Eyes of a Pure Heart
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What do the Rolling Stones have in common with Russian novelist, philosopher, short story writer, political prisoner/dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn?
In 1972, the Rolling Stones released the double album “Exile on Main Street.” Side 3 track 4 is titled “I Just Wanna See His Face.” There is a lot of mystery around seeing God, much that is unknown. There is much mystery around this track. Bobby Whitlock was playing electric piano for the band at the time. He claims that upon hearing that his father was a minister, Mick Jagger asked him to play something with a gospel feel. Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor joined in. Whitlock didn’t even know they were recording. Mick started singing and the hook goes “Don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn released The Gulag Archipelago the next year, 1973. It is a history of the Russian gulag system from 1918-1968. Solzhenitsyn was raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, and after falling away from it, would come back to it. In this book, Solzhenitsyn has this to say about the human heart, which I think is particularly meaningful in today’s world where so many of us want to withdraw into camps and demonize our opponents. Here’s what he wrote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.”
Both of these artists bring us back to the 6th Beatitude. You know it’s been a bit of a dream of mine to talk about The Rolling Stones and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the same sermon. So, bucket list! I like dreaming attainable dreams.
How’s this for a dream though, a pure heart. How’s this for a dream, seeing God. Listen, brothers and sisters, I will tell you of a mystery.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Echoes of Psalm 24:3-6. I don’t wanna walk or talk about Jesus, I just wanna see his face. How do we feel about this? Does this excite us, the thought of seeing Jesus’ face, of seeing the face of God? Does God even have a face? How can we speak about such a wonderful mystery?
Let’s pause here for a minute and take a look at the Beatitudes as a whole. You remember how we divided them up into two verses. Now that we’re in the 2nd verse, we can see how there’s a correspondence between 1 and 5, 2, and 6 (and later we’ll see the correspondence between 3 and 7 and 4 and 8). Last week we looked at Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Remember when we looked at poverty of spirit as knowing our abject, utter and complete need of God and God’s mercy. To know the mercy of God is to live as people of mercy, extending God’s mercy to one and all. We remember that part of being people who mourn was being people who mourn their sins, bringing them to God, confessing them, crying out “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Blessed are those who mourn their impurity of heart; those who listen to those words from Solzhenitsyn and look at ourselves honestly with our hearts laid bare and cry out “Lord have mercy, give me a pure heart. Make my heart pure.”
If we were ever thinking (or still thinking) that the Beatitudes represented an 8 step process to blessedness, and all we need to do is enact them, then this 6th one would surely disabuse us of that notion. I can’t make my heart pure. You can’t make your heart pure.
But let us not despair, for we are sitting at the feet of the one who can. Remember a couple of weeks ago we talked about wanting to want rightness with God and rightness with those around us and indeed all of God’s creation. This morning the prayer is “Purify my heart.” “Purify our hearts.” This is how the Psalmist prays it in Psalm 86:10-11 – “For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”
Pure hearts. When we speak of the heart in matters of faith, we’re not speaking of the heart as the centre of emotion, as “the heart wants what the heart wants” or making any differentiation between the head and the heart. When God’s word speaks of the heart, it speaks of the centre of everything – our will, our intellect, our emotions, our spirit, our soul, our desires, our understanding. The word here translated “purity” has connotations of without folds, nothing hidden. Sincere. Single-minded. An unmixed condition of being. It is to will one thing as someone has put it, doing the Good. Jonathan Edwards described it like this: “a pure heart is one that abhors sin, grieves over sin when it is committed, is freed ‘from the reigning power and dominion of [sin],’ and continually seeks to cleanse itself from the ‘remainders’ of sin. Those who are pure in heart delight in loving God and neighbour. Billy Graham “connected purity of heart to spiritual rebirth and regeneration… regeneration as the beginning of a new life made possible in Christ.” Being made clean and being cleansed. Being made new and then being newly made. Purity of heart is the work of God in us. The goal has been described as the “increasing ability to be free from the power of sin and to more freely love God and neighbour unhindered from sinful desires.” Martin Luther said “a pure heart is always ‘watching and pondering what God says and replacing its own ideas with the Word of God.’” As we’ve been saying about the Beatitudes, there is not just a vertical aspect here which has to do with God’s relationship to us, neither is there solely an inner aspect to purity of heart. Luther went on to describe the horizontal aspect of purity of heart for those living in the kingdom of heaven - “the Word of faith toward God, which purifies the heart, and the Word of understanding, which teaches him what he is to do toward his neighbour.”
It's coming to God with empty hands and living open-handedly. You can see how these Beatitudes are being built one on top of the other. We started out talking about coming to God with open hands, living free of possessiveness. Living generously in the generosity of God. Being givers. We know creation reveals the glory of God, the way of God. I came across this verse recently – “Nothing in nature lives for itself. Rivers don’t drink their own water. Trees don’t eat their own fruit. The sun doesn’t shine for itself. Flowers don’t spread fragrance for themselves. Living for others is the rule of nature.” Help me to live Lord as a giver, not as a taker. We think back to the previous beatitudes and how they describe hearts. Hearts that know their need for God. Hearts capable of mourning. Humble, gentle hearts that don’t insist on their way. Hearts that hunger and thirst for rightness with God and with others. Merciful hearts. Loving hearts. Undivided hearts.
Lord give us such hearts. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, but it is not an entirely passive process. We don’t say “Purify my heart God!” and then forget about God, blithely going about our business. James puts these two ideas together very well in James 4:8 – “ Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Yes! At the same time, Paul writes to the people of Colossae – “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” (Col 3:5) and later “ But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive[d] language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” (Col 3:8-10) David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who you’ve heard me refer to, says “The fact that I know that I cannot ultimately purify and cleanse my heart in an absolute sense does not mean that I must walk in the gutters of life waiting for God to cleanse me. I must do everything I can and still know it is not enough and that he must do it finally.” What are some of the things we do both together and individually? We remember. We remember what God has done, we remind each other what God is doing, and we remember God’s promises to us. We remain watchful, wakeful, and attentive to the different ways God speaks to us. We give attention to faith, hope, and love.
For they will see God. I don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face. We are being prepared for the audience chamber of our God, as someone has put it. We are being prepared for the audience chamber of our King where we’ll know the fullness of God’s promises in all their fullness and we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.
How wonderful! A day of pure joy. A day of being at rest in Him finally. A day of being made whole. Lord make us ever more ready for that day, we pray.
Of course, there is a present aspect to this promise too. In the OT, there is an aspect of seeing God which means being in the presence of God or knowing the favour of God. Being in the presence of God gives us eyes to see newly. Living in the presence of God means being able to see with our hearts what is otherwise invisible to the eye. It means coming to see in others, the image of God in which we have been created, marred though it may be. It means coming to see the image of Christ in the least of these, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner. Seeing Jesus in “his most distressing disguise” as Mother Theresa put it. In becoming ever more aware in our hearts of God with us, we discover ever more that we are with God as we go through our days. We begin to see God everywhere. Catherine of Siena lived in the 14th century, the first woman declared to be a Doctor of the church, put it like this, “The soul who comes to know herself in you finds your greatness wherever she turns, even in the tiniest things, in people and in all created things.”
We’re ascending the ladder of the Beatitudes together and I know we’re talking about some pretty heady stuff. We’re talking about things that I think are best grasped in wonder and thanksgiving. Purity of heart. Seeing God. I was saying in one of our Bible studies recently that I know that, for many of us, the life of the Christian is not one of blue skies and rainbows, or inevitable progress, or evermore marching onward and upward. Let us extend to ourselves the same grace which God extends to us. When North African Bishop Augustine preached on this Beatitude, he compared our hearts to a room and told people to clean out the rooms of their hearts to make space for God. Augustine also knew human weakness and the need for grace. He said this, “But perhaps you may find difficulty in cleaning out your heart; call [God] in, he won’t refuse to clean out a place for himself, and he will agree to stay with you…. I agree, there’s nothing greater than God; don’t worry, all the same, about not having enough room; receive him, and he enlarges your living space.”
This is the kind of renovation we can all get behind. May this be our prayer – Purify my heart Lord, that I might see God. May this be the desire of all our hearts. Amen