Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Last week the sermon dealt with the question, ‘What is God like?’ That question is important because understanding God is part of being wise. This week we’re going to deal with a different question, a different part of being wise. ‘What are people like?’ We’re going to do that by taking a look at Cain and his worship. In particular we’re going to look at his reaction to God’s rejection of his worship to see what we can learn about people, especially what we can learn about ourselves.

Listen to Moses.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. Genesis 4.3-5

Let’s start where we always do. What happened? Both men offered their sacrifices. Abel’s was found acceptable, but Cain’s was not. As a result, Cain reacted. He got ‘‘‘very angry and his face fell’.

A good question to ask here is, ‘What happened that Cain’s worship was rejected?’ The assumption of many is that there was something wrong with the sacrifice that Cain offered. That becomes the focus of their attention. I think that instead of looking at what was offered we would do better to look at the person doing the offering. That’s actually where the problem was.

So, consider Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection. The translation that I read to you tells us that ‘Cain was very angry, and his face fell’.  Sometimes it’s helpful to hear how other translations render the text. Here are some examples. Cain was ‘furious, and he looked despondent.’ ‘This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.’ Then there’s this paraphrase. ‘Cain lost his temper and went into a sulk.’ When you take them all together you can get a good sense of what was going on. Cain blew his top and then went into a funk.

Things get interesting when you consider that Cain could have responded very differently. He could have collapsed into tears and said ‘Why doesn’t anything good ever happen to me?’ Or he could have quickly become very apologetic to God saying something like. ‘Lord, I’m really sorry. What did I do wrong, and how do I fix it?’ Or he could have just walked away muttering, ‘Whatever.’

All of those responses are obviously different from each other. But they do have something in common. Each reveals the heart. Cain’s heart was revealed by the way that he responded. And the same is true of us. How a person responds to the events of life reveals what’s going on in his heart at that moment. And to the extent that you understand someone’s heart - including your own - you understand the person. It’s important to understand the heart.

When I was growing up, the focus was on my behavior. And while no one said it in this way, things boiled down to, ‘Do this, and don’t do that’. So, as long as I did the right things everything was fine. But consider Cain. He did the right thing. He was worshiping God with an offering. But God rejected that worship. Something was wrong. And Cain’s response reveals what was wrong. There was a problem in his heart. He was, after all, angry at God. How can that ever be right? So, right and wrong isn’t a matter of behaving according to the rules. It’s a matter of the heart.

There are quite a few bits of Bible that reflect the priority of the heart. Here are a few. This first one is Jesus talking about the source of our sins.

For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. ​All these evil things come from within.

This one is from Jesus’ parable of the four soils. Here He’s describing how the seed in the fourth soil is able to bear good fruit.

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

And then there is this that many of you have heard before.

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

People make all sorts of claims about who they are, what kind of people they are. But talk is cheap. It’s what’s going on in heart that really matters. And what’s going on in the heart is revealed in our responses to life. So, when it comes to understanding yourself, here’s a good question to ask. What’s going on in my heart? And to get an answer to that, one thing to do is to look at how you respond to particular events in life. What do you see? Do you see things like self-control, patient endurance, contentment, joy? Or is it envy, self-pity, withdrawal, or like Cain, rage and sullenness? What do you see?

Let’s take a closer look at what came out of Cain’s heart. First, the anger. Believe it or not, anger is a gift from God. Anger is the right response to injustice. Jesus’ clearing out the Temple is an example of that. But anger gets all twisted up when the definition of injustice gets all twisted up. It’s one thing to become enraged because God’s honor and the well-being of other people is being trampled on and abused. But it’s another thing to be enraged because of our demand that we be honored and our well-being become everyone else’s top priority. Anger is wrong when it’s all about us. And that’s what was going on with Cain. If he was concerned with God’s honor his response would have been that apology I described earlier. But he wasn’t concerned with God. He was concerned with himself. He didn’t like what happened to him. So, he got angry. It was his attempt to right what he perceived to be an injustice, an injustice against himself. That anger was a reflection of his heart and that’s why his worship was rejected.

Then, there was his face falling. There are times when feeling down - things like being sad, even being discouraged - makes sense and is the right response. Jesus was not feeling very ‘up’ when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. But just as there are good and bad reasons for anger, there are good and bad reasons for feeling down. The psalms frequently express feelings of being downcast and the like. The people who were writing those psalms were responding to the hardships of life. But it’s important to see that they were doing that in their prayers to God. Life had taken a hard left turn, and they were crying out to God about it. They needed His help. But that’s not what Cain was doing. His emotional state was more like feeling sorry for himself or something like that. In this also, the wrong attitudes of his heart were being revealed.

In his anger and in his feeling down Cain revealed that there were things in his heart that were really bad. God’s response to his worship brought those things to surface. It revealed his heart.

At different times and in different ways we all find ourselves responding badly to life. It may not be a matter of being angry and our face falling, but in some way or other we respond badly. So, what do you do when that happens and you see it for the sinful thing that it is? I think that it’s helpful to view it as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to understand yourself better. It’s a time to ask yourself, ‘Why did I respond that way? I could have responded much better. What was going on in my heart that I responded in that way?’ It might be pride or an expectation for something that you have no right to or the attempt to hope in some idol that failed. There are all sorts of possibilities that the Bible lays out. But whatever it is, after you trace back your bad response to some attitude of the heart you will be able to repent better. It’s fine to say, ‘I’m sorry, Lord, that I blew up’. But that’s just a matter of behavior. You’re dealing with the root of that sin when you say, ‘I’m sorry, Lord, that I demand control. I always want things my way. It’s why I got so mad. Please forgive me for that demand and change me’. That’s dealing with the real problem.

And for those of you who are parents, I think that this is a good way to think about your children when they respond badly. The goal, after all, is not merely a certain kind of behavior in them. It’s a certain kind of heart, one that responds well to the ups and downs of life.

And this is where I bring in the Gospel. Jesus has come not just to change where we spend forever. He hasn’t come just to change how we act. He has come to change our hearts. And you know that not just because it’s in the Bible. You know that because you’ve experienced it. You’re finding that your responses to the ups and downs of life are different from what they once were. They are better - not perfect yet, but better. Jesus has been changing you. He’s been changing your heart.

This change is the goal of salvation. Consider this.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

You are on your way to being conformed to the image of Jesus. That doesn’t just mean that you will act like He does. It’s much more profound than that. It means that the attitudes of your heart are being changed so that they will become the same as His. And that is showing in how you are responding better to the events of life. You are being changed from the inside out. Jesus is saving you.

So, what is it that I would like you to gain from all of this? I would love to see you grow in your understanding of people, especially of yourselves. That’s one very large part of being wise. Growing in your understanding of yourself, of your own heart, will result in prayer. On the one hand, you’ll give thanks for the different ways that the Spirit has been changing you, changing your heart. And on the other hand, you’ll bring to the Father areas that still need to be worked on. But you’ll do that optimistically, in the hope of the Gospel. Jesus has brought about some change already. Why not expect more? And then, try to imagine what it will feel like to come to the completion of all of that change, to have a heart that is just like Jesus’ own heart. That’s the goal. And Jesus will make sure that it happens.

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