The Heart of Words (Matthew 12:33-37)

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. You can tell what a tree is like by the fruit it produces. You are a bunch of evil snakes, so how can you say anything good? Your words show what is in your hearts. Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts. I promise you on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken. On that day they will be told they are either innocent or guilty because of the things they have said. (Contemporary English Version)

Words are important. They have meaning and power.

Our speech is the outward demonstration of what is really within the heart. There really isn’t any room to believe that a constant stream of gossip, backbiting, slander, and negative comments is anything but coming from a heart of evil. The person who speaks such words is not a loving, gracious, merciful person. Conversely, the person who continually encourages, uplifts, and seeks to be positive, reflects a deep heart of love for others.

Therefore, simply altering our speech when we’re around particular people is not the point; and it does no good. That kind of talking only breeds hypocrisy and is two-faced. Instead, the place to aim is the heart because that’s where the words come from. And the way to truly renovate a heart is to sub-contract the project to Jesus.

The people we typically hang-out with the most are the people that most influence our attitudes and our speech. 

So, if we spend copious amounts of time with Jesus, it’s inevitable that our hearts will become more like his heart, and thus, our words will be in alignment with the words and ways of Christ. Be rooted in Christ and the fruit of the tree will demonstrate it.

I always find public confessions on TV to be a rather disingenuous affair. Typically, celebrity apologies only take shape when one has been caught saying something and are called on the carpet. Then, when the apology comes, it’s predictably odd and incongruent, with the person saying something to the tune of, “I’m sorry if I hurt anybody by what I said. Saying that really wasn’t me. I’m not really like that.”

Well, apparently you are. It came out of your mouth. Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The words we say out loud betray what is truly inside us.

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree to illustrate his point. If the roots, the trunk, and the branches are good and healthy, then you can be sure the tree will produce good healthy fruit. However, if the tree is diseased, or infested with insects and rotting from the inside out, then no one can expect anything other than bad fruit, not fit to consume.

If the fruit is bad, the tree is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, ignorant, mean, unjust, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Conversely, if the words are affirming, encouraging, loving, compassionate, gentle, caring, direct, helpful, peaceful, kind, giving hope and life, then there is a good heart behind it.

Yes, bad hearts can parrot good words. However, those words are not genuine but mere rote recitations to achieve some sort of personal agenda. And, of course, good people will occasionally say dumb or hurtful words. In such times, let it be a reminder that we all have some shadowy places within our hearts – and that we must depend on God’s grace to enlighten those dark spaces.

Let’s observe patterns, rather than focusing on isolated events where either good or bad words were said. A consistent pattern of invalidating another’s experiences or feelings; intimidating or threatening others; dismissing or discounting someone’s input; or being unnecessarily blunt, are all major red flags pointing to a severe heart issue.

Evil exists in the world. And if we are not vigilant to the power of language, wickedness can easily smack us upside the head when we aren’t looking.

The heart cannot be concealed forever. Eventually, the virtuous person will be shown as such by the stream of gracious speech which pours forth from the heart, as if it were living water for others to drink and enjoy. Their words reflect their good character.

The wicked person, however, cannot keep the bad words down. Those vile words sit in the soul, poisoning and making the person ill. Then, all of a sudden, the evil words come up and out with a great vomitous heave and spew impurity and unholiness all over the innocent. Their words betray their foolish and poor character.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Spiritual Renewal (Isaiah 30:19-26)

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”

He will also send you rain for the seed you sow in the ground, and the food that comes from the land will be rich and plentiful. In that day your cattle will graze in broad meadows. The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel. In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill. The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (New International Version)

Better days are ahead.

In this time of year, there are many people who simply don’t have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas. They have blessings, both material and spiritual. And they can always identify other persons who are in much more need than them. Some of them may even believe that those in need are in that position because of unwise individual choices. 

But we must maintain a focus on our own lives. We need to recognize the maladies of our hearts. The state of our lives is as important, and is just as real and needy, as someone else’s life who is in more humble circumstances. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs. And having a good steady income doesn’t inoculate one from need or privation.

We must not suppress those realities and needs, but instead, name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us – such things as the love of possessions and money; broken relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; hatred; and much more. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs; the gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom.

Only then can we pass on the good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our own burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

Far too many Christians, especially the church-going kind, have become expert emotional stuffers and deniers of need. 

We may believe “those other people” need ministries of justice and help. But the truth is: Many of us are one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want next door to us.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation; and so, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. 

What to do? Turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and hope in the Lord’s restorative grace. God takes all sorts of seemingly impossible situations of destruction and death, creating fresh new growth in the form of a little green sprout. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls; restore the places of our lives that have been devastated; and renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us, not just others. 

If we want comfort, we need to mourn. If we desire joy, then there needs to be some lamenting of a dire situation. If we hope for an oak of righteousness, there must be a confession of despair. For there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

What is your real situation and the true realities of your life that need to be named? 

Where will you go to address those needs and truths? 

Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs? 

How might you be vulnerable enough to allow others to minister grace to your needy soul?

Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. 

Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling. 

Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God. 

Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Get Rid of Sin (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)

The Apostle Paul at his Desk, by Rembrandt, 1657

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels, to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one person wise enough to decide between brothers and sisters? Instead, brothers and sisters go to court against one another, and this before the unbelievers.

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and brothers and sisters at that.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (New Revised Standard Version)

The one constant which every Church and each Christian will have to deal with until Jesus returns is the ever-present reality of sin

“Sin” isn’t a word that is much used anymore, even among many Christians. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that we have expanded our vocabulary to better understand the concept and reality; and it’s bad because we sometimes label something as different than what it really is.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church confronts the presence of sin within the congregation. The reason why the letter is so long is that Paul painstakingly deals with every sin that had taken root in the community.

St. Paul at His Writing Desk by Rembrandt, 1630

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul mentions some of those sins, especially tackling the unhealthy way the Christians were dealing with their internal strained relations of each other. One of the ways sin manifests itself is through confronting another’s sin with our own sin. Yeah, it gets complicated pretty quickly when that happens.

In other words, we too often try to meet a legitimate need through illegitimate means. That sort of practice is at the core of many a sinful attitude and action.

So then, there were those in the Corinthian Church who had legitimate grievances but sought to rectify the situation using secular means to handle a sacred need. Instead of focusing on restoration and relationship, utilizing the spiritual implements of gentleness and humility, they gave into the temptation for retribution through unrighteous persons who would level judgment.

None of this is intended for Christians to avoid the established court systems of the land. Rather, it is a warning not to punch somebody in the face when they slap you on the cheek. Seeking punishment isn’t the way of Christ. Reconciliation and restoration has been achieved through the cross of Christ – and Paul expected the Church to live as a new community based in mutual encouragement and accountability.

Paul clearly saw the shadowy places of the human heart and understood that light needed to come to those hidden areas. And he wasn’t about to sit back and let bitterness spread like gangrene in the Body of Christ.

Sin is both things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus. 

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as a holy and loving Being. 

Sin, then, may be defined as anything in a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God. All sin, whether in our actions or inactions, is rooted in an attitude and activity of self-centeredness, of thinking about ourselves as the center of the universe, rather than God. 

The Apostle Paul, by Rembrandt, 1633

The consequence of this sin brings about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

This means that we are guilty of transgressing basic morality; we fail to live into being ethically virtuous people on any sort of consistent basis. Yes, I know this all sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Well, actually, it’s total depravity. But being depraved doesn’t mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

The ironic paradox is that experiencing true joy and satisfaction comes through knowing how great our sin is. We live above sin by being set free from it through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. 

In order to be redeemed from sin, a provision must be made – and sin has been dealt with, once and for all, through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the retribution we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8); which resulted in our redemption (Galatians 5:13); which resulted in his sacrifice for sin satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); which resulted in our reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore the believer in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects, consequences, and origin of sin. The sin issue has been handled decisively and definitively; the Christian is now complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

Sin is awful. It ruins relationships and destroys everything it touches. Sin leaves terrible consequences in its wake and a bad aftertaste. Yet, sin does not have the last word; grace does. 

Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the decisive blow to sin’s power. The Church is built on this foundation of grace and reconciliation between God and people. Anything less is neither Christian nor a Church but a country club of people plotting to get back at others while eating tartlets and talking gossip. 

The bad news is that sin is really bad; but the good news is that Christ is really good, and overcomes the worst that sin can throw at him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

Heartfelt Prayer (Lamentations 5:1-22)

Orthodox icon of Jeremiah praying

O Lord, reflect on what has happened to us;
consider and look at our disgrace.

Our inheritance is turned over to strangers;
foreigners now occupy our homes.

We have become fatherless orphans;
our mothers have become widows.

We must pay money for our own water;
we must buy our own wood at a steep price.

We are pursued—they are breathing down our necks;
we are weary and have no rest.

We have submitted to Egypt and Assyria
in order to buy food to eat.

Our forefathers sinned and are dead,
but we suffer their punishment.

Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.

At the risk of our lives, we get our food
because robbers lurk in the wilderness.

Our skin is as hot as an oven
due to a fever from hunger.

They raped women in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.

Princes were hung by their hands;
elders were mistreated.

The young men perform menial labor;
boys stagger from their labor.

The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped playing their music.

Our hearts no longer have any joy;
our dancing is turned to mourning.

The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this, our hearts are sick;
because of these things, we can hardly see through our tears.

For wild animals are prowling over Mount Zion,
which lies desolate.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do you keep on forgetting us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Bring us back to yourself, O Lord, so that we may return to you;
renew our life as in days before,
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (New English Translation)

“’Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac?”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Prayer is not about getting the right words strung together in a correct formula in a perfect disposition of the heart. Rather, prayer is conversation and a dialogue with God. 

Sometimes prayer looks a lot more like a triage unit in a hospital than it does a steeple on a church. Prayer often looks like desperation more than it does praise. 

God is a Being that we can tell the truth about what is really going on in our lives. Prayer isn’t prayer when we just tell God what we think God wants to hear.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The biblical book of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s extended prayer of grief, lament, complaint, and raw feeling. His hometown of Jerusalem was decimated by the invading Babylonian army. Thousands of people were taken out of the city and into exile. The ones left, including Jeremiah, were beside themselves with anger, grief, sadness, and fear.

We hear his cry to God, not worrying about whether it is appropriate language or not. Jeremiah’s words and phrases to God were heartfelt and real:

“We’re worn out and without any rest.”

“All the joy is gone from our hearts.” 

“We are heartsick.”

“We can hardly see through our tears.”

“Why do you keep forgetting us, God?”
“Lord, why dump us and leave us like this?

“Give us a fresh start, for God’s sake!”

Jeremiah was not concerned about how he looked or sounded, and not afraid to express his real thoughts and feelings.

Every thought and feeling is a valid entry into prayer. It is of utmost importance that we pray what is actually inside of us and not what we believe God would like to hear from us. 

The Lord doesn’t like pretense and posturing; God wants the real us. 

Plastic words and phony speeches are an affront to God. We must pray precisely what is on our minds and in our hearts – unfiltered, if need be. No matter the headache or the heartache, we only need to pray, without any concern for doing it perfectly.

“Suffering forces us to change.
We don’t like change and most of the time we fear it and fight it.
We like to remain in emotionally familiar places
even through sometimes those places are not healthy for us.
On occasion, the suffering is so great that we have to give up.
We surrender the old and begin anew.
Often it is the pain we experience that leads us, not only to a different life,
but a richer and more rewarding one.” Dennis Wholey

Gracious God, sometimes I feel like I have to have it all together to even speak to you. Yet you already know my heart better than I know it myself. Forgive my constant hiding from you and accept my heartfelt prayer to you for grace and help, through Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. Amen.