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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Transformation of the Heart

Lent 2013

Matthew 15:1-20; I John 4:7-12

In George Buttrick’s wonderful book on prayer, Dr. Buttrick tells of a lecturer speaking to a group of business men and women.[1]  The lecturer showed them a large sheet of white paper on which was one dark spot.  He asked what they saw.  All answered, “A dark spot.”  No one mentioned the white paper.  The test was unfair in that it invited the wrong answer.  Dr. Buttrick concluded that there is an ingratitude in human nature by which we notice the black disfigurement and forget God’s widespread mercy.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period in which we are invited to remember our sinfulness and to enter into a time of confessing our sins.  But our confession would be meaningless and dismally discouraging if it were not for our faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness.

It is very important that we never forget our human sinfulness.  Each Sunday we include in our time of worship a period for confession of our sins together in spoken words and then silently.  We also need times of daily confession of our sins.  We need to be reminded that “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9).  Our confession should be specific as we acknowledge our sinful acts, words and thoughts.

We need to confess, and we also need the assurance of God’s mercy, pardon and grace.  During Lent, I invite you to be mindful of your sinfulness, but to also receive God’s forgiveness and to be assured that God is willing to forgive all our sins.  In confession we focus on the black dot of our sins.  As we arise from confession, our focus has shifted to the white purity of God’s love and goodness.

On Ash Wednesday we are marked with ashes on our forehead in the shape of a cross and we hear the words from Genesis, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Ash Wednesday is the first day in the 40-day season of Lent (excluding Sundays), a season that is associated with confession and penitence.  Ash Wednesday invites us to be mindful of our sinfulness but to focus on God and what His transforming power can do in the world in and through the disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth in human form to live among us and teach us of the love of God.  Ash Wednesday reminds us that Jesus who was without sin died for our sins.  Lent ends before the cross on which hangs the body of our crucified Lord.  Easter leads us to an empty tomb and a risen Savior.  Through Jesus’ resurrection, we are freed from the law of sin and death, and given the hope of life eternal.  Our relationship with God, once marred by our sinfulness, is restored as Jesus serves as the mediator between humans and God, drawing us close to the heart of God.  But before we can see and recognize our risen Savior and not mistake him for one we do not know, we must journey through Lent.

Our scripture reading from Matthew is a story from Jesus’ ministry that delivers a message of what sinful human beings most need: a transformation of our hearts.  The religious cleanliness laws of Jesus’ day required that if you touched a dead human being or animal or if you had an infectious skin disease or if you ate meat from an animal considered unclean, then you were considered ritually unclean and impure.  You would not be permitted to enter the temple and worship God. 

Timothy Keller, in his book, King’s Cross, states that the ritual washings and efforts to stay clean were used by the religious people as a kind of visual aid to remind them that they were sinful beings, spiritually and morally unclean and in need of spiritual purification before they could enter the presence of a holy and perfect God.[2]  Jesus agreed that humans are unclean before God and unfit for God’s presence, but Jesus disagreed with the religious people about the source of the uncleanness. 

Jesus called the crowd to Him and said to them in words meant to emphasize their importance, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

 We, like the people of Jesus’ day, are aware that we are unclean and unfit and we struggle with feelings of guilt and shame.  We seek to compensate in various ways.  We may be driven to work too hard to prove ourselves.  We may choose our profession or our school to impress others.  We may seek to show our value through our material possessions or our position in life.  But we never feel good enough. 

Jesus teaches that what defiles us and makes us unclean is not the failure to wash our hands or what we place in our mouths. We are unclean despite our education, status and possessions.  Our relationship with God and with others is broken by what comes out of our mouths, for our words proceed from our hearts.  For out of the heart, Jesus teaches, comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander, a list of wrong-doings that echoes the sins prohibited in the last half of the Ten Commandments.  Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches, “I tell you, on the day of judgment, every person will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-7).  Our words have the power to heal and build up others, but they also have the power to pierce the heart and inflict hurt.  Our words reflect the cleanliness or the uncleanliness of our hearts.

Jesus calls us to be transformed at the level of our hearts by God.  External regulations and laws and education will not change us.  Washing our hands will certainly not cleanse our hearts.  We cannot will ourselves into being good, pure, clean people.  Outside in will not change us.

The transformation must be from the inside out through the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  It is a transformation that will never be complete this side of the grave.  But thanks be to God: we may become, with His help, a work of transformation in process.

Our hearts are like the black spot on a vast white piece of paper.  Madeleine L’Engel compared our sinfulness to the expanse of God’s forgiveness and mercy as one burning coal cast into the vast depth of the ocean waters.  God’s grace is far greater than our sinfulness.  God’s grace is His unmerited favor toward those He created and loves forever.  God’s love surrounds us and places in us the desire for change and for transformation.  God calls us to respond by being aware of and grateful for His presence and His merciful and forgiving love.

The Lenten period can be a time of being mindful of Jesus Christ’s presence in us so that we can declare in the words of the apostle Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  We may not be able to imagine how Christ can live in the depth of our soul, transforming our hearts.  But, Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, in his book, Free of Charge, gives an example of how identification with Christ can transform us.[3]  In Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Greek Passion, the villagers enact Christ’s passion every seven years.  Village leaders choose actors for the characters of the drama a year in advance, and the priest urges them to prepare themselves for the play by living out the assigned characters in their daily lives.  Those who are assigned to play John or James, Mary Magdalene or Jesus, should act as these characters would.  The result is lives amazingly transformed, especially among those who play Christ.  The men assigned to play Jesus Christ found themselves remarkably changed as they came to sense that it was not so much they who were acting themselves into Christ, but that it was Christ who was acting through them.  As they drew near to Christ, Christ became ever closer to them, living in and through them. 

The greatest reflection of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is seen in our relationships with others.  The Bible tells us again and again that we are to love one another.  Jesus taught that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, our minds, our strength and our soul and our neighbors as ourselves.  In the 1st letter of John, it is written, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another … God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God and God abides in Him … If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar … [T]his commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother and sister also.”  If we do not love others, our relationship with God is harmed.

  It is such a simple commandment to say: love one another.  But the commandment is so difficult to live in the realities of life.  We are hurt by people and our first response is to avoid the person and allow the resentment to build, or strike back in retaliation and to hurt as we have been hurt.  Our response is one that arises from our fear and our need to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Our focus must be on the love that God has for us, for we are the children of God.  We take our focus off the black dot of the sinfulness of others and our own complicity in the breakdown of the relationship, and we focus on the white light of God’s love seen in Jesus.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection show us the depths of God’s love for us.  God’s transforming love is far more powerful than all our sins and all the evil of our world.

We can cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit as we focus on God and on His transforming power, especially through our times of worship and prayer.  This Lent our church is inviting us to focus on prayer by praying biblical prayers.  Todd Jones’ Lenten sermons will focus on Psalm 130, as an ideal prayer for Lent.  We are also encouraged to pray in the manner that we are taught in the Lord’s Prayer as a model for all our prayers.  On Wednesday evenings you may want to take a class to study the Heidelberg Catechism or a class to study and practice various ways of praying.  We can set aside intentional daily times to be still enough to hear God’s invitation to spend time with Him that His Holy Spirit may calm the restlessness of our spirits and grant us His peace.  As we open ourselves to God through prayer, we invite Christ to transform us ever more into the people God created us to be, people being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  This Lent can be the beginning of a new chapter in your life as you grow deeper in your relationship with God.      

One of the many remarkable characteristics of the Holy Spirit is the unique ways God works in the lives of various people.  Several years ago I took a class at Columbia Seminary on transformation experiences.  I was amazed by the 50 first person accounts of transformation experiences collected in a book edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder, entitled Famous Conversions.[4]  Each conversion experience is as different as the person who told of the experience of God at work in his or her life.  God knows His people, each uniquely and wonderfully created, and how to speak to each one to touch and change their hearts.  Some transformations were sudden and dramatic as the light that blinded and the voice that called to Paul as he traveled on the road to Damascus.  Some transformations were as gentle and yet life-changing as when John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed and he knew that God had touched his life.  John Calvin’s conversion was through his careful study of the scriptures.  Charles Spurgeon’s conversion was through the words of a last-minute substitute for a no-show preacher and the words were spoken by a man who could not even preach.  But God used the words of the text, “Look unto Me and be ye saved,” to inspire Spurgeon to look and see the darkness roll away and gaze at the sun and know the gift of faith.  C.S. Lewis resisted what he termed “the steady, unrelenting approach of God” whom he so earnestly desired not to meet until he finally knelt and prayed, the most dejected and reluctant convert to a belief in God in all England.

God will work in our lives in any number of ways.  He will use most any means to reach out to us. But the message is always the same:  the love of God for us, despite our sinfulness, despite the many times we have failed to be the people God calls us to be.  God calls us to respond to His love by receiving God’s love that we might love God and our brothers and sisters.

Lent is a time for opening ourselves to the grace of God that beckons us to act in love in the midst of a world in which there is too much self-seeking, violence and hatred.  Lent is a time for prayer, worshipping God, studying God’s word, asking for God’s power to cleanse the darkness that blocks the power of His miraculous love to work in and through us.  Lent is a time to be kind to one another and to ask God to help us love one another and show such love in word and deed, not just during Lent, but in all times and all seasons.  Such love flows from God’s love for us, a love that has the power to transform us and others.

Dag Hammarskjold, who served as the Secretary General of the United Nations, recorded in his journal, Markings, a prayer that seems most appropriate for our Lenten journey:

Give me a pure heart-that I may see Thee,

A humble heart that I may hear Thee,

A heart of love-that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith-that I may abide in Thee. [5]


May this be our prayer during Lent and always.

[1] George A. Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952), 260.

[2] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (New York:  Penguin Group, 2011), 71.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Vondervan, 2005), 201-2.

[4] Famous Conversions, edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983).

[5] Dag Hammarksjold, Markings (new York:  Ballantine Books, 1964), 189.

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