Tuesday, June 19, 2012
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
A few years ago I traveled to Burma for a month of mission work with a group of seminarians. And one of the things our team was brought in to do was to lead a country-wide retreat for teenagers from all over Burma. And I have to say, these teenagers were bold and curious, and wanted to know all about us and about our country – were we married or dating, and if not, what was our problem? What do Americans do for fun? And since the latest Hollywood trends were about fifteen years out of date, every Burmese teen just had to know the latest scoop on America’s most celebrated and talented actor – Arnold Schwarzenegger. And so there was a lot of giggling and laughter, and the mood started off really light– that is until one young man raised his hand. After speaking passionately for a few minutes in a language that I did not understand, the translator looked at me, somewhat saddened and slightly embarrassed, and told me his question. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart?
His name was Pwe Thein, and he had traveled for eighteen hours to be with us from a remote village in Burma full of ethnic tension and political persecution. Pwe Thein had experienced the full weight of what stony hearts could do to his family and to his country. And Pwe Thein, a soft-hearted disciple of Jesus, wanted to know why. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart?
Perhaps we’d use different language, but I think we understand his question. After a century shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, the Atomic bomb, and terrorism, we’ve come to accept that stony hearts are a reality in our world. After all, we see stony hearts in our co-workers, in our friends, and in the people we interact with on a day to day basis. Stony hearts are behind every hurtful word, every rude remark, every silent stare, and every critical comment. And let’s be honest - we see them in ourselves. I’ve got a stony heart. And so do you. If we didn’t have stony hearts, I’m not really sure we’d need a savior.
Now with that in mind let’s look at today’s reading from the Old Testament where God sends Samuel to find a new king for the people of Israel. And just to give you a little background the people of Israel having been living in the Promised Land for a while now, but as Moses predicted, the people have consistently hardened their heart, disobeyed God and things are spiraling out of control. And so the people go to Samuel and demands for themselves a king.
Now, this request actually breaks God’s heart, because the whole point in bringing them to Canaan in the first place was so that they’d be different than everyone else and that their light would draw the world to God. You see God wanted to be their king. And that’s why you may recall God’s words to Samuel from last week: “they haven’t rejected you, but it’s Me they’ve rejected from being king over them.”
But still God does give them what they want and Saul becomes the first king of Israel. And this turns out to be a disaster. Saul disobeys God, mistreats his people and accumulates glory for himself. His heart becomes stonier and stonier over time. And so God, because he loves his people, decides a regime change is necessary. And that’s where today’s story from 1 Samuel picks up, with God sending Samuel to Jesse in search of a new king.
And so Samuel goes to Bethlehem to find Jesse and his sons, and the first man to parade in front of Samuel is Eliab, who’s tall and strong and looks like a warrior. I mean, Samuel’s fooled! “Surely, this is a King!” But, God rebukes Samuel. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
C.S. once said, “People don’t need to be instructed; they need to be reminded.” And I do not believe it’s possible to be reminded too many times of what God says here. The Lord doesn’t see as mortals see, but God always looks at the heart.
You see our world teaches us to base our worth, and to judge others, on so many transient things – our appearance, our status, our achievements, out net worth, our moral record and the list goes on.
We look at other people, and we look at ourselves, and these are the filter through which we see. But not God; God always sees the heart.
And what this means for the Christian is that nothing is more important than who we become in here, which is what Christian formation is all about. In other words, it is our character, not our skill-set or eloquence or knowledge or moral record, that enables God to use us for His purpose. And what I take this to mean is that we are responsible for becoming soft-hearted people.
Now, I’d like to pause at this point and clear up a few misconceptions. First, no one chooses to have a stony heart. No child chooses to grow up to be cold or distant or impatient. No adult rationally chooses to be weighed down by the stones of anger and pride and contempt. Our world has taught us these things. We’ve inherited these unhealthy behaviors and attitudes that, over time, have made our hearts stony.
Second – our world would have us believe that stony people can’t change. As the old adage goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But in today’s reading from II Corinthians, we see that Paul could not disagree more. In fact, the transformation of the human heart is exactly what Paul has in mind when he says, “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” In other words what Paul says is that God has given His word to renovate us from the inside out and our job is to partner with God in this incredibly important work.
And of course we know why this work is important – it’s because the heart, above anything else, is what God sees. God doesn’t see the mask we wear, or the role we play or the person we pretend to be. But God always sees the heart.
And so for those of us who want to be faithful of us who want to be faithful we can be reminded that God isn’t looking for religious rule-keepers. God isn’t looking for the fearless and the tearless. God isn’t looking for warriors like Eliab, Abinadab, or Shammah. No, our God’s looking people who are willing to be changed; even if that’s someone like David – the person no one ever could have expected.
A long time ago the prophet Ezekiel wrote the following: “a day is coming when I will give you a new heart and a new spirit; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and will teach you to observe my commandments.” If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, please hear me now: Jesus offers us this new heart, this new spirit. He invites us to come to Him, to submit to Him, and to let him reign in our hearts.
And so I’d like to return to Pwe Thein’s question. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart? The truth is, I really don’t have an answer. I really don’t know why God’s grace radically transforms some people and not others. But what I do know is that if I base my life on the truth that in Christ I am a new creation, and commit my life to the renovation of my heart, that my life will be incredibly rich, meaningful, and eternal, and that everything else will fall into place. I also know that if we’re committed to something more than this – like our appearance, status, net worth or moral record – that like Israel in today’s reading we are rejecting God from being King over us. And I know that far more important in life than what we accomplish is who we become – that character matters. I know we’ll always make mistakes – that even the most committed disciples of Jesus are still clumsy and awkward and stony, which is why you and I need a savior in the first place. And most importantly, I know that we have a savior – that the same God who rolled the stone away that first Easter morning still moves stones – stones of anger and pride and contempt – and that beneath these stones is a soft heart of flesh.
Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart? I don’t know why. But I do know that our heart, more than anything else, is what God sees, and that in this stony world, I’d like to have a soft heart like Jesus. What about you?