you should, in a way, fake it in front of others. When you fast anoint your head, wash your face, so that no one knows you’re fasting, hide it from them. That’s what Jesus says. But hide nothing from God. Live life before God. You have no choice in this, as to the actual fact. He does see it all. But as to your knowing this, realizing this, day after day, that in everything you do, God is there, God is present, God knows and sees, this is to live life before God.

You normally think of hiding things from people as a bad thing. And it is, if you’re hiding sinful things from people you’ve sinned against. So a kid gets an F on his homework and then hides it from his parents. That’s bad. But hiding things is part of a decent, Christian life. You hide from people how much you give to the church. That’s what Jesus tells you to do (unless you’re hiding it because you’re ashamed of how much you give). But if you give a lot, Jesus says don’t trumpet it. Hide it. You hide from people how much you pray too. And again, Jesus tells you to do this. Go in your room and pray, He says. He tells you to do all these things in secret.

Why? Why hide the good things you do from people? Because life is not a competition with others. It’s not a game you win if you do better than that guy.

No, it’s a game you’ve already lost. And so has everyone else. You comparing yourself to others is like the two worst teams in the NFL arguing who’s better. It doesn’t matter. They’re both horrible at football. The conversation is embarrassing.

No, we live life before God. And life before God doesn’t allow for comparison with others. If Abraham had all sorts of good works, he had something to boast about, Paul says, but not before God. Men might be impressed. God isn’t. The question is not whether I’ve done better than so-and-so. It’s whether I’ve met the standard of God’s righteousness, of God’s perfection. And I haven’t. And you haven’t.

So on Ash Wednesday we confess that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are mortal. We’re going to die. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, how much fasting you do, how many holy things you do in the sight of men, you will meet the same fate. You’ll die. And you’ll die because you’re a sinner. There is evil clinging to you. And that evil kills you. And you have embraced it, acted it out, taken pleasure in the very thing that kills you. You are guilty. There’s no hiding this from God. He knows it all. He sees into your heart. He knows what’s going on at home and in your mind, things you won’t admit to anyone. All the things you hide from men, because you don’t want them to see, God sees.

But to live before Him is not depressing, not sad, not a horror. It is the opposite. He is the God who saves. He does not cast off the sinner who repents. He does not want to destroy us or punish us. He has proved this to us. He knows our sin not simply because He sees everything, but because He bore the sin Himself. He knows our corruption, our death, our hell, not simply because He sees it in us or threatens it against us, but because He felt it, and suffered it, and faced it.

Living life only before men is a useless competition. It’s like the Superbowl. You can be nothing but depressed after winning it or losing it, after the thrill is gone. Who cares? It’s men running around in tights throwing a ball and hitting each other. It doesn’t matter. Obviously. This is life without God. Who cares? What does it all matter? Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow you die. Store up for yourself treasures on earth. Why? So that others can enjoy them when you die, and then they die, and nothing matters. All your love and affection and pleasure and pain, all of it is nothing but electrical pulses in your brain, meaningless.

But life before God is the beautiful life. Yes it means acknowledging your sin and facing the hard fact that you will die and that you deserve far worse than that, you deserve God’s punishment in hell. But that’s the truth and its ridiculous to refuse to face the truth. But living life before God also means knowing the God who has saved you from all sin and evil and from the emptiness of unbelief, who loves you and has lived out that love by taking your sin and death and punishment on Himself and paying with His life for your life. It means you aren’t playing some useless, empty game, you aren’t living out a meaningless existence that simply ends in death. No, you are living a life that never ends, a life that is impressed with meaning every step of the way, every day.

This is what Jesus means when He says that you can lay up treasures in heaven. What an amazing thing. This isn’t simply referring to the future. It’s referring to the present. The Christian life is constantly laying up treasure in heaven. You live your life with heaven in view, with God in view. You treasure your time on earth because God will use it to bring you into the eternity of heaven. You treasure your life for heaven by living it like it’s been bought with a price to live in heaven. You treasure your leisure for heaven, whether that’s reading or visiting or walking or hiking or hunting or skiing, by thanking the God of heaven who gives it all to you by grace for the sake of Christ’s blood. You treasure your job for heaven by serving your Lord in heaven through it. You treasure your children for heaven by raising them for heaven because God gave wants them there.

This is really what Lent is about. Without living life before God, without an eye toward heaven, everything we have and everything we do is vanity. The moth eats it. The rust destroys it. The thief comes and takes it away. We die and leave it for others to enjoy. The Bible is full of these warnings. We can recite with the Psalmist, “The dead do not praise the Lord nor any who go down into silence.” But this is only if we treasure our treasures only on earth and for earth. Then it’s all meaningless and we can depressingly recite with the pagans, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” We don’t recite this though. That’s not the Christian message.

Instead we continue to confess with the psalmist, “But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” We confess, “I will be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.” Especially on Ash Wednesday, when we remember that we are ash, that we are dust, that this is what our sin has done to us, when we rend our hearts and not our garments, we focus all the more on the Suffering and Death and Resurrection of our Lord, which we will celebrate in forty-six days. Our Lord Jesus, who has borne our sin, who was laid into the tomb, who became dust for us, has made all things new, has risen from the dead, has given us to share in his divine nature, as St. Peter says. He has made peace with God. And He has made living life before God beautiful.

Lent is a season of repentance. But the entire life of a Christian is one of repentance. And repentance is not depressing. It’s the opposite. Living in a world without God and without purpose and without sure and certain hope is depressing. But when your treasure is in heaven, then all the things you treasure on earth, all God’s good creation, all of it, has purpose. Sin, our pride, our impure lusts, our laziness, our anxiety and worry, these will not be in heaven, they can’t be our treasure, and Lent is about rooting them out of our hearts, and that can be a painful thing, but at the same time Lent is about filling our lives with treasures, real treasures. Where your treasure is there your heart will be always. And we need to remember what we sing and confess so often, that heaven itself would be void and bare if Christ were not there with us. This is the twofold turning of repentance. We look at the utter meaninglessness sin brings, what it means to treasure treasures on earth, to have nothing to look forward to but to return to dust, the complete vanity of it all, and we pour contempt on all our selfishness and pride, that we would love what passes away, that we would be enraptured by sin, and then we return to the Lord our God, that’s the second turning of repentance, that in the Christ, the GodMan and none other, all things are pure, all things are beautiful. There is holiness, there is meaning and purpose, there on the cross as our Lord faces all dirtiness and vanity and despair, where he ends sin and death by the suffering and death of God, where He offers instead His purity and innocence, there is our eternal treasure. In the body and blood given and shed for us, where sins are forgiven, where death is destroyed, where heaven is opened, where our dear Lord makes us spotless and pure, saints before our Father in heaven. And to the pure all things are pure.

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