Let it be noted that our Lord Jesus does not forbid or denounce prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. He rather indicates the “why” and “how” of these fundamental Christian disciplines. As an exercise of faith and love, they serve to cleanse the Christian life and facilitate the fruits of repentance.
To pray at all times and in all places is the calling and occupation of all Christians. It is the very voice of faith and a participation in the priestly intercessions of Christ Jesus, who is our merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God. As He offered Himself once for all upon the Cross, and as He prayed for those who were putting Him to death, so does He teach you to pray without ceasing and not lose heart. To pray and intercede, not only for yourself, but for all people, for kings and all those in authority, and for your enemies and those who persecute you, as well. That is the central activity and practice of faith toward God and of fervent love for your neighbors.
To fast is an exercise of self-denial, a conscious and deliberate resisting of your fleshly appetites. It stands in striking contrast to the grasping and eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve in the Garden, whereas it follows the example of your Lord Jesus, who fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and even then rejected the devil’s temptation to turn the stones into bread. By fasting, you train yourself to hunger, not for the food that perishes, but for every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and for the Living Bread with which He feeds you from heaven.
And to give alms is to provide for the care of the poor and needy with gifts of charity above and beyond your regular support of the Church and Ministry. Almsgiving appropriately accompanies the discipline of fasting, as that self-denial allows for greater generosity in serving your neighbors. Not simply “giving up something for Lent,” but sacrificing yourself to love and care for others.
Each of these most basic disciplines can be helpful in turning you away from a preoccupation with yourself, and in turning your attention toward God in faith and toward your neighbors in love.
But prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are therefore not to be undertaken as a system or a process for obtaining a righteousness of your own, neither before God nor in the eyes of men. The point and purpose are most emphatically not that you should try to impress anyone in heaven or on earth!
To be right with God is first of all a matter of the heart, prior to anything else you may do or say, whether praying, fasting, giving alms, or whatever else you may do. It is a matter of the heart — that is to say, not the romance of Valentine’s Day, but genuine repentance and faith in the Word of the Lord. It is in repentance and faith that you live before God in peace. It is in repentance that you fast, and from a heart of faith that you pray to your Father in heaven. And as you thus deny yourself and trust the Lord, calling on His Name for all that you need, so do you also sacrifice and give of yourself in love for your neighbors, dealing with them as the Lord deals with you in mercy.
Whatever it is that you treasure, that is where your heart abides and lives. And by the same token, wherever you invest your heart, that is where your treasure is found, whether with the Lord, the one true God, or with the many and various idols of this perishing world. Your “god” is whatever you fear, love, and trust, whatever you worship from the heart with your body and life, with your time, treasures, and talents, and with your thoughts, words, and actions.
The heart comes first, in so far as where you stand with God. And when there is faith in His Word in your heart, then you will pray and fast and give alms in love for Him and for your neighbors. But if you do not trust His Word, then nothing else you do (or don’t do) will make things right.
In hearing this admonition of the Lord, do not suppose that faith is the one thing you must manage and do for yourself. The Lord is not directing you away from an external self-righteousness to a new self-righteousness of the heart. Nor does He commend a self-righteousness of the head, either, as though you could think and know your way into the kingdom of heaven. His goal, again, is not that you should refrain from praying, fasting, and almsgiving in favor of some new strategy. It is rather that you be turned inside-out and away from yourself altogether, in order to hear and receive the Word and promises of God and to find your righteousness in the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.
So there is both Law and Gospel here. And to begin with, the Law confronts you with the question of where and how you are living in relation to God and your neighbor. That is getting to the heart of the matter, as the attitudes of your heart are manifested in your outward actions. How, then, do you think and speak and act with respect to God and the people He has placed around you in this body and life? Are you trusting Him and loving them with all that you are and have?
The answers are not pretty, are they? Not if you are being honest with yourself. Your life in the flesh, your words, and your actions are often as ugly as a smudge of ashes on your forehead. It is true that appearances are neither the problem nor the solution. Neither what you do nor how you look doing it will justify or save you. Apart from faith in Christ, you are dead and dying in your sins. But you are called to live in faith toward God, to call upon His Name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, to deny yourself and take up your Cross and follow Christ Jesus in love for others.
Realize, and take it to heart, that your entire life in body and soul, in heart, mind, and spirit, is lived in the presence of God. That is always the case, whether you know it or not. And in His presence there is no possibility of pretense. Hypocrisy will not fool Him, who knows your heart and mind better than you know yourself. But the answer and solution to hypocrisy is not to persist in sin, to neglect your neighbor and your duties, to ignore the life of the Church, or to abandon all piety.
As Holy Scripture says: “The judgment begins with the household of God. And if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel? If it is with difficulty that the righteous are saved, what will become of the godless and the sinner? Therefore, let those who suffer according to the Will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
Which is to say that you bear the Cross in faith and love, in patience, in prayer, and in charity.
But how often do you go about your days and spend your nights as though you (not God) were the heart and center of all that is important? And how often do you regard the Lord God Almighty as your Sugar Daddy in the sky — as a means to some end, a last resort, or your ace in the hole — as though He were your servant instead of your Lord? Do you ignore Him until you realize that you need something from Him? And do you then suppose that you will bargain or barter with Him in exchange for His goods and services, or simply pay Him off? Do you live as though your body and life were your own to do with as you like, and not a sacred trust and a divine stewardship?
Such sinful, self-idolatrous attitudes and actions pervade your fallen heart and mortal flesh, as your deadly inheritance from Adam. Which is why you return to the dust from which you are taken. And because you are dying and slipping away from yourself back into dirt, your lack of faith in God is further manifested in relation to your neighbors, whom God has given to you here on earth.
Frightened by your own mortality and the transience of this world, yet lusting all the more for the flesh and its passions, you view and treat your neighbor as a competitor for these finite things. You maneuver and manipulate and jockey for position, and you cut your neighbor off wherever you can, in order to gain something for yourself, despite the fact that it won’t last. Consumed with yourself and your own ambitions, you consume the people whom God would have you care for.
When your neighbor has something you want for yourself, you’re willing to flatter and shmooze, to grovel and beg and grease the palm, or to scheme some strategy for getting it from him or her.
But when your neighbor appears to be useless and inconsequential for your purposes, you write him off and ignore him, as though he were a nuisance and a bother to be avoided or driven away. You do not see your neighbor as a person like yourself, as a human being to love and care for, but as an object to be gained, as a tool to be used, or as something to be discarded and forgotten.
What may be even worse, as Jesus reveals this evening, is when you serve your neighbor with alms and charity, not out of love and mercy for the Lord’s sake, but so that you might exalt yourself and appear to stand above your neighbor as though you were his savior and his god. The remedy, of course, is not that you should refrain from almsgiving, but that you should care for your neighbor in the quiet humility of repentance and faith, giving freely as you have received from the Lord.
These sins against God and your neighbor are not only the cause and consequence of your dying; already they are the death that reigns in your heart and in your flesh apart from the Spirit of Christ Jesus. And yet, so great is your selfishness, so deep is the perversity of your heart and mind, that you justify your sins and presume to wallow in the filthy rags of your own self-righteousness. But attempting to advance yourself in this way is simply to rush headlong into death and damnation.
The Gospel, therefore, is not a strategy of self-justification or self-advancement. It rather replaces your sinful self-righteousness with the perfect Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has in fact become your Servant in peace and love. He forgives your sins and gives you life in Himself.
It is not by your works, but by His works that you are saved. Not by your piety, but His. Not even your faith, but His faith and His faithfulness have become your righteousness and your salvation.
With fear, love, and trust in His Father above all things, He sacrificed His entire body and life and shed His holy, precious blood to atone for your sins and the sins of the whole world, to reconcile the world to God. In love for you, His neighbor, He sacrificed Himself in order to save you. He gave Himself over to death on the Cross in your stead, in order to give Himself to you in mercy by the Ministry of His Gospel. Though you were at enmity with Him, He reconciles you to Himself.
It is His Righteousness that is credited to you in the presence of God forever. As He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, so are you justified in Him. In His crucified and risen Body, you are raised up from the dust of the earth to live with God in the Kingdom of heaven: Already here in time (by faith), and hereafter in the resurrection of your body to life everlasting.
This Righteousness of Christ and His great Salvation are His divine charity for you, the alms that He gives freely to you and to all others, not to His own advantage but to your eternal benefit. He fasted and humbled Himself as a Servant, even unto death upon the Cross, that He might now feed you with His Body and His Blood. And as He prayed faithfully on His Way to the Cross, so does He also, in His Resurrection, ever live to intercede for you before the Throne of God. He is your merciful and great High Priest, and it is in and with Him that you live and abide with His Father.
So it is that, as He calls you to repentance tonight, throughout the Season of Lent, and throughout all your days in this world — as He calls you away from yourself, away from your selfishness and sins, away from your death and damnation — He calls you to this Righteousness of His, which is yours by His grace through faith in His Gospel, that you might receive it from Him as a free gift.
His Life is an example for you to follow. His prayer, fasting, and charity are the pattern in which you are to live and walk by faith, in love for Him, for His Father and the Holy Spirit, and for your neighbors in the world. But His Life for you is more than an example. It is your Righteousness. It is the beautiful robe with which He covers your nakedness and shame, as He forgives all your sins with His blood, as He clothes you in and with Himself, and as He feeds you with Himself, from the waters of your Holy Baptism to the resurrection of your body in His glory at the last.
He calls you to hide yourself in Him, to live and abide in Him, and thus to stand before His God and Father in heaven with all boldness and confidence, in His Righteousness and purity forever.
It is true that you are dying. That fact we acknowledge and confess. But so do we also affirm and believe that, by your Baptism into Christ Jesus, you have already died — to yourself and to the world, to sin, death, and the devil — and that your life is now hidden with Christ in God: Hidden where no man can see, but your Father sees, who loves you as His own dear child for Jesus’ sake.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.