Ash Wednesday


Of what do you have to repent? Of what do I have to repent? When you consider repentance, what comes to your mind? Of course, today is an appropriate day on which to ask such questions. Ash Wednesday begins a period of forty days during which many Christians throughout the world take a moral inventory, identifying those attitudes, habits and behaviors that they want to purge from their lives.


Usually, when we consider what those are, we come up with lust, envy, laziness, gossip, and slander. These are among the more common ones that beset committed Christians. Or, if we have strayed too far, we come up with drunkenness, theft, fornication and adultery. Any and all of these have no place in the lives of God’s children. If we are caught up in them, we have to be honest with ourselves, confess them, and then turn away from them, praying to God for his grace, so that we do not keep going back to them.


But as common as these sins are, as important as it is to be on our guard against them, they are not the concern of Jesus, at least not in this lesson.


Jesus is concerned with spiritual disciplines. There are three of them: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Now these disciplines provide the content of Jewish piety. They constitute the practices that form a faithful people. Almsgiving binds Israel to the poor for whom God has a special concern. Prayer refers all of life to God. Fasting expresses the recognition of guilt and the bringing of that guilt before God in the hope of mercy and forgiveness.


Obviously, there is nothing about any of them of which one needs to repent. On the contrary, if one is not faithfully practicing them, then he ought to be taking a moral inventory to discover the reasons why he is not practicing them, and then repent.


So then, it’s not the disciplines themselves that are the problem. It’s what’s motivating them. Let’s be clear from the outset. What distinguishes Jesus, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, is the interest he takes in the human heart. He takes interest in the source from which our actions spring. He turns from the outer world, where the actions take place, to the inner world, where the actions originate: the heart. Jesus teaches that God sees not only how we act, but also why we act. “I am the Lord,” God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “who searches the heart and examines the mind.”


Does this frighten us? Perhaps our first inclination when we hear this about God is to withdraw. God’s penetrating gaze burns too brightly. We don’t want it to bore a hole through us. But that gaze is ultimately for our healing and restoration. That is why the psalmist welcomes it: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts” (139:23). This perhaps is the first and most crucial step in repentance.  


The word “heart” is sometimes used in our everyday conversation. For example, when we hear: “This piece that she’s playing really comes from the heart,” we understand the speaker to say: “her playing comes from a place of deep and sincere emotion.”


But there is perhaps a better word to describe what is at issue here for God, as well as for the one who responds to God in repentance. I refer here to the word “authentic.” To say of someone “he is authentic” and mean it is to pay him a profound compliment. I heard someone once say that we are authentic when what we say and do is consistent with who we are. This is what it means to be aligned. Whenever we meet a person of whom this holds true, we sense that we are in the presence of someone rock solid. We sense that here is a person of integrity.


And herein lies the problem. The hypocrites that Jesus is denouncing are inauthentic. That is, what they say and do is inconsistent with who they are. For example, when they give, it’s not because they are giving people. It’s because they want to be seen and admired.


Once Father Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (1965-83), when he was a missionary to Japan, received an invitation from an important dignitary who wanted to make a donation. The woman refused to give the gift in private; she wanted instead to stage a public event, surrounded by journalists and cameras. In other words, she wanted to “sound the trumpet.” Father Arrupe related how reluctant he was to participate in the spectacle, a source of great humiliation for him, but in the end decided to endure it for the sake of the poor in Japan, the mission. After returning to his room, he opened the envelope and discovered only ten dollars in it. 


What is in the inside does not correspond with what is on the outside. The ten dollars concealed in the envelope offers a poignant illustration here.


For the hypocrites that Jesus denounces, the same carries through in their acts of praying and fasting. When they stand in the synagogues and street corners to pray, it is not because they desire communion with God. It is because they want to be seen and admired.  And when they fast, it’s not because they are seeking God’s mercy. It’s because they want to be seen and esteemed as spiritual. They disfigure their faces, so that others can see the deprivation to which they subject themselves for the sake of their supposed devotion to God.


Reflecting further on the actions of the hypocrites leads us to ask whether they actually believe in God. They themselves may be shocked if one were to come up to them and ask: “Do you believe?” They are religious professionals, after all! But is not external religious observance for the sake of putting on a show to impress others really an admission of unbelief? For them the observances are valueless apart from this esteem of others. Indeed, this is the verdict of the Gospel of John on the Pharisees. They did not believe in the Son of God, because they loved the praise of others more than praise from God.


Now we don’t live in a time and a place where external religious observance wins us the praise and admiration of those around us. On the contrary, anything that we do that can be construed as religious will probably evoke indifference at best, and hostility at worst. But when we give, when we pray and fast, are we intentional about what we are doing? Does it come from the heart? Do we really expect God to hear and reward us? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).


This is the language that Jesus uses. To his disciples he says: “when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” 


Is this our expectation each time we go to God in prayer, each time we fast, each time we give our offerings? Words tumble out of the Apostle in his Letter to the Ephesians: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph. 3:20). Do we realize that this is the God into whose presence we enter when we pray?


But, as popular Christian author Nancy Guthrie writes, it’s all too easy to be drawn into a performance-based mindset as Christians—to say and do all the right Christian things. We go to church on Sunday. We serve on a committee. We read our devotionals and say our prayers. We give our offerings. But if this becomes for us stale routine; if this becomes for us no more than going through the motions, how really different are we from the hypocrites?


This is a question that applies especially to preachers. For they too are religious professionals. The great Lutheran pastor Carl Scherer, who preached in New York City during the Second World War, tells us that the unforgiveable sin of the pulpit is to preach a sermon that lacks conviction. It tries to be good and helpful but succeeds only in boring those to whom it is delivered. With its tiresome monotonies, its trite platitudes, its empty phrases, it sets everyone who is really alive running as fast as he can in the opposite direction. Scherer writes that he can hardly blame anyone for this reaction.


Preaching professor Scott Hoezee relates one of the more interesting compliments he got when he preached at a church he was visiting. After the service, an elderly lady came up and said to him: That was quite a sermon, pastor. You really convinced me that you actually believe what you preach!”


No sermon ought to be dull and lifeless. That reflects unbelief, which is itself tiresome, because it finds nothing in this world except blind forces and sensual pleasures. For unbelief, it is only the moment that counts. And life is only a succession of moments until it all comes to an end. That view of life is expressed in the restless pursuit of material possessions. If this life is all there is, if you only live once (YOLO!), then all that is left is to accumulate stuff, storing up for yourselves treasures on earth, as Jesus puts it. 


True faith, on the other hand, is dynamic and life-giving. It stirs people to step out into the unknown, to undertake adventures of faith. These are the people who store up for themselves treasures in heaven.


This is who we are called to be. But after hearing these words, we may realize that we need a heart check. We cannot say of ourselves that we are authentic, at least not always. What we say and do is not always entirely consistent with who we are.


But the good news is that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation. The old is gone, and the new has come. The prophet Ezekiel records the promise that God gives to God’s people: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezk. 36:26). This is the promise of the gospel, which is being fulfilled in us who believe. In the words of author Jim Wilder, we can begin to live from the heart that Jesus gave us.


This is both our promise and task, not only during the season of Lent, but also during the whole year. How we long for this new heart to be our true heart! We are not yet authentic, but how we long to be! We are not yet fully who he has created us to be, but we are on the way. We have tried not to turn aside, but sometimes we stumble and fall. Thank God for his grace, which is at work in us until we are whole and complete, lacking in nothing. Amen.



Scroll to Top