Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Peace be with you!
A few weeks ago, my friend and I went to Kennedy Space Center where we watched an IMAX film based on the findings of the Hubble telescope. Did you know that thousands of light years away, new solar systems are forming in star clusters? In the depths of the darkness of space, new planets are quietly being made without many of us even knowing they exist. Who knows – maybe those new planets will become a home for us in the distant future. But, for the time being, those solar systems are in their incubation stage in a far corner of space.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is a difficult one for us to hear. It is one that calls us to repentance. Jesus warns us about being like the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. He gives many admonishments: Do not announce to others how much you put in the offering plate (Matthew 6:2). Do not pray loudly so others can hear you (Matthew 6:5). Do not disfigure your face when you are fasting (Matthew 6:16). We are not supposed to make a grand entrance and proudly announce our fabulous achievements.
What? I cannot brag about having 79 likes on my Facebook page and 53 followers on Twitter? I should not announce to the world that my devotions are the greatest on earth? Oops…
Then what does Jesus want us to do? Hide? He says, “Do not tell your left hand what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). How is this even possible? My right hand always knows what my left hand is doing, especially when they have to work together. (But then again, with Cerebral Palsy my muscles fight each other just to perform daily tasks!) I don’t believe that Jesus means that he wants us to make such subtle movements that we barely notice them ourselves. Jesus doesn’t want us to be out of touch with reality. That’s not what he’s getting at here.
Jesus’ point is that the acts of faith in our lives should be for an Audience of One, ultimately. Offering is to be something we give to God, because it comes from him and we give back what belongs to him. In Mark 12:43-44, Jesus praises a poor widow for giving all she has while the wealthy elites only gave a tiny portion of their riches. The poor widow gives more than the others, because she entrusts God with everything she has to live on. God wants all we have to give, not so we can proudly announce our earthly accomplishments, but so we can share our very being with him. We cannot just give a portion of ourselves to God and think it will please him. God wants our all, even if it is not as much as the next person. God desires our personal best.
Then Jesus tells us to pray alone behind closed doors. This is a difficult for me since I am spiritually strengthened when praying in an intimate group. I will even be bold to say I pray better out loud in a group setting than when I pray quietly or alone. There is something amazing about hearing believers pray together, because prayers grow in depth as they wind together in a labyrinth web.
However, to pray contently alone – to be alone with God – is a bit scary. What do I even say? Although I still struggle in my private prayer times, I am learning that God just wants to know what is on my heart. Even though he knows exactly what I am thinking (the good, the bad, and the ugly), God wants to have a personal relationship with me through that special one-on-one time together.
We can lose our thoughts in a large group. To sit alone with God allows us to quiet our minds and to speak honestly with him. Our God is a loving God who does not judge but offers love, hope, joy, and grace. We do not need to tweet incessantly about our undying love for God the Father. All we need to do is spend a few moments with God each day as we go about our busy routines.
The last spiritual ritual Jesus speaks about is fasting. In Jesus’ days, Jewish leaders would make their facial features look withdrawn when they were fasting so that they would appear more pious to everyone (Matthew 6:16). Jesus tells us to tend to our features in order to keep our fasting a secret. Again, we do not to gloat about our fasting to prove our love for God the Father to everyone. God is the only Person to whom we need to show our loyalty and love.
Most of us do not fast on a regular basis for religious reasons. If we do fast, it is usually for a medical reason, such as blood work or surgery. I believe this passage applies to more practices of faith than literal fasting. My first thoughts go to pastors and mission leaders who work long hours to answer their callings but forget to take care of their own physical health or tend to their families. They and their families are left running on empty because of the idolatry of workaholism. Workaholism is the idea that you are irreplaceable; it’s ultimately all about you and what others think of you, not about God. God wants our work to be all about him; when we take the time for rest and family, we honor him and remind ourselves that he is the Center of it all.
Just as new universes are forming without us knowing, we are called to carry out our faith journeys as if our actions as Christians are second nature. We do not have to boast about our faith to get rewarded on earth. God sees our quiet acts of faith and will reward us in heaven. The Holy Spirit works through us in these acts of faith, grounding us in the love of the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As Galatians 5:22-23 states, the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, because the Spirit places God in our hearts. Holy Spirit makes it possible for our quiet acts of devotion to become second nature and to be in our hearts.
On this Ash Wednesday, I challenge you to work on doing quiet acts of faith, even if it means spending more time with family and friends. Do these acts of love and devotion without expecting fanfare; simply do them for God and God alone. Lent is a time where we can grow closer to the Triune God. Take time this Ash Wednesday to make a plan to strengthen your relationship with God the Father. What will you add? What will you give up?
Do not be like the hypocrites by doing what rewards them here and now, focusing on themselves and their image before others. But act according to God’s will and God will reward you in heaven. Whatever you do: just do it for God and God alone. You are a star in a brand new universe, being formed by the Holy Spirit; shine bright, then, for God the Father alone.
Thanks be to God!
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for the promise of our reward in heaven. Help us to be little stars in the universe that you are forming through the Holy Spirit. Remind us to do subtle, quiet acts that tell our faith journey. Thank you for having a relationship with each one of us as your children. Amen.
Thanks to the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Please answer the following reflective questions in the comments below. Please agree to disagree and be respectful to each other. (If you have not already done so, please also take a moment, to sign the comment covenant.) You can answer as many questions as you would like.
1. What subtle, quiet acts express your faith?
2. Where do you go and talk with God the Father? Why?
3. When do you find yourself tempted to do good deeds to impress others? How do you resist that temptation?
4. How do you plan on using the next 40 days to grow closer to God the Father?