Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Does it strike anyone else as odd that we just read a passage in which Jesus said, “If you fast, wash your face,” and we’re getting ready to put ashes on our faces to begin the season of Lent?
For that matter, Jesus said to pray in private, where no one else could hear you, and in this service we are praying out loud together.
Jesus lived in a world where a show of piety improved your social standing in the community. For some people, it was more important to appear religious than to be religious. So Jesus gave them a challenge. Do you really believe God answers prayer? Then just pray. Don’t make a show of it. Do you really think you are seeking God’s face with your fasting? Then just fast. Don’t do it because other people approve. Do it because God approves.
Perhaps, in some ways, we still live in that same world. There are churches that will judge you by how you religious you appear. I doubt, however, that many people walking outside our doors would be impressed by your being here today. Some might even think you are some sort of religious extremist.
But here we are. In a moment, we’re going to put ashes on our faces and begin the season of fasting. If we are doing this right, it is simply a physical way of honoring God and praying to God with our bodies, as well as with our hearts and minds.
The apostle Paul commanded us, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” God made us in such a way that our bodies, spirits and souls are intimately connected. So we stand when we use our voices to sing praise to God. Or we raise our hands. Or we kneel at the altar. Or we use our arms to embrace each other in the bonds of peace. Or we use the eyes God gave us to read God’s word or our ears to listen. Or we feel the water or taste the bread of the sacraments ordained by Jesus.
After Job accused the Lord of being unjust, he later confessed to his maker, “I repent in dust and ashes.” Dust and ashes are found throughout the Old Testament as signs of repentance.
So we honor God with our bodies, and we receive this ancient sign of repentance as a prayer. We remember that we are sinners, merely dust apart from the life-giving power of God. We remember that we live under the sign of the cross. We remember that our only hope is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. We remember our savior’s call to life-long faith and repentance, and we surrender ourselves to his life-transforming power. We die to self to live with Christ.
At some point, in a few minutes or a few hours, we will do what Jesus said to do. We will wash our faces, so that the world can no longer see the sign of the cross inscribed on our brow. What the world cannot see is that we still bear the sign of the cross emblazoned on our hearts. And, according to the sure word of Jesus, the Father who sees what is done in secret will reward our prayer.