Monday, September 7, 2009

Heart to Heart

I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, and one thing we have discovered is that Jesus laid down some very high expectations for his disciples in that message. "Except your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." "He who is angry with his brother may be in danger of hell fire." "Do not judge others." "Do not worry about anything." "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." Those paraphrases of just a few of the expectations of Jesus point out how high and daunting is this expectation of discipleship. Moses' words from his mountain are not any more difficult than Jesus' words from his mountain. So, what do we do with that? What's a Christian to do?

In the Old Testament there are two passages which I had never juxtaposed until the last twenty-four hours, and I think that what we learn from these two texts might point us to a way to deal with Jesus' expectations.

In Jeremiah 17:9 we find the prophet making a very harsh indictment of the Jerusalemites of his day. "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?" The Weeping Prophet makes this statement as a part of his lengthy indictment of the people of Judah in his day. They were idolaters, they had no desire to keep God's law or honor his covenant, and so, as Jeremiah warns them, God is going to send a fire storm of judgment on them. There is a sense of course in which all humans have deceit in their hearts, and this verse of Scripture is rightly used by systematic theologians (like me!) to point out that all persons have sin in their lives. It is also important to note, though, that the statement has special force here in the historical context of Israel's idolatry and rebellion. It is true of Israel in general, at this time, that the people's hearts were marked by deceit and desperate wickedness and not much else.

Contrast that statement with 1 Samuel 16:7. "But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'" The context here, of course, is Samuel's search for a replacement for Saul, and God has led him to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem. Gazing on Eliab, eldest son of Jesse, Samuel believed he had found the man, due to the boy's doughty stature, but the Lord, of course, would choose David because the Lord looks at the heart.

Now, how do we understand the contrast here, and what might this tell those of us who have the task of discipleship before us? David was no less of a man born into this world with a nature of sin than the Jerusalemites of Jeremiah's day. David himself admits this when he writes, "Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). In addition, David was a man who would commit sins both large and less large. He would become an adulterer and he would conspire to murder. In addition to that, there are texts that hint that some of his warring was not exactly pleasing to God (he was a "man of bloodshed"). In contrast to Genesis 2:24 David would take many wives, and when those wives bore to him children, he had a difficult time raising some of them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. When Amnon raped his half-sister, David did not exact the penalty prescribed by the law. And when Absalom exacted retribution by killing Amnon, neither did David deal with his son in the manner given by Moses. There seems plenty here to make us wonder, "how is the heart of David any different from the heart of Jeremiah's enemies?"

The answer is, that David's heart was greatly different. First, his heart turned toward God early and stayed toward God all his days. For all his failures, David did not want to be a spiritual failure. He wanted to love and serve God. That comes out over and over again in his Psalms. "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" "I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, I will tell of all your wonders." "Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him." "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer." Sinner though he was, David all of his life wanted to know God. He was never content with the nature of his spiritual experience of God, and more than anything, he wanted to know God.

Second, when confronted with his sin, David always took the blame for his own sin and repented. Contrast David with his predecessor, Saul. When Saul was confronted with his failure to do the will of God in 1 Samuel 15, he blamed his soldiers for taking the plunder, and then went on to say that he had disobeyed God for God's own good, in order to make sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel's response was that God desired obedience rather than sacrifice. Saul only admitted doing wrong after Samuel told him that God was taking the kingdom from him. By contrast, when David was confronted by Nathan the prophet after the sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, when Nathan pointed the long, bony prophet's finger at David and pronounced, "Thou art the man" (some passages only work in the KJV), David confessed his sin and repented before God. Further David would write a Psalm of repentance (Psalm 51), akin to Augustine's Confessions (a bishop admitting publicly to the sins of his younger years) so that all would know of his repenting. And he would also pen these words: "O Lord, you have searched me and known me, you know when I sit down and rise up, you understand my thoughts from afar. . . . Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Saul would never have composed those last lines, but the man who committed grave sins still wanted more than anything else to serve and know the Lord. Though a sinner, and even a terrible sinner, David's heart was different from the hearts of those in Jerusalem who would fall to Nebuchadnezzar.

So, what about the Sermon on the Mount and its demands on us? What about Christian discipleship in general? Well, in the New Testament we find exactly the same kind of teaching about the heart that we observe in these two Old Testament texts. In Matthew 15:19-20 our Lord said that out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness and slanders. And John, in his first epistle states "We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him, in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God" (1 John 3:19-21). The heart can be filled with evil, or, on the other hand, it can be the dwelling place of God (Eph. 3:17).

The Bible lays out for us the demands of discipleship, and it lays them out with great clarity and specificity. "If any man will come after me let him deny himself, take up the cross and follow me." There is no excuse for half-hearted spirituality. There are only two gates, one of which is wide and easy, and the other of which is narrow and hard. The Lord is clear--pick the narrow and hard way. And pick it will all your heart!

As Jesus said those words in Matthew 5-7 he knew that no one who ever lived would live up to those demands perfectly throughout an entire lifetime. The only one who would do it would be he himself. Most of us have broken every one of the demands in the Sermon on the Mount at some point in our sinful existence. We have all stared at a woman to lust at some point. We have all wanted retaliation against a wrong on some occasions. We have all had anxiety over food and raiment at various times. We have judged others unfairly. We have sometimes done unto others what they have done to us--and that was not pleasant! Like David, we have had hearts for God, but sometimes hands for the devil. So, how do we cope with this?

Like David, we must be people who never stop seeking the Lord. Early and late, during youth and dotage, we must be people who are constantly composing new psalms, even if only in our own private prayers. We must tell God that we love him, over and over, even in the midst of our weaknesses, failures, and spiritual inadequacies. Even in the midst of our sins. We must be people who desire not only to do good works, but to do them for the Father, consciously presenting them to him. "Here, Father, I taught this class, I made this hospital visit, I gave this food, but I gave it so that you would be pleased with me, Father. I don't care if anyone else noticed, but I did it for you." This is what it means to be a person after God's own heart. This is why David danced before the Lord when he brought the ark into Jerusalem. Some misunderstood and despised him for it, but he did not care--he did not do it for them. And neither do we carry out our ministries for them, but for the Father.

Like David, we must be people who never stop confessing our sins. When we confess our sins, we are saying, "Lord, there is still that in my heart that is not pleasing to you. I find in myself the very thing Jeremiah spoke of, and I hate it. Take it from me." The reason that David's heart was a heart that God was pleased with was that he saw the defilement in his heart and sought to have it exorcized; the Jerusalemites in Jeremiah's day thought that their hearts were perfectly fine. Like Saul, they thought they were, basically, OK. The one who thinks his heart is pure is defiled; the one who sees defilement in his own heart is one who, as Jesus said in the Beatitudes, is "pure in heart." If you follow the progression in the Beatitudes, you don't get to purity of heart, though, till you first admit your poverty of spirit, and then mourn for your sins. The Sauls and the Jerusalemites of this world will not do that. The Davids of this world do it all the time.

What does this mean for us, when you boil it all down? Seek God every day. Realize that you cannot be an occasional Christian. When you sin, go to God and pour out your heart of confession. Realize that every moment of every day is lived in the company of a heavenly Father who wants nothing more than to bless those who hunger and thirst for him.

Let's live like that! Is there any other way to live?

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