Listen to Your Heartbeat
So is the sermon title supposed to be one word or two? Is it heartbeat or heart beat? Heartbeat is a noun referring to the pulsation of your heart. Heart beat is the noun heart' followed by the verb beat'. Knowing that I still don't know if I'm asking you to listen to your heat beat or your heartbeat. All I do know is the heart of the matter is the heart.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" tells all. You know the story. A man kills another, buries him beneath the floorboards, but continues to hear the heartbeat. Thump, thump, thump; guilty, guilty, guilty it beats. Unless you be hardened beyond reaching, our text should ring out like hammer blows on your heart sounding guilty, guilty, guilty. Look at your insert. How many times have I told you the error of putting the Living Word of God in the past tense? The Gospel reading for which we all stand because we are once again in the presence of the Lord Jesus speaking His eternal Word of truth to us is not something Jesus once said 2000 years ago in a sermon on a mount. No, He says it today, here and now, to you. And His words are like hammer blows as they pound the 5th, the 6th, and 8th Commandments into your heart.
Though you may never have killed a man, with one hammer blow Jesus strikes you dead-guilty by telling you that the anger you have in your heart stands you in judgment. And Jesus' hammer blow sparks and ignites the fires of hell itself for your bitter judgment that someone is a fool. And how hard and deep the hammer blows go with the 6th Commandment. Guilty, guilty, guilty is the heart that only lusts let alone wallows in pornography, affairs, or even looking. You know how Arab countries cut off hands for stealing? You know how the mob is depicted as cutting off fingers for failure to pay? Well, the loving Jesus aims the hammer of the Law at not only your hand but you eye and says, "Hold still; better I take this, then drive your whole body into hell." And Jesus isn't done with your sexual sins yet. His hammer continues to ring out. This time against divorce. Because nothing happens to those who think a divorce decree settles the matter with God too, we think it does. Jesus says it doesn't. Nope a marriage vow is an oath. Making yes' into no' or explaining either away is of the Evil One himself.
The hammer blows of the Law ring out and you think you can keep up. But you're going to end up like John Henry. The legend is that this 19th century black man who worked with a hammer pounding steel to make holes for the railroad challenged the newfangled steam hammer to a contest. As the steal drill worked faster John Henry hammered faster, and he won, but his heart gave out at the end and he died. So keep on trying to forgive that person; keep on remembering not to call someone a fool; avert your eyes; stop that lust, and really mean yes' and no' when you say either. And when you've done all that for one minute, start on minute two, then three, then keep on keeping on John Henry. "The hammer that John Henry swung,/ It weighed over nine pound,/ He broke a rib in his left hand side,/ And his entrails fell on the ground,/ And his entrails fell on the ground" (Ballad of John Henry, v. 20, modified).
Listen to your heartbeat in the light of Jesus' hammering and you'll see that beating heart of yours is the problem. Jesus couldn't be clearer. You think that the cause of your sin is the difficult person, the immodest dress of male or female, and hard marriages that make oaths harder to keep. But listen to what Jesus says, "'Are you still so dull?...Don't you see that.the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean';" (Mt. 15:16-20). Think that's just a one-off? No, it's God's truth from the Fall. Even after God wiped the earth clean by the Flood because "the thoughts of the human heart were only evil all the time" (Gn. 6:5), He said after the Flood, "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Gn. 8:21). Then thousands of years later the Lord says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9).
If you're inured to this truth that means there's a callous on your heart like one on your hand or foot - you feel pressure but no pain because it's hardened flesh. That's what prophet Zachariah said, "They made their hearts as stone, lest they should hear the Lawthat the Lord of Hosts had sent from His Spirit" (Zec. 7:12). Read the account of the plagues on Egypt. First Pharaoh hardens his heart toward God, and then God hardens it for him. If Jesus' hammering the 5th, 6th, and 8th Commandments doesn't ring in your ears guilty, guilty, guilty; if they echo in your heart "I'll be like John Henry and try ever harder" or puff your pride like Pharaoh saying, "God demands too much", you've got not just a heart of stone but of darkness.
In Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is an evil, savage man killing and brutalizing the natives of Africa. His dying words are, "The horror! The horror!" Perhaps at last he sees that his inner darkness is what led to his outer darkness as Jesus says. Marlow, the narrator and more noble character, goes to find Kurtz's fiance. Even though it's been a year since he died, she is still mourning and praising him as a paragon of virtue. She wants to know what his last words were. Marlow can't bring himself to tell her the truth, and says that his last word was her name.
Here is where Robert Preus says, "Beware!" He was the president of the seminary when I was there. He's been in heaven 25 years now, but he was always warning about thinking the answer to the problem of our heart of darkness was pouring grace into that heart. He would wax almost apoplectic over historic Collects like that for Pentecost VI saying, "Pour into our hearts such love towards you that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises." On the surface this seems sound. After all Jesus says, "If then the light within you is darkness, how great is your darkness" (Mt. 6:23)! Yes, the problem is inside of you; it's the heart of the matter that tells all, but the answer is not in there or putting anything in there, be it grace, love, or forgiveness.
The answer even way back in the Old Testament says the Lord is, "I will give you a new heartI will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezk. 36:26). You try putting in anything into that desperately wicked heart of yours that lusts, lies, and hates with every beat to make it better and Jesus says that's like putting new wine into an old wineskin. It will burst that old skin and the new wine will pour out on the ground. You try making that heart that is only evil from your youth less lustful, more truthful, and less hateful and that, says Jesus, is like patching and old garment by cutting up a new one. You destroy both. The answer is not rejuvenating, reinvigorating, reforming your old heart of darkness but a new heart, and you get a new heart from a new man, and where to you think he comes from?
Only from the New Man. And that is Jesus. He is a 100% True Man. Born of a woman just like you; born under the Law obligated to keep it; just like you. But unlike even perfect Adam who couldn't keep the Law, perfect Jesus could because He isn't only 100% Man but 100% God. So He, John Henry-like, went up against the steam hammer of the Law and as it went faster, harder, deeper, so did the perfect Man Jesus. And it's like the famous Goldsmith poem, "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." The rabid dog bites a good man and to everyone's wonder, "The dog it was that died." And so when Jesus went up against the perfect, unrelenting Law of God, going faster and faster, harder and harder, it wasn't His heart that died but the Law that didBut wait; that's not true, is it?
Ah, but the Law didn't kill Him. Indeed, Jesus says that He gave His life willingly. Although pagan Pilate pronounced Jesus "not guilty" no less than 6 times, God, says Isaiah 53, was nevertheless pleased to crush Him. And crush Him He did under the full weight of divine wrath, divine justice for all human guilt of all time. God crushed His only beloved Son till the blood ran out of Him and over your sins, your guilts, your judgments and covered them till not a one could be seen ever again. The grace, the forgiveness, that Jesus won on behalf of all flesh and blood men, He distributes in things that touch flesh and blood. Baptismal water on the skin. Forgiving words that vibrate ear drums; and His Body as Bread and His Blood as wine that can be eaten and drank by flesh and blood. Col. 3:10 describes the new man as "renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him." And Eph. 4:24 describes the new man given you in Word and Sacraments as "created according to God in righteousness and true holiness."
But the gift of a new heart in a new man is not for you John Henry's out there still pounding away, not for you patchers of old clothes with new, or you vintners pouring new wine into old wine skins. It's only for those of you who mourn your sins, for those who know their best attempts at Law keeping only turn to ash, for those of you who the ringing hammer of the Law gives you the spirit of heaviness not hardiness. This new heart means you're not what you use to be. You're a new creation. You were a caterpillar; you're now a butterfly.
Look at the bulletin cover. It's the one for this reading and I find it disconcerting. I think it's supposed to be the part about being reconciled to your brother, but I see it as the New Man taking hold of the Old. The New Man speaks Christ's words: I baptize you; I forgive you; I communicate My Body and My Blood for your forgiveness. These words put that old man goblin, that Gollum, that living death, to death. His heartbeat flatlines and your new heart beats. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (20200216); Matthew 5: 20-37