5/3/03 Ash Wednesday : Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21.
A foolish old farmer decided one day that the oats he had fed his mule for years were simply costing him too much. So he hatched a plan: He mixed a little sawdust in with the feed, and then a little more the next day, and even more the next, each time reducing the amount of oats in the mix.
The mule didn't seem to notice the gradual change, so the farmer thought things were fine and kept decreasing the proportion of oats. But weeks later, on the day he finally fed the poor beast nothing but sawdust, the mule finished the meal ... and fell over dead.
This, perhaps silly story warns us as Christians of neglecting to feed ourselves properly. It serves as a parable to warn Christians not to slip away from God through unrepented sin or neglect. Though we know our souls cannot survive on spiritual sawdust, we may well convince ourselves that a little won't hurt too much, and a little less real spiritual food won't be missed. Then, over time, the proportion of sawdust increases while the oats gradually disappear. Before long, the change is complete, and our false, starved, sawdust-stuffed spiritual life has collapsed. The intimacy we once enjoyed with the Father has evaporated. We have the chance to 'get real with God' this Lent.
Almost all of us live two lives: what people see outside and what is really going on inside. At school we learn what outward signs of attention will please the teacher. In a job we learn to "put up a good front" whenever the boss happens to stroll by. As if donning masks, we style our hair, choose our clothes, and use body language to impress those around us. Over time, we learn to excel at hiding truly serious problems. People tend to judge by outward appearances and so can easily be fooled.
Matthew Chapters 5-7 announce that the time has come for us to change not just the outside, but the inside. In Jesus' day, religious people tried to impress each other with showy outward behavior. They ostentatiously gave money, wore gaunt and hungry looks during a brief fast, prayed grandly if people were watching, and went so far as to wear Bible verses strapped to their foreheads and left arms.
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blasts the hypocrisy behind such practices. God is not fooled by appearances. We cannot fake behaviour to impress him. He knows that inside the best of us lurk dark thoughts of greed, hatred, pride, jealousy and lust - internal problems only he can deal with. Jesus goes on to present a truly radical way of life, free of pretense.
These three chapters, among the most analyzed in the entire Bible, present a fresh view of the world. In one way the truths presented here by Jesus are not new: They fulfill, rather than abolish the Old Testament law. In another sense the way of life described is more radical than anything before or since. Jesus' words turn many normal assumptions upside down. With statements like, "Blessed are the poor in spirit ... those who mourn ... the meek ... the peacemakers ... those who are persecuted," Jesus attacks those who strive to build a good image by appearing powerful, successful, and assertive.
In today's reading Jesus deals with three spiritual disciples, perhaps the reason that this reading has been chosen for the start of lent. He deals with giving, praying, and fasting. Each discipline is addressed in an identical way.
1. Jesus assumes his disciples will give, pray, and fast.
2. He warns not to do these things in order to impress people.
3. He guarantees that those who try to impress people will receive their reward, that is to say, be noticed.
4. He gives instructions to give, pray, and fast secretly.
5. He assures his disciples that what God sees in secret he will reward openly. The reward could be in time or eternity, in happiness or in character building.
Jesus said we are to give secretly to those in need. God will see this and reward those who give. This contradicts the way of the world which says that success is about popularity. That you achieve happiness and security by storing up money, only giving away what you feel you have to. In Jesus' time money was given away to impress others. Today people may give money out of guilt or duty.
What we do with our money shows what, or who we really trust in. Jesus tells us that what is inside is important, not what we have.
For us, this Lent the challenge before us is to pay for the boiler that we have just had installed. This cost £3,300 but it is achievable. It will mean that some people will be called to give more than the £45 per head that this averages out to. It may be that for some people to give they may have to contribute a smaller amount each week. We already have received over £500 much of it 'Gift Aided' so we can recover 28 pence tax for each pound given.
The Bible says we are to give generously and happily. Not just out of our surplus, but giving to God first and trusting him to supply our needs. Although our giving is to be in private, God knows what we give, and what this says about our faith.
Jesus said we are to pray secretly. This is the mark of true discipleship. It doesn't matter if you can pray out loud eloquently at the front of church, or in a prayer meeting, if those prayers are insincere and not accompanied by private prayer. Jesus said that we would not impress God with many words but with a sincere heart.
It is important for us to come into God's presence to worship him for who he is, to praise him for what he has done, to confess our sins, and to intercede for our friends, families and neighbours, for our church locally and across the world, for those who are in need throughout the world.
Since January 26th, when we reviewed where we are as a church, we have launched the 'Prayer Cards'. This helps us to pray for people we know to come to faith and for the opportunities to invite people to our special services, for example Mothering Sunday on March 30th.
We can also use the Prayer Pointers that we have every month to pray for individuals, the church and the world. We especially need, at this time to pray for peace in the world. Thinking not only of Iraq, but also Israel and Northern Ireland.
We also need to continue to pray for our church locally, the Diocese of Lichfield and the Church of England as we face up to financial difficulties.
There will be an opportunity to pray together every Wednesday during our Lent Course which starts next Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Church Hall. Leaflets are available for this.
Jesus expects his disciples to fast in secret. To give no clue that they are fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice a week accompanied by a hang-dog expression and a failure to wash or shave so that people would notice them.
Fasting can be helpful for us today. It can sharpen our prayer life, making us aware of God, showing him that we mean business, and that there is more to life than the physical or material.
A fast does not have to last long. Joan of Arc would fast until lunch time. We could do that regularly, or build up to fasting for longer periods. It is worth reminding ourselves at the start on Lent that our Lord fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
When we fast, perhaps we can use money that we would have spent on food and give it to an aid agency such as Tearfund to help those who fast because they have no food.
The Sermon on the Mount is about living solely for God and not for appearances. So we can bring our inner and outer lives together. As we enter Lent we might like to consider how we can give, pray, and fast in the light of Jesus' words.
Life Questions: Do other people see what we are really like inside? How do our friends try to impress each other? How can I be different this Lent for God ?