We receive this warning from Jesus in the Gospel passage for Ash Wednesday: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
I have preached before about our proclivity to accumulate junk in our lives. In the United States we are shamefully effective at hoarding up possessions in our homes, most of it useless! But while Jesus’ words do apply to our physical treasure, there is a much deeper reality I encourage us to reflect on this Lenten season. The deeper reality we are dealing with is also the conclusion to Jesus’ warning: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The question for us to ponder tonight, as we enter our Lenten journey, is, “Where is your heart?”
When the Biblical authors refer to the heart, they do not mean the organ inside your chest. Instead, the heart refers to one’s innermost thoughts, emotions, and desires. More so than the junk we own, our innermost affections are what draw us closer to God or drive us away from Him. Our actions bear witness to that which we desire most. When we desire God, when we rely upon Him, when we trust in His Son to save us and sustain us, then we will seek to cultivate our relationship and draw nearer to Him. On the other hand, when we lack discipline in prayer and Bible study and worship, when we lust after the desires of the flesh, when we pursue pride and personal gain, then we turn away from God and move farther from Him. Like any relationship, our love for the Lord will only grow stronger if we practice. Yet we spend ninety-nine percent of our time practicing the wrong things.
The choices we make everyday shape us and mold us, down to the most mundane of decisions. When we act, we practice. What we practice, we get better at. And when we practice an action over a long period of time, it becomes a habit. This is true of sports, playing an instrument, speaking a language, or learning a new game. This is also true of what we consume – not with our mouths, but with our eyes, our ears, and our heart. Our attention is a limited resource, and when we give something our attention, we are training our brain to say, “this thing is valuable.” What we watch, and what we choose not to watch; what we listen to and choose not to listen to; what we read and choose not to read – all of it shapes and forms our heart. We are practicing what we love.
“Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.”Psalm 119:37
Take marriage for example: As a husband, if you do not spend any time with your wife, will you ever grow any closer to her? If you do not talk to her, will you ever learn more about each other? The answer is no! What if, when you got home from work, instead of embracing her and asking how her day went, you hopped on your phone and spent hours looking at other women online? That would be awful, and you would be actively undermining your relationship! Beloved, we regularly treat our relationship with Jesus Christ the exact same way.
What we practice reinforces what we desire. And in our Western culture, we are trained to consume. What do we reach for when we first wake up in the morning? Our phone. What do we look at while we eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Our phone. When we get a break at work, or there is a commercial on television, or we are waiting in line at the store, or we realize we have been alone with our thoughts for two whole minutes, what do we look at? Our phone! It could be videos, podcasts, radio, social media, print media, or television that we consume. The bottom line is so much of our lives is dominated by media consumption. And the more we practice, the better we get at it. We are training our hearts to say the thing on our screen is more valuable than time spent with God.
Of course, you can replace smartphones with pretty much any modern vice in this example, but the phone is by far the most prevalent. This is because we are easily addicted to anything which draws us out of our present reality. (And it is no secret that reality is not going so well right now.) Our addiction to escapism is further fueled by the fact that our modern lives are so incredibly isolated from the reality of death. We have been blessed to see our life expectancy double in the United States over the last 150 years (from 39 years in 1860, to 78 years in 2020) – but on the other side of that coin, we are now so insulated from death, that we pretend as if we are going to live this life forever. And now, when we get even the tiniest reminder of our own mortality, we have a total meltdown.
The Psalmist understood the human condition when he prayed to God, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” (Psalm 119:37)
When we give our attention to worthless things, we are robbing God of that same attention. Not that God needs our attention, but that we abandon His ways, and we allow our relationship with Him to wither. We give our attention to that which we value most at that moment in time. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
By God’s Grace, Mother Church provides us with the season of Lent every year to hit the reset button on all those sins which “cling so closely” to us (Hebrews 12:1). Our observance of Ash Wednesday is in fact the antithesis of every self-consumed moment we have every other day of the year. We have a lot of practice consuming spiritual junk food and filling our hearts with gunk; Lent gives us the perfect opportunity to begin practicing those disciplines which re-order our desires and put us on the path to holiness: prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
When we receive the imposition of ashes, we hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words allude to Psalm 103, which we just read: “[The Lord] remembers that we are bust dust” (Psalm 103:14). How far these words are from our modern-day cult of self-worship! What we pray for on Ash Wednesday is nothing short of a total transformation of our hearts: We ask for the ashes to be a sign of our mortality (a reminder that we will die) and of our penitence (that only by Christ’s merits and death do we receive eternal life). The ashes remind us that we are sinners in need of a savior.
Like those in Scripture who themselves repented in dust and ashes, Lent can mark a turning point in our own spiritual journey. Consider: what things does our heart treasure, and do they bring us closer to God, or pull us away from Him? We therefore have this opportunity to lay aside the weight of sin and begin anew the disciplines of holiness. You know what your weights are – why not put them down? Seriously, what are we afraid of? What is the worst that could happen if we used our phone less, watched less television, read less news, and read the Bible and prayed more? My guess is, we are afraid of confronting the terror of our own mortality without the anesthesia of digital sedatives. So we instead choose to no longer be present in our lives.
Of course, this fear is itself a self-deception of which we must confess. For our God is mighty to save, and through faith in His Son our Savior Jesus Christ, He pardons all those who truly repent.
As we explored in our church vision for 2022 and beyond, true change requires us to journey through the wilderness. Perhaps new spiritual discipline is a wilderness for us this year. But Christ is inviting us to join Him in the wilderness these forty days, and by His power we can overcome temptation. Beloved, if our treasures are on this earth, we will never follow Him. Let us examine our hearts, put down our weights, and pick up our cross. Amen.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail