Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference for the Lighthouse holiday club project. The keynote speaker of the day made the comment about Ash Wednesday being a point of reflection, a time to step aside and ask ourselves ‘what have I picked up here in my heart?’ This question has stuck with me as I have been thinking about the condition of my own heart. I don’t remember the context of the remark – but it the question lingers on.
As I have been praying, I felt that this is the question to ask through Lent not only of myself but also to others to ask themselves.
The entire season of Lent could be a time set aside for examination (if we never have) or the re-examination (if we already do regularly) of our hearts. Our hearts need to be guarded for they are the well-spring of life, everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23).
You might already be asking yourself: how does the heart have anything to do with Ash Wednesday? If you noticed in the special liturgy this morning – there is a lot of mention of the heart. We are to take heart, we have already asked for new and contrite hearts, we are to avoid hardness of heart, we will ask to have our hearts made clean.
The Heart – biblically speaking is a metaphor for the inner life – it refers to the seat of the physical, spiritual and mental life. It is the place where we store wisdom.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 15 that what comes out of the heart makes us unclean – evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. He is very concerned with the condition of our hearts. They need to be clean and free of the rubbish that builds up because everything we do flows out of it.
This is why I am wearing my stethoscope today. This was the first big purchase I made when I started my nurses’ training. We all had to have one. I worked on a ward that required us to use them daily – they weren’t just accessories. A stethoscope is used to check the heart sounds and blood pressure along with other bodily noises.
One of the difficulties with the heart is that it is (or should be) always moving. I am going to relate the physical heart to the spiritual heart. Your heart beats constantly; has been beating since before you were born. For some of you that is a very long time! The heart needs to be beat within certain parameters to ensure that it is working correctly – a certain number of beats/minute and in a particular rhythm.
Sometimes the heart moves too quickly – this is tachycardia. The heart muscles work too fast and blood is not circulated in an efficient way.
People with tachycardia feel terrible; they get anxious as they don’t get enough oxygen. They can also have a feeling of impending doom – again from not getting enough oxygen to their lungs and brain. The heart can’t maintain a fast pace indefinitely.
Sometimes the heart beats too slowly – this is bradycardia. The heart becomes sluggish, blood backs up into the rest of the body. People become puffy, they feel sleepy and exhausted. Again – they don’t get enough oxygen and it makes them lethargic as the heart is not working efficiently.
The ideal state of the heart is to function normally – this is called sinus rhythm. This is regular, even beats of 60-100 per minute. The heart muscles work at their most efficient in this range – neither too fast nor too slow.
Ash Wednesday and Lent can be used as a time to find our sinus rhythm again if our hearts have been too fast or too slow. Our lives, like our hearts don’t stop. We need then to force ourselves to step aside, have a look and a listen to what is going on. In the slings and arrows of everyday living and in the dust and ashes of Lent – there are our hearts.
In the Joel reading we are told that the Lord says ‘Yet even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’
Let’s pick this apart for a few minutes:
Yet even now – it is not too late! Even now – even after everything that has gone on, after everything you have done and all that has happened – it’s not too late.
Return to me with all your heart – you have to make up your mind on this one and do something. Are you up for it? Can you be bothered? He wants all your heart. Not just a piece or a portion. All of it. You have to want to give it; You have to want to want to give it. There is no place safer for your heart than in His hands.
With fasting, weeping and mourning – this is the work. Fasting is the giving up of things that many people do in this season. It is not a diet or health improvement kick. We fast to clear the distractions and break down the walls that we build; we give up the indulgences that detour us away from God. We have all said, done and thought things over which weeping and mourning would be an appropriate response. I sure have!
This isn’t to beat ourselves up and get stuck in a destructive pattern of shame and guilt. Not at all. This is to acknowledge our frailties and failings so that we can begin to break the patterns of behaviour and sin that lead to doing the things that cause the weeping and mourning in the first place.
God knows the condition of our hearts and what needs fasting from and weeping and mourning over. He takes this seriously as set out in Matthew.
God does not want a public spectacle for the benefit of others – He wants to meet with us privately, behind closed doors.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing – To rend something means to tear it to pieces. To rend or tear clothing means to tear up the external, the superficial.
This is what Matthew means about practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. To rend our hearts to is to tear up the interior, identify those things that need to be removed.
Return to God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing – we are told again to return to God, take the pieces of our hearts to him. He is the only one that can put our hearts back together. God is the ultimate jigsaw expert! He can put it back together however many pieces there are. He will do it graciously, mercifully and with abounding love.
Why do we need to do all this?
Because there is the final heart condition – this is called asystole. The absence of a heartbeat. On all the medical TV shows it is known as a ‘flat line’.
With no beating heart there is no way for blood to deliver glucose and oxygen to your brain and organs. Life stops at this point. This will happen to all of us one day physically – our final physical state will be asystole. This stethoscope has been used many times to confirm asystole.
We can also have spiritual asystole. That is when we don’t return to God, we choose to walk our own ways, do things that cause ourselves and others weeping and mourning. This is the result of keeping our hearts to ourselves.
We are to quite rightly guard our hearts. This does not mean that we stop anything and everything for entering your heart. A heart that doesn’t move – has no life in it! Asystole!
We are to watch and monitor what goes into our hearts – stop the things that will damage the condition of our hearts or interrupts it’s beats. This can be all manner of things – what we eat or drink, watch or listen to (this can be people around us, TV, social media, internet). At times we need to take a break to see what the effect on us is. That is what the fasting of Lent is for. In their absence we are to turn to God in prayer. Especially when the absence is noticeable! We are not to wrestle in misery or denial. Instead turn or return to God.
If you decide to come forward for ashes this morning, you are in good company. We all fall short of the glory of God – but this isn’t a fatal condition unless we choose to ignore what has been picked up here, in our hearts and decide not to return them to God. The sign of the ashes is admitting that we have work to do, we have a heart that needs some repair. By admitting this corporately we know that: 1) We are not alone 2) As brothers and sisters in Christ we can support each other in prayer through Lent knowing that we are all working through our heart conditions and 3) We are in good company – none of us are perfect!
This isn’t false piety if we come to rail ready to receive and then go ‘to our rooms’ to meet with God. It is in these places where we can begin to store up our treasure in heaven – the place where it will be safe. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.