Fifth Sunday in Lent
I picked up a new bottle of shampoo this week, as I was preparing for this sermon, and I noticed that the name was “EverPure.” And I got to thinking, finally we have reached a Beatitude that people want!
At least upon a simple reading the Beatitudes, none of us would aspire to be poor or poor in spirit; we will mourn in our lifetimes, but we don’t want to; no one wants to hunger or thirst, and we are unsure what righteousness is; our society stomps on the meek so we don’t want to be that; merciful is a bit nicer but it is not something we spend much time aiming towards.
But, finally, we have reached a Beatitude that sounds appealing and familiar. So did what any responsible preacher would do, I googled it, and was reminded that not only do we want pure water, but pure gold, pure yoga, pure prescriptions, pure heat and energy, pure food, even pure love. There is a PureBar (a natural, healthy, organic, gluten-free snack bar). There are companies called Pure Insurance, Pure Fiber, Pure Boutique, Pure FM Radio, Pure Mac (software for Macintosh), even Pure Nightclub (?). So we want pure. Finally here is a Beatitude that we want!
“Pure” means free from extraneous matter; or, clean and free from anything of a different, inferior, or contaminating kind. The Greek word in our passage is katharos, and it indicates being clean or free from stains or shame, free from adulteration; it denotes a physical, religious, and moral cleanliness. So once again, as we have seen with all of the Beatitudes, the meaning goes so much deeper than a simple reading of it. Jesus took this Beatitude from Psalm 24 – “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in God’s holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…” (Ps. 24:3-4).
The Bible spends a good deal of time on being pure and clean. Really, all of the laws of Leviticus were about making the Hebrew people clean and pure, set aside from the stains of cults that worshiped other gods, or no gods. In the New Testament, the letters sent to emerging Christian churches spent a good deal of time defining purity.
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues, but deceive their hearts,” says the Letter of James, “ their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27) Later (4:8), James says, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you doubleminded.” (Strong words!)
Beautiful words near the end of Philippians say, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, thing about these things…” (Phil. 4:8)
Purity of heart and love are tied together in Christianity:
I Peter says, “Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22)
I John tells us to “See what love the Father has given us: that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him (Christ). Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he 3 is. And all who have hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (I John 3:1-3)
So being pure according to God and Christ goes deep. And it involves the heart. For the Greeks the heart (kardia), was the central bodily organ, but was also the seat of emotions and thought. The NT carries this further to make the heart the seat of feelings, desires, passions, thought, understanding, and will, and the religious center to which God turns. The Bible makes it clear that worshiping God cannot be just an outer thing, but an inner matter of the heart. When Samuel was looking for a king to replace Saul, God told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7). Isaiah told the people that God was not happy with people who “draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13)
Being “pure of heart” as Christ calls for is not easy or simple. Though we may seek pure things, few probably seek being pure of heart. As Erik Kolbell said in What Jesus Meant, the book we have been studying on Wednesday nights in Lent, “Each beatitude demands something of us except this one – it demands everything.” (Kolbell, p. 97) He says, “There may be nothing more difficult in all the world than to come to God pure and unalloyed, so suffused are we with things that distract us from being fully present to a God who waits to be revealed in all that is around us” (Kolbell, p. 101). Being pure in heart is much like the righteousness that we talked about a couple of weeks ago. Being pure in heart means that we are right in our relationship with God, but also with others. Tom Long says the pure in heart are “those who faith is genuine, people of integrity whose words are backed up by their convictions, whose outward deeds match their inner commitments” (Long, p.50).
I don’t know about you, but I can think of a few people I might see as “pure of heart,” but I would never describe myself that way. It seems like something to attain, but far away. People declared saints must be pure of heart. St. Teresa certainly appeared to be. Yet after her death, journals were discovered that showed us that she struggled with doubts and questions about God and her life. Being “pure in heart” may be something we seek to attain most of our lifetimes, with regular prayer and spiritual practices, Bible study, worship and service with fellow Christians. We confess our sins every Sunday morning because we continue to mess up, both individually and as a community. So we may never get this “pure in heart” thing right, at least not until, as the Beatitude tells us will be the reward, we “see God.”
But what does it mean to see God? Exodus tells us at one point that God “used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11) But soon after that, we read another story, where Moses, as he struggled to address the rumblings and mumblings of the people, said to God in desparation, “Show me your glory, I pray.” In other words, Moses, who was doing everything God asked, who had led the Israelite people out of slavery and was leading them across the wilderness to the Promised Land, Moses asked to see God’s face. God replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord;’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” God said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20). And this was the pervasive thought for most of the biblical times, that to see God would be too much for humans, would it mean our death. In Genesis, when Jacob wrestled with an angel all night long, he renamed the place where they wrested Peniel, meaning “the face of God,” because, as he said in amazement, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:30) So what does Jesus mean here when he promises that the pure in heart will see God?
For the Greeks, sight, or seeing, was very important. Seeing was not just physical, but also had an intellectual and spiritual component to it. The Greeks realized that there was a limit to physical sight. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the gods could be seen by only a few, and then often in a visionary, frightening way. Plato said that we contemplate God with the eye of the soul. So seeing can mean more than just beholding, just seeing physically. It too goes deeper, into our thought and perception.
Implied here, as with Moses’ request, is that the pure in heart will see the face of God. The face, of course, is the part of the body which most clearly expresses what we think or feel. It can be easier to determine what someone is really saying when we can see their face. The Greek or Hebrew word for face can also be translated as “presence.” So in seeing God, we recognize the presence of God. “A New Christianity” website restated this Beatitude as: “Blessed are the pure in heart (those acting with love and concern for others as their true motivation), for they will be seen as a part of God.”
Those who are pure in heart turn their lives towards God as best they can, working at spiritual practices, both inner and outer, loving and serving God. They strive for a better life, for themselves and for others. And they see God everywhere they look.
At the end of Session meetings, Chris asks the Session to reflect for a few minutes on “Where have you seen God this week?” Answers range from worship and memorial services, to prayers before the church basketball game, where hearing that the tall and imposing center from the other team is concerned for his mother who is dying of cancer makes playing against him a whole different experience. Others tell of seeing God in something that happened in their workplace or home or neighborhood. They also see God in the folks walking through the line as our church serves the shelter meal each month.
When our souls are purified, when we turn our faces toward God, then we will see God in many people and places. That is indeed one beautiful and marvelous way to see God. And we will also one day see God in full. I like to think that those saints, those we love who have died and have joined Christ in the resurrection, see God now face to face. For I Corinthians reminds us that “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face,” that now we know only in part, but then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known (I Cor. 13:12). We may glimpse God in the face of our neighbor, while others see only another person.
Just as we see the face of God in strange and amazing places, so we can find wisdom in unexpected people and places. I found a song sung by Billy Ray Cyrus that beautifully sums up this Beatitude:
“And why am I filled with unshakeable faith,
When I look at that child so fragile and sweet?
There’s something eternal I see in her face,
Something much more than her mother and me.
Maybe I’m looking at the face of God.
Makes me think I may be looking at the face of God.
And He’s smiling back at me.
Why do I feel like the smallest of things
When I try to count all the stars in the sky?
When I see the world that we’re in at its worst,
Why do I feel like it’ll all be all right?…
When I look at the beauty around me, and the love that surrounds me…
Maybe I’m looking at the face of God.
Makes me think I may be looking at the face of God,
And He’s smiling back at me.”
In this life, here and now, we have glimpses, beautiful glimpses, of what it means to be pure in heart and to see God. We see God in the laughter of children, in the blooms of spring, in the neighbor who brings a casserole when we need help, but also in the beggar on the street corner who lives in the woods, in the family who gathers around a dying member, sharing stories, laughter, and tears, and perhaps most of all, in the face of the one who lies there, so much closer to seeing God face to face than we are.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we will see face to face.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Glory be to God! AMEN.
What Jesus Meant, The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life by Erik Kolbell (Westminster John Knox Press, KY, 2003)
Matthew by Thomas G. Long (Westminster John Knox Press, KY, 1997)
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, by Geoffry W. Bromiley (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., MI, 1985)