Sunday, February 06, 2011

From Today's Lectionary Reading: The Problem of the Human Heart

In Isaiah 57:14-21 we see a kind of universal drama depicted. It is the drama of a holy God, and an unholy people. The holy God has just cause for anger, but He says, 'I will not contend forever, I will not always be angry." (v.15)

Why? Because it would break the back of his people. His anger would consume them. "The breath of life" would grow faint in them. (v.16) This is not what God desires. God's anger is just, but his desire is for a people.

So he says, though I abide in a high and holy place, I will be with the contrite and lowly spirit. In fact, this is the "thesis" of the entire passage. A holy God will not necessarily be aloof, distant from his people due to their sin. He will come and be with the contrite of spirit.

[Here are a couple of supporting verses: Ps. 34:18, Ps. 138:6]

Now, verse 17 is very interesting to me.
Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
I struck him; I hid my face and was angry,
but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.
This is the Biblical story in a nutshell. The anger of God caused people to "backslide," which I take to mean draw away from God rather than near. In other words, the situation was only getting worse! [By the way, this tells you something about trying to use anger as a form of coercion (in families, the workplace, etc.). It doesn't work.]

Note: broadly speaking, this is the trajectory of just about every story line ever conceived. There is a problem. The problem gets worse. The problem here, in a nutshell, is that we are all backsliders. What is to be done? Or, in other words, "Who shall save us from this body of death?"

Note also: two kinds of hearts are mentioned here. A backsliding heart, and a contrite heart. The key question might be, how is a heart transformed from a backsliding heart to a contrite heart? From a heart that draws back from God, hiding itself (think Gen. 3:8), to a contrite heart, drawing near to God? If itt is not anger that will do this, then what? Answer: it is simply the mercy of God.

The transformation of hearts is a God-thing. It all hangs upon the word "but" in verse 18.
I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
creating the fruit of the lips.
Now, again, did the backslider's heart grow contrite because of the anger of God? Of course not. God's anger only caused more backsliding. Did something else cause the contrition, something apart from the action of God, such as (for example) an apologetics discussion at Starbucks? Not likely.

Instead, God simply finds the backslider, has mercy on him, leads him, restores him, and thereby provokes in him (creates) fruitful lips! The author of Hebrews gives us a little indication of what that fruit might be:
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:15 ESV)
It is God's mercy to break our hearts. Then to draw near and heal, comfort, and restore, producing on our lips the fruit of praise. This is the action of God in and among his people, always. This is life. We are caught up in this action, located somewhere on this trajectory from backsliding to contrition to praise, at every moment of our lives.

Final point: the New Testament locates this heart-transforming action of God among His wayward people in the ministry of Jesus. In the ministry of Jesus God once and for all effectively deals with the problem of a backsliding people. The plan of God to draw a people to himself through mercy--through mercy!--is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus heals, comforts, produces praise. He breaks hearts and restores them. He fulfills these promises of God, bringing the Good News and confirming it forever by his death and resurrection. He is the way.

Preacher, if you were ever to preach Isaiah 57, don't let your sermon end with a call to contrition. Therefore, brethren, let us all have contrite hearts! That's not going to do a thing. Instead point your people to Jesus as God's provision, His solution, to a problem that only He could solve.


Lore said...

Good stuff. And timely. Thank you.


Greetings from Southern California :-)

I added myself to follow your blog. You are more than welcome to visit mine and become a follower if you want to.

God Bless You, ~Ron

Bob said...

Be glad to, OG. Thanks for stopping by. It's always particularly gratifying to see new faces around the table!

Nate said...

Wow, this reminds me of something Eugene Peterson drew my attention to- in the Gospels we have a repeating phrase that contains some form of "take, bless, break, give". Most notably in the Last Supper when he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and then gives it to the disciples. In some way, this is what he's constantly doing to us all. Perhaps that's one of the things we're acknowledging and looking for when we partake in the meal.

nance marie said...

after reading this, i think i will just sit here and smile for awhile and let all the good soak in.