Ash Wednesday

Shhh! It’s a Secret!

Saint Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

I’d like to tell you a little real life Ash Wednesday story about a dad and his young son. The two of them, along with Mom, were at home getting ready to set off for Church, for the Ash Wednesday service. Before leaving, Dad wanted to make sure that his son understood that ashes would be put on his forehead at the service. “I know,” the boy replied, “and I can hardly wait!” “Really?” the puzzled father exclaimed. “Why’s that?” And then came this unexpected and remarkable insight: “This is the one day in the year that we get to see the cross made on our foreheads in baptism. All the rest of the time, it’s a secret!”

Out of the mouth of babes, right? This young fellow, you see, was able to grasp an important truth about the Christian faith that probably most believers never even stop to consider. The Christian faith is a secret thing—oh, not like some sort of secret society in which the things that go on within it are hushed up to protect some nefarious purpose, but secret in the sense of divine mystery, which is what our Lord Jesus, in the Revelation, calls everything that has to do with the salvation and judgment of the human race. He calls it a mystery—a secret.

In tonight’s Holy Gospel, our Lord Jesus also highlights this understanding of the Christian faith in words that He preaches in His Sermon on the Mount. Six times He uses the word “secret,” both to describe the believer in his or her life of faith and in reference to God.

Now, this idea of faith being secret in nature is something that was not a part of what was conventionally taught by the teachers of Israel back then. The scribes and Pharisees set an example of openness for others to follow. Actually, the example they gave went beyond openness. I think, more accurately, you could call it overt and ostentatious, or just plain showing off. Jesus, while not referring to the scribes and Pharisees by name, choosing rather to call them hypocrites, says that before giving to the needy they would have trumpets sounded, to make sure that no one would miss out on seeing their great generosity. Or when they pray, Jesus says, these hypocrites also make sure that everyone sees them by praying at the street corner or up front and center in the synagogue. And in fasting, the hypocrites would, as Jesus says, “disfigure their faces”—likely with makeup, making themselves look gaunt and nothing but skin and bones, so that this great religious deed of theirs would be noticed by all.

The same teachers of Israel also taught that God did His thing out in the open, for all to see, too. They said that if a person was rich and healthy and powerful in the things of this world, it was because God had openly acknowledged and rewarded the person’s goodness. Conversely, if someone was poor and sickly or suffered physically in any way, it was because God was showing His displeasure toward the person’s sin and wickedness.

To all of this—both with regard to believers and to God—Jesus essentially says, “This isn’t the way it is.” He declares to the people listening to His sermon, “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 in heaven.” He also tells them that, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God will reward you, Jesus says, if you give in secret, without letting “your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” He’ll reward you if you pray in secret, so go into your room and shut the door when you pray. And when you fast, “anoint your head and wash your face.” In other words, give the appearance that you aren’t fasting. Keep it a secret between you and “your Father who sees in secret,” and He “will reward you.”

Notice that Jesus does not place an injunction against doing good works that help your neighbour, or against worship and prayer, or against personal discipline, which Saint Paul refers to as “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Rather, He places an injunction against any idea, any thought, that the reward that God gives is the result of anything that you might do. The “why” of the reward that God gives is the secret of the Christian faith.

It’s secret not because we dare not speak of it. The Psalmist says, “Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” And just prior to His ascension, Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations. There’s nothing secret in that. The secret thing of the Christian faith is how the mercy and grace of God is such a mystery to those who do not believe. More than that, it’s folly to them; it’s foolishness, for it’s their belief that reward comes only to those who do something to deserve it. That’s the way it is in this sinful world of ours. But it’s not the way it is with God, who freely gives the everlasting reward of His mercy and grace even though we don’t deserve anything but His temporal and eternal punishment. The loving way of God completely passes all understanding for those blinded by sinful unbelief. The Gospel is, therefore, the great mystery of all time, the secret that God chooses to reveal and make known only through faith.

The little boy who told his father how excited he was to have the cross of ashes put on his forehead understood, through the faith that the Holy Spirit had worked in him, that his life, marked by the cross of Christ, is really only seen by his Father in heaven who sees in secret. His earthly father and mother, his friends, his Sunday School teacher, his pastor, and everyone else, can only observe in him what the Bible calls “the outward appearance.” God is the only one who can see the heart. This is why our Lord Jesus says to keep your good works secret, for the Father, who sees them in secret, knows; He knows and He will give His reward—not for the works, but for the faith in Christ, through which the good works are done. The only reward received by the person who shows off his good works is the sort of treasure that moths and rust destroy—that thieves break in and steal. It doesn’t last, and in the end, it is of absolutely no value or worth at all. Rather, as Jesus says, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

During this holy season of Lent, which begins today, we join our Lord Jesus in our hearts, through faith, as He sets His face toward Jerusalem and His cross of suffering, pain, and death, through which the Father gives us the eternal reward of our salvation. And, as always, this time of Lenten reflection upon the cross of Christ is also a time of repentance for you and me and all believers. Throughout Lent we prayerfully consider what it means, as we heard in the Old Testament Reading tonight, to “return to the Lord your God,” who Himself says, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Repentance, dear friends, is the rending of your heart, which, unlike the rending of garments, is seen only by God. It, too, is a secret known only by Him who sees in secret. Only the Lord knows if you have truly torn away from your attachment to sin and truly desire to be done with it. Only the Lord knows if the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings in His Word and Sacraments is truly received in faith.

You can examine your heart to see if your repentance is genuine, but if I were you, I would not trust in what you find. The devil, you see, makes a point of trying to hide this truth from you, either by bringing doubt and causing you to question your faith or by leading you to think that repentance is something less than the rending of your heart and the turning away from sin. So, as you think on your life of repentance and faith, don’t look to yourself—don’t try to find the truth within. Rather, look to your baptism and see in that glorious washing away of sin and renewal in the Holy Spirit that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” It’s His job, and not yours, to work repentant faith in your heart.

The Holy Spirit, working through the Word of Christ, convicts you of your sin and brings you to true repentance. It’s another of God’s secret things. And while you don’t see Him doing it, Christ has given you signs, to which you may point and say, “Yes, God is at work for me, giving me forgiveness, life, and salvation.” The saving work of God is presently unseen, but the means of His grace are before you in His Word and Sacraments to keep you in the saving faith unto life everlasting. When Saint Peter says to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure,” it’s to Christ’s Word and His sacraments that he is directing you. “For in this way,” the apostle says, “there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” God grant you His grace now, in this season of Lent, and always, in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.