Ash Wednesday Meditation
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The news on Monday that the Pope was resigning came as an unsettling surprise to the world. It turns out that no one was around the last time this happened, 600 years ago. Popes since then have stayed until death. Pope Benedict made his decision, though, out of his realization that his health would no longer permit him to carry out the duties of his office; that it would not be fair to the church for him to continue. News reporters and pundits have speculated in various media this week, trying to find out what the whole story is. One report I heard yesterday indicated he had heart issues, receiving and using a pacemaker even before becoming Pope. While nothing yet is definitive, it seems safe to assume that the major factor for the Pope’s resignation is the condition of his heart. He is not able to serve God and the church with the fullness of his heart. I am, of course, talking about his anatomical heart, not his spiritual one.
As we begin Lent today with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, I wish there was some way to put them on our hearts. It would be much more fitting for the Scripture we have just heard today. Lent, after all, is not about foreheads, but hearts. How fitting for us to think about our hearts on this day before Valentine’s Day. We have seen hearts in ads and promotions since all the stores put away their Christmas wares, so putting them into Ash Wednesday is not a stretch. They are very much the focus of our Scripture for today. I want to mention a few of them tonight, with the hopes that you will be stirred to begin a 40 daylong self-examination of your heart.
It is hard to miss seeing the heart in the Scripture that opened our service–Psalm 51. The heart we see–belonging to David–is sick, broken and damaged from the stress and weight of sin. David had allowed his heart to get out of control, going from the beating of lust to adultery and ending up with murder. He has betrayed his neighbor and his God. It is here that he pours out his heart in contrition and anguish. David discovered that the only sacrifice acceptable to God was a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart. The heart we see here is ready for healing, open to the merciful hands of the great Healer.
In case we were to forget who that great heart Healer is, we have a reading from Joel 2:1-2,12-17 to remind us of the need and plan for heart help. Joel saw that the hearts of his people were so sick that they would need something radical. So, he called for a solemn assembly to get their hearts right before the judgment of God arrived. God preferred for them to know Him as their Healer rather than Judge, so he has Joel pass on his message for them: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, . . .. and to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” In other words, God provided not only an invitation for the healing of their hearts, but also the solution. They were to return with all of their heart.
Jesus continued with all of this talk about the heart. His mission in the world was to be God’s hands-on heart surgeon. God wanted to get closer to the need and did so in Jesus. While the religious leaders had their own prescriptions about fixing their spiritual maladies, their practice was no more than a quack shack compared with the certified practice of Jesus. Jesus showed that he was able to get right to the cause of their unhealthiness, putting a spotlight on their hearts. Our gospel reading tonight ended with a prescription for heart health: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
We recently received a magazine in the mail from Willis-Knighton Healthcare, with articles about health issues and resources their hospitals and facilities provide. I didn’t have anything else to read with my Lucky Charms this morning, so I began reading it, beginning with an article about three women of various ages who had heart problems. None of them had any idea their hearts were in trouble and were surprised when they had attacks. Each one described the symptoms they felt, recognizing them only in hindsight–numbness in the arm, the feeling of rhinoceros sitting on their chest, and shortness of breath. All of a sudden, I started feeling the same symptoms, right there while I was eating my cereal, soaking in whole milk. Good thing I was eating Lucky Charms! The women’s words made me think about my own heart, for a few minutes anyway.
As you hear all of these words about hearts tonight, have they made you think of yours? Feeling any symptoms? Lent provides us with the next 40 days to test and examine them to make sure they are in good shape. Examinations can happen anytime of the year, but just consider this heart health month. Let your examination begin by remembering with David that what God is most interested in is your heart, not your sacrifices and adherence to religious rules. See that confession is when your contrition over sin is met by God’s amazing grace. See that your honesty with God is welcomed by His mercy. Know that your brokenness is repaired by His forgiveness.
As you join with David’s renewal of heart, may you also see in this season of Lent that you have the best heart doctor around. Hear the words of promise from God to Joel in your context of brokenness today, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart.” Help form a solemn assembly over these next forty days to Easter by attending worship each Sunday, reading Scripture each day, and entering into your closet for prayer. Whether you are feeling close or far away from God right now, return to Him with your whole heart.
Don’t forget, in the midst of the difficulties of your heart exam, that you are seeking treasure. As Jesus said, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The way to keep your heart healthy is by keeping it beating for the things of God; those things that God desires to happen in us and in our world; those that Jesus lived out all the way from the wilderness to the cross. As you receive the mark of the cross tonight, may you do so not with your head, but your heart.