Rend Your Hearts, Not Your Clothes

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2009.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, usually somewhat different from the text, click here

Lectionary texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is the Human Condition?

Good evening, St. Andrew’s! It is nice to see so many of you here this evening. That must mean that you have been particularly bad this year and are in need of extra forgiveness! Me too! Immediately after this sermon, Fr. Ron is going to call us to observe a Holy Lent. This evening I want to focus on why we should partake in acts of self-examination, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading the Scriptures during this season of Lent.

When I was a young man of 22, my grandma Shaffer died. A friend of mine came to visit and asked me if she knew Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, implying that if she did not, she was not in heaven as we spoke. Now I was a practicing Christian, or so I thought, but I was furious. I told my friend that my grandma was one of the gentlest, sweetest, most saintly persons I had ever known and for him to imply that she was not in heaven was highly offensive to me.

I share this story with you because in it is one of the reasons why it is important for us to partake in the various Lenten disciplines of self-denial. For you see, I was practicing a theology of works righteousness and projecting it onto my grandma (she was a devout and practicing Christian, BTW, so the story turned out well after all, despite my protestations to my friend).

How many of you have said something like this about either yourself or someone you know: “I know I have my faults but I am not entirely bad. At least I am not a [fill in the blank with your favorite heinous sins]”? If you have, you, like me, are guilty in trusting in your own righteousness and counting on your good works to earn your way into heaven. 

But when we look at the biblical witness about this way of thinking, not to mention our own experience, we quickly see how delusional trusting in our own righteousness really is. From beginning to end in both the OT and NT, we hear a clear and consistent message. The wages of sin is separation from God and death (e.g., Romans 6:23), and there is no one who is righteous, not even one (e.g., Romans 3:10). No, the biblical witness is clear. No one can earn his or her way into heaven. Self-righteousness is a delusion and will lead only to death.

Yet how many of us as we prepare for Lent, dutifully grit our teeth and prepare to engage in acts of self-denial and discipline thinking that if we do, we will somehow be helping our cause and ensuring our place in heaven? The thinking goes something like this, either spoken or unspoken: “I’ll give up [name your favorite vice] for Lent and if I am successful, it will make me a better person and increase my chances for getting right with Lord so that he will think I am a swell person and consequently punch my ticket into heaven.” 

If this line of thinking weren’t so utterly tragic, it would be comical. But when we shine the light of God’s Word on it, we are confronted with the grimness and utter futility behind this thinking because it represents self-help at its finest and self-help is no help at all when it comes to matters of salvation. It represents all the reasons why we should NOT partake of Lenten disciplines because it betrays a sinful self-righteousness that leads to death, not life. It is the kind of self-righteousness that our Lord condemned in tonight’s Gospel reading because those folks were doing works for show, not because they loved the Lord. This kind of thinking represents rending our clothes, not our hearts, the very opposite of what the Lord spoke through the prophet Joel about in tonight’s OT lesson. Partaking in Lenten disciplines for show or because we think we will be made righteous in God’s sight will lead us to death, not life, and probably make us miserable in the process.

Where is God’s Grace?

So why should we partake in the Lenten disciplines of repentance, self-denial et al.? Part of the answer lies in tonight’s Epistle lesson. Paul tells us right off the bat, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). For you see, God is a God of justice as well as mercy. He cannot let evil go unpunished or enter into his Kingdom (and who among us would want to be confronted with evil in the kingdom of heaven?). 

And so God, knowing that none of us are righteous, took on our flesh and bore the punishment for our sins on the cross. He paid the price for us so that his justice would be satisfied. In doing so, God justified us in his sight. Justification is a legal term and it is a one time event, not a process. It means that the person is found not guilty in the eyes of the court. When Christ died on the cross bearing the punishment for our sins, God declared us not guilty in his eyes and in doing so he made it possible for us to live with him forever. For you see, the cross is the eternal symbol of God’s justice. It says to us that God is a just God but he is also a merciful God. The price for our sins has been paid by the very blood of God himself and justice has been served. THAT is what makes us righteous in God’s sight, not anything we can say or do. That is why Paul talks about the scandal of the cross or its offensiveness to those who are being lost. It is offensive because it reminds us that our salvation is not of our own doing, but God’s. It is a total affront to the very self-righteousness that I displayed when I got angry with my friend’s comment about my grandma because it reminds me that on my own I cannot pass muster. I am utterly incapable of doing anything to help earn my salvation. It is God’s doing and His alone.

If we are given grace to believe in the saving act of God through Jesus Christ, this immediately takes the monkey off our back when it comes to observing Lenten disciplines. Instead of seeing them as some bizarre form of self-help, we deny our lower desires and fallen nature, what the NT calls “the flesh” (sarx), not because we believe that in doing so we become more righteous in God’s sight but because we understand that our fallen nature is an enemy of God and can prevent us from realizing the truth of the Gospel.

We also engage in the Lenten disciplines because we have a heart that overflows with love and gratitude for a God who loves us so much he took on our flesh, bore the terrible punishment for our sins, a punishment that we rightfully deserved to bear, and made it possible for us to live with him forever. Love and gratitude always seek manifestation in our actions and so we earnestly seek to become more like him, or as Paul says in Ephesians, to grow to the full stature of Christ (4:13). We can only do this if we are able to successfully put to death our fallen nature and lower desires. This is why Paul talks about being crucified with Christ (e.g., Galatians 2:19-20). It is also why he had such harsh things to say about factions that arose in the churches he planted that called for obeying rules as the way to salvation. Paul understood that the only way to salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ and it is only when we put to death our fallen and sinful nature can Christ fully live in us. 

Unlike justification, this process, which is called sanctification, is a lifelong journey. It requires great effort on our part and is impossible to do on our own. But fear not, because there is more good news here. Our Lord promised to give us his Holy Spirit to be with us to help and transform us in our fight against our sinful selfishness (John 14:16, 26). THAT is why we partake in the Lenten disciplines of self-reflection, repentance, and self-denial. We are given grace to remember that our salvation has already been won for us by this God who loves us passionately. There is nothing left for us to do in that regard except to accept his gift and believe it is ours. With grateful and overflowing hearts, we seek to put those things to death in us that prevent us from becoming more like him and growing to his full stature. And we want to become more like him because in him is life that never ends and we love him for all that he has done for us. THAT’s what it means to rend our hearts, not our clothes.

But there is one more thing that tonight’s OT reading reminds us about repentance and rending our hearts. We are called to do it together, not just individually. We are the Body of Christ and part of a living organism. We are called to love each other and take care of each other. We are called to enter into Lent both as individuals and has members of Christ’s Body so that as we allow the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Him and hold each other accountable for our disciplines, we can be a faithful witness to his broken and hurting world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Where is the Application?

What is the Holy Spirit calling you to put to death during this Lenten season so that you can grow to be more like Christ? If you have not done so already, pray to the Lord and earnestly seek his will in this and then set out to do it. Whatever it is he calls you to do this Lent, do it with the confidence and He is with you every step of the way and will never forsake you. Partake in your Lenten disciplines of repentance and self-denial, prayer and Scripture readings together with joy and gladness, either as a family discipline or a small group discipline, so as to help each other along the way. If you are willing to trust enough in this God who loved you and gave himself for you so that you can live with him forever,  you will see that he is with you in your mutual undertaking and by the power of his Holy Spirit, he will help you grow to his full stature, helping prepare you for the day when you will be with him in a place where there is no more sadness, sorrow, sickness, infirmity, or death. He is calling you this Lenten season to begin or resume or continue that journey that really does end happily ever after.

That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. 

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.