Ash Wednesday sermon: “Failing at Lent”

March 6, 2014


Sermon Text: Matthew 6:25-34

The following is my original manuscript for last night’s Ash Wednesday message.

Matthew McConaughey, who won an Oscar this week for Best Actor, gave an incredibly gracious, sweet, and faith-filled acceptance speech. Among other things, he thanked God, saying, saying, “He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any human hand.” Then he thanked his family in a moving way. Then he said something that was confusing to some people but made perfect sense to me. He said that when he was 15 he was asked by someone who his hero was. He thought about it before answering, “My hero is me… ten years from now.” And that person came back to him ten years later, when he was 25: “So, are you a hero?” and he was like, “No! Not even close! My hero is still me… ten years from now.” So he said that while he’ll never catch up with that hero, he’ll also never stop chasing him.

He was saying this: build your life in such a way that ten years from now you will be worthy of being a hero to your younger self. In other words, if the younger version of yourself could see yourself today, would you be a hero to him or her?

Do you care to take that challenge? Would my 34-year-old version of myself look at me today and think I’m a hero? If not, why not? What about you?

Back in October 2010, there were some articles and newspaper stories commemorating John Lennon’s 70th birthday. So I was thinking about Lennon’s life and death when it hit me: At 40 years and nine months, I was several months older in October 2010 than Lennon was when he was murdered. It was a startling realization… And I’ll be honest: It made me feel old. Worse, it made me feel inadequate. I know it’s a ridiculous comparison, but I couldn’t help making it: Look at all John Lennon accomplished in less time than I’ve lived, and I’ve barely even gotten out of the gate! I had hardly even started my life by the time John Lennon’s was over, and what do I have to show for it?

Again, it’s a ridiculous comparison… For one thing, few people alive today can touch Lennon when it comes to making an impact on history and culture—and it’s not all our fault. In addition to being very talented, he was in the right place at the right time. For another thing… his professional and artistic success didn’t tell the whole story of the man. For most of his 40 years, Lennon’s personal life was a train wreck. And he hardly had it together, spiritually speaking.

I can tell myself how unfair it is to make these sorts of comparisons until I’m blue in the face, but nothing I tell myself will convince me. I’m the kind of man who is impressed by accomplishments. Outward accomplishments—things other people can see and judge, things to which I can attach dollar signs. Accolades. Achievements. Awards. Recognition. Material success. These are things I tend to value in the dark recesses of my heart. These are the things—going back to Sunday’s sermon—with which I try to fill up my spiritual tank.

The problem is that these things can never fill up our tanks. We all know that, right? If I imagine, for example, that material success would fill up my tank, what level of success could possibly do the trick? I see that Bill Gates is back on top as the world’s wealthiest man. Would I be satisfied if I had Bill Gates’s money? I doubt it, because if I had Bill Gates’s money, then I’d crave something else… Maybe public adoration? “Why don’t people love me the way they loved Steve Jobs?” You see what I mean?

There are probably a few of you who try to fill up your tanks with weight loss. Right? And you say, “If I could only lose 15 pounds! Then I’d finally be happy with the way I looked.” But would you really? Because if you try to fill up your tanks by losing weight, by the time you lost that 15 pounds, there would be something else to make you dissatisfied with the way you look! I saw a documentary once on eating disorders, and they interviewed these frighteningly thin young women who reported looking in the mirror and still seeing themselves as overweight! These women may literally die trying to lose 5 or 10 more pounds. It’s never enough!

Of course, for the anorexic, for the alcoholic, for the drug addict, this desperate desire to fill up one’s tank with the wrong kind of fuel is obviously destructive—everyone can see how destructive it is. So we might get a bit smug or self-righteous. Most of us, after all, manage to keep our own addictions, our own sins, our own harmful desires, hidden from sight. If they don’t physically destroy us—and they probably won’t—they’ll at least pose a grave spiritual threat to us…


Unless we heed the words of our Lord in today’s scripture. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Jesus’ point is that these creatures find everything they need in God alone, and God alone feeds them and clothes them and gives them everything they need to survive—and thrive. And why would it be any different for us human beings? After all, we are far more valuable to God than these other creatures. Why do we not think that God will give us what we need? Why do we imagine that something other than God and the things of God can possibly fill up our tanks—can possibly satisfy that God-shaped vacuum within our hearts?

We used to have a veterinarian who was a deeply Christian man, and he would say, “Your cat’s just being who God created her to be.” “Your dog is just being who God created him to be.” They don’t even have to try, in other words And they were perfect just the way they were!

We, on the other hand, are not perfect just the way we are. And isn’t that what the season of Lent reminds us over and over again. Say, for example, that we choose, as many people do, to fast from food one day a week during Lent—this would be a 24-hour fast. You skip two meals and all in-between snacking. You drink water during that time, but you don’t eat food. I have fasted enough to know how difficult it is. Often, when I set out to fast—even for 24 measly hours—I fail. But for me personally, there’s something worse than failing at my 24-hour fast.

You know what’s worse than failing? Succeeding at my 24-hour fast.

Years ago, back when Joe Johnson was playing for the Hawks, this shooting guard was famous for taking 3-point shots he had no business taking. And Chris Dimino, a very smart sports talk commentator, said, “You know what’s worse that Joe Johnson missing a 3-pointer? Joe Johnson making a 3-pointer.” His point was, every time he makes the shot, he’ll just have that much more incentive to take it again!

So it’s the same with me and fasting: If I succeed, I can pat myself on the back, and feel very proud of myself for being so disciplined.

I seem pretty hopeless, don’t I? I often fail when I try, and when I succeed I fail because I let spiritual pride creep in. So the whole experience of fasting or “giving something up” often teaches me that I’m hopeless.

But here’s the surprising good news: maybe that’s the point.

Mark Galli, a writer and editor at Christianity Today, puts it like this:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

But Galli belongs to a church like ours that observes Lent, and he gladly participates. Why does he do it? He writes:

I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

I know many of you are giving something up for Lent. And at least a couple of you are giving up coffee for Lent. I know Kyle King is one of them because he posted it on Facebook! So we all need to be in prayer for Susan, Thomas, and Elizabeth. O.K.? They’re probably going to sacrifice more than Kyle!

Let me give you some advice: whatever you’re giving up, however you are fasting, expect failure. And that’s perfectly O.K.

And while you’re giving that thing up, I want to ask all of us to give something else up: guilt.

Let’s give up guilt this season.

Are you surprised to hear me say that? Now, there is a good kind of guilt—a short-term kind, and this is the conviction of sin: Maybe through this season, God will uncover within us some ugly sin that we’ve kept hidden away, and we confront the ugly truth of our sin. When that happens, we may feel guilty. But what do we do with that guilt? We confess our sin, and when we do, we will find a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” He’ll forgive us, and when he does, we move on.

But let’s please stop beating ourselves up because we’re sinners… because we’re not perfect!

Because, as Mark Galli said, Lent helps us remember that we are dust, and weak, and desperately need of a Savior. And the good news is we have one. And what a Savior he is! We don’t have to be perfect because our Lord Jesus Christ was perfect… for us. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God our Father on our behalf, so that we’re not saved by our own perfection, but by his. And he loved us so much, each and every one of us, that he died on a cross for the sake of that love—and when he died he erased the guilt of every sin we commit—past, present, and future.

So, if Lent reminds us what terrible sinners we are, well, it also needs to remind us what an amazing Savior we have! Amen?

I asked you earlier if you took the Matthew McConaughey “hero test,” how would you measure up. If the 34-year-old version of myself saw me today, he would not see a hero by any stretch. But by the grace of God—by the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit—I promise you I’m closer than I was at 34, or 37, or 40, or 43… And somehow even I can say that without feeling proud about it.

Instead, I feel very grateful to have a Lord and Savior who loves me so much that he not only forgives me of my sin, but won’t leave me alone until he changes me from within!

If you know that you are loved by a Savior, can I get an Amen? If you know that nothing in this world can separate you form his love, can I get a Hallelujah! If you believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you will be closer to being a hero next year, and the year after that, and five years from now, and ten years from now, than you are today, can I get a Glory Hallelujah?


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