03-05-2014 Ash Wednesday – It’s the Real Thing

It’s the Real Thing

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

        I’m guessing there are those here who might remember this slogan from CocaCola that is the title of my sermon.  It went with a cute little ditty that wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.  I know I’d hear that tune and end up singing it over and over again.  I believe the bottom line for Coke was this – only Coke was the Real Thing – the only good thing.  Everything else was just a soft drink.

There are a lot of good Christian practices that Jesus is speaking about in the scripture read from Matthew.  It is a good thing for Christians to give alms to the poor.  It is a good thing for Christians to fast and pray.  It is a good thing to save money and plan ahead.  Jesus wasn’t necessarily criticizing these practices but the way they were being carried out.

In our ancient history, often our heritage was passed down through stories – I think it still is.  Think about those times when you relatives get together and how often the stories are swapped and retold.  This helps to keep the memories alive and ensures our history is passed down through the generations.  In ancient Palestine, the storytelling tradition was alive and well.  Professional storytellers were often used to remind groups of their roots and important events that were too valuable to allow to be forgotten.  These storytellers often interacted with choruses or choirs who would sing the heritage stories as well.  This began the tradition of acting – professionals who would portray the history of a people and help current audiences relive the events.  The Greek word for actor is ‘hypocrite.’

By the time of Jesus’ arrival, the term hypocrite had taken on quite a negative meaning.  Originally, hypocrites were seen as esteemed members of the community for their ability to help others truly experience historic events.  Their play on emotion and ability to draw people into the story were considered honored skills.  Yet by the time Jesus is delivering this sermon, the term ‘hypocrite’ came to mean someone who acted one way but in their hearts were not true to their actions.  They didn’t walk the talk so to speak.  They were more interested in attention and fame then in anything genuine – they most definitely were not the real thing.

Jesus points out the difference between ‘religious’ people, who are very interested in drawing attention to themselves, and true believers whose actions reflect their beliefs.  Those who prayed loud public prayers and literally sounded trumpets when giving alms to the poor, seemed to be more interested in receiving attention then doing good works.  Even when performing what appears to be the private task of fasting, it seems the synagogue leaders would make sure others knew of their sacrifice.  Much ado was given to the process but little to the actual practice.  Recognition and attention seemed to consume their lives – they were laying up treasures on earth.

Jesus teaches us humbleness.  Jesus teaches us that it is more important to work behind the scenes then in the spotlight.  Jesus teaches us how to be the real thing.  Jesus was most definitely an unusual teacher.  In a time when appearances were extremely important to the religious leaders, Jesus was more concerned with action.  For Jesus, it was more important to actually befriend the outcast then to strive to separate himself from the undesirable folks of his time.  Jesus spoke a message of love for one’s enemies instead of a message of force and violence and uprising.  Jesus spoke of the actions of the heart instead of the actions of the body, hoping to unite the two.  Only when we believe in our hearts what is portrayed in our actions can we truly be seen as the real thing.

People who are not affiliated with Christian beliefs can often spot the true believers and those who are just playing the Jesus game.  When we say we love our neighbor but our actions shout hatred and jealousy, we are just playing the Jesus game.  When we attend church but don’t adhere to any of the teachings presented, we are playing the Jesus game.  Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were playing the game – their hearts were not filled with love and compassion but with greed and jealousy.

Where do we fall on the spectrum between being genuine Christians and playing the Jesus game?  This evening we celebrate Ash Wednesday.  Through the act of receiving ashes, we are reminded that God formed humankind from dust – nothing glamorous about it.  God took the basic stuff of the earth and created human beings in God’s image.  We are reminded that everything we have comes from God – our gifts, our substance, our very being comes from our Creator.  Ashes to ashes – dust to dust.  As we begin the season of Lent, we are to look for ways to become more like Christ.  Tonight we will begin with a reminder of our formation from the dust of the earth.  We commemorate the sacrifice Christ made for us as we follow his path to the cross and to the victory over death at Easter.  It is a time for us to search our hearts and seek God’s will for our lives as true Christian believers – wanting to put our faith in action.

Some folks choose to give up something during Lent to be reminded of Christ’s suffering for us.  What are some popular things people give up for Lent?  I have heard of giving up red meat on Fridays, giving up fried foods, sweets, or dare I say it, chocolate!  Some still fast during specific times of Lent.  A popular time is from Good Friday to Easter Sunday morning, while we watch and wait on the resurrection of Jesus.  The idea is to use the time of fasting to spend time in prayer and meditation.  At times it is simply listening for God’s guidance in our lives.  It is a time of cleansing and renewal – to store up treasures in heaven.

Perhaps you may be compelled to try fasting for the first time which entails giving up a meal and spending that time in prayer.  The season of Lent is a time for us to evaluate where we are on our Christian walk and to seek God’s guidance as we take the next faithful step.

Lent is a time to renew our spiritual selves.  Throughout this year we are focusing on Finding Your Balance – looking at physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Our physical bodies give us many clues to indicate it needs rest.  At times we may find ourselves ill or recovering from an injury – these times are sometimes true eye openers for us to take better care of our bodies.  Our mental health can also come to light when we have stressed ourselves out to the breaking point.  Maybe you too have gotten to a point where you cannot absorb one more thing – your brain is fried and you have to take a mental time out.  Our spiritual selves can be easily placed out of our attention span.  If we spend all our energy concentrating on our physical and mental health, we could easily overlook our spiritual health.  This third part of our existence needs attention too.  We need to store up treasures in heaven.

I encourage you to spend time in reflection during the Lenten season.  It is roughly 6 weeks from now until Easter.  Perhaps now is a good time to study God’s word for us.  Find a devotional to use to help you exercise your spiritual body.  Make time to pray, seeking God’s guidance for our lives.  Join together in the activities during this Lenten season.  Perhaps we could spend some time fasting and praying for our community, our church, our nation, and our world.  Perhaps we could spend some time listening for God’s calling – often God does not come in the thunder and lightning but in the still, small voice.  What does God want us to do for our neighbors?  How can we best serve God while serving others?  May God continue to work through us as humble servants – ready to lend a helping hand without expecting anything in return.  Let us lay aside treasures in heaven.  Amen.

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