Today is Valentine’s Day to most of the world, but it is also Ash Wednesday to the Church, marking the beginning of the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, and the traditional readings from Joel 2:12-19 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 reinforce this theme. In both texts there is a contrast between those who have a repentant faith and those who do not have faith: those who have a repentant faith do works which flow from their faith, while those who do not have faith do works simply to gain glory for themselves. The book of Joel puts it nicely when the Lord says, “… rend your hearts and not your garments.” That is to say, inwardly turn and repent of your sins, and not simply act outwardly righteous.
Jesus picks up this theme in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6). He says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Thus, let your good works flow out of your faith in Jesus Christ, works done for his honor and glory, not your own.
Then, Jesus gives concrete examples. He says, don’t be like the hypocrites who give to the needy and make a big deal about it by telling everyone about how generous they are. Instead, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Again, if your works flow from your faith them you will find yourself doing them without even thinking about them.
And when you pray, don’t pray like the hypocrites who pray so that others may hear them and admire them for their piety. Instead, let your prayers to God flow from your faith in Him through Christ. You pray to your heavenly Father through Christ and come before Him with your concerns, complaints, cares, and thanksgivings, not to put on a show to other people.
And when you fast, don’t fast like the hypocrites who want everyone to know that they are fasting. Instead, keep up your appearance so that no one can tell that you’re fasting. Let your fasting flow from your faith in Christ. If and when you fast, you do so as a spiritual discipline, not because you are trying to gain glory for your fasting.
For when you do things to be seen by others in order to get glory and honor and wealth for yourself, these treasures remain on earth. These are things that can be stolen or destroyed; and when you die they will fade away or go to another person. But, through faith your treasure is laid up in heaven, because you receive the Lord’s glory and honor as a gift from him to you. It is a gift that is given to you by God’s grace through Christ, not a result of your own works.
The fact is that we are all sinners. We deserve to be like the treasures we collect for ourselves, being destroyed and our lives stolen by eternal death. That is why Jesus tells us not to do works for the sake of being seen by others, because all these works cannot save us. Those who do works to be seen by others have already received their reward, because they have received honor and glory from man, but they will not receive it from God on account of their works. All our works cannot earn us God’s favor or forgiveness or salvation, for our sin condemns us to become as ashes.
But, our Lord God is “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). And for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Lord has relented over the punishment we deserve for our sins. He has had pity on us and forgiven us of all our sins; this is a gift and not something that we earned.
So, although we will die and become as ashes, the Lord will raise us up, just as He has already raised up His Son, Jesus Christ. We will be raised up bodily at the resurrection on the Last Day; this is the Lord’s gift to us because of Christ’s death and resurrection. And we receive this gift simply by believing that it is so; that is, through faith that God is truthful and loving to us through Christ.
So the works that we do, we do because of the forgiveness we have already received from God and because of the promise we have already been given by Him of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. He has already forgiven us and made us his own children, and so we now live as his children; we do the works that children see their parents doing. So, our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing; we simply do good works that flow from faith, with no expectation of a reward either from man or God, because that’s simply who we are as God’s children.
So, you have been forgiven and made the children of God who will live with him eternally, not destined to remain as ashes, but rather destined to be made whole again.
But, the world does not see this. The world gives glory and honor to the hypocrites. The world likes ostentatious displays. The world likes those who appear to be one way, although in reality they are another way.
So, the world looks at you and all Christians as lacking the glory that the world values. Thus, the world treats you as impostors, the unknown, the dying, the punished, the sorrowful, the poor, and as those who have nothing (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10). The world puts obstacles in your way to try to separate you from your faith in Christ.
But, our Lord God is gracious and merciful. And through Jesus Christ he puts no obstacles in your way. He gives you Christ’s righteousness freely, as a gift. You do not need to do anything. Everything has already been done for you by Christ. And so you have become true, and well known – indeed known to God as His children, and alive, and not killed, and rejoicing, and rich.
Indeed, you now possess everything, because you possess the Lord Jesus Christ by God’s grace through faith. And he is everything that you need, and you will inherit all things through him. You will inherit eternal life in the new, restored creation with the Lord and with each other, because God has consecrated you and gathered you together as His own. You have passed from the realm of ashes to the realm of life through the cross of Christ. Amen.
(Image: Photo licensed from Lightstock, https://www.lightstock.com/photos/cross-of-ashes-on-a-forehead).