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“The Church of Holy Appearances”

(Ash Wednesday Service)


February 17, 2010

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:10

Scripture Lesson 1 - Joel 2:1-2, 12-17


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Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
Let all who live in the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming.
It is close at hand-
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a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was of old
nor ever will be in ages to come.
12
"Even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning."
13
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
14
Who knows? He may turn and have pity
and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the LORD your God.
15
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.
16
Gather the people,
consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,

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gather the children,
those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
and the bride her chamber.
17
Let the priests, who minister before the LORD,
weep between the temple porch and the altar.
Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD.
Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
'Where is their God?' "

Scripture Lesson 2 - Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


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"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will
have no reward from your Father in heaven.
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"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the
synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their
reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is
doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will
reward you.
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"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues
and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
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But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then
your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
16
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men
they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil
on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to
your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
19
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves
break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not
destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will
be also.

MESSAGE – “The Church of Holy Appearances”

In our message Sunday, we heard the voice of Jesus in John’s letter to the church in Laodicea saying that
they had grown comfortable with their wealth and had forgotten God. The difficulty was, that they were
still a church. They didn’t forget God and go back to worshipping the idols that they had worshipped
before nor had they simply become godless. They worshipped as a church, they worshipped God, but
they acted as if following God didn’t mean anything. They kept up the appearance of following God,

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but stopped doing anything about it. These are the same sort of people that Jesus was talking about in
our reading of Matthew 6. Jesus says, “do not be like the hypocrites.” These folks are all about keeping
up appearances. They do good, but only so that they can look good doing it. They pray, but only so that
others can hear how wonderful they think they are. More than likely, these are the people that are going
to church, not because they really get anything out of going to church, but just so that everyone can see
them going to church.

I imagine that if these folks were around to day, the television ad for their church would sound like
this…

“Welcome to the church of Holy Appearances! Services every evening at 6 and 9 with matinees
every Sunday morning. Yes, indeed, the church of Holy appearances is the church I where it is
always better to look good than to feel good and certainly better to look good than to do good
unless, of course, you can look good doing it. At the Church of Holy Appearances we have a
fully staffed press office so you can be absolutely sure that your constituents, fans, neighbors and
friends will be sure to see a photograph of you entering church and engaging in missions
somewhere in the newspaper or on the Internet. At the Church of Holy Appearances, you can be
sure that the world will know how good you look.”

Like the church in Laodicea, any church, anywhere, anytime is vulnerable to becoming ineffective and
unproductive and can begin to expend its energies just in keeping up appearances. I suspect however,
that churches in the United States in the twenty first century may be particularly vulnerable. We live in
a nation that may well be the wealthiest nation that has ever existed in the history of the world and we
enjoy a standard of living that is matched almost nowhere else. At the same time, many of us worship in
churches that have seen better days, days when there were more people, more money and frankly a lot
more enthusiasm. We want to remember the good old days when things were bigger and days were
brighter because we felt good belonging to the church when it was strong and vital. Our temptation is to
pretend that it still is, even when it isn’t, because we don’t want our friends and neighbors and
grandparents to know that our church isn’t the church that they all remember. Our temptation is to
pretend that the church is what it always was and so we begin to spend our time keeping up appearances.
We do the public things, the showy things, so that from the outside, everything looks like it always has
but on the inside something is missing and the enthusiasm and the fires of passionate ministry have
dwindled until they are only shadows of their former selves.

As we begin the forty days of Lent, we remember that Jesus was called into the desert for forty days
before beginning his ministry. While Jesus was in the desert we know that he spent a great deal of time
in prayer and also spent time considering who he was and what God was calling him to do. We can
easily imagine that Jesus spent time considering the possible opposition to the real and genuine ministry
that God had sent him to do and the ways in which the opposition would react. In the end, Jesus became
determined to do the things that God had sent him to do.

Today, God asks us to spend some time checking our motives as followers of Jesus Christ and as the
church that bears his name. When Jesus began his ministry he did not waste his time and energy putting
on a good show, but committed to his mission with every ounce of strength, passion and enthusiasm that
he had. During the next forty days, let us spend some time considering if we too have been tempted by
worship in the Church of Holy Appearances. Jesus clashed with the Pharisees because he was not
motivated by appearances but by a passionate relationship with his father, the creator God.

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Like Jesus, we are invited to spend time in prayer and consideration. Why do we come to church?
What is our motivation? Have you caught yourself wondering who was going to see you there? Would
we come to church if we knew that, somehow, no one would see our face? Would we come if we knew
that we would be the only ones who came?

Let us spend this season of contemplation in prayer so that we might once again draw close to our father
the creator God so that, like Jesus, we might be filled and motivated by a passionate desire to please
God. Let us commit to pursuing the mission of Jesus Christ with every ounce of strength, passion and
enthusiasm that we have regardless of how that might look to the rest of the world. The price of Jesus
passion and commitment was his suffering, humiliation and death on a cross. Let us commit to
following the mission of Jesus Christ regardless of the price we will pay in appearances.

Can we do any less?

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You have been reading a message presented at Johnsville Grace and Steam Corners United Methodist Churches on the
date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor of the Johnsville Parish. Duplication of this
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All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.