Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Heart (or the Hand, or the Eye) of the Matter

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Jerome, Translator of Holy Scripture
September 30, 2012
There can be a tendency in making use of the liturgy and being a little too formal, as if there’s no place for any human emotion. The fault is not with the liturgy but rather if you just go through the motions. It’s easy to do. The liturgy can seem rigid and unfeeling, formal, with no room for individual expression.

But at some point the liturgy meets every person right where they’re at, even if they may be going through the motions and at the moment miss it. Somewhere along the line, as you make your way through the liturgy Sunday in Sunday out, through a lifetime of the back and forth of the liturgy, there is a realism and a relevance there that really is missed only if you are looking for something else.

And so today the liturgy offers us a bit of comic relief even if the matter at hand is deadly serious. And we will see that ‘deadly serious’ here is not entirely symbolic in meaning. We’re so used to hearing the response upon reading the Gospel for the day, “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” that the response to that is almost automatic, “Praise to You, O Christ.” We have just heard the words of the Lord, the very Gospel itself. Praise to You O Christ! There’s nothing better that we could hear!

And so it’s moments like these that we experienced a short time ago that give us a little comic relief and then a chance to ponder, what exactly is the Gospel of the Lord? Today’s Gospel reading sure sounded a whole lot more like a lot of Law. Judgment, doom, warning. But there was the liturgical response, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Even so, comic relief aside, there is a method to the madness, so to speak, of the liturgy. Why is it that the liturgy would have us think of a Gospel reading as Gospel that is largely Law?

Because there’s some Gospel in there and it can therefore be said to still be Gospel? That’s not the way the liturgy works. It’s more along the line of, Christ is in there, and where you have Christ you have Gospel. We most certainly have Christ here in the Gospel reading for today. And it is therefore most certainly the Gospel of the Lord. That the words He is speaking are a heavy dose of the Law doesn’t negate the blessed Gospel that Jesus incarnates and gives.

That fact is, there is no Gospel without Law. With no judgment, no conviction of sin, no going to the heart of the matter of where you are at and who you are as you stand before Him, there is nothing bringing you to repentance. Without His gracious work, although difficult to receive, of Him calling you on the carpet and calling you to repentance, there is no work of Gospel He can do for you.

Of course, your Lord Jesus Christ can do anything. But His forgiveness and salvation He gives to you is without benefit to you if you hold on to your own comforting notions of your own peace of mind, or your understanding of yourself as a decent and kind person, or your satisfaction with your spiritual life to the point where you become complacent.

This is why Jesus uses such startling imagery. Do not be the cause of a brother or sister Christian stumble in their faith to where they lose it because the consequences for you are dire. So much so that it would be better if you were shackled to a large weight that pulled you down to the bottom of the sea. Cut off your hand if it is the cause of your sinning against the Most High God because being in heaven without your hand is preferable to being in hell with all body parts intact. Pluck out that eye that roams in the hopes of finding something that isn’t yours for the taking because it’s better not to have full sight in eternal glory than to fully see the terrors of eternal agony.

The only problem with immediately jumping to the fact that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here, and He is, is that it’s all that easier to dismiss it. Thank goodness, He’s just using imagery here. He’s not speaking literally, so I don’t have to worry about getting to the sordid work of hacking into myself and leaving body parts behind.

The sordid truth is, there is no imagery that could change the sinful condition of your heart. Because that is what Jesus is really getting at here—the heart of the matter. How many body parts would you have to cut off before you would be able to stop sinning and finally enter into eternal life? You’d have to hack everything away and then you would still have your heart. And your beating heart, the one that’s pumping blood to all your other body parts isn’t what Jesus is getting at here either.

What is in your heart of hearts? Good things? Pleasant things? Things you’re proud of? Things you would be perfectly at ease sharing with your Lord Jesus if it were just you and Him face to face with each other? What is deep in your heart that keeps you awake at night? All those missed opportunities where you failed to help someone in need. All those times you convinced yourself you need to take care of yourself and your children would have to wait. All those moments where your words of conviction of trusting in God betrayed your thoughts and your worries that you really weren’t sure if God was on your side. All those times where you were the cause of someone to stumble in their faith, a fellow Christian who was struggling in their faith, and you didn’t take the time or effort to sympathize with them, to be there for them, to listen to them, to not just say you care for them, but really care for them by showing them that you would not judge them because they were struggling in their faith.

There’s too much in there, in that heart of yours, to fully do justice to just how much sin and guilt there is. If Jesus can’t drive the point home by using potent imagery of cutting off your body parts, I’m not sure what else will work. The heart of the matter is that it’s not your hand, or your foot, or your eye, that causes you to sin. It’s your heart. All those sins you commit against others, all those times you failed others, all those times you caused others to stumble; they bring out your deepest problem, and that is that you call the shots for yourself rather than trusting that your Lord’s way truly is the best way.

Even though we confidently say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” and “Praise to You, O Christ,” always remember that the Law must do its work. You will squirm when the Law nails you to the wall, but give thanks that your Lord does this to you. Without it you would be enduring far worse than chopped off body parts. His Law is designed not to nudge you but to nail you to the wall.

Recently there was an article in the Union-Tribune on human trafficking. No to go into the awful details of what people to do to often underage children, but human trafficking, forcing others against their will to do sordid things for money, is a very real problem. And it’s not just ‘over there’ in those third world countries where things like these are easily done. It’s right here in our own city and in our own backyard in Mexico. It makes your heart go out to those who are used in this way. One striking thing mentioned in the article was from a person who is trying to help these innocent children who have basically become slaves. She said that the greatest enemy of children is indifference.

Think about that for a moment, about indifference. If you ignore the problem you are part of the problem. If you don’t do something about it you are promoting it. Indifference is deadly. Jesus said something in a similar vein, I would that they would be hot or cold rather than lukewarm.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s hard to be indifferent when met with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. They nail you to the wall and you either repent or rebel. Ignore them at your peril.

The Gospel in all of this is not so much in Jesus’ words, as we have said that they are significantly Law, but in the Word made flesh; in Jesus Himself. He didn’t come simply to blast you out of the water, to nail you to the wall. He certainly didn’t come to get you to break out the large kitchen knife and start hacking away at yourself. He came to call you to repentance. He came to bring you life. There is no life, there is no doing away with that guilt and sin heavy on your heart, without hitting it straight on.

A much easier to digest Jesus would be preferable, wouldn’t it? Much easier. But also deadly. So don’t get caught up in the, Oh good, it’s all just metaphorical stuff from Jesus today. Rather, get caught up in the Jesus who loves you so much that He comes to do the hard work of calling you to account, of nailing you to the wall. The Jesus who loves you so much that He would never be indifferent to you and your plight. But rather who would come to you right where you’re at and rescue you. Yes, who would come to you not just to say, Hey cut out all that stuff in your life that’s going against My sovereign Law, but also to say, My Father, if it be Your will, let this Cup fall on Me. Let it be to Me instead of the precious people who are our joy and delight.

And there, my friends, is truly the heart of the matter. It’s not just about your hand, or your eye, or whatever body parts causing you to sin, and the sins you’re struggling with. It’s about your Lord who loves you and lets you know that by not leaving you in the Law. It’s your Lord who is nailed to the wall Himself in your stead, nailed, in fact, to the cross. It’s your Lord, whose heart is pure, who is convicted and suffering the wrath of the holy God so that you may live in righteousness and purity forever.

And the heart of the matter is this as well, as with Jesus there is always more, that you may use your hands, and your feet, and your eyes, and your whole being to praise Him and serve Him. And if that all sounds wonderfully spiritual, well, it is. But it’s also immensely practical, because what do you use your hands, and eyes, and your body for? To serve others. To get down in the dirt with them, right where they’re at, to love them, and cherish them, and serve them. Praise to You, O Christ, that this is all accomplished by You, in Your precious Gospel. Amen.


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