In the words we just heard, Jesus spoke of the danger that is hypocrisy, of believing that what we appear to be is more important than what we truly are; of caring more about our appearance and image than we do about what really is going on inside our souls.
The season of Lent is an invitation to leave behind the realm of outward appearances, and to go inward, to seek to strip away pretense and deception and fraudulence; to try, as best we can, give up play acting. To get real.
So I’m back here, and you’re either gazing at the altar, or your eyes are closed, and hopefully, without me up front (on display) to get in the way, my words can help you go inward.
Take a few moments to be still. Psalm 46 reads, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God is in the stillness.
Pay attention to your breath; to the breath slowly going in, and breath slowly going out.
At the beginning of the Bible we read these words:
“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
With each inhale of your breath, God once more gives life. The dust that is your body is filled with the breath of life, breathed into you by your Creator.
Your life is a gift.
It is a gift, however that will not last forever – in this world, and in this body. A day will come when each of us will breathe our last breath.
Looking directly at our mortality is one of the themes of Ash Wednesday. We are made of dust, and to dust we shall return. Apart from the breath of God, all we are is dust.
This is a truth we generally try to avoid thinking about. It seems morbid; depressing.
But the tradition of Ash Wednesday invites us to reflect on the fact that one day we will die. We do this, because it leads us to consider how precious life is.
Life is not something to waste.
The recognition that our days are numbered – that we are all, in a real sense, “terminal” — leads us to ponder how we want to live the days we have left.
The 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
Why did Jesus go into the wilderness? He went there to get clear – to clarify what his life moving forward would be about – and what it wouldn’t be about.
The thing about the wilderness that makes it a setting for spiritual reflection is that it is free of distractions.
If we want to reflect deeply upon our lives – on the lives we have been living – on the ruts we have dug for ourselves, and to consider a new way to be living – then we will need to enter the wilderness as well.
Not literally, but in the sense of setting aside some of the distractions that keep us from quietly communing with God and seeing our lives clearly.
It is the nature of our modern lives that we tend to keep quite busy. It is good to work, but sometimes we can keep so busy with work that we never give ourselves a chance to be still. In our pursuit of the next thing to check off our “to do” list, we avoid the kind of quiet, unoccupied time that deep thought and reflection requires.
And when we keep so busy, when, exhausted we finally do stop working, we feel this urge to flee into some kind of mindless distraction. We find something to eat even though we we’re not really hungry, we go shopping even though we really have everything we need, we turn on the TV or surf the internet even though most of what we spend our time viewing isn’t truly gratifying or enlightening in any real sense – it is, just a distraction, nothing more.
It is as if there is some kind of unconscious conspiracy going on inside us to avoid the kind of stillness required to see our lives clearly.
Why would we want to do that?
Perhaps we are afraid of some of the things we’d see if we did.
That, for instance, we’ve spent so much time worrying about tomorrow, as Jesus said, that we’ve failed to truly live today.
Maybe we’ll recognize that we have devoted a great deal of time and energy to things that don’t really matter in the big picture, and not enough time and energy to the things that truly do.
This is precisely what Jesus was getting at when he talked about what a mistake it is to spend our days storing up treasure on earth, rather than treasure on heaven. What did he mean by, “treasure on earth” and “treasure in heaven?” He was talking about what will be clear to us when we draw near to our last breath, and look back over our life, asking the question, “what did I do with this gift of life I was given?” What parts of our lives will seem like time well spent?
Perhaps, quality time spent with our loved ones.
Perhaps times when we slowed down and allowed ourselves to be mindful of, and appreciate true beauty and goodness.
Perhaps time spent doing quality work in which we truly expressed ourselves and the gifts God gave us, and made a difference in the lives of the people around us.
In a word, times when love was present is what will matter when we look back over our lives. This is “treasure in heaven”, because love is the one thing that lasts forever.
And as we approach our last breath, what parts of our lives will seem like “treasure on earth” — the time spent that will have no enduring value?
It is far better to ask these questions now, than to face them for the first time seriously on our death beds.
So Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days to get clear.
How might the coming 40 days of Lent be a time of getting clear for you? If the wilderness is the place that is free of distractions, what distractions might you give up in the hope of creating space in your life where you can think clearly about what matters? Or what practices, for instance, a daily walk or a daily prayer time, do you want to add to your routine? What relationship in your life might be “stuck”, requiring a new way of relating to that person on your part to get it unstuck.
They say it takes 21 days to establish a new habit.
There is something hopeful about the season of Lent. It offers a new beginning. The past doesn’t have to define you. If you can manage to change some small but significant piece of your habitual way of living, than you will find encouragement to change other areas of your life where your habits bring you down.
And know this: You are loved, whether you stumble and fall, or whether you rise and shine, you are loved.
Your life matters to God.
Keep in mind the wisdom of the verse we read from Psalm 51.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
In the end, the transformation we are seeking is from God. It’s not something we can manufacture.
What we are trying to do during Lent is give God some room to come and work within us.
So let us be gentle with ourselves. Even our stumblings can be the occasion for grace.
We will enter into a time silence now in which, if you want to, you can think about how you would like to spend this season of Lent.
If you decide to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, perhaps that can be the time in which you make a promise to God about your intention for the keeping of Lent.