Sermon from September 15: Dios mio
Pentecost XIV (O. T. 24); September 15, 2019
The title of the sermon is inspired by a story I read many years ago. A particular Catholic bishop said that whenever he had a new priest in his diocese, who would be serving a congregation that included Hispanic/Latino persons, he would send that priest to Puerto Rico until he learned to say, “Dios mío:” “my God.” Over the course of my ministry I’ve been privileged to work with Puerto Rican folks, Mexican-American folks, and then this year to visit briefly Nicaragua. Although very different from one another, they all seemed to have this in common: an intensity of personal relationship with God. Dios mío.
That reflects what the Prophet Ezekiel was getting at in this passage. Here’s a recap of what’s going on in the Prophet’s words. Ezekiel has been reflecting on the behavior of God’s people and what led to the collapse of their society and their exile. He said that their failure to live by the ways of God – I could say, failure to obey the Law of God – that that failure caused dishonor to the name of God. Think about it: if one of your children does something terrible, don’t you feel your family’s name has been dishonored? So when the people of God fail to live by the ways of God, the Lord’s name is dishonored.
And so the Babylonians overran the country, destroyed the Temple, and took all the leading citizens into exile. In today’s reading comes the Lord’s promise: I will bring you home, and I will do a heart transplant on you. “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (v. 26). When you and I talk about the heart symbolically, we think of it as the place where emotions are: love, hate, lust, desire for revenge, and so forth. Among ancient Hebrew people, the heart was thought of as the seat of the will: from the heart came what you wanted to do, your goals, the things you set yourself to.
So when the Prophet says that the people used to have a heart of stone, he meant that they were stubborn, they resisted the will of God. And he says that God will give them a heart of flesh, so they would want to do the will of God. If they kept God’s Law at all in the past, he implies, they did so out of fear of punishment. But in the future, they would keep God’s Law – they would live by God’s ways – because they want to; “and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
The upshot of the whole thing: God has shown us how to live, and we have promised to live by God’s ways. When we don’t do it, we dishonor God (not to mention that we’re also messing up our planet and living with violence, poverty, and hunger). And God’s intention is that we live by God’s ways because we want to, not merely because we’re afraid of punishment.
It’s clear, given God’s freely offered forgiveness, that God understands when we fail to live up to the calling of God. When we want to do the right thing, but fail to, God freely forgives. God’s aggravation with us is when we don’t want to do the right thing, when we’re more concerned with protecting our own, grabbing our goodies, or even simply being lazy. When we want to do the right thing but fail, our heart is in the right place. But when we don’t want to do what God is calling us to do, then we are living with hearts of stone.
But Ezekiel says that God will give us new hearts, hearts of flesh, so that we will want to do God’s will. I keep wondering: when? When will my heart be changed, so that I genuinely always desire to do the right thing, when I no longer by my stubbornness dishonor the name of God? Despite Ezekiel’s promises, God persists in allowing us free will, in allowing us freely to choose to ignore God’s ways, to hold onto our hearts of stone.
I hope this makes sense to you and that you can see yourself in this mirror, too. Do you always freely choose to do the will of God, to live by God’s ways? Or do you also find yourself sometimes being selfish, sometimes being lazy, sometimes willfully doing the opposite of what God wants? Even if you’ve learned to say Dios mío and mean it, if you feel a close relationship with the God who loves you, surely there are times when your heart is stubborn and you simply want to serve yourself, not the Lord.
The Lord Jesus is working at showing us the way. For us to follow the ways of God because we want to, rather than because we’re afraid we might go to Hell if we don’t, requires a heart transplant, and Jesus is just the surgeon to do it. As you learn more about Jesus, about his life on earth, his teaching, his priorities, he becomes for you the sort of person you want to be. He touches the heart, the place where we say “my God” and choose our goals and priorities.
One of the great teachers of the Church, Peter Abelard, took a very different look at the Cross of Jesus from some others. While others viewed it as an offering to God, a sacrifice to pay for sins, he looked at it as God’s offering to us. God’s own Son went to the Cross as an expression of God’s love for us, and when we look, really look, at Christ Jesus on the Cross, then we are moved to change for the better: our hearts of stone are melted and become hearts of flesh.
And this occurs to me, too: if I want to know God, if I really want God in my life, where do I turn? Do I follow the rules to try to get God to accept me? If I’m good enough, will God notice me and make me part of God’s life? Or shall I listen to Jesus, who said, “Come to me”? Shall I allow my heart and mind to be opened to Jesus, so that by turning to him I may find myself in the life of God? Well, you know what I think.
I think that God is so fascinating and exciting that I want God in my life, and so I turn to Jesus Christ. And I’ll try, however haltingly, to follow the ways of God, not because I’m afraid I’ll go to Hell if I don’t, but simply because I want to. And when I get lazy or stubborn and don’t want to, I’ll pray that God will change my heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, so that I can truly say: Dios mío.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master