Don't Blow Like A Trumpet
I missed Ash Wednesday last year. Nora was 8 days old and instead of having ashes smeared on my forehead I was changing diapers and rolling over in the middle of the night to tell Allison the baby needed her.
The year before that, 2017, I spent the evening with a group of teenagers at an indoor trampoline park. From that experience I can tell you this - you will quickly remember your own mortality after you throw your back out after attempting a trampoline trick your 30+-year-old body had no business attempting. After an evening of Chipotle burritos and trampolining (a great combination, I know) we concluded the evening with a parking lot Ash Wednesday service. We prayed, the students placed ashes on one another’s foreheads, we confessed our sins and then I invited them to consider taking on a spiritual practice for the season on Lent.
We talked for a minute about different spiritual practices and how each practice could help them focus more on G-d during the season of Lent.
“Umm Teer,” I heard from the back. “Why do we have to do this?”
Every youth group has this kid. The kid who asks the right questions at the right time, unless you are the one responsible for answering the question.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you, could you speak up?”
I heard the question the first time but I need to buy myself a few more seconds. An answer like, “because Pastor Tim said so” or “because G-d wants us to” seemed like they would cause more problems for me in the long run than a correctly placed question.
Having a Lenten practice may have you panicking. “Oh no,” could be running through your head, because if you are like me, and often forget to think of what you are going to give up during Lent. Or perhaps, you have never heard of observing a Lenten practice or giving something up for the time between now and Easter.
In Matthew 6, Jesus provides us with cause to take a breath when we think about the acts of piety we will observe during Lent. I do not get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I read this part of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus talks about prayer, giving, and fasting. Jesus’ words do not begin with encouragement.
“Do not sound a trumpet before you” give to the poor.
“Do not be like the hypocrites” in prayer.
“Do not heap empty phrases.”
“And whenever you fast do not look dismal.”
For someone who came to abolish the law, Jesus seems to have a lot of rules when it comes to piety.
I do not think Jesus is outlawing public acts of piety, public acts of prayer, giving, and fasting.
You can and should pray in public.
You can and you should give to the poor in public as the need is presented before you.
You can and should fast.
I do not think Jesus would take issue with you or I doing anything of these things where others may see. Jesus may take issue however, with our motivations for performing those acts for others to see.
In giving money to the poor, are we doing something to draw attention to how great we are or are we pointing to G-d’s righteousness in the act?
In public prayer, are we like a hypocrite, the Greek word for actor, seeking fanfare for themselves or are we pointing attention towards G-d’s promised faithfulness?
In fasting during the Lenten season, are you pointing towards your own good works or are you remembering you need G-d’s righteousness because every time we depend on own righteous works we fall short?
Lent is the season when we engage in self-reflection and remember that we individually and corporately fall short of the example Christ has set for us. When Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” we fall short.
When Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we fall short by focusing on first loving ourselves and own needs while our siblings go without or live excluded from the body of Christ.
The invitation to observe a Lenten practice is an invitation to intentionally engage in an act to draw us closer to G-d. When we begin the season Len, and perhaps commit to an act of piety for the next 40 days, we begin by acknowledging our own sinfulness and repenting. The season of Lent is not about piety or works to achieve our own righteousness. When we believe acts of piety are about what we can achieve the act becomes fundamentally impious.
We have missed the mark, and so on Ash Wednesday, the marks on our foreheads are a reminder to us to ask for forgiveness and try again. The Good News tonight is that on the cross and in the victorious empty grave we will find on Easter morning we are made righteous before G-d.
Lent is not about giving something up so that we can be uncomfortable like Christ spent 40 uncomfortable days in the wilderness. During the season of Lent we remember that which we could not and cannot do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. Full stop.
So back to the question I dodged - “Why do we have to do this?”
You do not have to do anything this Lenten season.
We have already been declared righteous by Christ, not by our own piety, not our own self-righteous deeds but by Christ’s faithfulness.
Beginning tonight, with a reminder of our own mortality on our foreheads, we are invited to live as G-d has declared us to be - forgiven and righteous because of Jesus Christ.
The next 40 days are not about us.
The next 40 days are not about social media fasts, giving up meat, or forgoing caffeine.
The next 40 days are not about daily devotionals or mid-day prayers.
The act of piety we participate in tonight and the acts of piety we will engage in over the coming weeks are about the work of G-d. The work G-d has done and will continue to do in and for all of us.