Saturday, February 22, 2014

Create in me a clean heart. . .

Sermon preached for the Circuit Pastors and others gathered here on Thursday, February 20, 2014.

I had to read again last Sunday's Gospel with its wounding word of Law from the mouth of Jesus only to end the reading with THIS is the Gospel of the Lord?  It does not seem to hold much good news for anyone.  But as I read this the backdrop in my mind were the words of the second story of the Swedish Lutheran Bishop's wonderful book The Hammer of God.  This it the kind of book you need to reed regularly and not just once.

I love the second story when the young curate named Fridfeldt who, after being converted by a pietistic revival, is sent to a small country church to serve under a very old, very Lutheran rector. From the beginning of the story, we learn that Fridfeldt is a “holy living” sort of guy.  He likes justice and he feels he has something to commend to the Lord by his outward life and inward committment.

On his first evening at the new parish, after dinner, Fridfeldt and the rector retire to the rector’s study where the rector enjoys a nightcap and a smoke. This is shocking to Fridfeldt and begins a serious conversation about what it means to be Christian, one in which the two different faiths both called Christian are laid out --  One rooted in the law; the other rooted in grace. The quotation begins after Fridfeldt has just finished sternly telling the rector that he is a believer, and that he has given his heart to Jesus:

The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave.  “Do you consider that something to give Him?”  By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears.   “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”

Ah... That is exactly where we find ourselves today.  Moses confronts us with the commands of the Lord and asks if these we have done.  And Jesus extends the domain of the Law from the exterior of a person’s life to the interior of the heart and mind, to the secret places not spoken out loud or admitted in public.  Who then can be saved?

But if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved!  We always think that we have something God wants, something valuable that He needs us to give to Him, something worthy of Him that only we can give.  We have talents and abilities.  We have wealth and power.  We have affection and desire.  We have love and kindness.  Or, at least we think we do. . .

Jesus tears down every presumption on our part.  “You have heard it said.... but I say to you...”  There is no wiggle room there.  If the hearers of Jesus from last week’s Gospel had thought it must be hard to be saved if your righteousness had to best the righteousness of the scribe and pharisee, what did they think after Jesus continued down the Sermon on the Mount.  There is only one conclusion.  No one can be saved.  Not one.

Our hearts hold nothing but our sinful desires that end up being spoken as words that shame us or that end up being acted out in deeds the dare not see the light of day.  Jesus spoils the day and confronts us with the blackness of our hearts so that all the Law leaves us is the darkness of true and utter despair.

And then the old Rector answers the curate:  “You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young Pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give Him one’s heart and commit oneself to Him, and that he now accepts one into His little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on Him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor gives one’s heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him. That is how it is.”

The two ways of thinking are two completely different religions.  You and I wonder why our churches are not growing.  We are filled with the anxiety that maybe there is something we could or should be doing differently.  We are exposed to the angst of a marketplace mentality that sells Jesus like a good pair of socks. We want to give Jesus something good both from our lives and our ministries.

We are tempted to borrow what works thinking that Jesus is impressed with a full house and a smart Pastor who knows how to bring em in.  In contrast to this stands the cross, the religion of pure and unadulterated grace.  In contrast to this is the terrible realization that we have nothing to offer Jesus but the rags of soiled righteousness and hearts filled with decay and death.  But that is the miracle of the cross.  Jesus want’s those hearts.  Jesus wants those hearts not because they are filled with good but because He alone has the power to make them new.

So we come with heads hanging down, with egos deflated, and with more shame that we want to admit.  And we give Jesus our hearts... and with them the Holy Spirit teaches us to sing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God...”  O Lord, make them new because we cannot stand them as they are.  Jesus lays bear every presumption so that grace alone is left before.  Gift of mercy and work of grace alone.

The truth is I do not come here because I want to.  I am here because I have to be here.  I have nowhere else to go.  I do not give my heart to Jesus because it is worth something.  I give it to Him because it is a worthless, stinking, den of decay and death.  I give it to Him because I cannot stand it anymore.  It is filled with the regret and disappointment over my constant failure to be good and my complete inability to reign in for a moment the evil and sin hidden within it.  I give it to Him because only He can make it new.  The pews may not be full but God has never promised they would be.  But where there are people like me who have had so much of themselves they cannot stand it anymore, there is Jesus.  Taking our old hearts and making them new.  You do not give your hearts to Jesus to be saved... You give your hearts to Jesus because you are saved... by grace... through faith...  Amen.


Anonymous said...

I have thought about this but never heard it expressed so efficiently. Where but to Christ would I go?

Had enough of myself

Anonymous said...

I do recall vividly that scene in Bo Gertz novel. This is, oh, so true.