Ash Wednesday - Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–21
It was in the middle of Lent when the coronavirus quarantine began last year. It’s been almost a year now that we’ve been meeting on Zoom for worship and experimenting with safe outdoor gatherings like the drive thru imposition of ashes earlier this evening. It’s been a year full of challenges. It has been a collective journey through the wilderness for world civilization, and while there’s vaccines and a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re not out of the woods yet!
The pandemic has been a time of collective wilderness. It’s forced us to spend a lot more time at home than usual. I suspect that will have a more or less permanent impact on society. Things like working from home, zoom meetings, and hybrid schooling might stick. One thing being home a lot has given us the chance to do is what Jesus says here in Matthew 6, go to your room and pray in secret. Praying in secret is seen by some as Jesus’ term for contemplative prayer or meditation. Personal prayer and meditation are the cornerstone of the wilderness journey. They are the cornerstone of Jesus’ spirituality. He’s always going off by himself to pray, and He encourages His disciples to do the same. Growing in relationship with God is what the spiritual journey is all about. And personal time alone with God through prayer and meditation is absolutely critical to the spiritual journey.
Jesus wants us to understand the spiritual life is about relationship with God. It’s not about looking spiritual or getting others to think you’re a holy person. And it’s not about trying to convince God you’re holy or worthy either. That’s what Jesus is saying in this chapter. It’s the core of Jesus’ message: we don’t need to prove ourselves to God and we don’t need to prove ourselves to anyone else either! God loves us absolutely unconditionally! And when we try to prove ourselves, we get lost. The point of spiritual practice isn’t to build up our ego, make ourselves look good, or to pat ourselves on the back. Prayer is simply an opportunity to be in relationship with God. It’s not about earning spiritual accolades. It’s about dwelling with the God we love and cultivating a deeper relationship with God. One could say that that’s what life itself is all about.
Jesus is saying that spiritual practice is important. And the right motivation is even more important than the practices themselves. So if you intend to sit in silence for 10 minutes but your thoughts won’t stop coming, that’s ok because you’re still spending time with God even if the bombardment of your overactive mind won’t let you enjoy it. But if you’re praying or meditating or doing some religious ritual so you can look good to others or feeling better about yourself, well then your motivation is wrong, and your reward will be looking good to others, not growing closer to God.
What Jesus is inviting us to find is what He declares at the end of this text, that is, true riches. The true riches of a life in connection with God. The true riches of experiencing eternal life now and the blessed assurance of true riches in the life to come. To be in relationship with God is the gift of heaven. To be in relationship with God is true riches. Nurturing that relationship is the point of life—and Lent is the particular time when we focus on that even more.
And so we begin our Lenten journey. A journey into the darkness, into the depths of ourselves. Learning to recognize the parts of ourselves that would rather be praised by others than grow closer to God. Learning to recognize our own sinfulness and selfishness and putting ourselves first. Learning to accept and welcome the truth about ourselves. Learning to accept our own mortality and the fact that we are dust.
Lent is also a journey of spiritual renewal, growth, and transformation. Lent involves confronting our shadow and only when that is encountered can we truly enter the light of Easter. This journey through our shadow and sin is our own journey toward Good Friday and eventually Easter. This Lent, remind yourself that it is your journey too. Encounter your shadow, your sinfulness, your selfishness, your own Good Friday. Pray for Jesus to guide you. And let your spiritual practice be devoted to your relationship with God, not to boosting your ego or practicing your piety before others.
This Lent, make your spiritual journey a priority in whatever way possible. Maybe you take up a new practice like making 5 minutes for silence every morning, or reading a chapter of the Bible every day. Or maybe give up something that distracts you from your relationship with God, like TV, the internet, or alcohol. You could even try fasting from food for a day or two. Jesus does not condemn that practice, He actually encourages it, just doing it with the right motivation is what’s important. Disrupt your normal routine and challenge yourself in a way that deepens your relationship with God. This Lent, pray for guidance and courage to take this journey. And follow Jesus through the wilderness and to the cross.
Pastor Brian 2/17/2021