Britannia est parva insula. That is the sum total of my knowledge of Latin, which I took for one year in high school. It means, “Britain is a small island.”
I was taught Latin by a notoriously grouchy, deeply sarcastic yankee from Boston called Coach Hogan. If you’re from Boston, or Massachusetts—Ben Menard—I promise I’m not assuming that you’re anything like Coach Hogan. He was a piece of work… A brilliant man—rumored around the school to have gotten a perfect score on the SAT. He was asked about it one time. He replied, “If I did, do you really think I would be stuck here, teaching morons like you”—although I think that was his way of being humble.
Coach Hogan was a scourge to lazy students like me—because I was lazy about studying at the time.
Once, when only a small handful of students did the previous night’s homework—and I was not among that small handful, by the way—he had the goodstudents move their desks out in the hall, where he proceeded to teach them—leaving the rest of us in the classroom, wondering what the heck was going on. But as Coach Hogan explained, since we had proven we didn’t want to learn, he wasn’t going to teach us!
I feel confident I would love Coach Hogan today. In fact, a good friend of mine credits Coach Hogan with instilling discipline within him—ultimately enabling him to get into medical school and become a doctor. But I didn’t see it that way at the time.
And as a result, the sum total of my Latin knowledge is, “Britannia est parva insula.” “Britain is a small island.” Is it even true? Britain seems like a big island, but whatever…
One time, someone from the school system came and monitored his class and evaluated him, and Coach Hogan was an entirely different person while this other person was watching him—polite, considerate, respectful, patient. And I’m like, “Who is this person and what has he done with Coach Hogan?”
He was so obviously pretending to be someone he wasn’t for the sake of this person evaluating him. I wanted to say, “False advertising!”
There is a word that Jesus uses in tonight’s reading from Matthew that describes what Coach Hogan was doing when the evaluator was in the room: he was being a hypocrite. The Greek word literally refers to actors on stage wearing masks… It means pretending for the sake of others… The temptation to do so, Jesus warns, is especially strong when it comes to the activities Jesus describes in verse 1: “practicing righteousness before others.” He’s not saying there’s anything wrong with practicing our righteousness before others, in general—people will see us perform good works. That’s perfectly fine! The problem is our motivation for performing those works… And if we know someone is watching us, or if we know that someone will find out about what we’re doing—and then praise us for it, or think well of us, or think better of us… look out! The potential for sin is great!
By the way, I had a fierce lay leader in a church I served years ago named Hettie. How to describe her? She was a little bit like Coach Hogan, come to think of it! She did not suffer fools gladly; she had high expectations; and she was not shy about letting me know when I had failed to live up to them. God blessed me through Hettie’s ministry at that church… but as I’ve said before, God’s blessings sometimes hurt a little. This was the case with Hettie. But… she was good for me.
Sadly, she died suddenly and unexpectedly in January one year… the beginning of the new year. And later that year, our church was really struggling financially. This church always struggled financially, but it was worse than usual. And finally, the finance chair told me why it was worse than usual… He told me just how much Hettie tithed to the church, and the amount of our shortfall that year—surprise, surprise—was the amount she normally would have tithed if she had lived. I didn’t know… I’ve told you before it’s my policy not to know what church members give. Her daughter called to make a sizable donation from her estate around the end of that year. We were hurting financially. So I asked, “Would you mind if we applied a small portion of this donation to cover the amount of money that Hettie pledged to give the church this year. We could use it!”
And of course her daughter agreed, so… problem solved!
But do you know what I thought the moment I found out how much Hettie was tithing to our church? I thought, “If only I knew! Because if I knew, then I would have…” Dot, dot, dot.
I would have what? Been nicer to her? I would have treated her differently. I would have been more patient with her. I would have given her the benefit of the doubt more often. I would have deferred to her judgment more readily. I wouldn’t have been quite so cranky about the appointments she made to speak with me!
But don’t you see the problem?
If the thought, “I wish I had been kinder to Hettie” crossed my mind when I found out how much she gave to the church—and it did cross my mind—then, trust me, the solution to my kindness shortfall would not have been solved by “knowing how much money Hettie gave”! Even if it changed the way I treated her!
Does that make sense?
Because… I would have been play-acting… I would have been a hypocrite—just like Coach Hogan was a hypocrite when the evaluator from the school system showed up that day!
My point is, when I found out how much Hettie gave to the church, I should have instead fallen on my knees and thanked God that I didn’t know… Because he spared me from yet another sin… the sin of hypocrisy! At least on that occasion. I’m hypocritical plenty of other times in my life!
I am a mess. And I suspect you are, too—at least apart from God’s grace. Apart from God’s grace we all are a mess!
And that’s what this season of Lent, and this Ash Wednesday, is so good about showing us… at exposing within us… at revealing to us the extent to which we are a mess!
Especially, by the way, if you try to fast. I’m not talking about merely “giving something up.” I’m talking about the hard kind of fasting. From food! For instance, just try to skip a lunch some time during the next 40 days. Just a single meal! And I’m not talking about accidentally missing a meal because you’re so busy; that’s different. I mean, you tell yourself that morning, “Today I am going to skip lunch and devote that extra time to prayer and Bible reading.” Just try it! And see how kind you are to others, how patient you are with others, how joyful you feel… You will be mad at Jesus before your fasting comes to an end, I promise. Like, “Why is he doing this to me?”
You will probably also feel like a complete failure as a Christian on that particular day.
And when you feel like a failure, don’t blame it on the fact that you skipped a meal. Instead, tell yourself something like this: “The fact that I skipped this meal today did not cause me to act unkind, or impatient, or less than joyful… I wish it did! No, instead, my fasting brought to light the sin and the ugliness and the lack of faith that already resides within my heart!”
And therein lies the problem… What’s in our hearts… We have a dangerous heart condition…
In fact, let me show you one passage of scripture in the gospels that illustrates our dangerous heart condition. It comes from Luke chapter 10, verses 25 to 37. Most of you know the story already. You have a man on the side of the road who’s been beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two deeply religious people pass him by without stopping to help—a priest and a Levite. A Samaritan, by contrast, stops to help, at great risk to his life and safety, and at great personal expense.
Okay, so what’s the difference between the Samaritan and the two religious men? “Well, that’s easy, Pastor Brent: the Samaritan stopped to help and did these good things. The other two didn’t.” But that can’t be right. Because look at verse 33. There’s an important word: compassion. “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where [the injured man] was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”
So the compassion came before the Samaritan took any action.
The main difference isn’t anything that the Samaritan did; the main difference is something he possessed… in his heart. You can do all the good works you want… but you can’t change what’s in your heart. Not really. Not apart from God’s grace! And the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is the heart.
It’s not hard to do good things if what you’re doing is motivated by good stuff in here [point to heart].
If only we could fix what’s in here, then all the actions, all the good works, all the “practicing of righteousness,” would take care of itself!
And that’s what I want for all of us during this Season of Lent: Not that we would do difficult things that we don’t want to do but are supposed to be “good for us”… No, that’s not what Lent is about! Lent is about turning to Jesus and finding healing for this dangerous heart condition that you and I have.
And how does the healing start? It starts with the meaning behind this symbol that will soon be “imposed” with ashes on our foreheads in a few moments.
See, when you leave this place with the sign of the cross on your forehead, the last thing you should be thinking is, “Look how righteous I am! Somebody praise me and tell me how wonderful I am! I had to sit through this boring sermon by my pastor, after all. Give me credit!”
No, the cross on our foreheads should instead remind each of us, “Look how hopelessly messed up I am, how utterly unable I am to fix myself, how completely powerless I am to solve this problem in my heart—this problem with sin.”
“This cross means that I need Jesus to solve it for me!
“The cross means that Jesus took all of my sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for them—including hell itself—to save me from hell! And the cross means that I’m part of God’s family forever now; it means that all my sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven now; it means that God now loves me exactly as much as he loves his only begotten Son Jesus—and he proved his love for me by dying on the cross! It means that the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, now lives within me.”
And if the Holy Spirit is living within us—and as I said last Sunday, if you’re a Christian you can be sure that he is… if the Holy Spirit lives within us, that means that God intends to keep on healing us until we are made completely perfect… maybe that won’t happen until the moment we reach heaven, but we can be sure it will happen! We can even be sure that God is in the process of healing us right now, as we continue to repent of our sins and trust in Christ!
God is not finished with us!
We read from Joel chapter 2 earlier. The people of Israel are facing a life-or-death threat from a natural disaster—a swarm of locusts, in this case, who are bringing drought, destruction, potential starvation. Israel perceives, correctly, that God is using these locusts to judge them for their sins… But the prophet Joel also knows something about God’s character: he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” 1
And because that’s who God is, Joel tells the people, “Who knows? Perhaps [God] will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse.” And God does relent from punishing the people, of course. The people repent and the crisis is averted.
But I like that word “perhaps.” Perhaps God will give you a reprieve… Perhaps God will send you a blessing instead of this curse.”
But listen… Joel wrote those words before the cross. We read them with the hindsight of the cross.
Because of the cross there is no longer any “perhaps.” The perhaps has been taken away! Removed. Wiped out. Obliterated. There’s no doubt about it: If you’re a child of God through faith in his Son, God not only has the power to heal you, he wants to heal you, and he will heal you… as you continue to trust in him.
Let’s enter this 40-day season believing and praying and expecting that God will heal us.
I’ll close with this, I promise… But in Luke chapter 10, we read the familiar story of Mary and Martha, the two sisters who invite Jesus and his disciples into their home. Martha is preparing a meal for the men, and she’s stressed out… as we often are when we’re entertaining guests in our home. And her sister, Mary, is no help at all!
Mary has the nerve to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him teach her while Martha is doing all the hard work! Martha doesn’t know why Jesus is even letting her sit there. She tells Jesus, “Tell my sister to help me, Jesus!”
And Jesus tells her no, he’s not going to do it. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” 2
We’ve all heard sermons about how we’re either a “Mary” or a “Martha”; both are good, both are necessary; churches need both.
But I’m sorry… that’s not Jesus’ message at all! He is lovingly and affectionately rebuking Martha. He isn’t saying, “What you’re doing is fine. Keep on doing it.” No, he’s saying, “What Mary is doing is better than what you’re doing! Be more like her! Spend more time listening to me! So I can help you and heal you—and give you what you need!”
That’s my invitation to you during this season: Make more time to be with Jesus. You actually have no higher priority. Jesus says so! It often seems like there are other, more urgent tasks to be done. But there aren’t!
Choose Jesus! Choose the “good portion.” Let him heal you!
When you come in a moment to have these ashes imposed on your forehead, let your be something like this: “Lord, I believe that you want to heal me, and I ask you right now and I believe that you will. Make it so! Thank you, Lord!”