Self-Righteousness or Christ-Righteousness
February 17, 2021 Pastor: Rev. George Fyler
Matthew 6,1-6, 16-21 ~ Self-righteous or Christ-righteous?
Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-19; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10)
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1)
In the name of the Father and of the (X) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear beloved of the Lord:
It is proper for you to consider the condition of your righteous before God. It is not proper being righteous for the wrong reasons. In fact, if you think you are righteous or trying to be righteous but for the wrong reasons, then truly you are not righteous at all, but self-righteous. Self-righteousness is, at its heart, selfishness, pride, and sin of the worst kind. You are only concerned with others insofar as they can advance your own righteousness and standing before others and before God. As you heard from your Lord (St. Matthew 6), the giving of alms, prayers, fasting, and whatever else you do in this self-righteous way receives no regard from God at all. The false praise for your piety and the phony pats on the back are all the reward you will receive.
Of this … we are all guilty! If you think that statement too strong, or think it not true, and want to protest it and proclaim your innocence — is that not proving the point? It is self-righteousness that admits no fault, no wrong. Self-righteousness wants others to consider our motives pure. Self-righteousness wants others to think us righteous, and pure, and holy, and good. Self-righteousness seeks the praise of others. Tonight, Jesus says, beware of this — because it is in you. It is in all men and women since the days of Adam.
The forty-day Lenten season has a longstanding tradition in the Church closely derived from the contents of Holy Scripture. As Christ prepared for Good Friday and the Resurrection, so too the Church tethered to the life of Christ through the liturgical calendar follows her Lord. The biblical narrative moves the Church to emulate and, therefore, externalize the narrative of her Savior’s journey to Jerusalem to accomplish redemption where something is lost (sin) and something is gained (resurrection life). Lent engages the Church and each Christian in the rhythm and patterns of sanctification: Death to sin and the pursuit of holiness. Lent promotes an intensive time for the baptized to live as the baptized according to the pattern of Romans 6:1-7: we are dead to sin and alive to God.
Tonight, Jesus says, beware … and repent! Offer no pious explanations, excuses, self-justifications, or extenuating circumstances. Offer no good works or pious activities to balance your fault and guilt. Come before God empty-handed, as in the days of the prophet Joel, when penitents had nothing to offer God; no grain and no wine to offer as a sacrifice. Come in the repentance that rends the heart and implores: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” (Lk 18:13)
For this is what God desires most of all, for this is the road to righteousness. Righteousness not of the “self” variety, but of the “Christ” variety. That is, with nothing — no godliness, no holiness, no righteousness to offer God; but comes seeking that Christ make us godly with His godliness, holy with His holiness, and righteous with His righteousness. That it be as we heard earlier from St. Paul: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Righteous, in Him — that’s the true and only righteousness of Jesus Christ. Or to put what Paul said in other words: He [Jesus] became the sin that we are, that we might become the righteousness He is.
This is the call that goes out to us this night. “Return to the Lord your God.” Why? “For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” For He has not only promised His righteousness for the forgiveness of our sins but has done it — signed, sealed, and delivered. Signed in His Word, sealed by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, and delivered now through His means of grace — His Word and Sacraments — so that it may be ours. That we are not self-righteous, but Christ-righteous.
And so, He bids you to come. Come, return, repent, and receive the forgiveness and righteousness He has for you. The forgiveness and righteousness He won for you in His death and resurrection. The forgiveness and righteousness that makes you godly, holy, and His!
So, why don’t we? Oh, certainly, tonight we are here! But is this the exception or the rule? What keeps us from repentance at other times? Is it the joys of our sin? (Because we really don’t want to stop and change our ways!) Maybe? Is it the shame of our sin? (Thinking we’re too far gone and it’s just going to be too hard to stop!) That’s another possibility. Or is it the busy-ness of life? (And so, we never seem to get around to it.) Or is it that old self-righteousness welling up inside of us, that dulls and blunts our hearts and minds so that we do not feel the need? That makes us think we’re not so bad — ‘just keep plugging, keep trying, keep improving’ we tell ourselves.
Maybe it’s all the above, as Satan pulls our strings, blinds our eyes, and strokes our egos. Beware! … Tonight, the call goes out. Return … “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend[ing] your hearts and not your garments.” Pray that this becomes a habitus, a regular practice, with us imploring God to work in our hearts by grace through faith in Christ to keep us strong in Him.
We return, not to give; but in repentance, to receive the promises of God. First, in the Gospel, we received the wonderful words of the Absolution: I forgive you all your sins. And then at the Altar/Table, to receive His New Testament; to eat and drink the body and blood of the One who became sin for us, that we may become as He is. And then later tonight, return to your baptism, when you go home and wash those ashes off your forehead. As you do, remember the holy cross that was first traced on that very same spot, by water and the Word, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, when you were born again from above. When you received the gifts of faith and sonship. When you were given the promise of eternal life — that ashes to ashes, and dust to dust would no longer be your end! But resurrection to everlasting life in the One who came and died and rose for you.
Having received such righteousness and godliness, you can practice it. Not to be seen by others, and not for God, but as it is — a gift. For those are the good works well-pleasing to your Father in Heaven. Works born of faith and forgiveness — works done not in self-righteousness but in Christ-righteousness — works done as gift from gift. Works done not to receive anything in return, because we have already received the kingdom! What is now left, is Christ-likeness. That means, you become the son, daughter, child of God He called you to be until the final Easter, when in Christ, all dust and ashes are no more!
Our righteous King has expectations for your sanctification according to His Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christian take-up your cross and follow your Savior’s path of righteousness. As you go, proclaim the Gospel truth, and hope that resurrection life is worthy of pursuit in the here and now.
In the name of the Father and of the (X) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen