Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Heart that Is Right with God

(A sermon based on Matthew 15:1-20 for June 21, 2009)

It is important that we who are fathers—and indeed all of us—face up to the truth about ourselves.

The first truth about ourselves is that we are all sinners. For the sake of honesty, for the sake of our mental and emotional health, and for the sake of a sound perspective on life, it is good and wise that we own up to our own dark side, to our own potential to think, talk, and act in destructive ways. To have integrity, then, all of us, fathers and non-fathers alike, need to admit that we are sinners.

But for those of us who know and are known by Christ, the truth also is that things should be getting better. That is because the grace of God that we find in Jesus Christ works to change our hearts and the Spirit of God that is present in our lives works to transform our hearts.

Jesus said that the things that truly defile a person come from the heart; things that indicate the changed and changing nature of a person come from the heart, too. Those things come to be present there because of what God does in our hearts. We really can have hearts that have been transformed and that are being transformed by the grace and love of God. We really can have hearts that are right with God.

Still, we need to be careful about making a statement like “My heart is right with God.”

We need to be careful in the first place because of the ever-present human tendency toward pride and arrogance. If our hearts are right with God it is all because of what God has done. We tend to want to give ourselves too much credit. Frankly, a too easy assumption that our hearts are right with God and a willingness to pat ourselves on the back for it are two indicators that our hearts are not as right as we would like to believe.

We need to be careful in the second place because of the ever-present human tendency toward carelessness. Perhaps today, at this moment, you can say “My heart is right with God” and it be true. That doesn’t eliminate the need for vigilance and maintenance. If I go to the dentist tomorrow and he says, “Everything is just fine with your teeth,” that’s a good thing and cause for celebration. But what if I don’t go back to the dentist for the next twenty-five years for cleanings and check-ups? Then, twenty-five years later when I do go for another visit, he says, “Well, you need two root canals and seven fillings.” Wouldn’t it sound foolish if I responded with “But you said twenty-five years ago that my teeth were just fine!”?
God makes our heart right and God keeps our heart right, but it’s a process that needs constant attention.

The assumption of our text is that the Pharisees and scribes thought and probably would have said that their hearts were right with God, but in fact they were not. The assumption of my sermon is that we fathers and indeed all of us Christians want to have hearts that are right with God. How can we know that we have hearts that are right with God and that are being made right with God? What would a life look like that is being lived out of such a heart?

A heart that is right with God issues in a life of integrity

When we say that a ship or an airplane or a building has integrity, we mean that it fits together like it’s supposed to, especially under stress. To say that a person whose heart is right with God will live a life of integrity is to say that her life fits together like it’s supposed to, especially under stress. Jesus used words from Isaiah to describe the lives of the Pharisees and scribes: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” His evaluation of them, based on that reality, was that they were hypocrites. To be a hypocrite is to live a life that does not have integrity. The pieces don’t fit; what you say and what you do don’t match who you really are in your heart.

Integrity is everything in the Christian life. It starts with who we are in our heart, with who we are in our innermost being. If we are developing the kind of heart we need, it is because of the grace of God operating in our lives. The tale is told in that part of our being that no one but God and we can see. Then, the reality of our relationship with God that makes our hearts the kind of hearts that honor him shows itself in the things that people can witness: our attitudes, our words, and our actions.

People tend to overemphasize outward actions, though. It seems to me that many of us struggle with two aspects of this problem. First, some of us put too much stock in the fact that we do the right things while giving too little attention to who we really are. In this case, our actions don’t match our hearts because our hearts are not what they are supposed to be. It was this problem that Jesus was addressing when he said “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” and “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

By the first century, Pharisaic Judaism had developed an elaborate system of hand washing the purpose of which was to avoid ritual defilement; if you had touched something unclean and ate without washing, you would be contaminated by the uncleanness being transferred to your food. The intent may have been noble, but the effort was ultimately fruitless, Jesus said. Outward, ritual holiness doesn’t matter if your heart is not holy. Doing all the things that you think God wants you to do externally doesn’t matter if you are not who God wants you to be internally.

Do any of us come to church, sing the hymns, even give an offering, and live exemplary moral public lives but yet have hearts that are really not all that in tune with the heart of God? Are any of us substituting the outward expressions of religion for a life that is really lived in close relationship with God? Our lives lack integrity if our outward actions, even if they are positive and wholesome, don’t reflect the heart that we really have.

I said that we struggle with two aspects of the problem of overemphasizing outward actions. The second aspect is that sometimes our actions don’t come up to the level of what our hearts really are. What I mean is that some of us have hearts that have been radically changed by the grace of God; they are being formed into the kinds of hearts that believers in Christ are supposed to have. Our hearts are capable of tremendous love, of tremendous grace, of tremendous forgiveness, of tremendous sacrifice, and of tremendous faith. But our actions and our attitudes and our words are not reflecting the capabilities of our hearts. Our external lives are not coming up to the level of our internal lives, so we lack integrity.

Wonderful words and attitudes and actions can flow out of our hearts into our lives in the world, but do they?

A heart that is right with God issues in loving attitudes and actions toward other people

That brings me to the other answer I want to offer to my questions “How can we know that we have hearts that are right that with God and that are being made right with God?” and “What would a life look like that is being lived out of such a heart?” I have just said that wonderful words and attitudes and actions can flow out of our hearts into our lives in the world. Those words and attitudes and actions will be based in a personal, down deep in the very heart of your being relationship with the God whose heart was revealed to us by his Son Jesus Christ to be perfectly loving, giving, grace-filled, and sacrificial. So, a heart that is right with God will show itself in attitudes, words, and actions that are directed toward others that reflect the way God feels and acts toward them.

Now, this is not a new legalism. You can’t go out and do a bunch of good deeds to prove that you’re a good person. But a heart that has been and is being genuinely changed by the grace of God will show itself in the ways it causes you to think about, talk about, and behave toward other people.

So Jesus said to the Pharisees and the scribes that they were wrong to nullify the commandment to honor father and mother by declaring their possessions as being dedicated to the temple so as to avoid sharing with their needy elderly parents. It was bad enough that they had allowed their tradition to supersede the teachings of Scripture (although the Pharisees are hardly the only ones to do that!) but they had done so in a way that reflected a callous disregard toward others—in this case their own parents. So Jesus said his disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person….”

In other words, the heart houses that greed and that lust and that insecurity and that selfishness that cause us to take advantage of others and to do harm to them and to treat them as objects rather than as people. But the heart that has been touched by the grace and the love and the Spirit of God produces good intentions, life-affirming attitudes, other-respecting thoughts, and selfless motives. It really can. It really does.

Hearts that house a relationship with God are capable of producing lives that are remarkable in their love, faith, forgiveness, and sacrifice. I said earlier that when a ship or a plane has integrity its pieces hold together especially under stress. What I have been talking about gets hard sometimes. Events and especially other people put us under stress. We doubt that our hearts are changed enough to cause us to be genuinely Christian in our actions toward others, especially when we have been hurt or let down by them.

I don’t personally know any of those Amish families that were so cruelly struck by the murders of their daughters in October 2006 and so I cannot claim to have any real insight into the status of their hearts. I can say, though, that the words that came out of their mouths and the actions that were carried out in their lives toward the one that killed their children and toward his family were Christ-like. They reminded us that it is possible, even in this cruel and sometimes senseless world, to say and do the things that reflect a heart touched by grace, even under the harshest stress and in the face of the most senseless loss.

If it is possible for them, it is possible for us. Do you have a heart that is right with God? Does it flow out naturally into the living of your life? When you’re placed under stress, especially by a person or persons who have done harm to you, what kind of heart is revealed in your attitudes, words, and actions?

It is possible to be genuinely Christian. It is possible to live a life of integrity. It is possible because God makes it possible.

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