In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s collect, as collects in general are wont to do, puts the life of faith very succinctly.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Let’s look more closely at this prayer. It begins by acknowledging that God is “almighty”, that, his power knows no bounds, that he can do anything. And it goes on to acknowledge that God can therefore do what we ourselves have no power to do, namely “bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners”. This point is a corollary to the collect at mass two weeks ago, which began by acknowledging that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”.
Consider the significance of the sentiments expressed in these prayers of our Church. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, yet our God is almighty, and he can even bring into order the unruly wills and affections of us sinners. This is a conviction of our faith: that we are weak, but that God is strong and can help us.
These convictions are not easy to acknowledge: that we are sinners, that our wills and affections are unruly and disordered, and that we are too weak to do anything about it. But these are facts, and we will never be saved, never be free, joyful people, full of life and light, until we are able to acknowledge sincerely that this is the case: that each and every one of us is a sinner, that our wills and affections are unruly and disordered, and that we are too weak to do anything about it.
Who wants to acknowledge this? It runs absolutely counter to the swift and varied changes of the world which bombard our consciousnesses and corrupt our hearts. Turn on your television; examine the messages of billboards and advertisements. What do they say? They encourage us to understand ourselves as people who are in fact full of power, though the power within us may lie dormant and need the help of whatever product is being advertised to find actualization. The message of our world stands in stark contrast to the message of Jesus, who said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are those who are persecuted…. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” (Matt. 5.3ff).
Acknowledging our weakness, our impotence in the face of our spiritual enemies, is the first step toward the power of God being actualized within us. We are like cars with engines that do not work. In order for a good and powerful engine to power the car, we must first acknowledge that the old one is broken and allow it to be replaced. Something like this seems to have been what the Lord meant when he spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36.26)
But God does not force this on us, because God is love, and love “is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. [And] love does not insist on its own way…” (1 Cor. 13.4ff). Put another way, as Jesus himself says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me,” (Rev. 3.20).
This is the process, in the words of today’s collect, of finding our hearts, even “among the swift and varied changes of the world,” “surely there… fixed where true joys are to be found”. But it happens only by the power of God, by grace. And that means we must first admit our powerlessness in the face of those things that masquerade as happiness in our lives, but which lead us to misery – things called “sin and temptation”, in the technical vocabulary of our tradition.
But where do we begin? If we wish to engage this process and be transformed into blessed and joyful persons, how do we get there? This is what the entire economy of the Church is for. And this may discourage many people from even beginning to pick up the tools of grace and sanctification which lie right in front of them – because the economy of the Church is something with which most of us are fairly familiar, and when we look at it, we look at it with jaded eyes. So here, perhaps, new vision is required. We have to look on familiar things – TOO familiar things – in a new way, realizing perhaps for the first time what they are really FOR.
If we wish to find our hearts surely there fixed where true joys are to be found, we have to remind ourselves of the reality of God: that he is all powerful, that he loves us, and that he is REAL. And we must remind ourselves of the danger we are in: that we are sick and, living in this world, that we are in real danger of losing joy FOREVER. And then we must take up the means of grace that God has provided for us, realizing that THESE are the helps that God has given us, to heal our us, and to make our hearts like his own heart.
What are these things? Above all, perhaps, the sacraments, and among the sacraments, above all, the Eucharist. God comes visits this place and offers himself to us EVERY SINGLE DAY in this place (except Monday, the rector’s day off), on this altar. This is what I mean by jaded eyes. The fact is: the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator who is above all, and beyond all, blessed and glorious forever – HE comes to us and gives himself to us as food, right here, every day. Why do we so seldom come to him here? And even when we do come, how often do we take the time to prepare ourselves prayerfully to receive him – to pray beforehand, to collect our thoughts, confess our sins, quiet our minds, and be still before the reality of his presence here? Do we not rather come here full of distractions, idle chatter, nursing this week’s catalogue of resentments and busy-ness?
What about God’s Word? Do we take the time, at home, alone, to pray and study the Scriptures, asking God to help us to understand them, and to reveal himself to us within them? Do we do this REGULARLY, and deliberately?
When was the last time we went to confession? Have we EVER been? What keeps us away? Believing the lie that we are not so bad after all? That the reality of temptation, sin, and death is not really something that poses a threat to us? Or not really believing God’s word – that this IS, in fact, an objective means of grace, given to us by God himself, a sure means of fixing our hearts there where true joys are to be found?
Lent is almost at an end. Easter is two weeks from today. Let us re-focus our attention and redouble our efforts for the remainder of this season. Let us remind ourselves of the reality of the powers arrayed against us, and more than this, let us remind ourselves of the reality of the almighty God who loves us, who has come into this world of swift and varied changes, to empower us in our weakness, who has given us sure and certain means of overcoming sin and temptation and death. Let us remind ourselves of God’s reality, of the power of Christ’s cross, and let us make use of the tools he has given us to appropriate his own reality and power, so that indeed our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.