Create in Me a Clean Heart

Wednesday of this past week was Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of the Lent season, the stretch of 40 days leading up Good Friday. Typically, this would be the week I bring a message based on Jesus’ time of trial in the wilderness. And that really is what our message is about today, although that’s not the scripture you heard Sherry read. Jesus’ wilderness time comes right after he is baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River—we heard about that last week. As Jesus emerges from the water, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Following those big moments, Jesus goes far out into a quiet, wild space to contemplate, to fast, to think, to pray, and to make sure his heart is right as he prepares for his new and public—and life-and-world-changing—ministry.

So Jesus goes out into the wilderness—or the desert, some translations say. There are no other human beings to help or distract him. Three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—include the story of the temptation of Jesus, although only Matthew and Luke provide any details about the trials Jesus faced. We know that each of the temptations Jesus meets tests a different aspect of his character and readiness. Will he abuse his power for personal gain by turning stones into loaves of bread? Will he put his own will above God’s by throwing himself from the temple tower just to make God act and prove to others that he is the Son of God? Will he choose to seek the wealth and status and power of this world over a humble, obedient path that ultimately will lead to his death?  They were high-stakes versions of things we each navigate each day on a smaller scale as we live our normal lives: we all have needs for provision, protection, and success—our bodies, our minds, and our egos need them.

The difference here for Jesus, though, is that he’s in the wilderness to ensure his heart is ready to serve God in a big way. Even though the human part of Jesus might understand these yearnings as legitimate needs, the divinity in him needed to know without a doubt that he was trusting God to fulfill those needs, not relying on or misusing his power. And Jesus is able to do that–in answer to each temptation, Jesus steadfastly keeps his eyes on God—God the father, God the provider, God the creator unfolding all things as they should be. Jesus answers each temptation with a clear, obedient, and humble heart—even though his human side must have felt famished and exhausted, weary and alone.  In his commentary on the temptation of Jesus, Richard Foster writes,

“The temptations Jesus faces are those that only the Son of God might or could face—temptations to misuse the miraculous power God had given him in various selfish and self-protective ways. But if Jesus had turned stones into bread, thrown himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, or worshiped the devil (an ascending scale of severity of temptations) in order to feed himself, prove himself to the crowds, or gain his kingdom without dying for it, he would no longer have been the obedient Son of God worthy of emulation.”

This is just why Jesus put himself in such a position, why a time of temptation was necessary, so that Jesus could know that his first desire was to serve God only. He—and we—needed to know that when push came to shove, when temptations were the greatest, Jesus would be able to carry out what he came to do with a pure and devoted heart.

This is the same journey—on a smaller, human level–that we are invited to take during Lent. For us this 40 day sojourn can be a time of purification of heart, a season of listening to God and making room for spiritual deepening in our lives. The psalmist describes this yearning for a pure heart in a beautiful way:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right[a] spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

We can hear that the psalmist knows that God is the one who cleanses the heart—and in fact Foster says the word here for “create” is the same word used in Genesis 1 when God was creating the world. “Create in me a clean heart.” Being in God’s presence, the psalmist continues, renews us and gives us access to the Holy Spirit, which guarantees that our actions in the world—with ourselves and with others—will bear the fruit of God’s good work. It’s a flowing from the inside out. It all begins with a heart that is right with God.

And that’s why our New Testament reading for today is a snapshot of a time in Jesus’ ministry when he has become known throughout the region and huge crowds are following him and listening to his teachings. We can hear now, live, with people, the blossom of the fruit planted during his time of testing in the wilderness. He is living it out and sharing it with others, this right way of living from the truth in our hearts. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” he says, “for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” He tells them not to call attention to themselves when they do good deeds, not to flaunt their piety and generosity in public. Those who do, he says, have already received their reward. The admiration of others is a cold and lonely substitute for loving, fresh, alive companionship with God.

Similarly, Jesus tells those listening—which included townspeople, the disciples, and the Pharisees–that their prayers should not be for public show, so that others may think they are spiritual giants. This was the lesson he learned when he was tempted to throw himself from the Temple tower to prove he was the Son of God. Instead, he says, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Right action, he is telling and showing them, springs naturally from that God-cleansed heart. There is no replacement or short-cut or work-around for that. And the results, either way, are evident in our daily lives and in our interactions with others.

This week as part of my practice for Lent—in addition to the Friendly Reflections we passed out last week—I’ve been rereading one of my favorite spiritual books, The Practice of the Presence of God, written by Brother Lawrence back in the 17th century. Brother Lawrence was an awkward young footman who had a sudden experience of God’s great love, and that completely transformed his life. He became a humble monk and spent the whole rest of his life doing his best to love God as much as he could each day. That was his whole goal and intention: Loving God. In his role at the monastery, he often worked in the kitchen, and said he found much joy loving God among the pots and pans. He tried to always be thinking of God, praising God and thanking God, and inviting God to speak into his life. When he for a time forgot or got distracted, he said he gave himself no trouble about it but just let his heart be glad it had remembered and go back to his practice of loving God. A simple and beautiful—and possible!—practice. Brother Lawrence repeated a little prayer during the day to help him keep his mind on God. I’ve been trying to use this this week too:

“My God, here I am all devoted to thee; Lord, make me according to thy heart.”

We Friends are fortunate in that our tradition places considerable emphasis on the importance of the presence of God with us. We know God-with-us is a reality, not a distant, otherworldly hope. God comes to be with us in our circumstances right now. We believe there is that of God in everyone. We listen for God to speak into our lives and quicken our hearts. We keep watch for the way to open, showing us that Spirit is leading. We know what it feels like to be yielded and open and listening for God’s voice.

But we Friends also aren’t immune to desert seasons or times when God feels far away, distant, not as close or as involved in our daily lives. Sometimes this happens in times of great busyness or uncertainty. We might be in our own spiritual wilderness of sorts—wondering how things will turn out, anxious about the future, wounded by hurts and losses.

In the dry or difficult seasons of our faith—or times when we feel harried and stressed or burdened by doubt—there is a simple answer for us. We can turn toward quiet with a little prayer, inviting God to renew the sense of God’s presence with us. It is true in human-to-human relationships as well as in our human-divine one: if we want to deepen our love for one another, we must take the time to be together. Then shared experiences grow. Knowing unfolds. Trust deepens. Love returns.

British Friend Caroline Stephen, the author of the classic book, Quaker Strongholds, wrote

The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own Life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; that the measure of light, life, or grace thus given increases by obedience; and that in order clearly to hear the Divine voice speaking within us we need to be still; to be alone with Him, in the secret place of His Presence; that all flesh should keep silence before Him.

Caroline had been raised in an evangelical home and as an adult, in the late 1800s, she began to feel uneasy about the teachings she was hearing in her regular church. Just when she was beginning to despair, she was invited to a Quaker meeting for the first time. Here’s how she described her experience of feeling instantly at home among Friends:

“…on one not-to-be-forgotten morning, I found myself one of a small company of silent worshippers, who were content to sit down together without words, that each might feel after and draw near to the Divine Presence, unhindered at least, if not helped, by any human utterance. Before the meeting was over, a sentence or two were uttered in great simplicity by an old and apparently untaught man, rising in his place amongst the rest of us. I did not pay attention to the words he spoke, and I have no recollection of their purport.  My whole soul was filled with the unutterable  peace of the undisturbed opportunity for communion with God, with the sense that at last I found a place where I might, without the faintest suspicion of insincerity, join with others in simply seeking His presence.”

Deep down, we know—we already know—in our hearts, the state of our relationship with God. We know when we feel close and when we feel distant. We know when it’s a deepening time or a dry time. We know when we are doing our best to live our faith from a sincere heart, and we know when we’re doing it for show, to help us feel like good people, or to enable us feel a rung or two above others. This is all our human natures showing up, and if you feel like your motives are mixed and confused and changeable, you are not alone.

But there is a question that can help us see our intentions clearly. It is this: Are we doing what we’re doing—right now–because we love God?

If we answer yes, that’s great! We should let ourselves feel it, celebrate it, enjoy the feeling in our hearts of being open and in touch with the Greatest Friend we will ever know. If the answer is no, we’re in luck, because that is what Lent is all about. We can ask God to create in us a clean heart. We can pray for direction and discernment and ask God to help us see what we need to live more loving, sacramental lives. It’s really doesn’t have to be any harder than this:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right[a] spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

And a little help from Brother Lawrence doesn’t hurt:

“My God, here I am all devoted to thee; Lord, make me according to thy heart.”

 

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