“What are you giving up?”
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103: 8-14; 2 Cor 5:20 – 6:10; Mt 6: 1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, Year B
February 25, 2009 (Preached on the “Main Mall,” University of Texas at Austin)
If you’re like me, you’ve been asked the question a million times this week – “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’ve been paying close attention, and so far, I’ve heard all the standard resolutions: no junk food, alcohol, homework, cuss words, gossip, meat, sandals, or road rage - to name just a few. And perhaps my favorite – one brave soul, for the next forty days and forty nights, plans to make the ultimate sacrifice and abstain from all forms of Facebook stalking. But what about you? What are you giving up for Lent?
I have to admit, at first, my answer to this question was “nothing.” But when you’re a priest, this answer doesn’t really go over that well. And so by Monday afternoon, I began telling people about my plan to fast on Wednesdays. But that answer’s not much better. For one, I ate a cliff bar on my way here. And second, I changed my answer to keep people from staring at me like I just kicked their puppy. In other words, I was playing to the crowds – seeking the approval of others. And because of that, my heart wasn’t in the right place. And so Lent 2009 is off to a shaky start. But it made me wonder – is Lent really about giving things up? In other words, what is Lent really about?
Well the traditional answer – in one word – is repentance. Some say Lent is all about repentance. Now, don’t get me wrong – Lent is a time to repent, a time to return to God. But I’ve got a problem with the traditional answer. Because if Lent is all about our repentance, then the focus is on us - about what we give up, or about the disciplines we take on. And if we make Lent about us, it gets really easy to start playing to the crowd – and our heart won’t be in the right place.
And here’s why I feel the way I do. Repentance, in Old Testament times, could be somewhat of a joke. You see, repentance used to be a very public event – kind of like what we’re doing tonight – just a lot more extreme. You see, we’re just getting ashes on our head. But back in the day, people would literally cover themselves in ashes. They’d blow trumpets, rip their clothes, put on sackcloth, and then, they’d start wailing as loud as they could. At times, even the animals were dressed in sackcloth and were denied food and water. (Jon 3:7) Now, lest anyone stops feeding their pet and stuffs it in a burlap sack, let me go ahead and be clear that God wants more from us than these outward acts of piety. It’s not that repentance isn’t important, or that it’s not a big part of Lent. I just don’t think it’s the main point. Because ultimately, Lent’s not about anything that we give up or don’t give up at all. Our God wants much, much more. You see, these public acts of repentance started out great, but over time, these events became less about God and more about them.
And in a very real sense, that what’s going on in tonight’s reading from Matthew. Jesus sees the religious people of his day making repentance all about them. They give alms and they pray and they fast – in other words, they give up a lot – but their focus is on themselves. And Jesus calls them “hypocrites” – a Greek word that literally means “play actors.” In other words, Jesus sees their acts of repentance and tells them they’re acting. “You’re playing to the crowd.” Jesus said. “But your heart’s not in the right place.”
And that’s why I think Lent shouldn’t be about us. Because each of us, in our own way, is a play actor seeking the approval of someone other than God. And really, that’s all sin is - the very thing that keeps our heart from being in the right place. And because of that, tonight can’t be about anything that you or I give up. It can’t be about any sacrifice that we make. So: what is Lent really about?
Lent is all about the cross. It’s not about what we give up. But it’s all about what God gave up for sinners like us – for people whose heart never seems to be in the right place. To quote tonight’s epistle, “for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21). The focus is not on us. It’s on Jesus, and on what he gave up for you and for me.
And when it comes to the cross, Jesus wasn’t playing to the crowd, nor was he seeking the approval of anyone but God. As the Son of God, Jesus didn’t sound a trumpet before him to demand the world’s attention. No – Jesus suffered silently and quietly. He was abandoned and betrayed. And though equal to God, Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and died on the cross. In other words, Jesus gave up everything. Out of love for you and for me – Jesus gave up everything.
And so with that in mind, what are you giving up for Lent?
Remember, outward acts of piety can be good – but our God wants much, much more from us. And when we start to see that Lent is all about Jesus’ sacrifice and not about ours, we can then begin to “give up” the one thing God requires – our heart. After all, Lent is a time to repent, a time to return to God. But like we heard in tonight’s reading from Joel, returning to God is a matter of the heart.
And so here’s our homework for the next forty days – at least for those of us not giving homework up for Lent. Give up your entire heart to God. Hold nothing back. Through the merits of the cross, we have God’s approval. And so let’s give up playing to the crowds – let’s give up seeking the approval of someone else. Because our God wants much, much more from us than outward acts of piety – He wants all of our heart, and all of our mind, and all of our soul, and all of our strength. And if giving up carbs help us do that, then awesome. But ultimately, the only things God wants is us – for us to give up our heart to Him. And to the extent that we do that, our heart will finally be in the right place.
And so to answer my original question –is Lent really about giving things up? Yeah, it is. It’s about a Father that gave up His son. It’s about a Son that gave up His life. And it’s about the Spirit, through whom we can give up our hearts to God.
And so for the last time, what are you giving up for Lent?