Year B – Lent 1 – Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. 6:2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6:3 “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 6:4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 6:5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6:6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  . . . 6:16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6:17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 6:18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 6:20 “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 6:21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Ash Wednesday Meditation – “The Secret Life of Disciples”

As we enter once again into the season of Lent, we remember Christ in the wilderness.  Christ’s wilderness journey was a time of training and finally of testing. The 40 days of Jesus paralleled the 40 years of Israel in the wilderness. God “led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Dt. 8:2). Christ passed this test, though it was clearly a human struggle, which shows His full humanity. He emerged victorious over the very real temptations of Satan. The struggle of Jesus in the desert led to His overcoming temptation and ultimately the victory of the cross, His resurrection and His ascension to glory; because all of the temptations were in place of suffering and provided a “glory” without the cross. But Jesus did not forsake the way of the cross. He fully prepared to be obedient to the death of the cross.

Now if Jesus, the very Son of God, took upon Himself 40 days of fasting in order to prepare for His ministry, then are we not misled to think we should be like Him without any such discipling? If Christ Himself thought it needful to fast and pray before engaging the enemy and leading in His public ministry, then how will we make any progress in pursuing godliness without such testing? If God’s purpose throughout our lives is to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) and this is what Christ did, should not our lives conform in a some measure to Christ’s example?

Matthew 6 indicates we are to practice righteousness. But our motivation is the difference between that practice being evil or good. Two people may do the same religious act and for one it is evil and the other it is good. Religious people have all kinds of motivations. Jesus highlights the desires of the Jews of His day to be seen by others as righteous and pious. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them” (6:1). We may want to “sound the trumpet” when we give to others (v2), to pray publicly so as to be admired (v5), to be seen doing the ultra-spiritual discipline of fasting (v16). These desires all arise from that most basic human motivation: pride. We would rather lie about who we are and look righteous, than be authentic and be seen as who we really are. This lack of honesty is a great cause for unbelief in the world. Jesus calls this storing your treasure on earth (v19). It is misplacing values in our life. Where is your secret vault for treasures in life?

There is another place to store our treasure, however. Jesus does not call for us to have no desires for approval in our pursuit of righteousness. He does not say a desire for “reward” is evil. He simply redirects our desire for approval toward God. Our secret desire (or perhaps not so secret desire) for the reward of others to commend us, is placing our treasure vault for earthly corruption. This shows were our heart’s focus. Our godly secret life as disciples is to be doing what we do for God’s approval alone. We are to carryon a God-ward focus in our actions and reflections on our motivation.

What do you desire? There may be periods of time when our secret desires, rolling in our minds like TV reruns, endlessly play episodes of sin. We covet scenes of worldly wealth, putting others in their place, secret lasciviousness, retirement from into a secluded and unending vacation in a tropical paradise to disengage from all the demands on us. We are tempted by these desires. Inasmuch as we give-in then we are accepting the lie that there will be godliness without discipline; glory apart from the way of the cross.

If we find the grace to lay aside these impure ambitions and remember that we are bought with a price, then what is our deeper desire. What is our secret desire? Is it not for our character to be transformed into Christ’s likeness? Isn’t that what you know to be your most truly right ambition? When we can scrub off the dirt of our lusts and covetousness and even the dead skin of our flesh-provisioning habits, then we stand with a stringent burn since we have scrubbed away much that was precious to us. In these times we actively advance in being more like Jesus. In these ways we are like Christ who endured temptation and endured suffering for our salvation unto great glory. “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:17-18).

God, it appears, often brings us to these places whether we want to go or not. Wildernesses our part of the journey for every believer. Israel could have passed through the wilderness in about 40 days, but God found it necessary to test them for 40 years and a whole generation failed the test. Our willingness to enter into times of self-discipline apart from God-created wildernesses or “frowning providences” evidences our desire to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Whether our self-conscious discipline prevents such dark episodes in our lives, is not something that I can say with any certainty, but I can say that the Lord wants us to embrace trials and hardships with this attitude. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). In the words of James 1:2, we are to “consider it all joy” – that is we must actively see it in terms of what God will do in us through it. We are to know “that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:3).

The faithful use of this Lenten season trains us to scrub away habits that hinder us (even if not sinful, per se). It surely helps us exercise the muscles of abstaining from worldly lusts which wage war against the soul by training ourselves to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, to limit our appetites, to listen in quietness, to forsake anxieties, to be motivated by pleasing God rather than men, and to yield ourselves more fully to live by faith.

A foundational lesson in our pursuit of godliness, beyond the fact that it requires effort in intentional times of training, is that it requires a secret life. True righteousness requires a secret life which is directed toward God and God alone. All motivations to be seen by others and get their approval undo our righteousness. Our secret life as disciples is to intentionally “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v20-21).

[contributed by Rev. Gregg Strawbridge]

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