Rev. Patti W&H
March 9, 2011
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus”
“A Matter of Heart”
There is a man named Blaise Pascal who lived over 400 years ago. He was a Frenchman and an absolutely brilliant mathematician whose ideas are respected and studied today. Pascal was also a faithful Christian. Like many of us, he grew up in a Christian home, and like many of us who grew up in the church, in Christian homes, his faith was mostly intellectual. Pascal believed in God and probably even went to church on a regular basis, but there was very little connection between his faith and his day-to-day life. Many of us can identify with that: we come to church each week, we sing the songs, we pray the prayers, we hear the sermons, we go to Sunday School, we go to meetings…but most of what we hear and experience remains in our heads, and doesn’t make our way to our hearts. We are not changed, our lives are not changed.
That was certainly true for Blaise Pascal, until 1654, when, at the age of 31, Pascal was thrown from his horse and into the roadway. He took that experience as a warning from God to change his life and his priorities, and later that night he experienced God’s love and grace in a powerful way. From that moment, Pascal fell in love with God and his relationship with God took precedence over everything else, including his passion for mathematics. His heart was changed, and therefore his life was changed. He began giving sacrificially to help the poor and he published several writings about the Christian faith. Many of us know Pascal for a certain quote that is attributed to him: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” In other words, we all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and spend our lives seeking ways to fill that hole, but the only way to fill that hole is by letting God into our hearts and letting God change our hearts and our lives.
As I reflected on the story of Blaise Pascal, I was reminded of today’s Old Testament lesson. It’s from the book of Joel, towards the end of the Old Testament. Joel was a prophet, which means that he shared God’s messages, God’s truth, with the people of Israel. In this particular passage, Joel is warning the Israelites that the day of the Lord, the day of God’s judgment is coming, and it is not a day to look forward to: darkness, gloom, a powerful army marching on God’s people. Blow the trumpet and sound the alarm, because Doomsday is just around the corner. It’s the sort of announcement that shakes us to our core, and causes us to wonder, “is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves?”
Joel answers that question with a resounding yes. The answer is to repent, to return to God with all our hearts, with the traditional signs of repentance: fasting (refraining from certain activities), weeping (deep emotion), and mourning (deep sadness over loss). We repent when we make a spiritual U-turn: when we turn around and head towards God instead of away from God. It’s what we’re doing when we confess our sins to God. But it goes deeper than external activities, because we are to return to God with all our hearts, by “rending our hearts but not our garments”; in Biblical times, it was traditional to show repentance or mourning by tearing a hole in your garment, right in the area of the heart; sort of like this (Patti rips hole in shirt). Rending our hearts is a totally different ballgame: instead of ripping a hole in fabric, we are ripping a hole in our heart, a muscle, a vital organ, possibly the most vital organ in our body. Ripping a hole in clothing is a symbolic gesture: ripping a hole in our heart is the real deal; it’s a total life change. We are opening our hearts to God, and inviting God to come and change our hearts, and our lives. That tends to make us a little bit uncomfortable, because a heart opened up to God is a heart that is willing to love who God loves and follow where God leads, even though we will move outside of our comfort zone, even though we will experience pain, even though we will experience great and scary change in our lives. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, once said, “let my heart be broken by the things that break God’s heart.” A changed heart sees people through God’s eyes and sees the world through God’s eyes, and sometimes what God sees in this world is heart-breaking. When our hearts are changed by God, when our hearts are broken by what breaks God’s heart, our lives are transformed so that we, as individuals and as a community, look and act more like Jesus every day, so that we can be God’s agents of change in the world.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our Lenten journey. At the beginning of this service, we all wrote a commitment down on a slip of paper. Maybe it was to give something up for the next forty days, maybe it was to take something on for the next forty days, maybe it was for both. In a few minutes, the ashes from those commitments will be placed on our foreheads, in the shape of a cross. We will hear the words, “from dust you are made, and to dust you shall return.” Those words and this day remind us of our place in this world. They remind us that God is God, and we are not God, that we are mortal. That someday, the things of this world will pass away, and all that will be left will be our relationship with God, as individuals and as a community, and the fruits of that relationship. As we already know, it is so easy to simply go through the motions of our spiritual life, even to go through the motions of Lent. It is easy to fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts with distractions of this world: possessions, activities, friends, family, and even ministry. Yes, even ministry can distract us from our relationship with God. This Lent, as we journey towards the cross and journey towards Easter, let’s make it our goal as individuals and as a community to engage in self-reflection, to examine what might be keeping us from a deeper relationship with God, what we might be using to fill that hole in our heart that only God can fill. Let’s make room in our hearts for God to come in and change our hearts and change our lives so we can change our world with God’s love. Safiya Fousa, who is part of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, describes today this way: The gift of the day is personal reflection, a season of confession, and change. Start the arduous journey from shadow to substance, from ritual to reality, from façade to faith. Today, choose the harder course. It is easier to buy new clothing than to mend a soul.
It is easier to buy new clothing than to mend a soul. Today we begin a journey, lasting forty days, that gives us the opportunity to walk with Jesus to the foot of the cross and be transformed forever by His love and grace. It’s a long journey, a painful journey, but a journey that we do not go on alone. We are surrounded not only by God’s love and grace and promise to never leave us or forsake us, but also by each other. We are on this journey with others who are rending their hearts, who are creating space for God, who are allowing God to change their hearts and lives.
We will leave this place with our foreheads marked with a sign of repentance. Let us also leave here having opened our hearts to God, and invited God in to enlarge our hearts, to change our hearts, and to change us, so that this Lent, we can be transformed as individuals and as a church community, so others will see God in our midst and be changed as well.