Rob Sturdy: Weak Hearts, Mighty Savior! (Matt 6.1-21)

20 12 2011

Preached at Trinity Church, Feb 24th 2009.

Culture places high value on the notion that the human heart is not only good, but that it is essentially trustworthy.  For many people the heart is the spring from which all that is good within us flows out.  We believe that the heart, the seat of our emotions is essentially good. We are in our innermost being good people, with good intentions.  And yet we don’t stop here.  Alongside this idea that the heart is fundamentally good in a moral sense, we also believe that the heart is unique in the sense that it is a trustworthy compass pointing us in the right direction.  If you were to type in the internet bookstore Amazon.com searching for titles that include the phrase “follow your heart,” you would find over six-thousand titles. This shows us two things:  first there are people in the world who have thought about the heart, about its goodness and trustworthiness (6,000 people!), and second there are people who are interested in reading about how good and trustworthy their hearts are.

The Bible also has many things to say about the heart.  For example, the Book of Proverbs instructs us to “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4.23). The heart is the root of the tree, the gasoline to the car, the hinge on the door, the wood for the fire.  In other words, as “from it flow the springs of life!”  Which is why the writer instructs us to “keep it with vigilance.”  Something so important should be tended to most carefully.  Because our hearts are so important, it is no surprise that God himself is deeply concerned with the nature of our hearts.  “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance,  but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16.7) and ““I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer 17.10).

Jesus also has much to say about the heart.  Today, in this passage, though he never specifically mentions the heart he nevertheless has much to say about the heart and what he says about the heart can be summed up in one word:  “Beware.”  Beware!  It is the last thing that you would suspect would come from the mouth of gentle Jesus meek and mild about the human heart.  We expect the Lamb of God to come gently bleeting compliments and high praise for the goodness of our individual hearts.  Rather he expresses a fearfulness, withdrawing in horror as if he had seen some type of dangerous predator or a horrific car crash, recoiling he says “Beware!”

Why does Jesus tell us to beware?  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6.1).  Beware of practicing your righteousness, your spiritual life, your devotion, your singing, your scripture reading, your praying, your taking of communion “before other people” why?  Jesus is chiefly concerned with the motivation of our hearts. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 6.1)  Jesus’ chief concern is not our actions, after all what the people are doing in Matt 6 are good things, i.e. giving alms, praying, fasting etc.  Jesus’ chief concern is in the end, the motivation of our heart.

What was the motivation of their hearts when they were performing acts of piety?  “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt 6.2).  They give to the needy because they wanted the praise of others.  That was their motivation.  Jesus warns us that they receive their reward, namely the praise of others and that this reward is received to the exclusion of an eternal reward.  Our heart motivates us to do things that look spiritual so that we can get very earthly reward.  The motivation behind each of these things is a reward here on earth.  We wear nice things to church because we want people to notice us on the way to the communion rail.  We refuse to say bad things about people so that other folks will think we’re good.  We tithe to the church so that people will be grateful for our generosity.  I tell you the truth in each of these things we have our reward.  We were noticed, people thought well of us, and the church is grateful.  And that’s all you’re going to get.  Expect nothing from the Father.  But that is not the only reason that Jesus warns us.  He warns us because our heart can actually deceive us.  When the people Jesus’ spoke of in Matthew 6 give alms, sounding trumpets to draw attention to themselves for the praise of man, do you know what their heart is saying to them?  “You’re a good person!  You’re kind, charitable, merciful.  God is well pleased with you!”  In other words, their heart has not disclosed to them its motivation, it is deceitful.

I find it hard to believe that any of you would have escaped running into the news of Bernie Madoff.  Madoff founded Bernard L Madoff investment securities.  It was a fradulent enterprise.  Madoff deceived people who invested in him heavily.  “Give me this,” he said, “and you’ll get this.”  People believed him to the tune of 50 billion U.S.D.  In many ways Jesus’ view on the human heart is very similar to the person of Bernise Madoff.  The heart says “give me prayers, alms, devotion, worship and you’ll get a reward,” but the heart is a deceiver.  Jer says in ch. 17 of his prophecy “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17.9)

So, Jesus says of the heart “beware.  It is not what you think it is.  It is not trustworthy.  It is not good.  Its motivations cannot be trusted.  It is a great deceiver and is not to be trusted.” Where then does this leave us?  How then are we to approach prayer today?  How are we to approach our reading of scripture?  How are we to take communion when Jesus tells us that the roots of our very being are deceitful?

I would suggest first and foremost that you approach prayer, scripture reading, communion, hymn singing, acts of charity and many other aspects of the Christian life in total and utter despair.  There was a film made in the early 90’s called Tombstone about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  In the film, Wyatt Earp the Sheriff is tasked with hunting down and killing a notorious gunslinger named Johnny Ringo.  Ringo challenges Earp to a duel.  Earp accepts, knowing for certain that Ringo is quicker on the draw and will most definitely kill him.  That is how I would suggest you approach the spiritual life.  Your heart is deceitful and you will most definitely not overcome it.  Every thing you do is laced with its deceitfulness.  A Father’s love for his child, a pastor’s devotion to his church, a husband’s love for his wife, a Christian’s affection for his God, all of these things are distorted by the deceitfulness of the heart.  But, thanks be to God the story doesn’t end there.  Back to the film Tombstone,  Wyatt Earp in despair tells his friend Doc Holliday that he must go and fight Ringo.  Earp says goodbye to his friend because he is certain that he will die in the gunfight.  As Wyatt Earp approaches the place where he must fight the deadly Johnny Ringo, he sees his friend Doc Holliday.  Holliday has gone ahead of Earp and defeated the villain because he knew Earp had no chance.  This is the essence of the Christian life.  You and I are called to a standard of holiness that our hearts will most certainly not allow us to achieve.  Failing to achieve this, we march resolutely to Golgotha to face our punishment, morally and spiritually bankrupt. Arriving at the destination, we notice that someone has gone ahead of us, Jesus Christ.  He has fought the battle of the heart on our behalf and he has won!  On the cross where he hung in our place, he offers in our place perfect prayers, perfect mercy, perfect love, perfect charity, perfect holiness and a perfect life.  On the cross he has gone ahead of us and won the great fight on our behalf.

So how then does this affect our spiritual life?  How this affects our spiritual life is it robs us of any ability to trust in ourselves.  Our prayers, our love, our desires, our charity are most certainly corrupt.  So we don’t trust in our prayers, our love, our desires, our charity etc. What then do we trust in?  Christ.  We pray fiercely and boldly knowing that Christ has gone ahead of us and secured our prayers.  We take communion full of confidence, knowing that we’re unworthy to receive the bread and the wine, but confident that Christ has made us worthy because he has gone ahead.  He has fought the fight, made us worth, killing off the villain of sin and the deceitful heart.  We fiercely trust, fiercely believe in, fiercely have full confidence in the forgiveness of sins, refusing to acknowledge that the Father could find any sin in us.  Because Christ has gone ahead.  He fought with sin on the cross, and the grave, but rose victorious having defeated our enemies.  And we receive the imposition of ashes, to remind us that we are without Christ nothing but dirt, nothing but ash.  But in Christ, he has even gone ahead of us to the grave, has fought the enemy, and therefore though we return the grave we will nevertheless not be left shipwrecked in death but will be redeemed even from there.

Secondly, I would say that Wyatt Earp actually had to show up for the fight in order to know that it had already been one by his friend.  Similarly, we actually have to “show up” in order to know that Christ has gone ahead of us.  That means you take time during the day to pray, with confidence that Christ will perfect and inform your prayers.  You take the time to read your Bible.  You come to church.  You visit a needy neighbor.  You share the Gospel.  You “show up” so that you can see that Christ has already won the battle.  But if you don’t “show up”, the knowledge of his victory will most likely remain veiled to you.

In closing let me just say that as Christians we face all things with great confidence. Refusing trust in self we turn to Christ.  We hang everything on him.  He is not only the last card to be played, he is the only one.


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