February 17, 2021
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Towards the end of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is feverishly tracking down his nemesis, the white whale. In a captivating scene, Ahab is in his cabin aboard the Pequod, standing on his whale ivory leg while peering over his nautical charts. As it turns out, the barrels below decks are leaking whale oil. The ship’s first mate, Starbuck, recommends that they stop and make repairs so that they don’t lose any more of their precious cargo. But Ahab, possessed by his desire to find Moby-Dick rebuffs Starbuck, ordering that the ship press on though this will mean a total financial loss for their voyage. Starbuck, enraged at Ahab’s blindness says to his captain – “let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man” (Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, chapter 109).
This me, this is the critical scene in the book. See, Moby-Dick is not about the battle between good and evil. I don’t think Ahab is completely evil – he has a wife and son at home. And I don’t think the whale is all good – he is responsible for ending the lives of many sailors. The book, then, is not about an outward battle between good and evil; it’s about the inward battle. It’s about Ahab’s struggle within himself. He struggles against with his blind rage to kill the white whale; he struggles with his memories. But eventually as we see, the internal struggle has external consequences. Ahab’s inner turmoil will eventually consume and kill him, along with the lives of many innocent men. We learn in the book that what goes on in the human heart and the human mind can and will impact the lives of those around us. There is no such thing as a private sin. Everything has a consequence. “Let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
It’s not just Ahab; we’ve all seen it. In our mad chase for a white whale, we consume ourselves. We become so possessed with a desire for a bigger paycheck or more power that we sacrifice every shred of morality for it. We want to look a certain way, unwittingly falling into a beauty arms race that does no one any good for their mental health. We want more, we have to have more, we do anything to get more. But eventually we find that in our quest for more, we lose everything that matters. Our families, our friends, our morality becomes victims of our sinful desires for more – more stuff, more money, more power, more fame. We’ve all seen it play out over and over again. It’s not the whale that kills Ahab. Ahab’s own bloodthirst will take care of that. The people out there are not our problem; the person in the mirror is the problem.
And while we might justify our sins, telling ourselves that we’re not hurting anyone, we should always hear Starbuck whispering in our ear: Beware of thyself. So we gather on this Ash Wednesday to acknowledge our inner battles and to confess that our sins can and have hurt others. We can become so possessed, so blind to our own unfaithfulness, that we are willing to take down the whole ship to appease “our self-indulgent appetites and ways.” We thirst for “worldly goods and comforts,” we’re “dishonest in daily life and work (Book of Common Prayer, 268).” These are not petty little victimless sins. Over time, these become our white whales that we will chase with devilish fury until we destroy ourselves and everything that gets in the way of our sinful aims. We will destroy ourselves with pills, with drink, with work; we sink our own ships by spinning fantastic webs of lies, by chasing after selfish goals, by refusing to forgive others or refusing to forgive ourselves. This is the path to destruction. Let me be Starbuck to your Ahab: Be aware of thyself.
Rightly, we may ask, how can we stave off this demise? We confess. We open our hearts to God. We beg forgiveness from the Lord Jesus. We smudge ashes on our foreheads and linger in silent prayer. And then we must repent. Repent means to turn toward God. To leave behind an old way and embrace a new way. This is the tough part. Confession is relatively easy because all you’re doing is saying you’re sorry for the past; repentance is hard because it’s about acting differently in the future. Not only do we have to say that chasing the whale is wrong, we have to chart a new course for open waters.
And then, as Jesus says, do not make a show of it. Don’t sound a trumpet, don’t try to show others your piety, don’t tell the world just how sorry you are for your sins. Rather, change your heart so that your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you with more than riches or beauty or fame, with more than whale oil, with more than anything you could have ever chased down. Your reward will be pardon, absolution, and a holy life. As you begin this journey of Lent, beware of thyself. And when Starbuck, when Jesus comes marching into your cabin, into your life, demanding that you change your ways, I implore you to listen. For if you don’t listen, the whole ship will go down.