Before I go into the sermon proper this morning, I would like to check – how many of you watch or have watched American Idol before?
American Idol is a popular reality TV singing contest in which winners are chosen by viewers voting through telephone, SMS and the Internet. Every episode, contestants perform one or two songs before a panel of judges who will comment on their performance. The fun part about American Idol is not just the good music. The fun part is also the bad music, and hearing the judges, without fail, make fun of a bad performance or of contestants just for the heck of it. Some examples of the mean comments which judges have made include -
“That was terrible, I mean just awful.”
“It’s quite obvious most of the people who turned up … were hopeless.”
“If you [ sung ] like this two thousand years ago, people would have stoned you.”
Now imagine that you’ve watched a really, really awful performance. The contestant sounds sincere, but he is also sincerely bad. Everyone expects the judges to come out and slam the contestant. The camera zooms in to the first judge, but instead of a wicked comment the first judge says -
“Do not consider his singing. You look at the outward appearance, but I look at his heart.”
The entire world will be stunned. Tomorrow, that would make the entertainment section headline news. We judge people based on outward appearances everyday. With social media nowadays if we see anything we don’t like, we can just take a picture with our handphone, upload it onto Facebook or Stomp, and wait for all the critical comments to come in. To judge someone based on the heart, which we cannot see, is a radical departure from the norm.
Continuing on our current theme of the life of David, God told the prophet Samuel exactly the same thing when Samuel was looking to appoint a new king for Israel. Saul, the king of Israel at that time, had failed to obey God, and Samuel was told to look for a king to replace Saul from among the sons of the family of Jesse. So, like a fashion parade, Jesse brings his sons out one by one to meet Samuel.
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ .” … Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
- 1 Samuel 16 :6 - 12
This happens for the next seven sons of Jesse. God tells Samuel that none of the tall, good-looking, articulate, charismatic sons that Jesse brings out is the person who would be king. Finally Jesse calls for his youngest son David to come out. Jesse had forgotten all about David, because he was just a teenager and the youngest and the smallest. As David enters the room, God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him. He is the one.”
(I) The Good News : God Looks at the Heart
David is celebrated in the Bible as a man after God’s heart. When God chose David as king, He said that He was not looking for someone based on his outward appearance, but that He was looking specifically at the heart. This man after God’s heart is so central to the Bible, that almost three entire books in the Old Testament revolve around David’s life : 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. There is so much that we can learn from David’s heart for God, and from his failings.
In 1 Samuel 16 we read of how David was chosen as king as a young boy. Fast forward to 2 Samuel 11 and 12. About 30 years have passed, and David is now firmly established as king of Israel. In a moment of weakness, does some seriously wrong.
“One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, ‘She is Bathsheba … the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. … Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, ‘I am pregnant’.
… In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die’. So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were.
When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.”
- 2 Samuel 11 : 2 - 17
David committed adultery. And he committed adultery not with any woman, but the wife of one of his trusted generals, Uriah. When she becomes pregnant from this sexual encounter, David has to hide what has happened. This is because Uriah has been at war and had not been with his wife Bathsheba for months. So David adds murder to his first sin of adultery - he sends his Uriah to the frontline without any support, and Uriah is killed.
The story doesn’t end there. God sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. When David comes to his senses, he confesses that “I have sinned against the Lord”. Seeing his remorse, God spares David from the full consequences of his sins of adultery and murder. Nathan tells David –
“The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But … the son born to you will die.” (2 Samuel 12 : 14)
I don’t think any of expect to commit murder today and get away with it. But here we see that David has escaped the full consequences of his sins. God looked past his conduct. He looked and saw a heart that was repentant and devoted to God, even though David did not always do the right thing.
I’m not saying that we should sin and hope to get away with it. What I’m here to offer is hope. All of us are imperfect, even if not to the extent of committing murder or adultery.
I watched a video recently about a very old couple that had been married for about 80 years. The man was asked for his secret for staying faithful to his wife for so long. He was asked : Did you ever consider divorce? Or did you after think of going off with another woman? The old man replied, “Divorce has never crossed my mind", paused a while, then continued "but murder, several times”.
If God were to judge us based on the wickedness of our conduct or thoughts alone, we are all doomed because we are so imperfect. The Bible says that our righteousness when compared to God’s standards is like filthy rags. However, the good news is that God looks past our momentary sins and imperfections; He looks at our hearts. He upholds those whose hearts are right, and spares us from the full consequences of the sins which we commit in a moment of weakness.
(II) The Bad News : God Looks at the Heart
I’ll go more into what it means to have a “right heart” later, because I want to first touch a bit on the “bad news” that flows from God looking at our hearts.
The "bad news" is that outward religiousness in itself does not please God, because He looks at the heart. This is "bad news" because it would be much easier for us to determine who is going to heaven or hell, if there was a checklist of religiousness that we could tick against. Compare for example the widow in Mark 12 and a couple who sold their house and gave the monies to the church in Acts 5.
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. … A poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on’.”
- Mark 12 : 41 - 43
“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and gave it to the church. Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God’. When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, ‘Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is the price.’
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’ At that moment she fell down at his feet and died.”
- Acts 5 : 1 - 10
David committed adultery and murder, but he was not struck dead. The widow donated two coins, and is raised and remembered for her faithfulness. Ananias and Sapphira sold their house and gave almost all of the money to the church, but were struck dead! Superficially, I have to say – wow God, that’s really harsh! But these illustrate a principle the runs throughout the Bible :
When you do something, the heart with which you do it matters more to God, than what or how much “good” you do.
More important than what you do, is the heart with which you do it.
This is a bit of "bad news" because it is difficult to tell when someone is doing something with the right heart. Wouldn’t it be easier if I knew for sure that by selling my house and giving all the money to church, I would go to heaven and be blessed a hundred times in return? But what if we had such a checklist? I’m going to carry out a "Who’s Going to Heaven?" survey now. Hands up those of you who think you belong to the right side of the checklist ? Hands up those of you who think you belong to the left side of the checklist ?
If God were to compare our conduct against a checklist, we are all doomed because we would simply not measure up to God’s standard of righteousness. However – thank God – He looks past our momentary sins and imperfections; He looks at our hearts.
Some of you might think that this sounds like a easy way to get away with murder, while claiming to have a heart that is right before God. Can we trick ourselves into thinking that we have a good or right heart before God, maybe even when we do something wrong?
Definitely. The religious leaders in Jesus’ time were blind to their own failings, and took pride in their outward religious conduct even though they had secret sins and their hearts were evil. Even King David was blind to his own sins. In the account of David’s adultery, the prophet Nathan first approached David with a story of how a rich man abused a poor man. David became very angry when he heard this and wanted to punish the rich man. Nathan had to point out that “you are the man” before David saw that, really, he was no better than the rich man he was angry with. Jeremiah 17 : 9 states that -
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure – none can understand it”.
Even David the man after God’s heart was blind to his own failings. What about us? How then can we be sure that our hearts are right before God? How do we ensure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Two Psalms composed by David, the man after God’s heart, show us how –
The first is Psalms 139 : 23, 24. “Search me, O God, know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”. Like David, we must humbly come before God and ask Him to show us where we are right, and where we might displease Him. We can do this by reflecting on what we do against what we read in the Bible, by listening to what pastor and other Godly people might have to say about us, and by what God might impress on our mind as we pray.
The second is Psalms 51 : 10, which David wrote after Nathan confronted him over his adultery. “Create in me a clean heart … and renew a right spirit within me”. David was the king, and he could have hardened his heart and ignored Nathan. He could even put Nathan to death for accusing the king of sin. But David was repentant, and God honoured that. So this is how we can guard our hearts from pride and deception. The first is to humbly seek God, to find out what pleases and displeases God. The second is to be repentant, to seek God’s forgiveness when we find out that we have done something which displeases God. And we have the assurance that, even if there is a momentary lapse of judgment, God will uphold us when our hearts are right before Him.
(III) The Great News : God Looks at the Heart
So far we have been reflecting on how God looks at our hearts and not at our imperfections, and how this is good news for us as believers, for us within the church. The great news is that are also truths in this which apply to those outside the church. Even for non-believers, God does not look at just the external or outward conduct, and reject them. God responds emotionally to sin in love, and God wants to deal with sin by dealing with the root of sin which lies in our broken hearts. What does this mean?
1. Firstly this means that God does not reject us and those outside the church because of their sin. We have all heard before that salvation is by grace (Ephesians 2 : 8). We are saved by grace through faith, and not by whatever good things we might do. Although we are condemned because of our sins, we are not rejected because of God’s grace. God doesn’t look at how terrible a person’s sins are, and decide whether he is good enough or too sinful to receive His love and grace. In the same way, as Christians we are bearers of this great news and should not consider anyone so sinful as to be undeserving of God’s (ie. our) attention and love.
2. Secondly, God has a heartfelt response to sin. Recently a Christian pointed me to Romans 1 : 18 - 32, which says that “The wrath of God is being revealed … against all … godlessness and wickedness”, and that God has given such people “over in their sinful desires of their hearts”.
In short, he felt that some unbelievers are just too sinful to be saved. I was quite troubled by this, and in response I pointed him to Luke 15, which is the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. Here, Jesus shared not one, not two, but three parables to illustrate the extravagance of God’s love.
In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the good shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to look for one lost, unbelieving “sheep”. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, the lady of the house turns her entire house upside down and spends days looking for a missing coin, which represents the unbeliever. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the loving father who represents God keeps a daily lookout for the return of his wayward son. When the father sees the wayward son appear over the horizon, he recklessly runs out to hug him and welcome him home. This is reckless because the father did not know if his son was repentant, or even possibly up to no good such a robbing the family.
Note that all these are emotional responses by God to sin. Objectively, it makes no sense to abandon ninety-nine sheep, turn a whole house upside down, and recklessly out to embrace to the prodigal son. If I were the father I would at least have waited to be sure that the prodigal son had come in peace, instead of running out and subjecting myself to the risk of being killed. But God’s love is so extravagant that He will spare nothing to redeem a lost soul, even when that person’s conduct suggests that he is totally lost to God. Yes, God may allow a sinful person to suffer the natural consequences his sin – to “give them over the sinful desires of their hearts” (Romans 1 : 24) – but this does not mean that God has given up on him, rejected him, and no longer loves him. God will spare nothing to redeem that lost person.
If God demonstrates such a heartfelt and extravagant response to sin, as Christians can we love any less? If God does not reject a person based on conduct alone, as Christians we cannot reject or exclude a person on that basis.
3. Finally, God wants to deal with sin by dealing with our hearts. By design, all of us long to love and be loved (by God), even those who say that we don’t need God. Ecclesiastes 3 : 11 says that there is a longing to connect with God in every person, that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men”. Sin is rebellion against God. But it is also an expression for an unfulfilled longing in a wrong way. For example, there are people who try and deal with grief by drinking or taking drugs. This is their expression for an unfulfilled longing, in a way that harms their family and health.
I want to introduce you now to Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest who was once involved in a charity reaching out to AIDS patients in San Francisco. As you may know, San Francisco is a very liberal city (in a sexual and other senses) and the rate of HIV transmission there is very high partly because of that. Philip Yancey, a Christian author, interviewed him and wrote :
“He told me of young people banished from their own families, forced to hustle on the street. Some of them had hundreds of [sex] partners whom they had met in bathhouses, whose names they had never learned, and from one of those partners they had contracted the [HIV] virus that was now killing them. Nouwen looked at me, his piercing eyes bright with compassion and pain. ‘Philip, these young people are dying – literally dying – because of their thirst for love.’ He went on to tell me individual stories he had heard there. The accounts all had in common a search for a safe place, for a safe relationship, for a home, for acceptance, for unconditional love, for forgiveness.”
We can, and people outside the church can, look for fulfillment in the wrong places. In Jeremiah 2 : 13, God tells the Israelites that they were doing just that. You “have dug your own wells, broken wells that cannot hold water”. The Israelites were spiritually and emotionally thirsty, but instead of turning to God for living water, they dug their own wells and tried to satisfy themselves with that. But their wells were defective - it was broken and had holes! They were looking in the wrong places to satisfy their thirst, and until they turned back to God they would be unsatisfied. God is the living water and desires to minister to that unfulfilled longing for love in every person.
In John 10 : 10 Jesus said that “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. As Christians, we are called to minister to that unfulfilled longing. A lost person might suffer “judgment” for his sin by an accident that happens to him when he steps out of his house. Maybe less dramatically, there is the law of cause and effect. If he gambles, he might become bankrupt. If he has an extra-marital affair, he might destroy his reputation and his family. If he visits prostitutes, he might contract a sexual disease. But a lost person will not experience the love of God by just stepping out of his house, and looking at the sunrise. He might stand in awe of creation, but he will not experience God’s love.
Christians must bring God’s love to the lost. Christians are called to minister to that unfulfilled longing for love in every person, by giving others a foretaste of God’s love. Our hope that they will become intoxicated by it and want more of the real thing, from none other than God Himself.
Those of you who know my kids, will know that they are very unadventurous when it comes to food. They don’t like to try new types of food. So it takes a lot of effort on our part to persuade them to try something new. Sometimes it takes some trickery on our part – yesterday we told Josh that the soft-boiled egg was tofu to get him to try some. That wasn’t very successful though and he didn’t want to try a second spoon. We’ve had success though with strawberry ice cream - how can anyone not like ice cream? After a lot of bargaining we finally got Josh to try a little bit of strawberry ice cream for the first time. Now he loves it and will ask to eat ice cream from time to time.
In the same way, Christians are called to give people a foretaste of God’s love, a foretaste of divine strawberry ice cream. And when people have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalms 34 : 8), their hearts will long after God and a change in outward conduct will follow.
However, if Christians in self-righteousness stand apart from non-believers and refuse to reach out in love, they will only hear of God’s judgment but will not experience his love – and they will forever be lost. Jesus rebuked the religious teachers for their heartless self-righteousness – an outward religiousness that excluded people who looked too sinful to be loved.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23 : 13)
As we close today let us reflect on what we just heard. We thank God for the good news that He is a God who looks at the heart, and not at outward appearances.
When we look within ourselves, this means aspiring to be men and women after God’s heart. It means guarding our heart from pride and from deception, asking God to show us what pleases and displeases Him, and repenting of things which upset God.
Finally, when we look outside of ourselves, we have great news to share with those outside of the church. We do not reject others based on outward appearances, just as God does not reject us based on outward appearances. It means loving others just as God loves them, and reaching out to fulfill every person’s unfulfilled longing to be loved and accepted by God, just as God fills our lives with love.