Summary: The word we hate the most is "no" and yet practicing Lenten disciples of fasting, praying, and giving can enrich us when we say "no" to the world and "yes" to God.
Introduction: The passage we will read tonight is the traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It focuses our attention on the three disciplines of Lent: Praying, Fasting, and Giving. You will hear each one described. Tonight we’re going to discuss how to practice those disciplines. Hear now the word of the Lord:
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the churches, synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the churches, synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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 whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Prayer: Lord God, We have so much to learn and so many spiritual practices to renew. We bow our heads humbly before you. As we begin our Lenten journey, guide us to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow you. May your Word take hold of our souls in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We love instant gratification. We don’t want to wait for anything. We want everything right now. The trouble is that Lent is a season of waiting and fasting. Being forced to wait and expected to deny ourselves is repugnant to us. As a result, Lent isn’t the most popular season.
I think the reason prayer, giving alms, and fasting are not easy to do is that in a way each involves giving something up. Prayer involves giving time and power to God. Giving alms means sharing our money. Fasting is giving up food. For years, I’ve found myself in the unpopular position of saying you can’t replace the idea of giving up something with just taking on something good. The spiritual disciplines of Lent are built on the reality that we need to give something away in order to have space and time for God. For most of us, a promise to pray more can’t be fulfilled if we don’t find some extra time.
Let’s face it: Prayer, giving, and fasting aren’t popular. I’m not sure they ever were, even in Jesus’ time. What was popular then and is popular today is showing off and Jesus has some words to say about that.
Whether he is talking about prayer, giving, or fasting, Jesus says don’t be showy about it. Practice your spiritual disciplines in secret. A pastor named John Purdy speaks about our tendency for self-aggrandizement. He says:
“Fasting can be a form of body praying… [But] fasting has nearly ceased to be practiced among us as a religious duty. It has been replaced by other forms of self-denial. One of the most common of those among us is dieting, which is largely cosmetic and therapeutic. What is there to say about it? Perhaps only this: How much happier we should all be if persons who diet would just shut up about it!...The couplet that used to be quoted to those who quit smoking could well be modified and recited for dieters:
‘Giving up eating too much isn’t enough,
It’s giving up bragging about it that’s tough.’”
[John C. Purdy, “Returning God’s Call, 51]
The first message from Jesus about praying, giving, and fasting is don’t be showy about it. Go about the business of praying, giving, and fasting quietly.
I believe that prayer is very important, but I don’t believe that prayer in public places or with friends who would be self-conscious is a good idea. Ostentations prayer can turn off those you hope may some day become Christians. What I suggest is that if you are in a restaurant and would like to pray inconspicuously, simply drop your head and pretend you are checking your napkin. I said that once from the pulpit when I was in New Jersey. A friend from that congregation told me just the other day how often she uses that tip.