Pastor Sherry’s message for Ash Wednesday February 22, 2023
Scriptures: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 51:1-17; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
John Wesley began his small group meetings with the question, “How is it with your soul?” As the founder of our Methodist denomination, we know Wesley as a passionate evangelist. Even though ordained an Anglican, he had experienced the Church of England—in the 18th century–as spiritually dead. So he left church buildings and preached in fields, in town squares, or wherever he could find a responsive audience.
But he wasn’t just content to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus; he wanted them to be discipled in the faith. So he began to set up small groups, which he called “Bands.” These were like Cursillo or Emmaus Walk “Reunion Groups.” They met once a week to challenge themselves to move deeper into their faith. Cursillo and Emmaus groups ask, “When this week did you feel closest to Christ?” Sometimes the question is, “Where are you in your walk with Jesus?” Or, as Jesus asks in today’s Gospel (v.21), Where is your heart?
Today, the church season of Lent begins. For the 40 days leading up to Easter (not including Sundays), the Church—Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians—commemorates Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Remember, following His baptism, the Holy Spirit drove Him out into the wilderness to fast, to pray, and to be tested. We too are encouraged to fast, pray, and to develop the strength to resist temptations, as Jesus did. The intention of this is to help us to take inventory of where we are spiritually, and to make course corrections. You could say the 40 days of Lent invite us to ask daily, “How is it with my soul?” or “Where is my heart?”
Our Scriptures today all speak to this issue:
A. In our Gospel lesson (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus directs our attention to our motivation as we give (service or money), fast, or pray. Our understanding of our heart is that it is a very important physical organ that may or may not work well. We also see it as a metaphor for our tender feelings. We say, “She has a good heart,” meaning she is generous or compassionate. Or we say, “He has a tender heart,” when he is known for rescuing stray animals or showing kindness to children. We just celebrated Valentine’s Day, a day to focus on romantic hearts.
But the Hebrew understanding of heart was very different: To them, it is not just an important physical organ. The people of Jesus’ day considered the word heart as a metaphor for the whole self. They believed you decided with your heart rather than your brain. They saw the heart as the core of our identity (not race, gender, or nationality). Our heart, according to them, is what drives or motivates us. So, when Jesus says (v.21) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, He means we can each rightly discern our priorities by noting where we spend our time, attention, and money. Our priorities can be on acquiring physical things, like a fancy car, a fine home, an expensive item of clothing or of jewelry. Our priorities may be our spouses or our kids, our “grands,” or our pets. Our priorities may also be such values as success, security, happiness, or romantic love. None of these is bad in and of themselves; they become problematic when these treasures/priorities come between us and our relationship with Jesus.
So to spiritually wean ourselves away from whatever interferes with a heart-felt relationship with our Lord, we may choose, for 40 days…
a. to give up social media; TV; chocolate; eating out; etc. I recently read of a woman who decided to pare down the number of knickknacks and decorating items she had by donating a bagful a day to recycling shops. I think the Lord would approve of her desire to simplify her life’s distractions and clear away her clutter; but He probably would not be impressed if this were just another self-improvement project disguised as a Lenten discipline. He would want her to do whatever she does in order to draw her heart closer to Him.
b. Or, we may decide to take on a new spiritual discipline: I am taking (instead of leading) a Bible study on Zoom with some friends from Tallahassee beginning Monday night. You could take a walk daily with the purpose of having quiet time to talk with the Lord. You could read some Christian books—fiction or nonfiction–to increase your faith, etc.
The traditional disciplines, or methods of self-restraint, are what Jesus cites in verses 1-6 and 16-21: (a) Almsgiving or giving of your time, talents or cash to others; (b) Fasting; and (c) increased prayer. The point is to draw our hearts closer to Christ, not to impress others.
B. Briefly, the authors of our other lessons today encourage us to draw our hearts closer to Christ in the following ways:
1. Joel says (2:12-13) we draw closer to the Lord when we …return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. 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. This return to the Lord involves demonstrating repentance.
We acknowledge our sins and turn away from them.
2. King David implies, by his example in Psalm 51, that we can return to a close relationship with God when we honestly acknowledge our sins. As we recite tonight verses1-17, we can clearly perceive his sincere grief and regret over what he has done. His sins were grave: coveting his neighbor’s wife, adultery with her, and murder of her husband. We know from Psalm 32:3-4 that he suffered emotional pain and agony as long as he covered up those sins. He openly begs for God’s forgiveness, asking for mercy. He also recognizes that it is only God Himself who can cleanse him (v.10) Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. He also affirms his faith that God will forgive him because he has asked (v.15) O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise, and (v.17) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken spirit and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
3. Paul, with his typical zeal, exhorts us to (2 Corinthians 5:20b) Be reconciled to God. In chapter 6, verses 3-10, he reminds the Corinthian Church (and us) that we are to faithfully turn our hearts to Jesus no matter how dire or how happy our circumstances. We are to stay close to Christ because (5:21) God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
So, this Lent—beginning tonight—let’s ask ourselves, daily, “How is it with my soul?” or “Where is my heart?” Let‘s each take an honest inventory of our spiritual health. And then let’s engage in the attitudes and behaviors that will bring us right up, tucked up to Jesus.
And all God’s people say, “Amen!”
©️2023 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams