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The Heart Of The Matter

 

Matthew 5:1-14   Matthew 5:8    Jeremiah 17:5-10   1st Peter 1:3-9

 

I have been a minister of the gospel now for 37 years. In this time the gospel has never ceased to shine brightly for me. No doubt many of you could say as much for yourself concerning the gospel. We know that there is no substitute for it, just because we know that the gospel (which is to say, the living Lord Jesus Christ himself in his presence and power) penetrates to the innermost core of our humanness as nothing else can.  The gospel effects the profoundest alteration within us as nothing else will. To have been seized by the gospel ourselves; to know that the gospel is the outer expression of the inner being and character of God; to have witnessed again and again the life-long transmutation the gospel effects in those who become steeped in it — what is this but to have a confidence in the gospel that no secularism can dilute nor ecclesiastical betrayal diminish?

From time to time I relish preaching a simple sermon from a simple text simply to remind us all once more of the truth and trenchancy of the gospel. One such text comes from our Lord’s short statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”.

 

[1]         When Jesus declares that the pure in heart are going to see God he doesn’t mean, of course, that we shall see God with our eyes; the blind person will not be at a disadvantage.   He means that the pure in heart will know an intimacy with God that has the ring of authenticity about it.  The pure in heart will be acquainted with the mind and will and purpose and way of God so as to know what good is to be pursued and what non-good is to be repudiated. The pure in heart will find a satisfaction in God that renders them unseduceable in the face of the religious and ideological smorgasbords that hold out so much yet deliver so little.  This is the blessing imparted as promised to the pure in heart.

 

[2]         And yet as surely as our Lord knows this and declares it plainly, he knows something else and states it starkly: the human heart isn’t pure. It has to become pure, be made pure, for right now it isn’t.  Many different words can describe our heart-condition: fragmented, corrupt, self-serving, blind, contradictory, insensitive, silly, uncontrollable, inconstant. The list is endless.

So many different words describe the heart of fallen humankind just because a heart-condition is the most serious condition we can have. You see, “heart” is the metaphor scripture uses most frequently to speak of what it is to be a human being under God. “Heart” is the single most important metaphor for understanding human complexity and the relation of complex elements within us.  The heart is the “control centre” of feeling, thinking, willing and discerning.

Let’s think first of affect, desire.  The heart is the seat of our feelings, our desires, our passions.  The heart of fallen humankind, however, is disordered: we desire what we were never meant to have and fail to desire what we need to have.  We passionately pursue what will only prove ruinous and just as passionately avoid what would be our salvation.

How messed-up is the human heart?   As the seat of feeling it feels dreadful when the favourite political party loses the election or the hometown sports team loses the game, yet feels nothing at all when God is dishonoured.  Recall how you felt the last time you were slighted.  Even if you were slighted ever so slightly, you were outraged.  What did you feel when last you heard Jesus Christ insulted?   Likely you felt nothing.

 

The heart is also the seat of thought and understanding.  In fallen humankind thinking, then, is distorted too.  It’s not the case that we can no longer think consistently, think logically; we can. Fallen humankind remains able to do algebra marvellously.  Rather it’s the case that our thinking serves the wrong end.  Our thinking, as logically rigorous as ever, now churns out “reasons” that rationalize temptation, make excuses for sin, render our selfishness perfectly reasonable and our depravity perfectly acceptable. Paul says our thinking has become “futile”.  He doesn’t mean that we can’t reason — the structure of reason survives the Fall (or else we shouldn’t be human);  he means that our reasoning leads us to futility, a dead end — because the integrity of reason has collapsed (reason’s integrity doesn’t survive the Fall.) Our thinking leads not to an intellectual dead end; it leads us, rather, to intellectual riches that are a human dead end. When he insists that our “senseless minds are darkened” he doesn’t mean that we can’t do biology; he means that our biology serves a dark end and we promote biological and germ warfare.  Not that we can’t perform electronic wizardry, but that we deploy electronic surveillance and super-sophisticated munitions and thereby dehumanize ourselves. The heart is the seat of thought and understanding; when the heart isn’t pure our thinking — as rigorous as ever — promotes a destructive, deadly end.

 

For our Hebrew foreparents the heart is also the seat of the will.  Our will is our doing. We have a bent will; it has a bent toward doing what it shouldn’t.  No child has to be taught to misbehave.  No adult has to be schooled in vindictiveness, grudge-holding, spite, envy.   I am forever amazed at intelligent people who endorse the liberal myth of history, the liberal myth being that history is the unfolding of human progress. They assume that humanly to do is inevitably to do better.  To be sure, humankind does advance technically (laser surgery is a technical advance on the application of leeches), yet humankind never advances humanly. How anyone can believe in human progress is beyond me, given overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In view of the countless generations of human beings who have come and gone upon the earth, the cumulative effect of even a smidgen of progress per generation should have rendered us all angelic by now. Yet the twentieth century, just concluded, saw unparalleled savagery, thanks to the unholy marriage of technology and darkened minds.  Actually, upon reflection I’m not amazed that intelligent people believe in the myth of progress.  After all, one aspect of the darkened mind is that even intelligent people prefer palatable falsehood to unpalatable truth.

 

The heart is also the seat of spiritual life.  We were created to recognize God, respond to him and rejoice in him. But our heart, afflicted with the profoundest kind of heart trouble we shall ever have, does not recognize God but instead prefers idols both crude and sophisticated. We do not respond to God but instead reject him.  We do not rejoice in God but instead seek satisfaction everywhere else.

 

Scripture uses one word predominantly to speak of our heart, one word that gathers up all other descriptions in itself: hard.  Hard in the sense of stony, unyielding, insensitive, obstinate, rigid; simply hard. It doesn’t beat, doesn’t throb, doesn’t pump life-sustaining blood.

 

[3]           On the other hand, whenever scripture speaks of the heart made new at God’s hand it uses a wonderful variety of expressions: heart of flesh (it beats, throbs, pulsates, pumps), holy heart, reverent heart, broken heart, contrite heart, new heart, pure heart, circumcised heart.

          Circumcised heart? What on earth is a circumcised heart? Circumcision was the indelible sign, the ineradicable sign, the undisguisable sign that this person in particular had been pledged from infancy to love God and thank him and obey him and delight in him. The prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul, both Jews to whom circumcision was non-negotiable, nonetheless insisted that if one’s heart wasn’t circumcised there was no point in circumcising anything else.  Circumcision not matched by a circumcision of the heart, said both Isaiah and Paul, is but a misleading sign, a deceptive sign, a fraudulent sign. Baptism not matched by faith; church membership not matched by service; Sunday attendance not matched by sacrifice — a misleading sign, a deceptive sign, a fraudulent sign. It’s the circumcision of the heart that identifies someone as pledged to the love and service and satisfaction of God.

 

[4]         Jesus insists that it is the pure in heart who see God.  A pure heart isn’t a state of faultlessness, sinlessness, or perfection. A pure heart, rather, is a singleminded heart, a heart dedicated to one, all-consuming pursuit: God. But if the heart is already in the mess we have described at length, if the heart is in so great a mess that it will never be able to purify itself, then how will anyone come to have that pure, singleminded heart which sees God? If the messed-up heart can’t even recognize the truth of God, then how can the messed-up heart even get to the point of knowing that it is messed-up?   How can the messed-up heart determine to be singleminded when the messed-up heart isn’t even aware of heart-trouble and would laugh off singlemindedness as soon as it heard of it?

In order to answer this question I must acquaint you with a most significant aspect of the thought of the universal church.  Throughout its history the church has spoken much of prevenient grace. Pre, “before”; venire, “to come”. Prevenient grace is grace that comesbefore; comes before we are aware of grace, comes before we are possessed of faith, comes before we know our need of grace, before we have even heard of grace. Prevenient grace is the hidden work of God in the heart of every human being quietly preparing that person for the moment when the morning dawns and the truth flashes and he who has always been the light of the world is finally recognized and acknowledged to be this.  Prevenient grace is that preparatory work of God, unknown to those in whom prevenient grace is at work, bringing someone to that point where our Lord’s saying, “Only the pure in heart are going to see God”, is recognized as true; to that point where purity of heart (singlemindedness concerning God) is all-important just because seeing God is desired now above all else.

When our forebears in Christian understanding spoke of prevenient grace they knew that the gospel-seed which they sowed they were always sowing in soil that God had already, beforehand, ploughed and fertilized and watered and prepared in every way to receive that gospel-seed which would otherwise never germinate and yield faith.         Prevenient grace is the anticipatory work of God in the heart-troubled heart quietly rendering us dissatisfied with our present satisfactions, quietly quickening in us a desire for “something more” even though we can’t specify what the “more” is, quietly moving us toward that day when the gospel rings in our hearing with such authenticity that we wonder where we could have been for twenty-five years. Prevenient grace is that preparatory work of God, of which we have never been conscious, bringing us to the point of conscious faith and quickened discipleship.  In other words, prevenient grace has been operating within us, quietly rendering us able to see and want and seize the new heart, the circumcised heart, which is nothing else than the self-giving of our Lord Jesus Christ forging himself within us.

 

[5]           What is the result of all this going to be?   Paul maintains that the result of Christ’s “dwelling inour hearts by faith” is that we have “power to comprehend the breadth and length and height anddepth of Christ’s love”.(Eph.3:17-18)   Breadth, length, height, depth: Paul is speaking here of the vastness of Christ’s love for us, the sheer enormity of it.  To speak of Christ’s love for us in terms of its breadth, length, height and depth is to know that Christ’s love is the environment, the atmosphere in which we live, regardless of what we are about.  Christ’s love reaches so high that it towers above even our highest cultural achievements; so deep that our bottommost depravity cannot sink us beneath it; so broad and long that everything about us unfolds within this dimension. When we were born we were born into this love, and when we die we shall die into this love in its greater transparency.  The apostle is careful to point out that as Christ dwells in our hearts by faith we have the “power to comprehend” Christ’s inexhaustible, immeasurable love for us.  To comprehend such love, needless to say, doesn’t mean that we merely grasp the idea of it; to comprehend it is to be seized by it, to be possessed by it. And to be possessed by it is to have a singleminded passion for him whose love it is. And to have this singleminded passion is what it is to be pure in heart.

The apostle James insists that the “doubleminded person is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:7-8)   Of course. The doubleminded person is always trying to move in two contradictory directions at once, always trying to uphold two contradictory loyalties at once, always struggling with two contradictory impulses at once, with the result that he is constantly distracted, constantly frustrated, constantly heart-troubled. Kierkegaard knew better: “Purity of heart is to will one thing”, the Danish philosopher never tired of saying. Paul knew that to have the power to comprehend Christ’s passionate love for us is to be freed to love him with a similar passion.

As we do so love our Lord the miracle of the new heart occurs, the circumcised heart, the heart of flesh.  And as this takes hold of us everything of which the heart is the seat takes hold of us as well.

Since the heart is the seat of feeling and desire we come to desire above all else what is of God and therefore good and therefore good for us.  Since the heart is the seat of thought and understanding we come to cherish the truth of God and the truth about the world and the truth about ourselves, however out-of-step we appear to be with those whose unremedied heart-trouble finds them misunderstanding life and romanticising death and rationalizing what we now see to be blatantly false. Since the heart is the seat of the will our bent will comes to be straightened enough that at least we want to “do the truth”, in John’s splendid phrase, and begin to do it.  Since the heart is the seat of our life in God we taste what it is to recognize him, respond to him and rejoice in him. All of this arises from a singleminded love that Jesus names “purity of heart”.

There is one more thing we must be sure we understand about our Lord’s word. When he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”, he doesn’t mean merely that they are going to see God in some far-off future.  He means that singlemindedness issues now in an intimacy with him that we know and cherish, issues now in an acquaintance with God’s will and way that strikes us as the only way, issues now in a satisfaction that ends all groping and guessing.

 

At the beginning of the sermon I said that the gospel has never ceased to shine brightly for me. My confidence in the gospel is unshaken.  I trust yours is too. For together we want only to persist in that singlemindedness which finds us “seeing God” now through the eyes of faith, and will find us seeing him even more gloriously on that day when faith gives way to sight, and hope gives way to hope’s fulfilment, and love gives way to nothing — except more love to him who has loved us always and always will.

                                Victor Shepherd   
2008