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My Ash Wednesday Sermon

This Sermon was originally preached at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church at 12:00 noon on February 25.

My three-year-old son, Kennan, goes to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Monday we told him that the school was having a book fair. Later that evening he was really upset and on the verge of tears. When we asked him what was wrong, he said that he didn’t want to give his books away. Many of us feel the same way about Lent. We feel as if we have to give up something we enjoy – and like my son, many of us don’t have any idea why we are supposed to do it in the first place.

This year is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. I recently read an article that claims Calvin was among the Reformers who tried to get rid of Ash Wednesday and other Lenten observances. As a Presbyterian preparing a sermon for Ash Wednesday I was intrigued by the idea that Calvin might not approve of what I was doing. So I dusted off my copy of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” and flipped to the section on fasting. Calvin claims that fasting is not well understood, so it can easily lapse into superstition. His writing reveals that he does not have a problem with fasting, as long as it is done for the right reasons. Lent is not a time to give something up just for the sake of giving something up. Calvin says, “the matter lies primarily in the motive of the heart.” In fact, Calvin makes reference to our scripture reading from Joel, chapter 2.

Our scripture reading begins with a blast from a trumpet, warning the people that they are facing a great calamity. God has sent an army to destroy the city. There is no escaping this army, but there is hope. God may still relent – if the people return to God with their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. We don’t know why God is sending this army, but we do know that the people believe they need to repent. Lent is a time for us to reflect on our relationship with God, a time to repent from our sins, a time to rearrange our priorities in life. Lent is a time for us to turn our hearts to God. Any fasting, weeping, or mourning must be an outward reflection of how one feels on the inside. Joel says you should rend your hearts and not your clothing. The bible has many examples of people who tore their clothing after recognizing their sin. It is a visible sign of inner repentance. Repentance is when we turn away from sin and turn toward God. What Joel is saying is that we cannot put on a religious show. God knows what is in our hearts. We shouldn’t give up something we enjoy without knowing why we are doing it. Psalm 51 says sacrifices are meaningless unless they represent a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart. Lent is not about appearing religious. It’s not about making a sacrifice that will appease God. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. God has already done the work. Lent is about recognizing what God has done for us. It is about remembering Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his journey to the cross on Calvary.

Our reading from Second Corinthians calls us to be reconciled to God. The passage recognizes that Jesus Christ, the only person who never sinned in his entire life, became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Lent is a time for us to recognize our sin as well as the sinless one who died for our sin. Lent is about removing the obstacles that prevent us from having a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. If you don’t think you have time to read scripture or pray daily, yet you have time to watch television, then perhaps you should give up watching television for Lent. But it only makes a difference if you fill that time with God. Giving up television in order to read scripture and pray each day is a fast that John Calvin would be proud of. You shouldn’t give things up in order to be forgiven or earn brownie points with God. God has no delight in sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. But if you use that time to grow in your knowledge, service, and love of God – then you will receive your heavenly reward.

Our reading from Matthew warns us not to practice piety in order to impress others. We are not supposed to give money, pray, or fast in order to appear religious. God wants us to tear open our hearts, not our clothes. We need to be transformed from within. Calvin says that God does not care about fasting itself, unless an inner emotion of the heart is present. We need God to create in us a new heart, to put a new and right spirit within us. We cannot do this on our own. We cannot turn away from sin and turn toward God without the inward working of the Spirit.

A second trumpet is blown in our scripture reading from the book of Joel. This time the trumpet blast brings the people together for a fast. This fast is an outward sign of their inward repentance. They have returned to the Lord, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. During this season of Lent, let us prepare our hearts to be made new. Some obstacles may need to be removed. It may hurt. But your reward will be great.