Saturday, August 13, 2005

heart disease (exodus 7)

Exodus is about the mighty works of God, present in a people and their leader. The story begins with the oppression of a group of slaves in Egypt. The ruler is threatened by these people who are building the infrastructure of the society, who are multiplying. He orders the killing of all newborn males. At this time in history a boy is born, he is placed in a basket, the Hebrew word is literally “ark”, he sails down the river, where he is found by the daughter of Pharoah. Surprisingly, she has compassion on him, and he is spared. She names him Moses.

Moses grows up, he migrates to another country, there he meets a woman, they marry, he gets in involved in the family business. One day he is herding sheep and he sees a burning bush, and hears a Voice calling his name.

Moses, take off your shoes, the ground upon which you stand is holy ground”.

Moses listens. Then God gives him the plan: go to Pharoah, and say, let my people go. Moses has all kinds of excuses----

why would they believe me?,

who should I say has sent me?

what if I fail?

I’m not a good speaker.

God responds: I will be with you. Go!

And so this morning we enter into the encounter with Pharoah. Moses is still working out the details with God: Why would Pharoah listen to me? And God replies: I will harden the heart of Pharoah”. Three times in the coming chapters this is repeated, in verses 7.3, 8. 15, and 9. 12. Many people have wondered and worried about the meaning of the hardening of Pharoah’s heart. If you went to a computer search engine, like “Google”, and typed in “hardness of heart”, you would find literally thousands of entries. Many of them have to do with a few basic questions:

if God is hardening Pharoah’s heart, how can we blame Pharoah for his evil behavior?

If God is loving and merciful, why would he harden Pharoah’s heart in the first place?

If God hardens the hearts of individuals, do we have human responsibility?

I think our fascination with the hardening of Pharoah’s heart is more than intellectual curiousity. We all wonder, don’t we, about the question, maybe in our own lives, maybe in the life of someone close to us? What is hardness of heart?

In the gospels, Jesus uses the term at least twice, once in reference to those who justified easy divorces by pointing to the law---that was because of your hardness of heart, he says; or with those who frowned upon healing on the Sabbath---he is grieved at their hardness of heart.

But what does this mean for us? We have our own unwillingness to give God the place in our lives that is His. Pharoah wanted to be god. A rabbi friend once told me that he had a one sentence definition of what it means to be a Jew:

there is one God, and we’re not Him!

A hardening comes when we want to be in control, when we place ourselves at the center.

This is the vertical dimension of hardness of heart---our refusal to glorify God. There is also a horizontal dimension of hardness of heart—our lack of compassion for others---the man with the withered hand, the woman easily disregarded through divorce, these persons came into the path of Jesus’ life and teaching, and he saw religious people turning away from them, and he said, it is because of your hardness of heart.

How does it actually happen? In this scripture, Pharoah refuses to acknowledge the mighty works of God. God hardens the heart of Pharoah. Pharoah hardens his own heart toward God. It is a cycle. And so God gives signs, in the form of plagues, ten of them, to show his power. The battle begins. Moses and Aaron go to Pharoah----in the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Lord says, “Let me people go”. Pharoah says, “no”. God says, “I am going to accomplish my purpose…watch me”. Pharoah responds, “bring it on”.

And so the plagues begin. I won’t go into the details of all of them. The first one is turning of the Nile River into blood. For a moment, we have to put this in context: Egypt was one of the great civilizations of the world. The Nile was the primary reason for that: it supported the growing of food in times of famine; it was the route for travel and transportation; it was the lifeline. God turns the lifeline into a pool of blood. It is a sign, a graphic sign. Exodus 7-12 is really an extended meditation on reading the signs. There is a way of life and a way of death.

The nile is turned to blood—death.

But remember, Moses is drawn out of the water—life.

The people are in slavery---death,

but they are called to freedom—life.

Pharoah is gripped by a hardness of heart—death.

Moses is open to the call of God---life,

There is the light of the burning bush-life,

and there is the ninth plague of darkness--death.

Exodus is about life and death. The condition of the heart is the place where the signs must be read, and where life or death are the outcomes.

I have a friend, Jim Harnish, who is a Methodist pastor in Tampa, Florida. He wrote a wonderful book about his church, Hyde Park, a church with a great past that had been on a downward slide for a number of years, and also about his own illness, which came in the form of cardiomyopathy, which is something like congestive heart failure, and for which the medical cure is a heart transplant. Over six months, with excellent medical treatment and with many prayers, Jim’s heart was back to normal.

In his book, You Only Have To Die, he likens these two experiences, the decline and rebirth of the church, his own own illness and recovery. What can we learn from his experience?

We listen to our hearts. Is there a mild discomfort? Is there an irregular rhythm? Is God trying to say something to us, trying to get our attention?

We find out what is going on. How do we monitor our spiritual lives? Are we accountable to Christian friends? To the scriptures? How do we know what is going on?

We call in the specialists. Have you ever put off going to a doctor, or a dentist? Sometimes people put off going to church, because they think they are not in the right place, not in the right frame of mind, maybe not good enough, and yet the church is the place God has chosen in the world to make his presense and his forgiveness known through the word and the sacraments and the fellowship.

We use the oxygen when we have difficulty breathing. In the Bible, breath and spirit are linked because they are the same word. If we are out of breath, spiritually, we need to sit still and rest, and ask for the spirit, God’s presence, to dwell within. It is not about us. It is about God, dwelling within us.

We change our lifestyles. In a sense, God gives us freedom here. I could eat sausage gravy every morning, and I would like it. I could eat barbecue every day for lunch, and I would love it. I could eat steak every evening…

But in time, I would have, to use the words of Ezekiel, a heart of stone (36. 26). My behaviors would lead to a hardness of heart. Jim Harnish talks about this in reference to his own life---he knows that it is a miracle that he is alive—but also in regard to the church.

I want to say a word about what this scripture, this image of the heart means for Providence. There are two lessons: one from Moses and Pharoah; another from Jesus.

The hardness of Pharoah’s heart has to do with worship. Worship is not about traditional or contemporary, the hymn that you like or the hymn that I like; it is not a preacher cult, and it is not always about numbers. Worship is about lifting up our hearts, in the words of the liturgy. Worship is about opening our hearts, our very beings, to the One who can perform spiritual surgery on us. Worship is breaking our hearts of stone, and giving us love for God alone. Pharoah refuses to do this. His heart is hardened.

The hardness of the heart in the gospels has to do with our lack of compassion for other people. Do we sometimes find ways to justify shutting people out? Yes. Do we sometimes think we are better than other people? Yes. Do we get caught up in the rituals and the laws and forget that it is all about love? Yes. The cure for heart disease is a lifestyle change. Scripture, like a good physician, does not always tell us what we want to hear. But scripture, like a good physician, tells us the truth.

Worship on the Lord’s Day, is about God, to whom alone belongs glory and honor and power. I have a friend who spent a good deal of his life as a professor of chemistry, and then became a research scientist in a corporation, and then spun that off to form a company that developed a drug. My friend was in the very inner circle of this innovation----it is a drug, he said, that “lowers anxiety and improves memory”. Can you imagine that? He was the chair of the staff-parish committee of the church, so we had frequent conversations, and once he talked to me about worship. What means the most to me about worship”, he said, “is the confession of sin. In that moment, in those words, everything in my life, in my week, is put in the right perspective. Pharoah’s heart was hardened because he—Pharoah—wanted to he god. Our confession is that we all want to be god, but there is only One God, whom we have come to worship. The confession, the worship, simply hearing the word and trying to apply it to our lives, all of that chips away at the plaque that contributes to our hardness of heart.

On the other six days, because we have confessed and praised and listened, we open our hearts to the withered and the disregarded.

If we resent the poor,

if we judge the broken,

if we cannot forgive one another,

if we cannot forgive or accept ourselves,

something is not quite right.

Imagine that we are sitting not in a sanctuary, but in a waiting room. We have all come to worship in some state of dis-ease. The old saying makes the point, “the church is not a school for saints, but a hospital for sinners”.

And so we are left with the words of the psalm:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.


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