Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Heart of God

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2012
If you want to know the heart of God you need to go to the guts of God. When overwhelmed with sympathy we say that our heart goes out to the other person. In the ancient world they talked about their inward parts, their guts. When stirred with the emotion of sympathy or compassion they would talk about it as they felt it: it hit them in the gut. That’s what we feel deep down inside, when we’re moved by something we see, we’re moved to reach out, to have compassion. Maybe we have talked about our heart going out to the person rather than our guts because we’re a little more polite. Maybe it’s because we understand that it’s not really what’s in the gut that is the seat of our emotion or compassion, it’s the heart. At any rate, the Heart of God sounds a more pleasant sermon title than the Guts of God.

Even so, we’ve done a similar thing with the heart. The organ that’s pumping out blood into your veins isn’t the seat of your compassion anymore than your intestines are. We talk about the heart in the same way those in the ancient world talked about their inward parts, their guts. On Valentine’s Day when you tell your loved one that you love them with all your heart you don’t mean that you literally love them with your heart, that thing that is beating inside your chest. You mean that in your deepest feelings and thoughts you love them. Your heart very well may have been pounding the first time you saw him or her or when you were falling in love, but like the guts, your heart is a physical reaction to what’s going on with your emotions and feelings and thoughts.

This is maybe why we have such tough time loving others where God has no problem whatsoever. When we’re moved with feelings of sympathy or love we tend to equate that with love for the person. If we are moved with disgust at a person because they are spiteful or have harmed us or are just plain rude we don’t feel very much love for them, or sympathy for that matter. To have compassion on a poor soul who is in need through no fault of their own, compassion for that person comes easily. To someone who deserves nothing but the same vile treatment they have dished out, compassion for them is the opposite of what we think they should get.

How else do you explain Naaman? Naaman should have been left to rot in his skin disease. His king thought the world of him because he was a great commander and accomplished a lot for the king’s rule. But what about all those innocent people he had killed and taken from their homes? What about that little girl who was unjustly removed from her home and an ordinary life in Israel and was now a slave in a foreign land to pagans? We would even say that the leprosy Naaman had was what was due him. It served him right.

But not God. God sympathizes with him. He was moved to heal Naaman, to give him a gift. He saw one whom He had created. He saw a man who was rotting inside, spiritually. He saw a sinner who needed spiritual healing. Who else could heal him in that way but God Himself? So God reached out to him. Perhaps we need to become as little children to see this. In order to understand what it means to have the heart of God perhaps we need to see others as children do. That little girl might easily have rejoiced under breath that the man who ruined her life was suffering and rotting away in his skin and was going to die a miserable death. But she didn’t. She was moved with pity. She saw a man who was in need. She saw a person whom God had created, just as He had created her. She reached out in compassion—there’s a man who can help you, a prophet in Israel.

If you want to know the heart of God then look at that little girl. This is God at work. She was living by faith. All she knew was that that horrible man who had brought her here was suffering and she saw someone in need. If you want to know the heart of God, look to the one she had spoken of: the prophet who was in Israel. Elisha shows us where we can know the heart of God. It’s in water. Even though he told Naaman to go into the Jordan River, his point was not that that river was special as opposed to any other river. It was that there was the word from his mouth that was attached specifically to that river. And so the compassion of God was poured out on Naaman in that Jordan River where he dipped himself in seven times.

If you want to know the heart of God then you need to go to the water where Jesus reached His hand down to touch you and cleanse you. When Naaman came out he was clean. He was cleansed. His skin was like that of a little child. When someone is moved in compassion to reach out and act in compassion it’s in a tangible way. This is why God places water on us in Baptism. It’s tangible. It’s not simply a gut feeling on the part of God or His heart going out to us, it’s Him being compassionate and reaching out to us to cleanse us from our sin. Just as Elisha’s words, which were the words of God, were attached to the Jordan River, Christ’s words, which are spoken by a pastor, are attached to the waters that are poured on a person when they are Baptized.

This is what we see Jesus doing in the Gospel reading. He was moved with compassion for the leper. He touched Him. The man was cleansed. The Collect of the Day directs our attention to where it needs to be. It is indeed a blessing when God grants physical healing. Obviously it was for the leper Jesus healed. Obviously it was for Naaman. But if the Scripture readings today lead us to the notion that God sent His only-begotten Son to deliver us from our physical ailments then we really are to be pitied. That kind of Christianity is no Christianity at all, but wishful thinking in this temporal life. The Collect of the Day shows us exactly how we are like both the leper in the Gospel reading and Naaman. It also directs our attention to the fullness of healing our Lord gives: “O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name.” His healing may better be thought of as restoration. Ultimately, that is the purpose. In heaven there will be no leprosy or cancer or flu or colds or amputations or AIDS or any other illness or disease we suffer in this life.

The Collect is prayed because we stand before God not as lepers, or ones who suffer from cancer or suffer severe back pain, but as sinners. It’s true that we stand before God often as ones who suffer physically and our Lord invites us to pray for healing according to His good and gracious will. But our physical suffering can serve to humble us as Naaman needed to be humbled. It may serve to bring us to our knees as it did the leper in the Gospel reading. The healing we truly need is healing for our soul. We need to be cleansed from the inside, deep down inside our heart of hearts. The heart of God reaches out to us in His Son. That’s why in the Collect we prayed that we would “be mercifully delivered by [His] goodness.” His goodness is that He has compassion on us.

If you want to see the heart of God then you need to go to the place where He reaches out to give you healing in body and soul. The Lord’s Supper is strength and healing now and to life eternal, in body and soul. Think about what Jesus was doing when He touched the man. It’s not just that that was His way of showing compassion, it was deliberately in response to the social and religious system of that day, that an unclean person was not allowed to be part of society and public religious life. At the very least you would contract the leprosy of the person by coming into contact with him. But Jesus also touched the leper, this unclean man, because the priests were the spiritual gatekeepers. They determined whether you were clean. Jesus touched the man in defiance of this. He made the man clean on His own. The priests would not touch the person—Jesus does. In all of our filth, vileness, uncleanness of body and soul, He reaches out to us and touches us. He heals us in body and soul in giving us His body and blood in His Supper.

It’s no mere side point that Paul in 1Corinthians 11 appeals to the Christians in regard to their partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner by reminding them that some of them even became sick and died. There is power in the Lord’s Supper and we should not think less of the Lord’s Supper than it is. As the blessing says, “The Body and Blood of Christ strengthen and keep you in body and soul.” We entrust our life, our very person, body and soul, to God. He gives us strength and healing in body and soul in His holy Sacrament. With physical healing it’s always in His time and according to His will. Ultimately it’s realized in fullness in heaven. That’s why we pray for physical healing according to His will.

For the wretchedness that characterizes our heart and soul we have certainty of full and free healing and cleansing. God is moved to do so. You can see that at the cross where every aspect of the vileness of our sin and guilt was imparted to Jesus and He became the leper, the outcast, the one who is Unclean. This was your sin and mine and the person sitting next to you, and the countless people around the globe, and your neighbor who gets under your skin. If you want to see the heart of God then look at each one of those people and you will see Naamans and lepers, sinners whom God loves and who are the recipients of the heart of God. Then look to your Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the places where you are recipient of the heart of God, now and forever, in body and soul. Amen.


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