With Lent beginning on Valentine’s Day this year and seeing Valentine’s hearts all over the place, I got to thinking about how hearts and Lent are intertwined. So much of Scripture has to do with the state of our hearts. Today, of course, when we speak of our hearts as the place where our feelings reside, we use it as a metaphor. But the ancient people of Scripture—both Hebrew and Greek—believed that the heart truly was the home of the most essential qualities of a person. They believed it was the seat of knowledge and thinking and memory. All emotions and passions began in the heart. It was the place where decisions were made, and conscience came into play. Mind, soul, will, and understanding all sprang from the heart.
Those are the very things that we examine during Lent. We look deeply at what we are thinking and feeling—about ourselves, about others, and about God. We may dig into memories that still influence our lives today. We consider how we are living and how well or poorly that reflects what we profess to believe. And we aspire to be more than we are today—more faithful, more Christ-like, more in love with God, more eager to know and do God’s will.
In our prayers, we often ask God to simply change us, like a magician changing a silk scarf into a rabbit. But at the heart of those prayers is a desire for God to teach us what we need to know and that we will learn how to be more open and receptive to that teaching.
We have good reason to believe that this can happen. Scripture makes it clear that teaching and learning are part of who we are. It goes all the way back to the book of Exodus, when God called Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew people. Moses has a whole list of reasons why choosing him was a bad idea, one of which was that he is no good at public speaking and won’t know what to say. God tells him, “I will be with you and teach you what to say.”
From that point on teaching and learning appear in Scripture hundreds of times. Clearly, God has given us the ability to learn, and God is willing to work in our teachable hearts. We are not bound by what we were in the past. We are not limited by what we are today. We have the God-given capacity to learn how to walk more closely with God, and God is willing to teach us when we ask.
This is at the heart of Psalm 25, which we read together this morning. As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, one thing I’ve recently learned is to pay more attention to what’s called the psalm’s “superscription”—the words at the very beginning of the psalm that we don’t normally read. They are important, because they give us a setting for the psalm—a backstory that helps us understand it.
The superscription for Psalm 25 says simply, “Of David.” The psalms were written down many hundreds of years after David’s reign. And while they may have been written down from memories of psalms David actually composed, they may also have been written by someone else who knew David’s story and wrote as David might have written. The writer wants us to read the psalm, thinking about the person David was and the life he led.
Although he was anointed by God to be the King of Israel, David was much like us in many ways. He was far from perfect. He succeeded greatly in some things and failed in others. He was loved by many and hated by some. He was capable of both great love and great cruelty. He could be deeply faithful and then commit the most evil sin. He had good reason to pray time and time again for forgiveness and for God’s help, and the help David seeks is often in the form of being taught what he needs to know.
Although the desire to have God teach us is one we should carry with us all the time, Lent is a time we set apart to be more intentional about that. So, what can Psalm 25 reveal to us about asking God to teach us and what we can learn?
First, we see that we have teachable hearts at any age. The psalm says, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned for forty years until his death at age seventy. His life was full of ups and downs. But now, as an older man, he asks for God to forgive the sins of his past and teach him new ways. Although he is older, the sins of his past do not have to define who he will be in the future.
I have known so many people who live in ways that they know are hurtful to themselves or others—ways that they know are not what God would have them do. But they excuse themselves by saying, “What can I do? I’m just like my Mom (or Dad, or whomever).” Others might do the excusing for them: “Oh, they’ve always been that way.” But that kind of attitude rejects the power that God has to teach us and the capacity God has given us to learn. We know that through the power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we become new creations when we are in Christ Jesus. There is no expiration date on our teachable hearts. And so, at any age, we can pray this prayer along with David. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.”
From our psalm, we learn that a teachable heart is humble. It says, “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” Humble people live with a sense of humility. And that simply means living with a healthy sense of who we are in the world and before God. We are people of great giftedness, but the humble person recognizes that all our gifts come from God, and also that we are far from being what God desires us to be. And so, we come humbly before God, with those broken and contrite hearts that we offered on Ash Wednesday—broken not in defeat, but broken wide open so that we can receive whatever God has to teach us.
The psalm cautions us that God’s teaching may not come all at once, or even in the time and manner we expect. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” Waiting suggests a need for patience. But it also implies a trust that God will come through. We don’t wait for things that we don’t expect to happen. We don’t go to an airport and wait for a flight to the moon. We wait for things we expect and anticipate. We trust that God will teach us, and that God’s teaching is worth waiting for.
Unfortunately, there are other teachers out there who would like to instruct us in an entirely different way of life. This has been a danger since the earliest times. Even as the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses spoke God’s instructions to them, including this warning: “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.”
Moses had some pretty specific things in mind here, like sacrificing children by fire and consulting practitioners of the occult. But there are some modern-day comparisons we can make. How many parents sacrifice their children on the altar of worldly success? How often do we look to financial gurus with their assurances of wealth to come or diet and fitness experts who offer us the perfect bodies that will win the world’s approval? How many people do you know who first learned that they could briefly find escape through drugs or alcohol or gambling, and later learned that their escape route was a trap?
Even Jesus had to contend with one trying to teach him the world’s ways instead of God’s ways, as Satan tempted him with wealth and power and popularity. It is all too easy to learn the ways that the world would have us learn—the way of selfishness, the way of separating ourselves from others with walls of indifference or bigotry, the way of looking at others based not on their intrinsic value as God’s creatures but on their nationality, age, gender, color, ability, language, religion, economic status—the list goes on and on.
Sometimes the world’s teachers are advertisers and media pundits and politicians. But we are also in danger of learning the world’s lessons much closer to home. Proverbs gives one example: “Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads, or you may learn their ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” We could substitute a whole range of attitudes and behaviors in this verse, and it would still be a pretty accurate description of what happens when we look anywhere else for a teacher rather than to God.
When we look elsewhere, we are on an express train bound for disappointment. But the outlook is entirely different when we look to God as our teacher. The psalm tells what a life lived according to God’s teachings is like. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” And the verses after our passage offer even more: those who walk in God’s paths “will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land. The friendship of the Lord is for those who honor him.”
What a wonderful promise! That we will walk in paths of steadfast love and faithfulness, at God’s side, as God’s friends. That we will prosper—not in the way that the world teaches or even that the so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers hold out, but in the ways that matter most. We realize the happiness that comes when we take Jesus up on his invitation to learn from him: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” What greater definition of true happiness and prosperity can we find than that?
There is one more thing about our teachable hearts that we don’t find in this psalm but can find in many other places in Scripture. Our hearts can be taught, but they are also capable of teaching. In fact, we are commissioned to teach others about God’s ways. In the psalm we read on Wednesday—Psalm 51—David promises that as a result of his own experience of forgiveness, he will teach transgressors God’s ways, so that sinners will return to God. In the beautiful passage called the Schema, God speaks of the responsibility to teach what we have learned: God says, “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” Jesus himself commissions us to be teachers: “Go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Just as God teaches us, we are to teach others what we have learned.
There is one question that should be asked, though, and that is “Why would God want to bother teaching us?” Why, after all the times we’ve tried and failed to do better, to be better, would God want to continue our education? Why, when others might look at us and wonder, “what’s the use?” would God expect us to learn anything? Amidst our failures and our cluelessness and our inability to change our own lives, why would God want to be our teacher?
I believe that God reveals God’s self in many ways, so I asked some of the teachers in our congregation why they wanted to teach. I learned that they shared one important quality: teaching was an expression of who they are. Patricia told me that she has always loved learning and wanted to share that love with children. Donna spoke of her compassion for children with special needs and her desire that the ones the world might call the “least of these” would have an opportunity to succeed and prosper in spite of their difficulties. Denise told of how she wanted her impoverished students to know that they had possibilities beyond the limits the world wanted to impose on them. Their desire to teach had everything to do with their own natures and what they believed about the ones who would learn from them.
This is exactly why we can be confident that God wants to teach us. It is in God’s nature to want what is best for us, and God never acts against God’s own nature. “Good and upright is the Lord, therefore he instructs sinners in the way,” the psalmist reminds us. It is because of God’s goodness and righteousness that God desires to teach us. God wants for us to know God’s paths and walk in them, and to go beyond what we think limits us, because God created us and loves us and wants us to be the fully human beings God intended. Through Jeremiah, God says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
During the next few weeks, our Lenten Bible study will give us additional opportunities to learn what God has to teach us, through Scripture and prayer and from each other. It’s not too late to sign up if you’re willing to order your own book, or borrow it from the Toledo Library as I did. But however you choose to observe Lent this year, remember that God has something to teach you. Remember that we have the capacity to learn new ways, and that we have been commissioned to teach others. Remember that God has given us teachable hearts, so that we will be better able to walk in God’s paths and to know God’s truth for our lives. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young