The Reformed Church of Poughkeepsie, New York

What I will try to do this evening is connect two other passages to this one in what I hope is something that helps us prepare for the Lenten season.

James, the half-brother of Jesus provided pastoral leadership to a number of churches in a particular region. In his letter to them, which is found in the New Testament, he teaches them about what it means to follow Christ as Lord.

His major idea is this: Yes, we have salvation by faith alone, but faith is never alone! The grace that came to us works in us and through us. James then addresses specific issues within their lives that need to be addressed through repentance. He talks about the importance of a disciplined tongue: we should use our tongues to bless and build up and not to curse and tear down. A person influenced by Jesus should always repent of prejudice.

Finally, he deals with a major issue underneath the others. He says, “some of you know what is right to do, but you put off doing it. If you know something is right but do not do it, then that is a wrong.” He continues, “Some of you say that you’ll do this or that tomorrow, but you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Do it today.”

He makes another connection, “Your life is a mist. It is here momentarily, then it is gone.” Now is the only time you have to do what is right. Today is the day you have to amend your life, to change someone’s life with better treatment, and today is the only day you have to respond positively to the grace of God. That’s how important today is.

This is the word we need to hear in every season but especially Lent: do it today.

The next passage is from Exodus 33 with Moses speaking to God. The people have received the Law and God says, “Now, Moses, I want you to take these people to the land I promised Abraham.”

And Moses says, “Okay, I understand we need to leave, but this is the place where we have communed with you, worshipped you. Our lives have been changed here. So, we can go, but you’ve got to go with us, right? If you are not going to go with us, then don’t tell us to go.”

Okay. I’ll go with you.

Then, Moses, facing one of the most difficult personal challenges he’s ever faced says, “I want to know you are with me. Please show me your presence.”

God responds that Moses can’t see God’s own being, but that God will cause all of God’s goodness to pass by Moses. What I want to point out is that what Moses believes will sustain him is not the Law of do’s and don’ts. What will sustain Moses is the non-verbal, inexpressible presence of God. That God will be with Moses. He will abide with Moses. That God and Moses will be entangled. That is what will sustain you.

James tells us that tomorrow is not promised and that we should act today. Moses wants to act today but needs a sustaining force in his life. That sustaining, driving force is the presence of God.

When I place those two passages together I see that I need to know what is good, do what is good, knowing that God is with me, helping and sustaining me.

Let’s keep that in mind as we come to this passage from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6. Jesus is talking to his disciples who would have been very much aware of the three major spiritual acts of devotion in first-century Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, fasting.

Almsgiving is charitable giving that supports those who cannot support themselves. In the first-century Roman Empire, 97% of individuals lived subsistence. If one was unable to work or if tragedy befell a family, it is easy to see the need for assistance from others. There was no social safety next except for almsgiving.

Prayer is communication with God in which a person praises and gives thanks to God, asks God to act on their behalf or on behalf of others. This type of prayer Jesus is talking about is not liturgical prayers, but prayers in public as people would pray as they go.

Fasting is abstaining from something, usually food, partially through the day or for extended periods.

Jesus contrasts some errant behavior with what he wants his disciples to embody. Some liked to make a big show of their almsgiving by giving with pomp and circumstance. Some prayed, not quietly, but in a bombastic way so others would hear. Some fasted, but when they fasted they exaggerated indications of their efforts.

Jesus tells us that their motives are disordered. Their motives are to impress others and to increase their power and influence. They are doing it for an audience that rewards them with attention, therefore, they have received their reward.

Jesus then instructs his disciples that our disciplines should be done with a different motive. Like James and Moses suggested, we be content to do good things today knowing that God is with us, and therefore, it is irrelevant if anyone else knows what we are doing. God is with us. It’s not that God is our audience as if we are performing. Instead, God is there with us, helping, cultivating in us a distaste for wrong and a delight in good. Be content to do what you know is right and also be content that God is with you. God doesn’t have to be placated or impressed. You don’t have to move mountains or achieve great feats. Simply abide with God and trust as God allows you to become. If you give, give simply, generously, and with gratitude. You don’t have to hide from anyone when you drop off foodstuff in the entryways!

If you abstain or add something to your life, be thankful for what it teaches you. Let the act itself be enough. And, if this year, you need to forego fasting or abstaining, then enjoy Lent in a way that you think is fitting.

Friends, our life is a vapor. This Lenten season is an opportunity to do good while we can, knowing the Spirit of God graciously abides with and in us. And through the work of God and God’s stubborn love for us, we will be changed by degrees from glory to glory.

So, may God bless you this Lenten season. May the light of God light your path. May the peace of God settle the wars within you. May the truth of God correct your misunderstandings. And with Moses, may we see the goodness of God this year with our own eyes. Amen.

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