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Secret Righteousness

February 26, 2020 Series: Lectionary

Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 6:1–6:6, Genesis 6:16–6:21

Ash Wednesday
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Secret Righteousness”

Don’t tell anyone about it.

That’s not the kind of instruction that you’d usually hear when it comes to living out your faith, right?  Particularly in a sermon!  We Christians are sent out into the world as heralds.  You and I are supposed to go and tell out the good news of the Savior God sent for all nations.  Only a few weeks back, we heard Jesus declare his followers to be that which salts the world and brings light to the world.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)  But that doesn’t seem to reconcile with what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel text.  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1)  It sounds like he’s saying to keep it secret.  In fact, Jesus uses some form of the Greek word κρυπτός – “secret” or “hidden” – six times!  (That’s the source of our prefix “crypto,” as in cryptography or cryptocurrency.)  Don’t tell anyone about it.

So what’s it supposed to be, Jesus?  Am I meant to live as a beacon for everyone to see, or to do good works and “salt the world” as a secret agent?

Yes.  The answer is “Yes.”

The message of the Transfiguration or Our Lord still stands.  Jesus made his followers witnesses.  You and I are to tell and show of all that he’s done to bring the rescue that we and our whole world need.  This witnessing, it happens in your words.  It happens in your actions.  Those are ways in which you reflect the light of Christ into the darkness.  In living to bless your neighbor, you point to God’s grace for all of us and our messed-up world.  Your faith and how you live it out are meant to be seen.

But as you go and live out your faith, remember what Jesus has told us today.  You’ve got to be on guard, so that you don’t end up putting your words and acts of righteousness on display in order to impress people.  That’s the trap the devil sets for us: vanity, excessive pride in your achievements.  Why go incognito when you can be high-profile?  It feels good to be appreciated for what you’ve done!  Now, someone might notice and appreciate your good work on their own – nothing wrong with that.  The problem that Jesus highlights arises when you make a show of what you’re doing, calling attention to yourself, pursuing the praise of the world.  That’s vanity at play.  That’s the sin in your heart striving against God’s work in you.  Be on guard as you practice righteousness.  Don’t tell anyone about it.  When it comes down to it, you can seek out approval from your fellow human beings, or you can seek it before the Lord.

So then what’s the deal with the mark of the cross right there on our foreheads this Ash Wednesday?  Those are not subtle!  They’re pretty much the opposite of secret.  But that’s okay.  Remember what that cross signifies.  You are mortal and under the curse of sin.  You are dust, and to dust you will return.  You need a Savior, a rescuer.  And you have one.  His name is Jesus.  God’s Son went to the cross for you, taking your place, for all the world to see – not out of vanity but in ultimate humility.  The cross of ashes that you bear on your forehead is an outward sign of the hope that you have in Christ.  It’s not there to capture the praise of the world.  It’s there because God loves the world in this way, that He sent His Son to bring life to the dead.  It’s there because God loves you.

The cross leads us into Lent.  On Ash Wednesday, acknowledge your sin and repent of it.  Seek God’s forgiveness.  In the forty-day season ahead of us – a time which serves as a reminder of Jesus’ forty days out in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry – prepare for Holy Week and Easter.  Reflect on the epic scope of God’s love for you and for the people around you.

For centuries before us, Christians have often stepped up the practice of fasting during this time of Lent.  Jesus’ hearers were far more familiar with observing a fast than most of us 21st century Americans.  Fasting, giving up a meal or two, or intentionally setting aside something you enjoy, can be a good thing.  It’s a spiritual discipline to bring your body and your desires under conscious control.  In truth, we’d do well to have this discipline as a regular part of our Christian living in this culture of mass consumption.  You don’t have to take this on; it’s not a requirement for salvation.  But if you choose to give up something this Lent, whether it’s a meal or two each week, chocolate or meat or alcohol, or even social media, see if you can do it without talking about it.

Practicing those spiritual disciplines that commonly come with Lent, prayer, fasting, and works of love, you can both live as a beacon for everyone to see, and do good works and “salt the world” as a secret agent.  Remember the cross, seeking not the praise of the people around you, but God’s approval in Christ.  Don’t concern yourself with getting rewarded; God will sort it all out in the end.

This Lententide, practice secret righteousness.  And if you can, don’t tell anyone about it.  Experience and share the grace that comes through the cross, to the glory of God.

Amen.

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