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Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (Ash Wednesday—The Crucified King)

“The King’s Wisdom”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

March 5, 2014

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our text for Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 6:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when 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. . . . “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

His throne was made of ivory, and overlaid with the finest gold. The six steps leading up to his great throne each had carved lions on both sides. At the back of the throne was a calf’s head, a symbol of kingly might. The armrests were elaborate, and his footstool was made of gold. Wise King Solomon truly built himself a glorious throne.

But as magnificent as his throne was, the one who sat on it was even more impressive. This king of the Jews was truly a king of glory, but nothing was more golden than what came from his lips. When God allowed the young king to ask Him for anything, Solomon didn’t ask for riches, or a long life, or victory over his enemies. He asked for wisdom to rule God’s people, and God was pleased. The Queen of Sheba came 1,200 miles to test his wisdom with hard questions, and the answers that came from Solomon’s lips left her breathless. He was the king who opened his lips and spoke 3,000 Proverbs.

Yet, all that glory couldn’t stop Solomon’s life from coming to an inglorious end. All that glory couldn’t deal with an inglorious heart, a heart that was increasingly turning itself away from the Word of the Lord and making him a tyrant. So while his lips still poured forth wisdom, the way he lived made him no more than a hypocrite. “Rejoice in the wife of your youth,” is what he taught (Proverbs 5:18), while he ended up rejoicing in 700 of them. “How much better to get wisdom than gold,” Solomon taught (16:16), while those greedy royal hands of his grasped for as much as they could gather. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” he taught (Psalm 111:10), but lived as though he feared everything but the Lord. A royal hypocrite, indeed.

Consider this Ash Wednesday what a royal hypocrite you’ve been. It’s the reason you recognized yourself in today’s Gospel as Jesus spoke against the way of those religious show-offs, the Pharisees. But don’t cluck your tongue “Tsk, tsk, tsk” too loudly at what those show-offs did. You’ve done your share of posing for the camera too. Sure, you’ve never sounded a trumpet while giving to the needy like the Pharisees did, but you’ve been known to toot your own horn to others, lest your “sacrificial” giving not be noticed and acknowledged. You’ve certainly never stood on the street corners and prayed to be seen like the Pharisees did, but how often have you stood there and lied, telling people that you were praying for them, and you weren’t? And when you fast, you certainly don’t disfigure your faces to be seen like the Pharisees. Yet, you’ll never be content to keep your fasting between you and your heavenly Father alone.  Aren’t we very proud to tell everyone what we’ve giving up for Lent?

King Solomon and the Pharisees aren’t the only hypocrites.  There’s a reason for that mark of mortality on your forehead. There’s a reason those words first spoken to Adam were spoken into your ears this night: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The reason is that inglorious, show-off heart of yours that’s always seeking a religious “Atta boy.” With a glory-seeking heart like yours, you’ll never be content with being seen by the only eyes that matter—the eyes of your Father in heaven. So why should the Father—seeing what a phony you can be—reward you?

There could be only one reason: because your Father, who sees what comes forth from that inglorious heart of yours, has eyes of mercy. He is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love. And He loves giving rewards to those who confess their unworthiness. He remembers that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but above all He remembers His mercy and His promise to rescue sinners. He sees that wretched state of yours and sends you a king wiser than Solomon to help you. A Greater Solomon, in fact. The King of kings in fact, whose throne in heaven would have made Solomon’s throne look like a deck chair, yet who left heaven to take on your flesh and blood and come down and rescue you.

It’s that King named Jesus who is seated on that green, grassy mountain teaching in today’s Gospel. His proper place is a golden throne, but there He is seated, teaching with authority, pouring out the gold of His Word on a mount. There He sits with no splendor, His arms pointing in the open air and His feet resting on dirt. There He is, not surrounded by twelve carved lions, but by twelve flesh-and-blood sinners whom He considers His sheep and has chosen to instruct them about a Kingdom that can’t be earned, only received by faith in Him.

But this King not only talked the talk, He walked the walk. For you He left that pretty, grassy mount, so that His whole earthly life would be a walk to another mount, an ugly one outside of Jerusalem called “Golgotha.” What drove Him there was His unspeakable love for you and for His Father. On the way there, He blew no trumpet, His generous left hand and His generous right hand always ready to help the needy in body and soul, until those hands were stretched out and pounded onto a cross, to heal your sinful hands. Even though He was God in the flesh, He didn’t stand on the street corners and impress people with His prayers; He was content to continually leave the crowds to pray alone to His Father in heaven, that His faithful prayer life might be credited to you. This was a King who was willing to be driven out to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights with no one knowing but the Father, and the devil who tempted Him. But He triumphed for you, His emaciated face earning for you a radiance that can never be blackened.

This King is different from all other kings. While wise King Solomon built a throne for himself and his own glory, this King did no such thing. He was content with the One that His Father prepared for Him. It wasn’t a throne made of ivory and overlaid with the finest gold. It was made of wood, to be covered with the finest blood—the blood of God-Made-Flesh. It didn’t have an impressive backrest, or armrest or a golden footrest. His throne was an ugly, wooden cross. For He came to die an inglorious death for inglorious sinners. To that ugly throne He dragged all your phoniness and mistrust so that He might triumph over it in the resurrection and seat you with Him at God’s right hand.

And that’s just the king we needed: a crucified King. God’s Wisdom in the flesh. The Father’s reward for you. The King with the perfect heart, who by His precious blood has atoned for all your sins and given you entrance into an eternal Kingdom you could never earn or merit. The King, whose glory is not found in might, or gold, or many wives, but in being a faithful husband to one wife, to you, His beloved Church whom He has forgiven you all your sins and adorned with magnificence.

Just ponder those golden words of the King that were spoken to you in Holy Absolution: “I forgive you all your sins.” In Baptism, Christ has already adorned you with His righteous splendor and crowned you glory and honor. The King of heaven now calls sinners like you to this altar to eat His very body and to drink His very blood from the royal goblet, which imparts to you the forgiveness of sins, and enlivens you with courage to be His kingdom of priests for the sake of your neighbor. Indeed, remember this day that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But from that same dust you shall arise, because of the love of a crucified King, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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