Desperately Seeking Approval
Text: Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of what happens in the world today is done to gain approval from someone. Posting, tweeting, slogans on signs or bumper stickers or t-shirts or hats—all of it is done to get approval from some individual or group. Just think about casual small talk conversations: when someone asks how you’re doing, how often do you say “Busy,” or something along those lines, broadcasting all that you’re doing. And what’s the goal of letting people know what we’re doing or how much we’re doing? So that we can prove our worth, or give excuses for why other things aren’t done, or just so that we can have the pleasure of hearing someone else say, “Well done, good and busy servant.”
So Jesus’ words might be a little bracing for us tonight. They might even make us bristle a bit. “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward…And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward…And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” And what reward is it that they’ve received? It’s the praise of other mortals, the admiration, the approval, the declaration that some other human being says that we’re worthy or good or whatever.
But now we’re at Ash Wednesday, when we’ve heard another hard phrase repeated: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What good does the approval of other mortals do in the face of that truth? When we’re faced with death, what help does any kind of human praise offer? None at all.
Now, it should go without saying that Jesus is not excusing us from doing good. Notice that He says, “When you give…when you pray…when you fast…” Nowhere does He say “If” or “You don’t have to do these things.” The expectation is that Christians will be doing these, but that we will be doing these things on a higher level. Jesus challenges us.
Why? Why does Jesus raise the bar for us Christians? It’s not just to make our faith more difficult or to give us ways to prove our sincerity. It certainly isn’t to weed out those with weaker resolve or spiritual strength. Remember, He’s not here to break bruised reeds or smother smoldering wicks. Rather, Jesus raises the bar because He knows what it is to live in this shattered world. He knows what it is to have the devil prowling around like a lion. He knows what it is to have the world luring us with all its trinkets and false promises. He knows the limits and the pitiable cravings of our human nature, more than we know it ourselves.
And you can trust that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature will not make things easier on us. Oh, they might promise an easier, more comfortable path, but that path doesn’t lead us anywhere good, not in the long run. So the devil will continually try to take daily bread out of our mouths, because he knows that when we lack, when we have less than someone else, or when we’re hungry—for food, for money, for attention, for approval, whatever—that’s when we doubt our gracious God the most. So Jesus trains us. He teaches us that when we fast—that is, when we voluntarily go without or give something up for a time—that we don’t go around looking gloomy, like we’ve lost everything. Nor do we use it as an opportunity to get the approval of other mortals. Instead, use it as an opportunity to trust your God, even when you’re lacking whatever it is you’re going without. Trust that He will provide, even then. And then, if the devil takes things away forcefully, you won’t be gloomy, but your trust in your heavenly Father will remain.
Our Lord also knows that the world will tempt us with all its glitter, causing us to look for ultimate goodness in the approval it offers. So Jesus teaches us that the rewards it gives are temporary at best. They will fade, as everything in this mortal sphere must. So we are to not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, where praise and approval can be revoked as easily as it’s given. Just look at the countless celebrities who started on the “right” side but have fallen out of favor. But by telling us not to chase after approval of the world, Jesus teaches us that our treasures are in heaven, where they are safe with our heavenly Father forever. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
And our Savior knows that even in spite of that truth, our prideful fallen nature—that third opponent we will face—still loves nothing as much as it loves to be praised, sounding the trumpets for the things that we do. So Jesus teaches us that when we’re doing good things, we should blindfold our fallen nature, hit the mute button on the old Adam, and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, that our good deeds, our giving and praying and practicing our faith may be in secret. And then our heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will approve of these things done in faith.
Christianity is not an easy faith. In some ways it is—that everything we’ve been given by God is a gift, won by Christ, without any merit or worthiness in us. But in many ways, it is not easy at all. Christ calls us away from ourselves. He requires us to look outside ourselves for saving, and that’s a challenge. It’s hard to get outside of ourselves. That’s why we have days like Ash Wednesday—to remind us to look out and to look up. Our works are for the benefit of our neighbor, not for our own glory. Our salvation comes from God, not from anything we do. So that repeated phrase tonight that reminds us of our own weaknesses, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”—it’s not said not simply to be morbid. Rather, it’s answered by another repeated phrase tonight: “The body of Christ, given into death for you.” It reminds us that at the end of it all, we’re going to need more than what the world can offer with its approval and praise. We need more than anything we can do on our own. We need resurrection. We need life. We need Christ.
We recognize that the approval and rewards of the world can gain us nothing eternal. But the approval and rewards of our Father can. And He has given His approval to you already. In Baptism, when the ashes of your sin were washed away, He chose you to be His. He smiled upon you then. Every time your sins are forgiven, He approves of you again—not because of what you do, but because of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Your God loves you. You have nothing to prove to Him. So look outward, look up and see your salvation drawing near. It’s getting closer as we walk toward Calvary and the cross these next forty days. Lift up your eyes and see that now is the favorable time. Now is the day we return to the cross. In the name of Jesus, the Crucified One. Amen.