THE HOLY HEART ASSOCIATION – RIGHTEOUSNESS
July 14, 2019
Over these Sundays of late spring and now early summer, we are exploring what it means to become card-carrying members of the Holy Heart Association…that is, to embrace the virtues of the heart from a biblical vantage point. We are discussing such virtues as courage, faith, direction, character, discernment, joy, simplicity, commitment and gratitude. Yes, we are moving beyond the American Heart Association to become full-fledged members of the Holy Heart Association!
This morning’s message is centered around the virtue of RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Our key verse is Psalm 51:10:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!
Now, that word righteousness carries a lot of baggage with it today. Especially when it is used in the context of church and church folk. The first thing that comes to my mind is that corny tune by the corny comedian Ray Stevens that was popular back in the mid-1990’s. It was called The Mississippi Squirrel Revival.
The chorus went like this:
The day the squirrel went berserk
In the First Self-Righteous Church
Of that sleepy little town of Pascagoula
It was a fight for survival
That broke out in revival
They were jumpin pews and shouting Halelujah!
And then there is this verse about one of the devout members of that First Self-Righteous Church:
All the way down to the amen pew
Where sat Sister Bertha better-than-you
Who’d been watchin’ all the commotion with sadistic glee
But you should’ve seen the look in her eyes
When that squirrel jumped her garters and crossed her thighs
She jumped to her feet and said “Lord have mercy on me”
As the squirrel made laps inside her dress
She began to cry and then to confess to sins that would make a sailor blush with shame
She told of gossip and church dissension but the thing that got the most attention
Was when she talked about her love lifeAnd then she started naming names!
Righteousness…not Self-Righteousness… is a vital virtue of the heart. How do we begin to become righteous people for God’s sake? Well, first, we recognize that…
THERE ARE TIMES OUR PAST OUGHT TO DISTURB US
It sounds like something off of a Netflix original movie, and yet it happens in real life—some 3,000 years ago. King David, the most beloved leader in all of Israel’s history, is on the run not from some enemy but from God. He is a spiritual fugitive. He has committed adultery with a young woman named Bathsheba. A child has been conceived.
The web grows even more tangled as David then tries to cover up his loathsome behavior. He orders Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who is a general in his army, to the frontlines in a fierce battle with the Ammonites.
David then gives the command for the Israelite troops to retreat, leaving Uriah totally exposed and to be slaughtered by the enemy.
David then takes Bathsheba, who is now a widow, into his household, thinking all will be well with the world. But it is not well with God. David cannot hide his sin from God. God sends Nathan, a close friend of David and a trusted adviser, to confront him. And finally, this spiritual fugitive from God is brought to penitence.
Yes, Psalm 51 is David’s agonizing prayer of confession to God. It speaks to all of us who would seek to have our hearts washed and cleansed of sin.
The reality is there is consequence to sin and reparation that needs to be made. Seldom are we saved by crop failure after we’ve sown our wild oats. We do have to take responsibility for our attitudes and actions in our past that have harmed others. And the first step to leading a righteous life is to own up, to make amends in whatever degree is possible.
Yes, David’s sinfulness has caused grief and estrangement. Above all, it is to God that David is the most accountable. His life will never know any peace until first he acknowledges the pain he has caused his Maker.
I had a couple in my church in Lynchburg, Bill and Laura, who had been married about three years. I was helping them prepare a small worship service to celebrate Bill’s adoption of Laura’s 4-year-old daughter Jennifer from a previous marriage.
I was intrigued by their story of faith. They shared that both of them had been through tumultuous marriages that had ended with a lot of pain. Laura’s first husband had physically and emotionally abused her and Jennifer. Bill’s wife had left him for another person.
Neither felt particularly responsible for their previously failed relationships. And yet, they also shared that their own marriage had not felt right from its beginning—that although they loved each other deeply something still was just not right in their relationship.
And finally, they stumbled across the answer. They had not acknowledged their sin before God. They had not acknowledged that the break-up of their former marriages, even though they were not the ones most at fault, was still a broken promise to God. It hurt God. And they needed to come clean before the Lord before they could move on to intimacy in the present relationship with each other.
It was only when they were able to give their past to God and receive forgiveness of that past that they could move on to the present and future as a loving couple.
Bill and Laura discovered an insight of faith I wish more couples going through divorce and remarriage would discover. In fact, all of us need to acknowledge our broken promises in all areas of our lives—our sinful attitudes and actions toward our Lord. We cannot begin the process of healing until we have taken responsibility for them and come clean before our Maker.
And here is the good news: we do not have to carry that awful millstone of guilt around our necks for eternity. We do not have to run as fugitives from God.
God is not out to bust us, but instead to blot us—to blot out our transgressions, to wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and to cleanse us from our sin. He does not desire to lock us up, but rather, to free us up.
Yes, there are times our past ought to disturb us…
HOWEVER, OUR PAST OUGHT NOT TO DEFINE US
We can turn pages, begin new chapters, become proactive.
Jesus preaches in his Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. – Matthew 5:6
Yes, seek to find God’s will, God’s right thing, and do it! Make it your passion, what you long for above all.
The great homespun quote-ster Will Rogers once said “Always do right. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest!”
Out among the tourist traps in the Black Hills of South Dakota is this roadside attraction called the “Mystery House.” The mystery of the mystery house is that water seems to run uphill, and objects dangle strangely off-kilter. But the mystery involved is not in the house…it is in our brains.
The house is built extremely off-plumb, but once inside a visitor has no external frame of reference. Because our brains are used to seeing floors as level and walls as parallel, our gray matter goes to work inside the Mystery House, tricking us into believing the floor is even and the walls are square. Unconsciously we read the room as normal and are mystified when water runs uphill.
This is precisely the situation a minor prophet with a major message named Amos addresses centuries ago. The people of Israel are living in a skewed house. They’ve become accustomed to and totally immersed in the pagan practices of the cultures surrounding them. They’ve broken promise after promise to God. They’ve abandoned their calling to be a compassionate force for God to the least and lost. And Amos proclaims a Word from the Lord that functions as dropping a plumb line in their skewed world, calling them hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness once again.
I wonder what our out-of-kilter hearts and brains have compensated for in the skewed world we live in today? Have we let our me-centered cultural milieu overwhelm our sense of what is God-like and good?
We need a reference point. It’s time to let down God’s plumb line and get our spiritual bearings.
Yes, righteousness, first of all, equals right living.
Now some folk have the notion that righteousness has to do with doing no one any harm. You simply mind your own business, take care of your own farm, live to yourself.
But God calls us to much, much more. We are called be about proactively doing good for others, and doing it for the right reasons.
There is this occasion when an attorney wants to challenge Jesus about which is the greatest commandment. Jesus turns the tables on him, asking him what he thinks. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'” was his thoughtful reply. Then, seeking to justify himself, the attorney asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, describing this poor Jewish fellow battered, bruised and robbed and left to die along a barren stretch of road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest and a Levite, both well-respected men, come upon this tragic victim of a beat-down. But they are very busy people. They live by the code of doing no one any harm, so they look the other way and continue on to their holy duties in the Temple.
But then we see a despised Samaritan, a religious half-breed of sorts, happening upon this dying man. Now this Samaritan may not have all his theological I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but he stops and does some good, and does it for the right reason. He tends to the wounds of this hurt Jewish man, and transports him to the local hospital some 6 hours away. And it is this same Samaritan who is ultimately deemed righteous, a true neighbor.
Yes, to be considered righteous by God is not to live our lives in some sheltered cocoon simply avoiding doing harm to others, passing by on the other side of the road. It means getting off our donkey and getting our hands dirty and bloody in the doing of good for others, not for personal gain, but because it is simply the right thing–God’s thing–to do.
Christians are often referred to as do-gooders. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heaven knows we need good people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do good things. Righteousness is all about such right living on behalf of others.
Righteousness equals right-relatedness.
It’s impossible for us to do the right thing, day-in, day-out, serving those about us, without a dynamic and close relationship with God. Without a connection with the Lord, we in our own strength soon become bitter and burned-out.
In my role as a volunteer chaplain, I see this on display each week as I witness doctors, nurses and therapists dealing with all sorts of stressful situations and people. One thing I have witnessed is that the ones who have the most caring and patient attitudes are those who have an abiding faith in God. They seldom get flustered. But the ones without that faith background seldom last…they lose that sense of caring for hurting people. They quit and move on elsewhere.
Without that connection to God, a spiritual anorexia sets in. You become kind of numb, with no appetite for anything. Life becomes just an endless, mindless treadmill to nowhere. Is this where you are today?
To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to crave a right relatedness to our Lord–it is to seek him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. As a hungry person craves food, a thirsty person craves liquid, so we long to be connected to our Creator.
And we do so by placing our trust in his Son, Jesus Christ, saying “yes” to his offer of freely-given grace. Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life and the Living Water that ultimately satisfies our hunger and thirst. In him, and him alone, do we find true meaning and purpose for our lives.
Yes, connected to Christ, we percolate an all-pervasive love for God and God’s children. We develop the humble heart of a servant, reaching out with open hands to lift others when they are struggling and down. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and through embracing that right living and right-relatedness, we are truly filled. We need nothing more, nothing less. Our lives feel complete and content.
Yes, David prays Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me!
There are times our hearts need washing. There are times the sinful attitudes and actions of our past ought to disturb us, prodding us to seek confession and forgiveness.
However, our past ought not to forever define us. We can turn the page, finding God’s blessing as we hunger and thirst for a heart filled with righteousness, dropping God’s plumb line in a skewed world, seeking a life of right living that emanates from being in right relatedness with our Lord.
I love the way the late Eugene Peterson translated Psalm 51. May it serve as our closing prayer this morning:
1-3 Generous in love—God, give grace!
Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how bad I’ve been;
my sins are staring me down.
4-6 You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen
it all, seen the full extent of my evil.
You have all the facts before you;
whatever you decide about me is fair.
I’ve been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
What you’re after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
7-15 Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
and I will let loose with your praise. Amen!