March 21, 2021 – “A Matter of the Heart”
Grace and peace to our online worshippers, and to those with us in the sanctuary today!
Welcome to our worship service for the Fifth Sunday of Lent at West Tulsa UMC!
Today we’re going to worship the Lord with a wonderful service of music, prayer, and word. Together we’re going to share a time of remembrance, renewal and recommitment.
Thank you for your presence and your participation.
In one of today’s key Scriptures, the Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts.”
To say that something is written on the heart is to say that it is ingrained in the habits and the behaviors of a person. If something is written on someone’s heart it becomes second nature to them. It will mold and shape them.
And that’s God’s desire…That we are transformed, molded and shaped into the people that represent the Almighty God who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have life eternal.”
The kind of love that God loves us with is a love so enduring that it persists beyond any sin or betrayal and moves forward to mend brokenness and extend forgiving grace.
When we worship, we are reminded of God’s love. And we are reminded of what our response should be.
The Lord is making a new covenant with the people of God.
Christ writes the law of love on our hearts.
Here in this place, and in this time.
We are children of the living God.
Come, let’s worship the Lord of Love together!
Before we sing our first hymn, “Lift High the Cross,” let’s dedicate ourselves and this service to God through prayer.
I think that if there’s one prayer that every pastor that is honest with themselves prays…it is King David’s plea for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness after David was called out by Nathan for his infidelities with Bathsheba.
It’s verse 10 in Psalm 51 that has been on my mind quite a bit this Lenten Season:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me.”
What is a clean heart? It’s a “pure” heart, a “holy” heart. It’s an inner drive to be as faultless and blameless as humanly possible.
The thing is, when it comes to being considered clean, pure, and holy, all of us know that we’re only capable of so much…So we either toss our hands in the air and give up, OR, we cry out to God for help.
The Psalmist expresses similar thoughts in the 119th Psalm:
“With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.”
(Ps. 119: 10-11)
In last week’s message, the idea was that we should see God’s commands as something that define us rather than limits us. Jesus refined all the commands down into two that should define us as people and as a community of believers:
“Love God first with ALL your soul, heart, strength –and mind!
And love your neighbor as yourself.”
The problem for us is, following that command is countercultural. It goes against just about everything our modern way of life stands for.
And so those who WANT to live with a clean and faithful heart get frustrated by all the distractions, temptations, and illusions that pull us away from our close relationship with the Lord.
Loving God and following Jesus requires a constant, steady movement forward while maintaining focus on our goal. Eugene Peterson described the right approach to a life of faith as: “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”
In those times that we fail, we feel guilty because it wasn’t like we were tugged away from God kicking and screaming…We walk away willingly because it is difficult to stay there for any length of time.
After all that, like the Prodigal Son, we long to return to that sweet spot where life is good and where we feel secure and significant. Our long-term desire is to be in a place that we can hear the voice of the Father more clearly.
There’s a number of different lessons in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. One of the more important themes of the parable is the unwavering faithfulness and the unconditional love of the father.
We love people because it is the proper response to the fact that God first loved us. Loving others because God loves us is one way we show our gratitude to the Lord.
God’s love is greater than we can imagine. It is impossible for us to replicate, but it is our duty to imitate.
The kind of love that God the Father has for us is the Hebrew word “hesed.”
It’s a love that is based on a covenantal relationship. It is a steadfast, rock-solid faithfulness that endures to eternity.
The Lord attested to His “forever-love” through the prophet Isaiah:
“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken.”
The kind of love that God loves us with is a love so enduring that it persists beyond any sin or betrayal to mend brokenness and extend forgiving grace.
We see God’s “Hesed” in our lesson from Jeremiah 31 today. In verses 31-33 the Lord shows His patience, faithfulness, and forgiveness as God creates a “new covenant.”
“The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt.
Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant.
The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
(Jeremiah 31:31-33 Good News Bible)
This kind of love is more than a feeling, it is also a verb…Hesed is “love in action.”
“Hesed” is a worn out father driving through the night to bail his drug-addicted son out of jail.
“Hesed” is a mom who spends day after thankless day spoon feeding and cleaning up for her disabled child.
“Hesed” is a husband who refuses to put his Alzheimer’s stricken wife in a nursing home. Instead he puts his career on hold and cares for her himself.
“Hesed” is an unsung pastor’s wife whose long-suffering, tearful prayers keep her stretched-too-far husband from falling apart at the seams.
“Hesed” is love that can be counted on, decade after decade. It’s not about the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness.
I wonder…if the emphasis of self-fulfillment, the prevalence of broken families, the epidemics of drugs, racial inequality, and abuse are making it harder for people to be able to grasp the fullness of God’s faithful, generous, and forever love.
My hope is that all these issues drive people to want to experience God’s love rather than not understand it or reject it.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me.”
“With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray.”
“God so loved the world…”
My prayer is that I…that we….learn how to be better examples of God’s kind of love. Being the light of the world and spreading the good news of God’s love is why the Lord saved the Hebrews from their predicament in Egypt in the first place.
As Christians we are grafted into that vine. We have been called for the same purpose the Hebrews were…
As the Lord said in Exodus 19:
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession…You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
(Exodus 19:5-6 NRSV)
And we have Jesus, the Jewish rabbi who shows us the way.
When we speak of the “heart” in English, we’re often referring to our emotions.
Sometimes we even use our “hearts” in contrast to our “heads,” meaning our more rational thinking.
For example: We shouldn’t make a major purchase, like a car or a house with our hearts, we need to use our heads for those kinds of decisions.
The thing is, when the Bible refers to the heart, it refers to emotions, but ALSO to our minds and thoughts. It is describing the center of your inner being.
So a text like Deuteronomy 6:6;
“These commands that I give you today are to be on your hearts.”
“These commandments are to be a part of all your thoughts.”
What that means is that we are to employ ALL of our thoughts as well as ALL of our emotions to work in loving the Lord.
In a week we’ll be standing along the side of the road with everyone else as Jesus makes His “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.
We’ll be shouting “Hosanna!” and “You GO Jesus! Show them who’s really the Boss around here!”
We know better, but I’m afraid we still want Jesus to ride in on His stallion as the Almighty Conquering Messiah to clean up our messes! We want Him to run our enemies off and defeat our problems.
“Come on in,” we shout. “You’re the Pioneer of our faith, so clear out the tangled webs of life we’ve created!”
Do you know why we want Jesus to come in as Conquering Hero?
We lack the confidence to do it ourselves because we’re not invested enough in the power of God’s Word. We’re not covered with the strength of the Holy Spirit. We haven’t taken up the whole armor of God.
We don’t put the belt of truth on, the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness on nearly enough. They’re sitting in a corner, rusty from lack of use.
We’re not proclaiming the gospel of peace, carrying the shield of faith, and we’ve let the sword of the Spirit become dull. (Eph. 6:10-17)
We’ve grown complacent. Being a Christian is so easy in this country that we’ve leaned back in the recliner and shifted it into “Park.” From our easy chair, we’re content to watch the hit TV series, “Jesus P.I.” because we know that within an hour He’ll have the case solved and our world will be better.
(Just like my father used to say, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you.)
“With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray.”
“Create in me a clean heart.”
If there is one thing we can learn from Jewish culture over the ages, it is an absolute passion for learning about the faith.
In Jesus’ day a rabbi would have been expected draw insight from his memory of the entire written Torah and the rest of the Scriptures, and to possess an encyclopedic memory of oral commentary. And Jesus always passed the test when people questioned His knowledge and authority.
From the time Jewish students started school, to the time they moved into the family business, they learned and memorized the Hebrew Scriptures.
Even today, Orthodox rabbis memorize large amounts of Bible commentary. One professor at Hebrew University gave away his twenty volume Talmud to a student because he had it all memorized over a lifetime of learning and didn’t need it any longer.
I’m my own worst critic, and I have to admit hat sounds daunting to me. I regularly forget people’s names. I’d probably stumble pretty badly if I had to recite all the books of the Bible in order. I study the Bible everyday…
But an encyclopedic memory? No.
But think about all the pop culture we know by memory. Think of all the songs (even hymns) you can sing all the verses to.
“If I said, “Monday, Monday, can’t trust that…..”
Or, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so…” you could finish the rest of the sentence and sing the whole song.
I bet when you hear the words, “Here’s the story of a lovely lady…” you could sing the rest of the theme song for what TV show? (The Brady Bunch)
How about “The Beverly Hillbillies”? There’s a lot more examples, but you get the picture. Each generation has its own favorites.
The point is, our brains are full of sitcoms and Top Forty hits, whereas during Jesus’ time, people filled their minds with psalms and Scriptures and prayers, which were often chanted or sung.
An education that revolved around memorizing the Bible might sound excessive, but in most societies from ancient times to the present, people have been far more literate in their sacred texts than we are today.
They were dedicated to learning the depths of their faith. They were invested in it. God’s Word became intrinsic, ingrained, and invaluable in their lives.
Too many Christians are drilling too shallow a well to strike living water. They must drill deeper!
And now our modern Western culture is one of the most secular in the history of the world.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
(Deut. 6:5 NRSV)
Deuteronomy 6:5 is basically a command to love God with all your life. It’s means to love God with everything you’ve got, and in every moment in your life.
The problem is, loving God with all of our soul, strength, mind, AND heart…basically our whole life…Is the exact opposite of our culture’s expectation of us.
The society that we live in figures correctly that we’ll be satisfied to squeeze in a few moments for God in between work, hobbies, sports and TV.
Loving God with all your heart, soul, and might, also means that you’re even willing to sacrifice your life for Him.
That is exactly what Jesus is saying us today in our text from John’s Gospel.
In John 12, verses 23-25 Jesus tells His followers:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
(John 12: 23-25)
There’s a powerful story about Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the first century AD.
After the Jewish revolt in 70 AD, the Romans did what they always did. They squashed the rebellion brutally. They tore town Herod’s Temple and martyred many Jews who fought against foreign control.
Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death publicly for continuing to teach the Torah.
His students (disciples) heard him reciting his morning prayers (the Shema) while being tortured instead of crying out in pain.
His students felt his pain and called out to him, “Teacher, even now!”
The dying rabbi explained, “All my life I have wondered about the phrase that says,’ Love the Lord your God with all your soul,’ wondering if I would ever have the privilege of doing this.”
“Now that the chance has come to me, shall I not grasp it with joy?”
Then he repeated the words of the Shema until his soul left him:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
This is what Jesus calls us to do. Listen carefully:
“Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
(John 12:24-25 MSG)
Jesus Himself did that.
He loved God the Father (and us) with all of His life, until His last breath.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 GNB
The LORD says, “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant. The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach his fellow-citizen to know the LORD, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the LORD, have spoken.”
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
John 12:23-33 NRSV
Jesus answered His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.