A sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham (typos and all)
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
“When you fast …” When do you fast? Do you fast?
Jesus certainly seems to assume that you will, and speaks of rewards that we will receive from our Father in heaven if we do. And the Small Catechism likewise commends fasting as fine outward training as part of our preparation to receive the blessed sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Throughout the history of the church, the whole church, Christians have marked times and seasons of fasting. Except of course in our time, and perhaps for a few generations before us. We don’t have to do that, do we? Isn’t that a Catholic works-righteousness thing. After all, we are not saved by what we do, and external actions are just that. What matters is the faith of the heart, the life of the spirit.
And so we don’t fast.
Or we follow the world’s lead in using Lent as a useful time to regain some self-control—or exercise a bit of self-discipline or just take up a tough challenge—in the matter of eating chocolate, or drinking wine, or getting exercise. Forty days without the excess sugar or unnecessary alcohol makes us feel more in control of our lives and gives us more of an incentive for a more considered approach to diet, or exercise, or whatever aspect of our lives we decide to subject to such discipline.
And so we do fast, but only for earthly reward.
But here we are now, at the start of our forty-day journey to Easter, at the start of the season of Lent, also know by the ancient title ’The Great Fast’; here we are, bearing on our foreheads the mark of death, with the words of the great penitential Psalm, and the call to repentance, still ringing in our ears. What are we to do with these days, and for what purpose?
Jesus calls us to walk the narrow way to the narrow gate that leads to life. Part of the trouble with narrow ways is that you are never far from the ditches on either side. In a fallen world, where death rules through sin and the law, the perverted human heart wants to take every gift of God, turn it into a law and then either reject it or manipulate it. So also with the good gift of fasting and other bodily preparation for receiving God’s gifts.
As he turned his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that if anyone wants to be his disciples, he must take up his cross and follow him. It’s easy to over-spiritualise this proclamation into some general message about self-denial and willingness to make sacrifices. This is not the point of Jesus’ message, however. His point is much simpler: if you are to be Jesus’ disciple, you must follow him into death. You shall die with Jesus, or else you will have no part in him.
To untrained ears, this sounds like a terrible marketing strategy, a project doomed to fail. Who would heed such an invitation. Certainly, the disciples on the night when Jesus’ final plunge into the ignominious death of the cross began, were unwilling to follow him and scattered.
But living on this side of both Good Friday and Easter, and having received the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit to open to us the Scriptures, we know better: the invitation to die with Jesus is not an invitation to destruction, but a rescue from certain destruction. Unless you die with Jesus, you will die without Jesus! And I you die with him, you will certainly also be resurrected with him.
And so we must learn to die to ourselves, so that the life of Christ may take shape in us. So much is clear from Scripture. But since this is a gift of God, rather than an odious burden, it comes freely given, and given in freedom. It isn’t a matter of setting up hoops through which the church is to jump, but a matter of setting forth Christ, and the church in each place and in each generation fixing their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
And so we have Lent, not as a time for earthly or spiritual achievement, but as a time when we work with renewed vigour for the reward our Father in heaven has prepared for us.
And that reward is the reward won for us by Jesus, who accomplished all that the Law demands for us, to break the stranglehold of death over us by his death once for all.
Our life in this flesh, while we await the day of resurrection and our entry into God’s eternal kingdom, consists in the daily putting away of the old Adam, and the daily clearing away of anything that obscures Christ, so that he may be all in all for us.
And so we fast and deny ourselves, and we cross ourselves, and we bow and we kneel, to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; to remember that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord; to remember that to eat and drink is necessary but ultimately futile postponement of death, whereas to eat the body of Christ and to drink His blood is hope-filled partaking of eternal food and drink and a foretaste of the everlasting feast in the kingdom that is to come; to remember that just as Christ came not to be served but to serve, we too are called to serve our neighbour in need, and so it does us good to cut economise on luxuries so that we might be able more freely to give; to have our face set towards Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, so that the fruits of his passion and death, and the reward of his victorious resurrection, may grow in us and we learn to set our face towards the heavenly Jerusalem, where he has gone ahead of us to prepare a place in his father’s roomy mansions.
Dear saints in Christ, don’t look or feel gloomy at the thought of the forty days of the Great Fast. Fast away, but with anointed head and washed face, full of the joy of the resurrection life which Christ has won for us and already delivered to us in the washing of the new birth and anointing with the Holy Spirit in the Holy Baptism. The Lord has been jealous for his land, he has had pity on his people, and has sent us the grain, wine and oil of gladness.
See, the fruits of Calvary are set before us, and the first offerings of the heavenly feast are being prepared for us to receive tonight. Let us set aside every thought that hinders, and fix our eyes on Jesus, who is here with forgiveness, life and salvation. Come, you who are dying, and eat that you may live and not die.
In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.