Long ago I read this story in Stephen Covey’s Book:  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and have liked using it ever since.

A professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him.  When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls.

He then asked the students if the jar was full.  They agree that it was.

The professor than picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar.  He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full.  They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar.  Of course the sand filled up everything else.

He asked once more if the jar was full.  The student responded with a unanimous YES!

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand.

The students laughed.

“Now”, said the professor as the laughter subsided,

“I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.  The golf balls are the important things: family, children, health, friends, faith, and your favorite passions — things that if everything else was lost and only they remained – your life would still be full.

The pebbles are the other things that matter – like your job, house, car.  The sand is everything else – the small stuff.

If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls.  The same goes for life. If you spend all you time and energy on the small stuff – you will never have room for the things that are important to you.”

“Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter.  Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

Lent is a time given to us every year to “come to our senses”  — to re-prioritize our lives, to reorganize and re-focus on what is important – the values of the kingdom of God – rather than focusing our time, energy, and attention on what is NOT important:  the values of the world.

And what better place to begin this process – than we do every year on the first Sunday of Lent:  going into the desert with Jesus — where one quickly determines what is essential – and what is not.

Before Jesus began his public ministry by declaring his mission statement in the synagogue at Nazareth:  “I have been anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to let the oppressed go free.” — he was first Baptized by John  in the Jordan River – and a voice heard by everyone, including Jesus proclaimed: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus was then immediately led into the desert by the Holy Spirit where he faced  three temptations offered by the devil in order to pull him out of or away from his status of God’s beloved Son. . .  The devil was trying to get Jesus to forget who he was called to be. . .

Jesus was tempted — to use his time and energy and attention to take care of his own well-being (command this stone to become bread)

He was tempted to seek out power and glory (all this will be yours if you but worship me)

And Jesus was tempted to place his faith and trust in someone besides his Father — the all-powerful God (throw yourself down from the temple – and the angels will support you).

Jesus overcame all of these temptations with the power and knowledge of Scripture, and by remembering that he was God’s beloved Son.

Throughout our lives – and most times on a daily basis – we are faced with temptations in order to pull us out of– or away from — our status as beloved sons and daughter of God which we received at the time of our Baptism.  We will be tempted to forget who we are, and the values we stand for – by forgetting to put the golf balls, the important things, into our lives first – and concentrating instead on the pebbles and the sand. . .

The late first lady, Barbara Bush, once told soon to be graduates of Wellesley College in their commencement address:

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal.  You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, a partner.” and I will add:  regret not having spent more time with a merciful God remembering that we are God’s beloved – and will regret time not spent within the loving embrace of a faith community.

What do we value—– what do we expend our time, talent, and treasure in order to achieve— what are the golf balls we put into our jar of life – first?  Lent is a good time to figure all of this out – and the desert is a good place to start.

One more story – about a man who had his priorities right in life – which led to giving us a little quirk in history – and a minor claim to fame of a man from Missouri.

President James Polk spent his last day as President of the United States on March 3, 1849, and at midnight Polk was out of office.  But his successor, General Zachary Taylor, a staunch church goer, refused to be sworn in on March 4, 1849 — because it was a Sunday.

By his actions — Taylor was saying quite loudly: “Going to Church is a higher priority for me than becoming President of the United States.”

He postponed his inauguration until Monday, March 5.  So for one day, U.S. Senator David Atchison of Missouri (buried just up the road in Greenlawn cemetery in Plattsburg) was president of the United States.

Can you think of anything more important than becoming the President of the United States?  Zachary Taylor could – it was going to Church.

What do we value – what do we expend our time, talent, and treasure in order to achieve – what are the golf balls we put into our jar of life – first?  

Lent is a good time to figure all of this out – and going in to the desert with Jesus is a good place to start:    a place to “come to our senses”

and remember that we are God’s beloved – and it is in remembering this – that we will get our priorities, our golf balls,  right – and not be tempted by the pebbles and the sand. . .

Merciful God, we start every Lent by going into the desert with your son.  In the desert, we quickly learn what is essential and what is not – what we need to take with us, and what we need to leave behind.

As we enter into this season of Lent – a season to re-prioritize, to re-organize, to refocus on what is important and what is not – help us to “come to our senses” and know that you alone fulfill all our needs and desires.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, almighty and merciful God.

Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, so, too, you give us this season of Lent every year – so that we can be driven to discern what is of value and what is worth pursuing by our very lives.

Touch us with your grace so we can come to our senses and return to you with all our hearts and minds.

And so with angels and archangels, with thrones and dominions, and with all the hosts and powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim.