Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Excuses abound in this world.  Men and women spend both time and energy creating excuses for all kinds of human behavior –even falling asleep.  Has this ever happened to you? Picture yourself at work, in your office, or in the staff lounge.  It is one forty-five in the afternoon, and you’ve had a big lunch. You are exhausted, so you put your head down on your desk, for only a moment, and then promptly fall sound asleep. Suddenly, you hear the familiar sound of your colleague or perhaps supervisor clearing his throat. You snap your head up from the desk, and you say, “What?”  Has this ever happened to you?  Of course not.  But just in case, here are a few possible excuses that you might use.

“I was doing a highly specific Yoga exercise to relieve work-related stress. You don’t discriminate against people who practice Yoga, do you?”  Or perhaps, you shake your head groggily, “Someone must’ve put decaf in the wrong pot…”  Or “It’s too bad you interrupted me. I had almost figured out a solution to our biggest problem.”  If you wake up poised you can state, “This is just a 5 minute power-nap like they raved about in that time management course you sent me to.”  The humanitarian might add, “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”  One of my favorites, often practiced by worn out Lutheran pastors, ” … in Jesus’ name. Amen.” And for the corporate minded, “No, I wasn’t sleeping! I was meditating on the mission statement and envisioning a new paradigm.” But the best thing excuse of all to the heroic listener is to say, “Whew! Guess I left the top off the Whiteout. You probably got here just in time!”

Yes, we spend amazing amounts of time and energy creating excuses for our lives. So what if you and I spent just as much time and energy changing those unfortunate bad habits as creating excuses?  You see, I believe in the possibilities of God.  I believe that even like a good shepherd he is searching for you, to offer you a second chance.  He is searching to offer you the possibility of a new loving heart.  As the Old Testament mystic and prophet Ezekiel writes, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. “ So what if this Lent  you worked to create a new heart and new spirit instead of making excuses?

My friends, throughout this Lenten season we will explore the possibilities that God has for you.  And on this Ash Wednesday, we will begin with the possibilities of a new heart.

There is no verse in all of scripture, nor image that has so inspired me personally and brought passion to my ministry than the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd saying: “I came that you may have life and live it abundantly.”  For me, this is Jesus’ word to those who have lost their way; it is the word to those who have been lost; and it is the word to those and are seeking a new heart and spirit. So what does the new heart our Savior offer look like?  That will be clear in time.  The more important question is where do you begin?  I believe that the new heart our Savior longs for you to enjoy, demands new priorities, a new perspective and and trust.

First, a new heart must have new priorities.  The excuses must be let go, so that the new priorities can take hold.  There is a favorite bumper sticker of mine that reads, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  And why is this such a favorite?  Because, it’s so true.  The Christian faith doesn’t make us perfect.  We can still have all the ugliness, the lusts and passions, the secret desires and longings deep within, but we ask the Savior to keep them in check.  For my friends, the moment, you believe you have them conquered, they reappear.  “We are not perfect, just forgiven.”  The abundant life our Savior offers begins with the confession of one who recognizes first and foremost his or her need to be led, and second, who recognizes the need for change.  God knows you and he will lead you. He knows your talents and your gifts, he will use them. So instead of making excuses, you need to change your priorities. But it will take time and energy.

Even pastors need to be reminded of their need for a new heart.  Preacher John Drakeford included the following dedication in a book he authored:  ‘To my two sons, Warwick and Brenton, teachers in the art of family living, who in the process put grey hairs on my head, bills in my pocket, illustrations in my sermons, happiness in my home, and pride in my heart.”  My friends, if there is to be new heart within you, what priorities must you change?  You may need to be open to others in your life.

Second, a new heart must also have a new perspective.  Albert Einstein once quipped.  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”   The Savior has a way of turning your world upside down and offering you a new perspective.  The abundant life you desire may not be the abundance that the world prizes and seeks.  Career promotion and advancement, a significant financial raise, a new and larger home, may not be on your horizon, and perhaps it shouldn’t be.  Indeed, the Savior’s new perspective may challenge you to consider your own values and desires.  You may be taking for granted those who need you most- your children, your parents and your spouse. At work, at school, or at home, you may be neglecting those who need and crave and long for your simple acknowledgement, your gentle touch, your word of encouragement.  To avoid the world’s insanity, some things may have to be done in a new way.   Mother Theresa was once invited to speak to hundreds of important politicians and international business leaders at a banquet. Shortly before the time of her speech the Master of Ceremonies noticed that she was no longer seated at the head table. They went looking for her throughout the hotel. When they finally found her in the basement, talking with the housekeeping staff, the irritated M.C. said to her, “There are important people waiting for you!” And Mother Theresa responded, “I know. I just found them.”  In order for the new heart to beat and sustain life, it may need a badly needed new perspective.

Third, a new heart needs an abiding trust.  This is perhaps the most difficult habit to change-especially for those who grown to trust their own skills and abilities alone. In the midst of transition and trials it is difficult for many to trust God’s will.  It is easier to trust ourselves, to trust our own knowledge and work.  Some years ago, workers on a British railroad found a thrush’s nest under a rail.  Peacefully sitting on her eggs, the hen was undisturbed by the roar of the fast trains above and around her.  A poet wistfully wrote a little verse describing this discovery.

“Said the robin to the sparrow, ‘I should really like to know, Why these anxious human beings Rush about and worry so.’

Said the sparrow to the robin, ‘Friend, I think that it must be, That they have no heavenly Father Such as cares for you and me.’”

God doesn’t promise a life without pain or sorrow.  He doesn’t promise a world without tears or weeping.  He doesn’t promise a fellowship without hatred or enemies.  This is not the abundant life that the Savior offers.  But for those who are lost and then found, Jesus the good shepherd, offers a new heart, with a renewed sense of priorities, perspective and peace.  And he promises to be faithful to you.

In my own life, when I catch myself making excuses, I too need for the heart of stone to be removed from me, and for a new heart of flesh to take its place.  I need to forget the excuses and to begin again. And day by day, even in the midst of the most anxious times, when it seems that life is most out of control, I discover anew that all my worries and anxieties and concerns do pass, and all that remains is the Savior’s perfect peace.

My friends, are you still making excuses?  God has a new heart for you and it carries with it the promise of abundant life.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.