When Our Hearts Condemn Us – Easter 4

By this we know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. [I John 3:19-20]

Today’s Epistle [I John 3:18-24] is a passage that contains such a wealth on the Gospel and Christian life  that just about every verse could stand by itself and alone be a topic for the sermon.  So the job is tough to pick one around which to base a theme – however, this one caught my eye because it deals with a guilty conscience.

While guilty consciences are not unfamiliar to us, at this time of year they can become a little heavier.  Schools wind down soon, and on the report card will be the indication of effort over the year.  Businesses may contemplate the past winter season, where some activities may not have been the most ethical.  On farms and ranches, the hours spent plowing, seeding and fencing may give a person perhaps too much time to think and remember.  Some look forward to their holidays, yet as they relax, often there is more time to recall and reflect, and sometimes there are things that would rather be forgotten.

Perhaps we cheated on something – only just a little, only to get a little ahead, or to even the playing field.  Perhaps we simply made everyone else miserable because that was just our attitude that day.  Perhaps we gave someone a hard time, or simply blew our top – only to find out that we were wrong, or else that there was something very difficult going on in the other person’s life, where they instead really needed our understanding and friendship.  Perhaps it was a foolish argument with the spouse, yet in pride neither would give in and there is still anger, which adds to your guilty conscience.  Perhaps there is a flashback, where someone got in trouble in school or at work, or was being bullied and isolated and we did not speak up to defend him – or were in fact involved, to our shame.

How easily we can agonize over some wrong moves, a stupid remark just said at the wrong time, a totally foolish action that we wish we could change.  Here the conscience points its finger at ourselves and the experience can be so very painful.  All those times when we just failed, failed ourselves, failed the people who loved us, failed the people who trusted and depended on us; the times when we mishandled the situation, and just blew it.

We all have times when we feel miserable about who and what we are.  Some will keep themselves so busy, to avoid time of reflection and looking at themselves, to not give guilty consciences time to catch up – they run so hard to avoid that emptiness and torn-apart feelings which so often come as one confronts the foolishnesses and failures of the past.  We all have our own ways of trying to escape the responsibilities of the past:  Some turn to alcohol; some turn to bitterness; some just give up and hide in some way; some turn to blaming everyone else.

How hard guilt can come down on us, what a burden and a weight which we drag around and which drags us down.  How uncomfortable it is, how rotten inside we can feel.  We shrug it off, as if “well, that’s that, and what can you do about it??”, yet it still returns, nagging at us.  We try to justify ourselves, because what else could we have done and yet we still try to figure out what else we could have done.  If only we had not reacted so quickly, perhaps we would have done something better.  Yes, it had to be the other person’s fault, because if he had only done… or not done …, and yet we are amazed at the evil that did pour out of our hearts, through our mouths and into our lives.

Now we face God in worship, and here comes a whole new load of guilt: how many times have we simply and too easily failed HIM?  We have let Him down – especially in the two areas mentioned in the Epistle: in our faith in our Lord Jesus, and in our love for one another.  We know we have hurt our Lord, ignoring Him and His will, deliberately disobeying and conveniently forgetting about Him.  We stop to reflect in disappointment at ourselves, aware of how we have really hurt the love that has reached out so faithfully toward us.

Even latching on to some popular feel-good-isms does not help us ignore the accusing finger of guilt.  The guilty conscience sits there like a big pile of manure in the middle of our living rooms: you can’t miss it, it just keeps coming back to haunt us and make us suffer through it all again.

John’s words in today’s passage hits us like a splash of ice-cold water: “for God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.”  Plagued by guilt as we can be, to say that God knows everything can be extremely frightening.  After all, we are too aware of just how terrible our attitudes can be, how ugly our moods can be, how rotten our treatment of others can be – there are parts of ourselves that we really do not want to see at any cost nor do we want especially God to see, because, after all, He is the Judge before Whom each of us will stand one day.

We want to think we are basically decent people, and we very desperately want to sweep these things under the rug, but then to hear that God – GOD! – KNOWS everything – EVERYTHING about you and me – that makes the blood run cold.  It has the death knell of judgment: “God knows everything – He knows the hidden closets of our hearts, He knows the hidden recesses of our minds, secret things we have done when we thought no one was looking – He knows everything we have done wrong.”  This has to be one of the worst things that will ever face us,
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But actually that is one of the sweetest words that St John could ever have told us.  God knows all about you and me – just think, He will never be disillusioned by us.  He never will suddenly discover what we are “really” like and then recoil in horror and say, “Is that the way you really are???  Then I don’t want you around!”

That will never happen, because God know everything – EVERYTHING about us!  That is when we stand at the cross of Calvary in utter amazement.  Those things that we have so well hidden from everybody else, those things we even have tried to hide from ourselves – GOD KNOWS! and yet still the Father would send His Son, His most beloved Object in the universe, to a Cross; GOD KNOWS! and yet still Jesus would die for US!  He still would pay the awful cost of agony and hell and being forsaken by the Father – even though HE KNOWS all about each one of us!

What is so powerful is that the resurrection is more than Jesus simply rising from the dead.  It is that He comes back to say, “I want you to be with me forever and ever.  Will you come with me?”  Easter is the confirmation that these things that we agonize over, these things that carry such a burden of guilt, when we confess them and put them into His hands, that God has indeed taken our sins and thrown them behind His back, to remember them no more.  They just do not exist  anymore to God.  What a wonderful message of pure mercy and love!

And the message is even greater as we approach Baptism, where God more than just washes you and me clean – He adopts us, He actually wants us to be part of His own family!  And God chose the example of adoption, because the Roman law was such that the parent could never, ever disown his new child.  Think of that: God has declared that He knows EVERYTHING, He knows exactly what we are like, and still He voluntarily puts Himself into such a position so that we are assured that He cannot ever turn His back on us.  Though we may walk out on Him, though we may seek adoption by Satan and the world, God will never walk out on us.

How ironic it is!  We desperately try to hide our guilt from everyone else, even from ourselves, even from the Lord – trying to hold it down and keep it from popping up – afraid that someone might find out –, and meanwhile the Lord has been saying to us that He not only has known about everything all along, all along He has stood ready to forgive, all along He has been ready to get rid of our guilt forever, all along He has been telling us, “Come, I have poured out my lifeblood for you already on account of this; come, I can wash it all away; come, repent and be free!”

What a release that can be!  All those old failings, the bad feelings that we have held on to for so long, in fact , of which we have been afraid to let go, of which we have tried to bury deep inside, the fears and the turmoil that we have spoken about to no one – here is our freedom from a God Who already knows and already before you ask has forgiveness prepared.

Oh, but this is easier said than done!  Yes, we can finally stop hiding our past, take it to the Lord, and hear the blessed words of absolution remove it forever – but then a little voice pipes up in the background, our conscience cries out, “But you know, that was a pretty dumb thing you had done back then, that was a pretty terrible thing you did to that person…” and on it goes.  And there we are, getting those old feeling back, all over again.  Of course, Satan is at the center of this, since he wants us to experience no victory, but rather that we agonize over our failures to the point where we give up on being God’s People.

That’s why John’s second statement is so important – that God is greater than our hearts.  We have a solution for the pesky little conscience that won’t let go of the guilt: we bring the matter to the Lord Who is greater than anything – greater even than our conscience.  Any time our conscience or even someone else brings up these times of guilt, all we need is to lay it all at the feet of the One Who died for us.  And what wonderful words are returned to us to repeat over and over, “This has already been forgiven, it is in the hands of the Lord – it exists no more.”

Still, we wonder – how can we be sure?  Maybe this failure is the exception to the rule?   Here Holy Communion comes to our rescue: it is the  unmistakable demonstration that the forgiveness of God is so total that the perfect holy God Himself, Jesus, is willing to enter us with no hesitation – something that could not happen unless the sin had been completely cleaned away.  This is the power of the simple statements, “This is My Body; This is My Blood” – “This is Me,” says our Lord, “I enter you, into your heart and soul, into your bodies and your lives.”  What a rich and wonderful statement Holy Communion can be for one plagued by a guilty conscience!

The good news that John has for us today is found in the words, “God knows everything”, that in the hands of Christ, that phrase is turned from judgment to the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.  And John also has the reminder that God is greater than anything – greater even than our consciences – and that is a wonderful, powerful, strengthening message as we face guilt, and even as we face the world.  What a source of joy and power for daily life is the simple message that John gives to us today!

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