This new season that we are beginning is a spiritually rich time.
It is a time to grow in faith.
Faith is belief in God and trust in God.
Faith is having confidence in God’s promises.
God promises to be with us and to walk with us in life.
God’s promises to save us from death and to save us for eternal life.
God promises to give us love and grace even now.
During the next forty days we will be examining our lives, we will be confessing our sins, and we will be growing in faith.
To grow in faith is to be encouraged by the Holy Spirit.
It is the Spirit moving in us that causes us to grow in faith.
The Spirit creates that new growth in us.
As we do the work this Lent to open our minds, hearts, and souls to God we have faith that the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
This Lent we will respond to God’s gift of faith and the Spirit will grow our faith.
In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther instructs us with these words:
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”
The Holy Spirit keeps us in the true faith.
What does this mean?
It means that God is the one that keeps us grounded in our faith and God is the one who ignites our growth in the faith.
Our job is to respond to the Spirit’s call in the Gospel, the Spirits gifts in us, and the work of the Spirit in our hearts.
But it is God who does this life-giving work in and through us.
In Matthew chapter six Jesus teaches us what it means to be pure of heart when it comes to practicing our faith.
When we do the work of living out our faith, we do it with humble hearts knowing all the while that it is God who grows faith.
If this is true, which we believe it is, then there is no reason to be showy or prideful when it comes to our faith lives.
When we give an offering to the church we do so out of love and gratitude to the Lord.
We do not give an offering in order to be praised by others.
That is why Jesus tells us to keep our giving a secret so that others don’t even know what we are giving.
We give generously because our hearts are so moved by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit inside of us.
Giving is connected to our spiritual lives. We give because God is in our hearts.
When we pray, we do so out of our desire to know the Lord and to ask for his blessings for us and for God’s blessings for others.
We do not pray in order to get or to take something but to receive what God has to offer.
With humble hearts we graciously receive what God gives.
We trust that God hears the prayers of God’s people.
When we fast, we do so in order to identify more closely with the sufferings of the poor and the hungry and also to deepen our spiritual lives.
Fasting is a powerful spiritual practice that can help us to align ourselves with God’s will.
Fasting helps us to put God first and our needs second.
By doing so we come to understand on a deeper level that God is the source of all good things including food and also all the things that we have.
All the good things that we have… a home to live in, a car to drive, clothes… all of these things come as a gift from God.
We do not fast in order to gain the approval of others.
We fast in order to grow in our faith lives.
When we put our faith into action with right motives and right intentions than we store up for ourselves treasures not on earth but treasures in heaven.
Will we always have right motives and intentions when it comes to practicing our faith in our day to day lives.
No, of course not.
We will sin.
We will have pride in the way that we practice our faith before others.
We will think that we are the ones that are causing the growth in our faith -that it is us and not God.
We will think… wow! I am growing in faith. I am a really spiritual person. I am more spiritual than my neighbor.
We will become judgmental of others who are not as spiritual or faithful.
We will forget that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we have faith and can grow in faith at all.
When we use our faith to gain power, or influence, or wealth, or control we sin.
But in smaller ways too we can use our faith in ways that are not true to the Gospel.
This is why we have this service today.
On Ash Wednesday we turn back to God in repentance and in true faith.
On this day we name all of our sins and we pray that we can still grow in faith in a way that is pleasing to God.
Now there is nothing sinful about feeling good about one’s faith or in speaking well about one’s faith or in being excited in telling others about one’s growth in faith.
This is good and healthy.
The problem comes when we think that we can become like God.
The problem comes when we think that our actions and our good works and our beliefs will save us.
The problem comes when practicing our faith before others is more important than practicing our faith so that we might know God more fully and so that we might love God more fully.
When we forget about God we then make God into our own image.
This is idolatry and it is the first sin mentioned in the Bible.
When we try to become like God and work to fashion God into our own image we then turn away from God and from God’s ways.
God has made us in God’s image.
We are people with holiness and love within us.
Holiness and divity is in our DNA because we are made in God’s image.
God is our creator.
But it is never the other way around.
We did not create God.
We do not grow in faith.
God causes us to grow in faith.
This is the point of Jesus’ teachings in the reading for today.
We practice our faith because the Holy Spirit is moving in our hearts.
We practice our faith because we love God.
We practice our faith because faith is that which gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
We practice our faith because we are baptized people of God.
When we turn from these truths we are to repent and to turn back to God and to God’s grace.
This Lent we trust in God’s free gift of grace and faith.
Grace is a gift. So too is faith.
God will give us the grace to grow in faith this Lent.
God will give us trusting and believing hearts to put our faith into action.
But we do so not for show never for that reason as Jesus warns us here but we do so because we love the Lord.
We give alms, we pray, and we fast as an expression of a soul that has already been touched by the Holy Spirit.
Giving of alms, praying, and fasting are traditional ways that Christians practice their faith.
Jesus is teaching us here that when you do these things do them only if your heart is first right with God.
And then and only then can you put your faith into action in a way that delights God.
When you have God on your mind, when you have no desire to please others, and when you know that it is the Holy Spirit that creates faith than you are ready to grow in your faith.
How do we get to this place?
This is a life long process in our faith journeys.
It is a process that begins at the time of your baptism and ends on the day of your death.
Each and every day we are to continue in the work of examining our hearts and if our desire is to please God or if it is to please others.
There is nothing wrong with wanting others to approve of what we do but we must remember that first we are to seek God’s approval.
Lastly, don’t ever forget there is always grace for you and for me.
In grace we repent and we turn back to God’s true ways again and again and again and in this amazing grace we find that we are forgiven.
This is the meaning and purpose of Lent.
Repentance, turning back to God, growing in faith, seeking the Lord with humble hearts, and in receiving God’s grace.
For the next five Wednesdays of Lent I invite you on a spiritual journey.
It is journey of exploring what the practice of faith is all about.
I will be learning with you as I spend extra time meditating on and pondering the gift of faith.
The first Wednesday of Lent beginning next week we will be hearing a sermon of caring for the bodies that God has given us so that we can have the energy to do what God is calling us to do.
The next Wednesday we will explore what God is calling us to do. How do we hear and discern the will of God in our lives? Together we will ask the question, what is God’s will?
The third Wednesday we will hear a sermon on service and on what it means to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. God’s will is to extend God’s kingdom. How do we go about doing kingdom work in the world and in our community?
The fourth Wednesday we will be reflecting upon what it means to give our worries and our concerns to God. As we do the Lord’s work in the world, we encounter many challenges and obstacles. We have much to worry about and to be concerned about. How do we give to God our cares and our worries?
And lastly, as we grow in faith and as we live our faith in the world how do we make the most of the time that God has given us? Time goes fast. Are we using our time in a way that honors the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
This Lent one of my spiritual disciplines will be in praying for each one of you. I will be praying that we will grow in faith and that we might continue to grow as a church.
I have faith that we can recover from COVID and from what COVID has done to our congregation.
I have faith that we can continue being a blessed church in our community.
May God bless us as we look to the work of the Holy Spirit moving within us causing us to grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Lord.
May God richly bless us these next forty days so that we can feel and know in a deeper way the wonder, the beauty and even the mystery of what it means to have faith in God.