Heart Stuff

Good morning, Friends!

Today is Valentine’s Day, and just for a change, I thought we could spend a little time looking at hearts during worship. A lot of people sent out cards and greetings this week saying, “Won’t you be my Valentine?” But I don’t think that one out of a hundred people could tell you who St. Valentine really was.

St. Valentine was either a Roman priest or an Italian bishop – there were two early Christian leaders who went by the same name. He – or they – were martyred on the highway outside Rome around the year 270. Valentine’s Day happens to fall on the same day as the old Roman, pagan festival of Lupercalia.

On Lupercalia, the pagan priests dressed up in goatskins, and they went dancing all through the streets of Rome. They touched every woman they met along the way, whether they were married or unmarried. This was supposed to ensure that all the women had lots of children.

February 14th in ancient Rome was also the day of lovers, which is why you see all of those little cupids flying around, too – Cupid, you may remember, is the son of Venus, the Roman god of love.

Another reason people talked about love on Valentine’s Day was that everyone back then believed that all the birds mated on February the 14th. So, you see a lot of doves in all the old pictures, billing and cooing and so on.

Anyway, when the early church created Valentine’s Day, they were sort of trying to sanitize the old pagan festival, by overriding it with a Christian festival instead. So, as long as we’re here, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought we could spend a little time looking at what the Bible says about hearts.

There are several different words that are used in the Bible, which all translate into the single English word “heart”. The people in the Bible were capable of drawing some pretty subtle distinctions. In some ways their language is a lot more interesting than ours.

The Hebrew people used the word nephesh to talk about what we call a soul. The nephesh is the total package of body, mind and spirit. It’s the personality. It’s me – all of me. A person doesn’t have a nephesh – a person is a nephesh.

In Genesis, God took dust from the ground, and shaped it, breathed the breath of life into it, and it became a nephesh – a living being.

The breath of life that God breathes into us, in Hebrew is called ruach. Ruach is the spirit. It’s breath. It’s life. It’s power.

Ruach is what makes things alive. If something is dead, in the Bible, the ruach has gone out of it. And when the spirit of God moved across the waters at creation, Ruach was the spirit. Ruach is creative life.

And the place where ruach enters into, to create a nephesh, is the heart. And the word for heart, in the Bible, is leb.

Now, the people of the Bible, as I’ve said before, were no dummies. They were quite capable of using a word literally, and they were also quite capable of using a word as a metaphor. In all the places when the word “heart” is used in the Bible, only a handful of them refer to a literal, physical beating heart. The overwhelming majority of places where the Bible uses the Hebrew word leb or its Greek equivalent, kardia, it’s used metaphorically.

This morning we’re doing something a little bit different. Instead of reading a single Scripture, I chosen about twenty of them. And instead of me reading from the Bible, I’ve asked different people around the room to read them for us.

These are all verses that talk about the heart. I want you all to close your eyes and listen to these “heart Scriptures” and see how you feel about them.

“Fools say in their hearts, ”
There is no God.”
– Psalm 14:1

“Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
– Psalm 19:14

“My heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
– Psalm 27:8

“Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!”
– Psalm 27:14

“Do not oppress a foreigner;
you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners,
because you were foreigners in Egypt.
– Exodus 23:9

“You will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him
if you search after him with all your heart and soul.”
– Deuteronomy 4:29

“The word is very near to you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
– Deuteronomy 30:14

“I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”
– Psalm 9:1

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.”
– Psalm 1:10

“O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.”
– Psalm 131:1

“Anxiety weighs down the human heart,
but a good word cheers it up.”
– Proverbs 12:25

“”A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.”
– Proverbs 15:13

“A cheerful heart is a good medicine.”
– Proverbs 17:22

“A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.”
– Ezekiel 36:26

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”
– Matthew 11:29

“Take heart, my daughter; your faith has made you well.”
– Matthew 9:22

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
– Matthew 6:21

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
– Matthew 5:8

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
– Matthew 14:27

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.”
– Matthew 22:37-38

“If you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say
will come to pass, it will be done for you.”
– Mark 11:23

“Mary treasured all these words  and pondered them in her heart.”
– Luke 2:19

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy,
love for one another,
a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
– I Peter 3:8

“With the eyes of your heart enlightened,
you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. . .”
– Ephesians 1:18

In the Bible, the word “heart” has an incredible variety of uses. Hearts can be glad. Hearts can be troubled. Hearts can be fearful, or courageous. Hearts can fail, melt, tremble, grow hot, grow sick, and do lots of other things.

When we talk in English about the heart, we see it as the seat of feelings and emotions. Even in English, though, our emotions move around a lot. You’ve heard people say that they have their heart in their throat, or that they’re “all choked up.” You’ve also heard people say that their heart was in their shoes, or that their heart fell into their boots. Didn’t know it moved around that much.

But in the Bible, the heart, the leb, the kardia, is where everything takes place. The heart isn’t just the place for emotions. The heart is also the place for thinking. You don’t think up in your head – the Bible says that God sees the secret thoughts of our hearts.

That’s the other thing about hearts in the Bible. People can see your face. People can hear your voice. But the heart is hidden. The heart is mysterious. We don’t always know what’s going on in there ourselves. We can’t always control our hearts.

In the Bible, the heart is the place where God works. People in the Bible don’t change their minds. People change their hearts. And that’s not to say that we don’t have minds. But our thoughts, our convictions, our resolutions, our decisions, in the Bible, these are all heart-centered. Up in your head – that’s just not where it takes place. The important stuff all happens in the heart.

The heart is the most important part of the human being. In all of those places in the Bible where the word “heart” is used, they’re talking about the center of human life.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” in the Beatitudes. Why? Why are the pure in heart especially blessed? “Because they shall see God. . .” Purity of heart, or singleness of heart as it’s sometimes translated, leads to vision. If our hearts are pure, if our hearts aren’t mixed up and aren’t distracted, then we see God more clearly. Purity of heart leads to clarity of vision.

Jesus also says, just a few lines later in the Sermon on the Mount, that the heart is the place of faithfulness. The heart is the place where promises are made, and kept. The heart is the center of trust. The heart is the place of living relationship. When those things are overturned in the heart, then outward, physical unfaithfulness is not far away.

So, keep watch over your heart. Let your heart be a place of faithfulness. Don’t let the promises you’ve made get cold or grow dim in your heart – whether it’s a promise you’ve made to your loved one to be faithful, to be attentive, to be patient and kind – or whether it’s a promise you’ve made to God, to Christ, to keep the Lord in your heart every day, to cherish the Lord, to remember God’s love.

Keep your loved ones in your heart. Nourish that love. Cherish that warmth and that flame. Don’t let it go out.

And keep God in your heart at all times. Love the Lord your God, with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.

One of the things that the Bible talks about, now and then, is what God’s heart is like. And again, the Bible is quite capable of distinguishing between literal and metaphorical meaning. If we say that God has a heart, that doesn’t mean we think that God has a finger, or that God wears a beard, or that God has a big toe.

God has a heart that’s much like our heart. It’s the center of God’s being. And the way the Bible speaks most about God’s heart, is to say that God’s heart is steadfast.

That steadfastness of God – the Hebrew word for steadfastness is chesed – is something special. It means that God is patient. God waits, for just the right moment, no matter how long it takes. God never gives up.

In our own hearts, we love, but if things don’t go the right way for us, after two or three times we’re likely to turn away. We get distracted. We let our other emotions pull us away from our plan.

But God’s love is steadfast. In season, out of season. God’s plan now is pretty much what it’s been all along. The plan in God’s heart, all this time, has been for the world to be healed, for the world to be changed and restored. God wants the world to go back to what it was created to be – a place of deep peace, of variety and delight.

God wants violence to go away – for the lion to lie down with the lamb, for neighbor not to rise up against neighbor, for swords and weapons to be hammered into ploughshares and tools of peace. God has been dreaming of that, in God’s heart, down through countless ages and countless places. That steadfast love, that steadfast dream, is what’s been in God’s heart, all along.

A phrase that’s you often hear in evangelical churches is “giving your heart to Jesus.” Or you’ll hear people ask, “Is your heart right with God?”

It’s easy to mock and misunderstand that kind of language, because it often seems to reduce religion just to an emotional business. And, truthfully, a lot of evangelical religion does come across as mainly emotional in nature.

I find it impossible to be involved in a religion that neglects the intellect, and ignores issues of social justice, or turns religion into a matter of national pride or allegiance to our own culture.

I think that religion needs to respect our thinking and respect honest questions. I think religion is something we do, and not just what we feel. And that includes speaking out when we think that lies are being told. It includes standing and suffering when injustice is being done. And it includes reaching out, with joy, towards our brothers and sisters in all parts of God’s world.

But give them full credit – that evangelical heart language is profoundly biblical. “Have you given your heart to Jesus?” is not just an emotional question. It’s asking if all of our being has been turned and changed, transformed and inspired, renewed and revealed, healed and made whole, by the invitation that God has extended to us through the life of Jesus.

“Have you given your heart to God?” is one of the most important questions you can ever answer.

In the Bible, the heart is where stubbornness really happens. Back when Moses and Pharaoh were duking it out in the book of Exodus, it doesn’t say that Pharaoh was stupid, which I kind of think he was. I mean, frogs, blood, locusts, biting insects, boils – get the point, man!

It says that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” The Bible sometimes talks about people being stiff-necked, or rebellious. But the real crime, the real no-no in the Bible, is always hard-heartedness.

Jesus forgave all kinds of sins. Jesus was compassionate. His heart was moved by people who came to him with suffering, with hunger, with the pain of being outcast from society.

The only places where it says that Jesus got angry, was when he met up with people who were hard-hearted. Or worse, when he met up with people who were hypocritical – who pretended to be religious, even while they hardened their hearts.

It’s OK to use your head. It’s all right to think things through. One of my neighbors back in Indiana, the great Quaker writer Elton Trueblood, said, “It is both possible and necessary to have warm hearts and clear heads.” You can be stirred by emotion and not throw your brains away.

But be careful not to harden your heart. God doesn’t harden God’s heart against us. We shouldn’t ever be found hardening our hearts against each other. God calls us to love. God calls us to be compassionate. God calls us to forgive, over and over again, because we ourselves have been forgiven.

One of my favorite Scriptures has always been the closing of a letter which the apostle Paul wrote to a group of his friends.

He said,

“My brothers and sister, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you. And pray that we may be rescued from wided and evil people, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful; the Lord with strengthen you and guard you from evil. We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we teach. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)

Let’s consider these all things, and all of the “heart” words from the Bible, as we worship together now.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown

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