The Heart Set on God (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
February 18, 2015 - Ash Wednesday
God is quite clear. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all you heart”. The prophet gives us God’s appeal in Joel chapter 2. Return to God with all of our heart. God wants the deepest parts of us. God wants every part of every one of us.
Ancient Israelites recognized that sin grieves God and so their repentance, their turning from sin back to god, was emotional and demonstrative. They did not simply close their eyes and bow their heads and say, “Oh God, I am so sorry I sinned. Please forgive me.” They went beyond a simple spoken prayer.
They would fast. We see King David do this after he has an affair with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan tells him God is going to punish him for his adultery and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. So David goes through the grief and repentance rituals. Second Samuel 12:16 says he laid awake all night praying. He fasted and even when his attendants urged him to eat he would not. For an entire week, he maintained his vigil before God.
Other passages tell of the ancients rustling their hair and beard so that they are disheveled. They tear their garments and throw ashes on their heads. They go many days without bathing, without eating, and in a state of disarray. This is a lot more than the eye closed, head bowed, O God, I am so sorry, and then the prayer and repentance is over. The ritual was involved. In ancient Israel, turning to God away from sin demanded a lot from the one doing the confessing and repenting.
Unfortunately, by the time Joel was inspired to speak as God’s prophet, the people had become quite skilled in the grief and repentance rituals. They were practiced at putting on the whole show of sorrow for their sins. But when the show was over, they went right back to their sins.
The original intent of the ritual was not a case of God making people jump through hoops to earn God’s favor. The fasting, the tearing of one’s garments, the tussling of one’ hair, the shower of ash, the marathon sessions of prayer, confession, and lament – all of it was supposed to be an outward sign of one’s inner sorrow. All this demonstrative ritual was meant to show that the people understood how badly their own sins wounded them. Our sin stands between us and right relationship with God.
I know sin is a trite word in popular culture. Popular music groups sing about sin as if it is fun. People will giggle at pastors who rail against the damage sin does. Rarely do I hear people, when they talk about wanting to make changes in their lives, grieve how their sins injure their relationship with God. Most people identify themselves as “good people.” I am good a person. It’s not like I have killed anyone or stolen anything. Few people accept that they are sinners and those who do shrug it off. Everyone is a sinner so even admitting it we actually tell ourselves we’re not that bad.
God hates sin because every sin, big and small, is a choice to do things in a way other than God’s way. Sin is the decision that God’s way is not the best. Other ways are better. But that is not true.
Outside of God, all ways of living lead to eternal death. In the cross of Christ, God has made a way for sin to be covered and removed. It is no longer an obstacle between us and Him. But just as God did not want the empty ritual Joel rejected, God does not want us to disobey him and then confess with no intention of ever stopping ungodly thoughts, words, and deeds.
Yes, we should specifically name our sins and confess them to the Lord. Yes, we should receive the forgiveness God gives. And our confession should be more than words we speak. Our confession, when it is real, is an expression of something happening in our hearts. Joel 2:12, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
The changed heart leads to a new life. Can we hear Joel’s call to “rend our hearts”? We look inside, see that sin has corrupted us, and we rip ourselves open so we are completely exposed before God, broken and sorry. God receives us with love, patience, and grace. Joel’s very next line shows where repentance leads. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
The rooting out of sin and the replacing of it with gentleness, patience, self-control, joy, unity, peace, and love is something God does, not us. We cannot accomplish the change of heart. What can do is position ourselves before God, humble and open to whatever God has in store. We set ourselves so that we are available for God to go to work in us. When we rend our hearts, confess our sin, rip ourselves open, and break ourselves down and lay ourselves out before the Lord, we discover how truly gracious God is. We become new creations.
Jesus identifies steps his disciples take in setting their hearts on God. Matthew chapter 6 is the middle portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The entirety of chapters 5, 6, & 7 is him speaking. In chapter 6, Jesus says what he assumes his followers will do. “Whenever you give alms” (a charitable gift), Jesus says, “do not let your left your hand know what your right hand is doing” (6:3). He does not say “if you give,” but rather, “when you give.” Jesus assumes his disciples will give what they can to help people in need, and he wants them to do this in secret as an act done toward God, for God’s pleasure.
The same pattern persists for the other disciplines Jesus mentions. He says, “When you pray,” and “when you fast.” In both cases, Jesus rejects those who carry out these practices to call attention to their own righteousness. ‘Hypocrites’ Matthew writes (6:2), practice the disciplines in full view of everyone because they gain some kind of religious ‘street cred.’ Jesus expects his followers to fast, pray, and give, and he expects us to do these things in private as acts of humility before God. These are not to be burdens, loads that make our lives difficult.
It is just the opposite. Just as Joel tells us to rip open our heart not so we will be punished but so we will experience God’s grace, Jesus says that when we give, fast, and pray we are in fact storing up treasures (6:19-20). In these practices, we become malleable in God’s hands, available to be shaped by His love and truth. The prayer of confession shows that we know we need forgiveness. The fast of going without food or limiting our diets to simple foods shows that we know how weak we are before our appetites. Our cravings drive us to selfish overindulgence and fasting combats that. Giving generously shows that money is just a tool and tools are to convey God’s blessing on all people, not just one.
If we live in these spiritual disciplines, we have to submit ourselves to Jesus as Lord. If we practice the disciplines without turning to Him, we will either be miserable, or we will be proud of our own self-control and the pride will lead us into other sins, or else we cheat and not keep the commitment and then justify our actions. In that way, we close our hearts off and lock God out.
Take fasting as an easy example. Nothing spiritual is gained by not eating meat for 40 days. It could potentially make the person doing it crabby and he might justify grabbing a chicken wing by saying, it will make him more pleasant. He’ll claim the practice or spiritual discipline isn’t working and in order to be a better person, he needs to cheat or to quit. Or, he’ll say, “I’m only human,” and he gives up. I know this is all true because I have failed in the disciplines in just the way I am describing here. Either by force of will we maintain the fast but bitterness grows in us or we caves in and feeds our appetites. What really needs feeding is our spirit.
When we fast, say go without lunch for 40 days, no eating between 8AM and 6PM, and in weak moments we are tempted, it is then that we turn in absolute dependence to Jesus. That’s why we fast. We see that our lives cannot go on, not if we are “in Christ,” except by relying on God through prayer. We could live apart from Christ, but that would be life apart from God, life on our own strength. The practice of disciplines reveals how little strength we have. So we lift up desperate deep heart prayers. If the fast is leading us to dark thoughts or anger, we get away from people and take our struggle right to God in private. There, open and exposed, we wait and God begins healing and renewing. When we get back around others, after God has done his work, we are cheerful and joy-filled.
I know Lent is about spiritual renewal – people giving up some sort of of pleasure in order to focus on faith. That’s the way we say it. I think the real heart of this season is God doing what God does. God achieves God’s purposes in the lives of those of his followers who set themselves before him and open themselves to him. That is why we pray, give, and fast.
I won’t get to preach this Ash Wednesday sermon this year. Our service has been snowed out. If I had been able to do it, I would have designated the final portion of the message to presenting a challenge to the church. I hope everyone who reads this will consider what it means to give one’s life completely to Jesus and to live every moment under Jesus’ reign, and will take up the challenged offered here.
First, we give God what God really wants. As Joel says, we do not rip our clothes in a show of repentance. We rip our hearts so that we are truly ready to be changed. How? One way (certainly not the only way) is an intense, 40-day commitment to spiritual disciplines.
So, second, we pray, give, and fast. And we do so as a way of recognizing our need and allowing that need to force us to turn to God as we experience God in the Holy Spirit. I am going to do all three and I am not going to announce how I do any of the three. In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 9, I am going practice my disciplines ‘in secret.’ My wife knows what I am doing. She is my most trusted prayer partner and also the person who prepares many of my meals. (As an aside, I would gladly cook for her but she has no interest in my culinary skills). Other than her, it is God an me in this together.
This is the invitation to you. Take up the disciplines as a way of turning your heart to God. The rending of the heart: this is the work of Jesus followers year-round, but with a unique seriousness and at the same time a heightened joy in the weeks and days leading up to Easter.
If guidance in spiritually disciplined living is a help, I offer this. Write the following sentence down:
I need my heart to be __________ by God.
Maybe you need your heart broken by God. Maybe you need your heart healed. Here are some other options.
- Provoked or prodded.
Of course you may think up your own need. Or, you may first need to ask God to show you how you need Him to be at work in your life. I promise this. If you commit to prayer, fasting, and giving from now until Easter and you keep the commitment, you will meet God. This is not because these disciplines have any control over what does. Notice I did not say doing these things will determine how we meet God. We cannot influence God’s actions. The disciplines affect us and change us and set us. We are set to see God – the God who is always present. The disciplines break open our eyes and ears so we can see and the one who loves us.
So, write the sentence down, stick the paper in your Bible and go to it every day. Renew your commitment daily. I need my heart to be formed by God. I need my heart to be resurrected by God. I need my heart to be softened by God. Every day from now until Easter Sunday make this prayer a part of your daily Bible reading and moment-by-moment practice of spiritual disciplines.
God is pretty straightforward. He wants our hearts. In Lent 2015, why don’t we give Him what he wants?