Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
for the Lord, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
“Where is their God?” ’
2 Corinthians 5: 20b – 6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6As we work together with him,* we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Matthew 6: 1- 6, 16 – 21
6‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*
19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
A treasure is something we deem important. A treasure is looked after and nurtured. It is preserved. There is always an emotional attachment to treasures. They normally have sentimental, possibly also economic value.
We guard treasures because if we do not do so they are likely to be taken from us. We think they enhance us somehow.
Now our Gospel reading covers some of the classic topics of Lent:
- Commitment to putting God first
But I’m going to refer back to a passage which was set last Wednesday for the Morning Office because it teaches us a great lesson about what we consider to be treasure. It is the story of Lot and his family being rescued from Sodom by two angels.
We get a hint that Lot is not too keen to let go of the place he enjoyed living in when we read this: 16But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. 17When they had brought them outside, they* said, ‘Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.’ (Genesis 19)
Lot has a fussy moment where in essence he says ‘I don’t like the hills.’ So the angels give him permission to shelter in a nearby city. Of course he eventually flees that city to live in a cave in the hills. But then, alas, hardly had the angels told them not to look back when, a few verses later, we read, 26But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Now I just couldn’t help being struck, as this was read by Holly at morning prayers, by the fact that salt is a preservative. Lot’s wife in a sense was engulfed in her inappropriate desire to preserve that which God had declared off bounds.
She was, we read, behind Lot. She certainly wasn’t outrunning him in a bid to take the angels’ advice. Lot’s wife (and I’m afraid we’re not told her name) had her heart where her treasure was, in Sodom, a city God had decided to destroy he was so angry with it.
Her desire to preserve what God did not want, destroyed her.
We need to be careful what we treasure. If it is not what God wants, no matter how much we justify it, it can damage us and the people around us.
One of the things Christians should not treasure is money, for as we read in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6: 10)
It’s for this reason why the test of Lent requires us to be generous in our giving. It’s good for us. It enhances our faith and wellbeing.
The second thing we should not treasure is our independence, for as we read in Proverbs 3 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.
There is nothing like prayer for giving us insight into who we are and who God is. It gives us perspective. As one person said, we don’t pray so much that God will change things; we pray primarily so that God will change us!
The third thing we should not treasure is our own self-comfort . It’s the reason fasting is a traditional part of Lent. When you fast you discipline yourself. It is one of the most effective ways of overcoming the problem of quite legitimate physical appetites assuming an unhealthy significance.
So here on Ash Wednesday as we prepare to have the ashes from last year’s burnt Palm Sunday palm crosses imposed on our foreheads, to remind us of our sinfulness and our mortality, we are invited to use this time to reflect on
- Fasting and
- Commitment to putting God first
The ashes are traced upon us in the shape of a cross – the symbol of death – specifically Jesus’ death. And it’s a good thing! It reminds us of what we are to put to death rather than treasure, so that we can be healthy in spirit.
It speaks to us of the death of that which we may treasure but will harm us:
- Our grasping natures
- Our unhealthy independence from God
- Our self-comfort, and
- Our tendency to preserve things that God knows are no good for us
But here’s the thing: Lent is not a time to feel pressure to conform to all sorts of self-denying activities. It not something people engage in so that they may be seen by others as the Gospel reading says.
Lent is when we take stock of ourselves, when we take ourselves by the scruff of the neck and take a long hard look at what it is that motivates us. The self-denial helps in this process.
As someone said, the difference between a stick in the mud and a flute is that the flute has emptied itself and can make music.
In conclusion, in Luke 17 Jesus is speaking about the judgement that will accompany his Second Coming, and he says this: 32Remember Lot’s wife. 33Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.
What should we be losing in our lives in order that we might not lose our lives?
The test of Lent is thinking and praying deeply about these things. It is a time to review our grasping natures and to open ourselves and make room for the generosity of God in order that it in turn might overflow in generosity to others. This is how to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6: 20a)