A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 10, 2016: Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-19, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There was once a young seminary student who bought his new bride a special piece of jewelry for Valentine’s day. Now, a seminary student’s income does not exactly provide an excess of spending money, but he managed to purchase a thin, well-made gold chain from which dangled a small, gold heart. It was a little, rounded heart, puffy and hollow. The wife loved the gift, and the man who gave it to her, so much that she wore it all the time. And then, before too much more time elapsed, the babies began to arrive. They loved the little puffy heart as much as she did. As soon as they could hold their heads up and grab things with their tiny fingers, three different babies would discover the chain and the puffy heart hanging around Mama’s neck. As soon as the mother would pick up one of the children, the child would find and hold that little heart. Then the teething began. From the fist to the mouth, the puffy heart was the perfect, satisfying teething tool. And of course precious babies chewing on Mama’s necklace is adorable. But the heart did not fare too well. After a while the puffy heart was dented and dinged, eventually crushed more or less flat. The heart was still recognizable as a heart, but the nice contours were now reworked into haphazard shapes. The heart that was once puffy was now broken.
Life does that to us. And the unfortunate truth is that the heart smashing is usually done by forces much more powerful and devastating than the new teeth of a baby. Hearts are tender things. They are easily bruised and easily broken. I know you’ve experienced it. Everyone has. Maybe you found out what a broken heart was back in grade school when your dream of being part of a certain group never materialized. Or maybe it was in junior high or high school and you tasted the reality of a broken heart when your feelings for another were met with rejection or ridicule. Or perhaps, your heart was crushed when a marriage came to an end. And then, again, maybe it was the complete and unwavering destruction of death that broke your heart. Hearts are sensitive things, aren’t they? Hearts can soar on the wings of eagles and they can be broken mercilessly.
Our hearts can be broken by much more than bad relationships or lost love or death; they can also be broken by the ravages of sin. Probably nothing brings more heartache to a parent than the realization that her own bad choices brought suffering to her child. And it is genuinely heartbreaking to watch an individual with great talent and potential squander his gifts and fail to use them. It’s devastating when people you love make foolish decisions. It is equally devastating when you look with your own heart and find there the ugly, unwanted stain of sin. Sin in all of its manifestations breaks us—sin breaks our hearts. We are crushed by our own failures, laid low by sin, destroyed by our own wickedness and evil.
Which is, of course, a big part of what Ash Wednesday is all about. It’s not an especially fun day. With that dusty mark of your forehead, you are encouraged today to turn your gaze inward and see what actually resides in your own heart. And when you are forced to look, you may recoil at what you see. No one else knows your heart like you do. Despite your best efforts to put a good face on things, you know the reality: sin is functioning far too freely. You begrudge the good fortune of others; you resent the joys that are denied to you but enjoyed by others; you lust for what is not yours, and neglect what is yours; you reject what God gives you to do and insist that there must be something else to life. You see the suffering of others and turn away. You try to do what’s right, but you always fall short; you never quite measure up. You see it all, there, in your own heart, and your heart breaks. It breaks in shame, in pride, in regret, in sorrow. It breaks for what could have been and is not. It breaks at the staggering cost of sin. Ash Wednesday is all about broken hearts, and broken hearts are not fun.
This is why I think so many of us are ‘fixers.’ I know that’s my approach to my own brokenness. I am an avid fixer: give me a problem, and I’ll do my best to solve it. Give me something that is broken, and I’ll quickly pull out my phone and Google how to fix it. It is not a bad approach when it comes to toys, dishwashers, or administrative problems. But fixing doesn’t always work with toys, appliances, or office issues, and it certainly never works with matters of the heart. One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn on my journey to becoming a pastor was that ‘fixing’ is not my job. In fact, no one who follows Jesus Christ is called to ‘fix’ anything. Yet, we always fall back into the mode of fixing, don’t we? I often look at my own brokenness, my own broken heart, and see just one more thing that needs to be fixed.
And that’s wrong, and here’s why.
The psalmist writes, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Did you hear that? A broken heart, a contrite heart, that is what God wants. God wants crushed, battered, torn, bleeding hearts. God doesn’t want hearts that are whole and perfect. God doesn't want hearts that have been patched up. A broken heart is something that God will never despise or turn away. In other words, God wants you to come into his presence with honesty and humility. God wants you to enter his presence as you really are—broken hearted and all. And that’s hard because it is difficult to resist the urge to fix a broken heart, and it is difficult to be authentic when we’re just so messy most of the time. We think that God surely wouldn’t be interested in getting a messed up, broken heart from us, so we try to fix it as best we can so that we have something decent to give to the Lord.
When your heart is broken you should not try to fix it, at least not with conventional methods. Don’t go looking for a new relationship to ease the sting. Don’t try to compensate for your sin by piling up an impressive stack of really good deeds. Don’t try to salve a wounded heart by exacting revenge on the one who hurt you. Don’t put on the show of a life in perfect harmony and order when there is a broken heart beating right at the center. Give your heart to God. Give over the broken and torn and battered center of you life to the One who promises to never never turn you away. The God to whom we pray in secret is like a mother who will never abandon her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home. Always, without fail. The broken heart that cannot be healed by any thing or gimmick or cover-up finds its more perfect healer in God.
It was years ago now that those teething children crushed and bent that little gold heart that was given as a sign of newlywed love. On an anniversary, the husband offered to take the heart and have it repaired, restored to the way it was when he first gave it to his wife. The wife refused. Even though the children are grown now, she still wears that heart. It is now probably the most precious piece of jewelry she owns. It hangs as a reminder of the three children who left their individual marks on it, and the very beauty and value of that heart is in its brokenness. Fixing it would be the absolute worst thing to do. It can also never be replaced. It is beautiful and precious just as it is, just as your broken heart is to God. God does not want you to patch or fix or try to hide it.
A heart broken by sin, trampled by the world’s injustice, bruised and torn by the insensitivity and indifference of people is beautiful and precious to God, something that God can and will do amazing things with.
So, you’re in good shape tonight after all. Ash Wednesday drives the truth home: you are dust, you are ashes, you are broken. And God receives you just that way and in no other way. It is a blessing to be broken, to have broken hearts that are sensitive to the sin and evil of life because they are filled with sympathy and concern for others who are equally broken. A broken heart becomes a wonderful tool in the hands of God—God uses it in the work restoration and healing. But mostly, a broken heart has infinite value to God simply because it is helpless and humble and totally dependent on the mercy and goodness of God: mercy and goodness that Joel speaks of in terms of an abundance of grain, wine, and oil; mercy and goodness that Paul knows in the death of Christ who became sin so that we might become righteous; mercy and goodness that Jesus urges us to receive from our Father in heaven.
Open your hearts to God. God will take your broken heart and bind it up, fill it with his forgiveness and grace, and comfort you with the promise that, one day, it will be fully healed. Do not worry about fixing anything; only God can do that, and God will. Open your hearts to God—a broken and contrite heart God will not despise. They are beautiful to God. You are beautiful to God, and God will receive you in all your beauty and mess, and God will redeem you. And yes, one day, all will be restored in Christ. Amen.