(Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Feb 17, 2019 – UBC Digby
This past Wednesday, I heard a sermon – preached online, because of a snowstorm – entitled: The Ruined Heart. The preacher (Rev. Phillip Woodworth) quoted Jer. 17:9, ‘The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?’ He went on to say: The human heart, the command centre, the place from which our life flows, is, in fact, corrupt and ruined, it is bent towards evil. And I know that this is harsh. But I also know that it is undeniable.
In our tradition, over thousands of years, we have been hearing this. We have a penchant for being a curse to the world, not a blessing. Of giving out woe instead of wonderful things. We’re just plain bad.
Alas! and did the Saviour bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head,
For such a worm as I? (Isaac Watts 1674-1748)
Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Stand in His strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you,
dare not trust your own.
(George Duffield, Jr. 1818-1888)
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me…
(John Newton 1725-1807)
Or are we so, so bad? Are we bad and not also good? Christian opinions differ on how depraved and nasty we humans are. How far we have all fallen in the fall pictured in Genesis 3.
Our reading from Jeremiah 17 speaks of people who are blessed and people cursed. Before that warning about the devious heart of the human, prophet Jeremiah gives poetry that echoes so much OT, such as Psalm 1. Those who do well by God get good things; those who do bad get what they deserve. Jeremiah starts with curses for those who trust humanity instead of the LORD. Then, there are blessings for those who put their trust in God.
This is the standard warning: turn back to God or you will get punished! Do right, and prosper. “Put in your quarter, get out your blessing,” as my Old Testament professor used to say (Timm Ashley).
There are, you may well know, other voices in scripture. Minority reports that yet are major teachings. The voice of prophet or poet that gives a different perspective.
Have you felt blessed, or cursed? And let me put it this way: do you tend to give out blessings, or put a curse on others?
Jesus… how does Jesus use the language of blessings and curses? I believe He speaks an amazing word to people who feel trapped in curses they were taught they deserved. And, a severe warning to those who could think they must have popped their quarters in the right slots and got lots of blessings.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain starts in Luke 6. He starts with those blessings and woes, or curses, we read moments ago. Now, according to many traditional Jewish teachings, those who suffer poverty, hunger, grief, or hatred have gotten what they deserved. Like Jeremiah preached, they must have not trusted in the LORD enough, and ended up like the dry scrubby bush in a dry salty desert.
But Jesus lists the poor as the blessed ones. Ones who will get God’s Kingdom, get filled up, get to laugh, and get rewarded for being faithful to the Son.
Next, the ones who face woe, are the happy ones. The ones who might easily believe – as the Bible told them – that they are rich, filled with food, laughing, and well thought-of because they are on God’s side. No, their fortunes will be reversed. Just when they feel they have it all, it will disappear.
Wise rabbi that He is, Jesus’ teaches with a brilliant method – turning conventional wisdom on its head to make His point. And so much hope is given to the vast majority, who were poor, hungry, sad, and rejected by the ‘best’ religious folk.
After He starts His sermon with these blessings and woes, Jesus then gives some instructions. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek… and so forth.
Is this Jesus’ heart? Is this the heart we are to have? The inner attitudes that come out in such kind, forgiving treatment of people acting so nasty? Jesus is teaching the disciples, and anyone who hears this sermon, not to curse enemies, but to bless them.
For a decade or more, author Brian McLaren has popularized a prayer by a Serbian Orthodox Bishop, Nikolai Velimirovic, who spoke out against Naziism, was arrested, and imprisoned. Here’s the start of the prayer, a prayer regarding critics and enemies. https://brianmclaren.net/prayer-regarding-critics-and-enemies-by-serbian-orthodox-bishop/
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth; enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world…
Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless and do not curse them.
So are we to be kinder than God, who seems so often to punish evildoers? We have this phrase: ‘He’s a man after God’s own heart.’ Surely to be like Jesus, for us to be like our God, is to love the enemy, and not curse him, do good to her.
A heart that wishes people well, even when we are not well ourselves. A soul that wants good and wants the best for even the worst people. This is what Jesus suggests is possible for us to have. This kind of a heart in us. Be like this, He says. Surely He says it because it is possible!
One day, a pastor and a deacon went visiting in a nursing home. One resident suggested someone down the hall to go and visit.
The deacon and pastor stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. The pastor tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. The pastor was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits.
She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning.
And yet, the pastor had never met a happier person. She proceeded to tell them that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition. “What changed?” the pastor asked.
“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”
She told them that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence there in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her.
Jesus is enough. (Spencer Boersma)
Was her heart as Jeremiah 17:9 describes it, devious and perverse, beyond understanding? Not at this point, that’s for sure. A heart for blessing and not cursing is amazingly possible. That woman blessed Jesus. She blessed every person around her. She must have blessed herself. It would have been easy for her to curse the day she was born: no, she found Jesus was enough.
You and I might think of people around us who are real good at blessing. And we can likely name those we know who do more cursing; you know: complaining, criticizing, correcting, crushing others.
And then we stand before our Master and see ourselves in His eyes. How are we doing with giving out blessing… or giving out woe?
I give the last words to the Men’s Choir. We sang a simple little song. It does remind us of so much Christ gives us, to bring good out of our hearts.
On Monday, He gave me the gift of love,
On Tuesday, peace came from above,
On Wednesday, He told me to have more faith,
On Thursday, He gave me a little more grace.
On Friday, He told me to watch and pray,
On Saturday, He told me just what to say,
On Sunday, He gave the power divine
to let my little light shine.
Every day, the power for our light to shine. The possibility for our heart to give out blessings to all. Thank-you Jesus! Your heart loves.