Lent (Part 1)

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on February 27, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Sermon

Let’s get into it this morning.

I want to talk about Lent. I want to start talking about Lent, and then we’re going to keep talking about Lent, because Lent goes on for 40 days, and take it all with a grain of salt, because I didn’t grow up in traditions that celebrated Lent.

I didn’t grow up in traditions that even talked about Lent, because Lent was seen as a Catholic thing, and we didn’t want anything to do with Catholics. We were non-denominational, which really meant, in a lot of ways, non-Catholic, and so if you grow up in protestant traditions that aren’t mainline, you might not know what Lent is, either. So, we can learn about it together.

I’m going to walk you through it, because the season of Lent is not a ritual in the sense that it’s not just something we come together to do. It is ritualistic in that it’s observed every year, and there are certain things that you do along with Lent — or that many Christians do along with Lent — but what is Lent, and why does it matter, and why should we care? That’s really an important question. A lot of people do a lot of things that we don’t need to care about and that don’t affect us. Why should we care about the season of Lent?

In short, the season of Lent is a time when we create a safe space for [ourselves] in the grace of God to honestly and earnestly examine our shortcomings — our sinfulness as people — in light of what we discover God is trying to do not only in our lives but in the world around us. That’s what the season of Lent is for. It’s a time of earnest self-reflection on who we are as people and how we can be involved in God’s transforming process in our lives, which, I think, is something that people should always be doing, but it’s nice to have a time when you know that you’re doing it with others. And, most importantly, I want to emphasize that this is about creating a safe space for yourself — for ourselves.

Everybody can self-reflect, and often, we do self-reflect, but often, what happens is we self-reflect in a self-deprecating way. We look at that plank in our eye, and we say, “I wish I wasn’t so ‘fill-in-the-blank,'” and so we really feel guilt and, in the worst cases, shame about our sinfulness, and we look at ourselves, and we say, “I feel displeasing to God. I feel inadequate. I feel like my shortcomings are preventing me from being righteous or being holy or being accepted or being good enough,” and the season of Lent is a way of counteracting that.

The season of Lent is a way of saying, “Yes, I do have shortcomings, and yes, there are things about myself that don’t fit with what I find in the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are things about myself that I would like to change and to work on. There are things about myself that I think the Spirit needs to come in and transform. All true, but also, I dwell in the grace of God as a child of God in the kingdom of God,” and so I want us to create that safe space for ourselves.

I want you to be able to create that safe space, as well, to do this reflection — to look at that plank in your eye and in our eyes in a way that doesn’t cause us to despair but actually strengthens us in our relationship with God.

So, in Matthew, chapter 6 — I’m going to start in verse 1, and I want to look at the idea of rewards. Now, I know that seems a little bit disconnected, but Matthew, chapter 6 talks a lot about rewards that we receive for things that we do and treasures that are stored up in heaven, and I think there’s a misconception about how that treasure works and what that treasure is, and part of entering into this season of Lent is understanding that we’re seeking after these heavenly treasures in a way that comes to us now, and part of the reward that we receive from God is actually the transformation of the Spirit.

In Matthew, chapter 6 and verse 1, he says,

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:1-18, NIV

Over and over again, he says your father will reward you.

In verse 1, he talks about righteousness; “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen,” but what’s interesting is the word righteousness, there, isn’t righteousness. Your translation might say piety, but the word there isn’t piety, either. The word there is a word that means essentially charity — giving to people who are in need or giving alms to the poor, things like that. That’s the word there, and it matches with verse 2 when he says, “So when you give to the needy,” he’s talking in this first part about charity. He’s talking about giving to people who are in need.

Don’t practice your giving — your charity, your almsgiving — in a way that is just to be seen, so when you give, do it in secret. In other words, do it in a way that makes it about the giving — about the care and the compassion — and not about the receiving [of] praise. But, what we often do, here, is we say if you receive praise — if you do it to receive praise — then you’ve received your reward in full, but if you do it in secret, then your father who sees what’s done in secret will reward you, and we jump down to verse 19 where he says you’ll store up [treasures] in heaven. (We’ll read that passage a little bit later.) And we say really what’s happening, here, is instead of receiving a reward now, you’ll receive a reward later, but I don’t think that’s what he says.

He’s creating a contrast. He’s created a contrast between receiving your reward in full from the people who praise you and, instead, receiving your reward from the father who is in heaven. It’s not two different time periods; it’s two different rewards. You either receive your reward from the praise of people or you receive your reward from your father in heaven, and which one you receive depends entirely upon your attitude about what it is that you’re doing, not the act itself.

He doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with charity. He says if your charity is only for the praise of others, then that’s your reward, but if your charity is not for the praise of others, then your father gives you a different reward.

And then he says that again in verse 6 about prayer. In the same way, if your prayer is about recognition from others then that’s your reward. If your prayer is not about recognition from others, you receive a different reward from your father.

And then again, in the Lord’s prayer, he gives a very specific example. Your [forgiving others] grants you the reward of forgiveness from God, and I think this is a really pivotal point, here, because when do we receive forgiveness from God? If the rewards are future rewards — stuff we get in heaven — then the forgiveness also is a future forgiveness, and we see this in the language we use to talk about salvation and language we use to talk about forgiveness. When we talk about it being like standing in front of God, who then goes to judge us and instead forgives us, it’s a future thing that a lot of people anticipate. I forgive you, because later I want God to forgive me, but look with me over to 1 John.

We’re going to come back to Matthew, chapter 6 in a little bit, but look with me over at 1 John. In 1 John, chapter 1, starting in verse 5, it says,

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:5-9, NIV

The purification that comes from the blood of Jesus is a continual purification. It’s difficult to reflect that well in the text, and so the translations fluctuate from present to future. If you walk in the light — this is verse 7 — if you walk in the light, “as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” That’s present. In reality, it’s a sort of continual — it happens continually, purifying from all sins, and then in verse 9, “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” and, essentially, will purify us from all unrighteousness.

Because it’s difficult to capture in English what’s actually happening, here — the walking in the light with Jesus is a continual purification. It happens now. Jesus took the sins of the world, Jesus purifies us from sin, and Jesus will purify us from sin. It’s a past/present/future continual process, so when we’re in the Lord’s prayer and he says if you forgive others then God will forgive you, it’s not just a future hope at some judgment. When we die, this is a process that continues and is happening right now. The way in which we live toward others is a reflection of the way in which we live into the grace of God, and God responds to that accordingly, and so it’s a whole involved, participatory sort of thing.

We are all participating, and God is participating, and others are part of it not because of what they do but because of what we do toward them, and in this way, we are all intertwined even with the Spirit of God.

And then, in chapter 2, in verse 1, he says,

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2, NIV

He is presently the atoning sacrifice, and yet the sacrifice was made back on the cross, you see? And so, it’s similar to Hebrews, where he says we have this high priest who is alive — a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, he calls him — a high priest who never dies, the [way the] old testament never mentions the death of a Melchizedek. We have this high priest who is alive now and continues to advocate on our behalf, right now, and so this continual process of forgiveness is the current reward for forgiveness not just a future hope.

So, when we’re back in Matthew, chapter 6 and we go on to verses 16 through 18 where he talks about fasting, he says again, just like he said before in verse 18, “Your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” And so, just like he said about prayer, just like he said about alms, he says about fasting. Your father will reward you.

It’s not just a future reward. It’s simply a different reward that comes from God rather than from people. This is important, because the reward we receive now, then, just like forgiveness being continually received now, is not mere stuff, so when we get into verse 19 and he says,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21, NIV

When he starts talking about these treasures — these rewards we receive for our actions and our good piety — he’s not talking about just stuff laid up in some place in the future we call heaven. Consider the implications of that, because if that’s true — if the reward we receive from God for the way that we give and the way that we pray and the way that we fast and the way that we forgive are not mere things but rewards that we receive now, right here in this life, except from God instead of from people — if that’s true, then treasures in heaven are not something that are far off but something we can be part of now, and that means that the kingdom of heaven is also now.

And if that seems like a strange concept, remember that in the gospels, that is the message that’s brought. The gospel of Mark, chapter 1 and verse 15: the kingdom of God has come near to you. Luke 10 and verse 8: go out tell people that peace be upon their house if they receive you, and if they don’t, shake the dust off your sandals and say the kingdom of God has come near to you.

The gospel is a revelation of the present reality of the kingdom of grace. The invitation is a present invitation to be part of something that is here and now. The body of Christ is a present reality of believers who have been drawn in and called children of God and who are part of the kingdom of God, now. And, in that way, the treasures we store up in heaven are not just mere stuff that is someplace else but treasures and rewards we can receive now, and what I submit to you is that these treasures are intangible realities — untouchable things that we can have — such as transformation in the Spirit, such as blessedness and happiness with the people around us, such as interconnectedness and meaningfulness in our interpersonal relationships, such as being part of a transforming reality that brings new creation here, in this reality.

It is the pulling back of the veil that conceals the presence of God from us. We get to experience God. We get to be in relationship with God. We get to be in the grace of God that shines a light on us in a way that dispels all of our shame — that absolves us of all of our sin and sets us free in Christ to be human and be loved. That’s the reality that we receive when we give not so that we will be praised but because we actually want to help people, when we pray not so that we can be heard but so that we could actually participate in the mission of God, when we fast not so we can be seen but so that we can actually be part of the transforming work of the Spirit. Then, we receive in ourselves the reward of being part of the kingdom of grace.

That’s the foundation for the season of Lent. That foundation allows us to proceed from this part of chapter 6 into the first part of chapter 7 in Matthew, where he says in verse 1,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5, NIV

This builds off of what Jesus has presented about treasures that we store up in heaven. The reward we receive from God, including the forgiveness that we receive because of how we treat others, allows us to be in this kingdom of grace, allows us to be set free from the shame of how we perceive ourselves. It allows us to accept a God who loved us, first, and invites us to participate in the transformation of the world, and then he says now that you have received these rewards — now that you have righted your piety, now that you have righted your sense of righteousness — put it in a proper perspective, where now you are receiving this gift of grace from God. Now, you can see clearly [the plank] in your own eye so that you can be part of helping the Spirit remove it.

That’s the season of Lent: to create this safe space for ourselves where we both acknowledge that we are a work in progress and also that the grace of God frees us from all the shame and the distress of having to look at our own wounds. Now, we can create this safe space where we can address that plank in our eye without the shame of feeling inadequate.

Being better is not about being more adequate. Being better is not about being more capable. We want to be better, because we love. I want to be better for my wife, because I love my wife. I want to be better for my children, because I love my children. I want to be better for my parents, because I love my parents. I want to be better for the stranger on the street, because I love the stranger on the street. I want to be better for participating in the work of God, because I love God and want to participate in that work.

The season of Lent is an invitation to dig deep into ourselves so that the Spirit can draw us into more freedom, more transformation, more grace in the kingdom of God.

We don’t worship on Wednesdays, but Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent, and the ashes remind us of the embodied nature of who we are. They remind us of the struggles that we go through. They remind us of the shortcomings that we have as people in the face of who God is and what God is doing. The ashes are a common symbol of mourning all throughout scripture. They’re used when people have a deep sense of self-awareness and suffering about life around them, and I encourage you to lean into that as we move into Ash Wednesday.

I encourage you to lean into that reality not so that you will feel bad about yourself but because this is a safe space to acknowledge that reality so that we can begin to participate with the Spirit in transforming that reality, and when we transform ourselves, we transform the world around us.

Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we move into the season of Lent, whether it is something new for us or something old, I pray that you would help us to first accept the reality of your grace, to have grace for ourselves and self-compassion, to find ways to be anti-shame in our own lives so that we can have an honest and sincere look at who we are, not so that we can be self-deprecating but so that we can allow the Spirit to come in and so that we can work with your Spirit to be transformed.

Help us to let down our walls of defensiveness. Help us, for this season, to take up postures of humility. Help us to look at ourselves and see what you see — not just our plank that sticks out of our eye but all of the beauty and the love that you see in us as you work to set us free from ourselves, from our own shame and our own guilt.

Help us to take honest responsibility for who we are but to never let go of that grace that you extend to us — to see ourselves more and more deeply as members of your kingdom of grace, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven drawn near to us, now — so that we can receive the treasures you have for us, now.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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