Well folks, if you're listening to this close to publication day, we've officially begun the week of love. Valentine's Day is this Thursday, and I hope that whoever has won your heart is treating you with the grace and respect you deserve, not just this week, but every week. Plus, few other weeks allows you to over-indulge in chocolate without judgment. If that isn't a reason to celebrate this holiday unashamedly, I don't know what is!
A couple of summers ago we had an issue at our house where uncared for water in the cellar had compromised the structural integrity of the I-beams that supported the structure. Even after installing a sump pump to address the water situation, unbeknownst to us, several of the support beams were rotting away to the point of collapse. And one Saturday night, one of them finally gave way. With a loud bang, it crumbled beneath us, causing part of the floor to sag down by several inches.
When Will, our head trustee got down there to diagnose the problem, we discovered how dangerous it was. As we carefully replaced each I-beam and concrete block, we found at least three of the eight remaining beams were critically compromised, crumbling as we moved them.
It was a disaster waiting to happen.
In the upper part of the house, there were no signs of trouble, no indication of what was brewing beneath the surface, but the foundation was not sound. And left unattended, the house would have collapsed in on itself.
It’s the nature of life. The unseen things have a tremendous impact on everything else, whether we recognize it or not.
A common theme throughout the Scriptures is God’s tendency to expose the heart of his followers, particularly those who claimed to speak for him.
These were often people for whom everything SEEMED like everything was fine in their lives, but beneath the surface, everything was crumbling.
One famous example from the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Isaiah where God cuts to the heart of his people, saying, "These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.”
And if this was true of God through his prophets in the Old Testament, it was made even clearer through the ministry of Jesus in the New Testament.
In Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount, he spends a considerable amount of time instructing his listeners that their actions come from the overflow of the heart. And that God sees the heart. So just because your hatred of somebody hasn't driven you to murder doesn't mean that your heart is clean. In fact, Jesus said that uncontrolled anger is equally as dangerous to the soul as murder.
The problem that Jesus saw was that too often it was ever so easy for the people of God to divorce their inward lives from the outward appearance. In his devoutly religious culture, it was increasingly comfortable to put on the trappings of religious piety without seeing any real change in the hearts of the people. A.W. Tozer calls this "settling for little."
Lance Witt calls it image management: when you present a portrait of yourself on the outside that doesn’t match up with the reality of your heart.
One group of people who appear to have been the most guilty of were a pious group called the Pharisees. In most ways, these men were considered to be religious elites. They kept all of the laws given to them by prophets and other leaders from years before, and they even created laws on anything and everything that the law didn’t explicitly cover. They even created regulations to remove any amount of ambiguity in the law. The law says not to work on the Sabbath. Well, we will codify precisely what it means to work.
These men went to extreme lengths to prove their holiness to the people around them. Jesus points out these measures in Matthew 23: "On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels."
Now it wasn’t uncommon to see a Jewish man in Jesus day with prayer boxes attached to them in some way, typically on the left arm, but often seen attached to the forehead. Neither was it odd for somebody to wear prayer robes with tassels. These were prescribed to symbolize a person’s commitment to God.
So if both of these were typical, what was the problem?
Well, the first thing that Jesus points out is that they make a show out of their devotion. The New Living Translation uses the word extra to describe both of Jesus' examples. Where I might use a small box, maybe 2 inches by 2 inches, they'd have a box that covered their foreheads. Where you might have a prayer shawl with 4-inch tassels, the Pharisee would double that with 8-inch tassels. Anything to prove to you that everything you can do, they can do better.
But as you read through the 23rd chapter of Matthew, you’ll see a progressively harsh condemnation of this kind of thinking until he gets the what I see as his harshest condemnation yet, in verse 27: "What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people's bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness."
The problem with these men was that they had the appearance of right living, all the outward signs of being good and godly men, but it was all an act. Worse, they were corrupt and immoral, like a beautifully adorned tomb. No matter how much you doll it up, a tomb will always be a tomb, a place of death.
There are few warnings that Jesus gives to his listeners that cuts to my heart more than those levied in Matthew 23. For some, perhaps, it may be encouraging to see Christ kick down people as self-righteous as the Pharisees, but when I hear these words, I shudder. Because I know how easy it is to present a particular image to people in our church, how easy project a false representation to the world while allowing my inner life to waste away.
Worse than that, Lance Witt suggests that the greatest danger in our spiritual lives isn’t just projecting a false image, but getting comfortable with it.
The Pharisees got comfortable playing the game. They were comfortable portraying a role that looked nothing like their heart.
And Jesus exposes this in a major way, declaring that though they seemed alive, they were truly dead.
This is the danger of a life lived disconnected from the true vine.
It’s why Jesus places such a premium on the heart, on tying your heart in with his own.
Jesus reminds us in John 15, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
An imploding spiritual life, one that looks shockingly like my basement did that fateful Saturday night, finds its origin in a disconnect from the true vine. And it usually finds its root in allowing a substitute to replace it.
For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they relied on their own personal goodness in place of the true vine. For others its issues of comfort or power, money or prestige, sex or pleasure. You can find this root in objectively bad things, such as addictions, narcissism, abuse, and neglect. But these aren’t the only things that draw us away from the vine. They can be things like hobbies, careers, friends and even family can all creep in as our source of life and find us missing the life that Christ has for us.
The cure to an imploding spiritual life is to reorient yourself on the true vine. It is purposefully re-embracing the God who is the source of life. A branch that no longer receives nourishment from the vine cuts of its very life source. When it does this, everything attached to it sours. Its vitality is snuffed out. Even though it may still appear to be connected, it slowly withers away, becomes brittle, and, before long, will separate entirely.
So abide in the true vine that gives life. There is no substitute for the real thing. You can have all the trappings of life, but miss it entirely.
But Jesus offers us the chance to find our life in him, to find it truly and everlasting. To find in him true life that causes all substitutes to pale in comparison.
So abide in the true vine today, allow his life to transform you from the inside out, and allow his grace to redefine in you what it means to be alive.
I’m believing in you and cheering you on today! Seek your True North Today!