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The following is the Ash Wednesday sermon from the Ash Wednesday service at Veedersburg UMC.  The text for this message is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
As you know, this evening, we are observing Ash Wednesday.  While it is unclear exactly when the tradition of Ash Wednesday began, it’s origins are believed to be found in the early 7th century.  We are officially in the season of Lent now – a time of remembrance, repentance, commitment, humility and, ultimately, forgiveness.  Tonight, you will have the opportunity to come forward and have the cross placed on your forehead in ashes.  I know it seems like an odd thing to do, and I’m certainly not going to force anyone to do it, but it is a way that we can enter into Christian history and remember that we are a part of a larger story.
In the Old Testament, ashes symbolize two things.  First of all, it is a sign of humility and mortality.  In the book of Genesis, God creates with merely the spoken word.  He calls forth light, and light appears.  He tells the waters to separate, and they do.  He tells the vegetation to sprout from they ground, and it still does to this very day.  He speaks again and the animals are created.  But when it comes to man, God does something different.  He doesn’t just speak and create humanity. 
 
In reading Genesis 2, I get this mental image of God, the Almighty Creator of all things, getting down on his hands and knees, and forming humanity from the dust of the ground.  But by merely forming man, God doesn’t create humanity.  Humanity does not come to life until God breathes into the formed dust.  It is only when God’s very breath is involved that man becomes a living creature.  And while humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation, it is only dust apart from the breath of God.  And what I find so interesting here is that the Hebrew word for breath is the same word that is used in other places for spirit.  Apart from the Spirit of God, we are nothing more than dust.  How is that for humility?
We also recognize that we are mortal beings.  In Genesis 3, after humanity has sinned against God, it is said that humanity will return to the dust from which it came.  No longer is humanity allowed to live in the presence of God in the Garden.  Humanity’s sin is too great to live eternally in the presence of God.  As Paul says, “the wages of sin is death.”  And death comes when we are without the Spirit, or breath, of God, which leads us to the second thing which the ashes symbolize.
The ashes also symbolize sorrow and repentance for sin.  We recognize that our sin is too great.  Because of our sin, we are separated from an eternal and holy God who cannot bear to look upon our unrighteousness.  However, in repenting from our sin.  We are doing something significant.  The Greek word for repentance literally means a change in one’s mind.  Sin is more than just an action; sin is a mindset as well.  There is something deep within us that causes us to sin, and it is only through the transformation of our minds by the power of Jesus Christ that we can move past our sins.  That is what repentance is about – recognizing that we have fallen short in our lives and moving forward in life by the power of Christ, knowing that this is only possible by relying on the Spirit.
When Paul says that the wages of sin is death, he doesn’t leave his readers in this state of hopelessness.  He goes on to say that eternal life is possible through the free gift of Jesus Christ.  Because of Christ, we are no longer slaves of sin, but we have been freed from sin so that we can become servants of God.  In Ash Wednesday, we come before God as humble, mortal beings truly full of sorrow and repentance.  We leave this night knowing that Christ has forgiven us our sins, and we spend the next 40 days preparing ourselves for the celebration of his resurrection.
In the Gospel reading tonight, we are reminded of Jesus’ words regarding how we are to approach living a life of faith.  The life of faith is a life that is the authentically lived life.  It is life without hidden agendas and false signs of piety.  Jesus tells us to be aware of practicing our piety so that others will see it.  It is about the motivations within our hearts.  If we are doing these works of piety so that others will be impressed by the way we live our lives, then our hearts are not in the right place.
Jesus begins by mentioning our giving.  In the first century, the word for hypocrites often referred to actors in Greek theaters who wore masks.  The true person was hidden behind the mask, and all that the world would see was what the actor wanted them to see.  Those who gave as a public act of piety were not concerned about their gifts helping those in need; they wanted the attention that came with giving large sums of money.  Jesus looks at the heart.  Giving as an act of devotion and piety is giving that is not flaunted for others to see.
Jesus says the same about prayer.  There were those who would pray aloud so that everyone would hear the holiness of their prayers.  Jesus is not condemning public prayer, just the prayers that are intended to draw attention to oneself instead of God.  Again, the question is, “Where is your heart.”
It should be no surprise at this point that Jesus says something similar about fasting.  Fasting is more than just going without food for a few hours.  Fasting is an act of recognizing what is important in life.  It helps us to set priorities.  Are we more concerned about our daily meal times than spending time with God?  If so, then a fast would do us some good in order to help us with those priorities.  Fasting is not just abstaining from food.  There are legitimate medical reasons why some people don’t fast; however, this doesn’t mean that they are off the hook and don’t have to worry about this particular command of Jesus.  If fasting is about setting priorities, then one can fast from a variety of things – not just food.  Typically, people will give up something for Lent.  Some will give up candy, sweets, soda – all sorts of things.  The focus shouldn’t be what is being given up, but what is being put in its proper place because of this abstinence.
Jesus looks at giving, praying and fasting as three things that really show our hearts.  If we are doing these things publicly so that others can see them and be in awe of our own righteousness, then our hearts are not in the right place.  It is this type of faith that Jesus constantly rails against in the gospels.  Jesus is concerned about where our hearts are.
He sums it up very well in the final paragraph of this passage.  He tells us to not store our treasures here on earth, but to store them in heaven.  Things that are stored on earth will eventually fade away.  Things that are stored in heaven have an eternal value that will never fade away.  It is a matter of the heart.
So this Lent, let me encourage you to enter into the Christian story in a variety of ways.  Perhaps through sacrificial giving, or through cultivating a deeper life of prayer, or fasting a couple times each week.  Maybe there is something else you can do during this 40 day period in which we journey towards the cross.  Whatever it is that you decide to do to prepare yourself for this journey, remember that it begins and ends with your heart.  Make sure your heart is in the right place and then go for it.  I think you may be surprised at how God will work in your life.
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