March 2, 2022—–Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51: 1-17; Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-21
I was driving our daughter, Erin, to school one day, and she was reviewing her vocabulary lesson. “Dad,” she asked, “What does sanctimonious mean?” Well, sanctimonious is a word I am familiar with, and I have seen it used numerous times (though I don’t believe I have ever used it!), but I could not think of a way to define it. She had, in her lesson, some definitions from which to choose, and she offered, “Hypocritically devoted?”
“THAT’S IT!” I cried! And I have been chewing on that idea of being hypocritically devoted ever since! It seemed perfect when I looked at the scripture selections in the lectionary for tonight. The Psalmist talks about humbly asking for forgiveness, and, in our Gospel reading, Jesus talks about people who practiced their piety in public in order to receive human praise. On the one hand, a long confession of sin and an affirmation of God’s goodness; on the other hand, a glimpse of those who think they are so good that God owes them!
Please rest assured that I don’t see any one of you being sanctimonious, but I have seen the warning signs in my own life, and Lent seems to be the perfect season to be reminded of my own need for forgiveness, my own need for growth, and to rekindle the desire to store up a treasure in heaven. So I’m going to preach on it!
I believe the first thing to do is to ask myself: Am I counting on God’s righteousness—or my own? You see, as long as I can look at my life and ignore the sin—or at least compare myself favorably with some other people—then I can fool myself into relying on my own righteousness…at least for a little while.
Then that warning from First John comes to mind: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Clearly, the ONLY righteousness I can count on is God’s, and not my own.
The second thing I need to do is to ask myself: Am I ready to be ‘pruned’ in order to stimulate growth? You know—the way we trim fruit trees of excess limbs in order to help them bear more fruit! Am I ready for that?
Traditionally, Lent has been a time to “give something up”, to deny oneself for a period of forty days in order to gain spiritual strength (and be more “fruitful.”) Since Lent was designed to be a season of “lean times,” many people began the practice of having a HUGE party right before Lent begins. That’s what Mardi Gras and Carnival are all about—a big party on Fat Tuesday to have lots of foods and fun that were going to be let go during Lent. (Nowadays, we just focus on the big party and most party-goers don’t have any idea what Lent is.)
But this whole “self-denial” thing grew up over the years as a way to 1. Identify with the suffering of Jesus, and to 2. Eliminate distractions, and to 3. Focus on the depravity of our souls, then to 4. Glory in the wonder of God’s forgiving love!
It helps me to think of it in terms of a bush or tree that needs to be pruned in order to grow stronger and bear more fruit. Sure, we don’t LIKE being pruned, but God uses it for good. I love the way William Barclay re-states Philippians 1:19-20:
“God put me in this situation, and God means it, with all its problems and its difficulties, to make for my happiness and usefulness in time, and for my joy and peace in eternity.”
That’s what God does. God works in all circumstances to work things for the GOOD. We can trust that God loves us just as we are, and that God loves us too much to just let us stay the way we are!
So, back to the main question: Am I sanctified (being made holy) or am I sanctimonious (hypocritically devoted)? Maybe the answer is: BOTH/AND. I am a sinner, and I am being made a saint! During these next 40 days, I am going to remember that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise!