How do we grow closer to God?
This is the question of lent.
This is the idea behind Ash Wednesday and the forty days from now until Easter.
It is really the question we should be asking all the days of our lives, but the church in the 3rd and 4th century decided that the 40 days before Easter should be a time of fasting and prayer.
Why fasting and prayer?
Because Christians had become complacent in their faith.
They had stopped relying on God instead God became a crutch to lean on, but not a factor in everyday lives.
Lent is a time to reevaluate our lives in light of our faith.
Tonight we heard the words remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Hard words to hear.
They remind us of the fragile nature our lives, of our limitations as human beings.
They are meant also to draw us closer to God, to have God be the one on whom we place our trust.
We are dust, and we will die, but my faith is not based on my ability to keep living rather it is based on God’s ability to save me.
This evening’s readings are about us returning our lives to God.
They are about growing closer with God and learning to trust God in all things.
Joel tells us to “return to the Lord, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
St. Paul tells us “not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
But to let God be the center and focus of our lives.
And Jesus reminds us that nothing we do is kept from God.
That what we do in secret is still seen by God.
That everything in our lives even our inner motives are known by God and examined in God’s light.
We simply cannot run from God.
Eventually God will find us and God will capture us.
For those of you who have come this evening I suspect that you are already deep into your life of faith.
I suspect that you already know God.
That prayer, giving, and sacrificing is already something you practice in your life.
And the question is how will you grow closer to God this Lenten season?
How will you return to God who is merciful and loving?
How will you guard your faith from taking God’s grace in vain?
This is why we have Lenten disciplines.
It is why we give up stuff for lent.
I believe that our reasons for giving things up matter.
This is what Jesus is telling the people who came to hear his sermon on the mount.
It matters why we do things.
If we pray just to be seen and heard then our prayers are empty.
If we give money just to make ourselves look good or to save face then what does it matter.
If we fast just to impress others who cares?
Because then none of it is done to grow closer to God but only to show off or indulge our selves.
And the same is true for us today.
Why we give things up for lent matters.
We have to do it because it will draw us closer to God.
The good thing about having a wife who works and is not a pastor is that I get to hear stories about people who are not so religious and their struggles with God.
When we lived in NY my wife would tell me about the other people at her work who thought that she was crazy because she ate meat on Fridays during lent.
They all gave up meat on Fridays because that is what they were brought up to do.
Keep in mind most of these people did not attend church except Easter and Christmas, but they believed that eating meat on Fridays during lent was a sin.
But they didn’t know why.
In other words they did not know the reason why they gave up meat.
It did not draw them closer to God.
That is why we give things up for lent, because it hopefully draws us closer to God.
Most people in lent give up things they should give up anyway.
They give up chocolate, cigarettes, overeating, overspending.
And in most cases they don’t know why, or their motives are selfish.
They just do it because that is what you do.
Let me say that it does not matter what we give up or don’t give up for lent.
What matters is what it does to us in our faith life.
If not eating chocolate reminds you that God is the foundation of your life.
If not smoking helps you to somehow see God’s mercy.
Then by all means do it.
But if not eating chocolate is a way to lose weight or not smoking makes you healthier than they are not helpful Lenten disciplines.
Those things are good to do, because they make you healthier, but they are really helping your faith life.
They are not really drawing us closer to God.
You are doing them out of selfish motives, and that is really the problem of sin.
It is what we are trying to avoid being me focused so we can be more God focused.
And that is what Lent is all about.
It is not about merely feeling bad about ourselves.
It is not about being sad.
It is not about following some tradition that you grew up with.
It is not even about making ourselves better people.
It is about God, about returning to God, about remembering his mercy and grace.
It is about God’s love and care for us.
It is about our baptism and what God did for us in our baptisms.
About remembering that in our baptism we tied our life to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is about remembering that everything we do, say, and look at is seen by God good and bad.
Lent is about drawing closer to God.
That may seem easy.
It may seem like I am letting everyone off the hook by saying “You don’t have to do anything for lent.”
Making God the center of our lives is not easy.
It leads us to do some pretty difficult things.
What St. Paul tells the church in Corinth is that his faith led him to afflictions, hardships, beatings, imprisonments, hunger, and sleepless nights.
When we give our lives into God’s hands, when we totally trust God for all things and in all things, then our lives get a lot more complicated.
Because we lose fear and we begin to act boldly for God in the world.
What we all know is that acting for God in the world is difficult.
It is not always met with the high praise and glory.
Jesus knew this best.
Jesus’ actions for God lead to the cross.
Jesus in faith gave his whole life to God.
Lent is about us doing the same.
It is about remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
We can’t depend on ourselves we need God.
And that is what ultimately draws us closer to God.
So as we leave Ash Wednesday with the mark of the cross on our forehead as we begin our Lenten journeys let us grow closer to God.
Let us grow in faith.
So that we leave everything in our lives to God’s merciful and loving hands, and do not take the grace of God in vain.