Sermon for Ash Wednesday – February 14th, 2024

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hearts are everywhere today. The grocery stores are filled with heart-shaped balloons and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Kids are coming home from school with heart-shaped candies and Valentine cards with hearts on them. Social media is flooded with them in various shades of red and pink.

Much has been made of the fact that Valentine’s Day is the same day as Ash Wednesday this year. What is interesting to me in light of this odd juxtaposition of holiday and holy day is that there are hearts all over our Ash Wednesday readings too.

But these hearts aren’t the sugary kind. They do not convey sweet or romantic sentiments. In the Bible, the heart represents our innermost being. The heart represents the core of who we are, our deepest self. It represents the center of the will. And more often than not, when the Bible is talking about the heart, it is because human beings have serious heart trouble! Such is the case in our readings for today.

First, we have the prophet Joel. Joel calls the people of Judah to brace themselves for a coming calamity. It is unclear whether Joel sees this calamity as a literal plague of locusts or as an invading Assyrian army, but neither option would have been good for the people of Judah. As this calamity bears down on them, he speaks God’s word to them, saying, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart.”

In the face of this calamity, Joel calls the people to repent. He calls them to turn back to God. Their hearts have wandered away from God, as hearts often do. They have been half-hearted in their relationship with God. And so, through Joel, God says: “Return to me with all your heart.”

Through Joel, God also says, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” People used to show their repentance by tearing their clothing, or by putting on sackcloth. But God wanted something more here. He didn’t just want an outward display – he wanted a change inside! He wanted a heart that was broken as they recognized their sin, a heart willing to change, a heart which was ready to return to him.

This is what Ash Wednesday is all about. This is what Lent is all about. It isn’t about showing people how pious we are by what we give up. It isn’t just about the outward display of ashes on our heads. It is about returning to the Lord with all our heart, with all that we are. It is about having our hearts broken as we recognize our sin so that God can put them back together again. We can do this, Joel says, we can return to the Lord our God, because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love!

Next we have Psalm 51. This psalm was written by King David after he was convicted by Nathan for the adultery and murder he committed out of his lust for Bathsheba. David’s heart had been broken in recognition of his sin. He saw that his sin was more than just a momentary lapse in judgement. It was condition. “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness,” David confesses. In this psalm he turns to God for forgiveness. “Remove my sins with hyssop,” he says, “and I will be clean; wash me and I will be as pure as snow.” And then a little later he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

David knows he can’t clean his own heart. He knows he needs God’s help. He knows he needs God’s saving power to purify his heart. And so, he turns to God in repentance and faith. He asks God to do for him what he cannot manage to do for himself: “Create in me a clean heart, O God!”

Likewise, through our extended confession coming up shortly we turn to God in repentance and faith, asking him to create in us clean hearts. We can’t clean our own hearts any more than we can do heart surgery on ourselves. But by turning to God in repentance and faith, we place our hearts in the hands of the One who can help us, the One who can give us clean hearts, the One who can restore us to the joy of his salvation.

We’ll talk about this more on Sunday when we begin our study of the Large Catechism, but in his discussion of the First Commandment, Luther describes idolatry as a heart issue.  It is a heart problem. Luther writes: “That…upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god. Therefore, it is the intent of this commandment to require such true faith and trust of the heart as regards the only true God, and rest in him alone.” He argues that whatever our hearts cling to for comfort or security are really our gods, and our heart problem is that these hearts of ours do a lot of clinging to lots of things that are not the one true God! Our hearts cling to money and possessions, to power and popularity, to superstitions and made-up religions, and above all, to the self.

This latter idolatry, the idolatry of the self, is especially pernicious in our day. We have at least three or four generations now who have grown up in a culture which tells us that life is about self-actualization, and the way to self-actualization is to follow our hearts. Isn’t that the theme of just about every Disney movie of the last couple decades? Every tawdry romance novel ever? Almost every self-help book?

From a biblical perspective, however, the last thing you want to follow is your heart! Most of the time, following your heart is the problem! The prophet Jeremiah says the human heart is the most deceitful of all things and desperately sick. Jesus said that it is out of the human heart that all evil intentions come. Why, then, would you want to follow your heart? The scriptures call us to follow God’s Word, which is the lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. We are to follow the promptings of the Spirit, not the self and its fickle, deceitful heart.

This brings us to our gospel reading for today. Jesus commends to us a set of practices. He encourages us to give, to pray, and to fast. These are, of course, the traditional practices, or focal points, of Lent. We seek to be renewed in these practices of the Christian faith.

Jesus warns us against doing any of these things for the wrong reasons. We should not do them in order to be seen by others. We should not do them for outward show. This doesn’t mean we should hide our faith. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever pray in public, for instance. It means we shouldn’t put our faith on display to impress others or to draw attention to ourselves. We are to do these things for the sake of the Father, in response to his promises, not for our own self-glorification.

And then Jesus talks about our hearts! Jesus goes on to say, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Here’s the real reason we are invited to give, and to pray, and to fast. We give and pray and fast so that our hearts would rest in God. You see, when we give, we are learning to not cling so tightly to money and possessions. When we pray, we are centering our hearts on God. When we fast, voluntarily abstaining from something, we are training our hearts to not cling so tightly to worldly pleasures for our comfort and security. These are practices which lead to good heart health, spiritually speaking. Probably physically too!

The heart, Jesus is saying, will dwell on whatever a person treasures most. These practices of giving and praying and fasting help peel our fingers back from the idols we cling to so tightly. They help loosen our grip on our false gods, so that we can cling instead to “the only true God and rest in him alone.”

There are a surprising number of hearts in our scripture readings for Ash Wednesday. But these aren’t the sugary hearts of Valentine’s Day. Instead, these references in scripture point to our need for new hearts: hearts that return to the Lord our God, hearts that need to be cleaned, created anew by God’s purifying grace, hearts that need to be re-centered on the treasures of heaven.

These old hearts of ours are dust, and to dust they will return. But this Lord of ours is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Our hearts are safe in his hands.

In fact, he has a Valentine for us today. Even amidst the ashes he gives us a sign of his great love for us. He gives us his own body and blood, gifts from his own heart, so that his grace would run through our bloodstream, literally reaching our hearts, making them strong and clean and new even now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church