Friends, several people have ask that I post the manuscript from my sermon from yesterday, March 3. It addresses the need for us to deal with our sin before it deals with us. It also includes some personal information about my struggle with a particular sin, which I have confessed, repented of, and ask God and the congregation at Kishwaukee Community Church for forgiveness and the forgiveness. This is one of the most difficult sermons I have ever preached. However, I am grateful I have done so. Pastor Rus
Developing a Heart for God, 1: Dealing with Your Sin
Ezekiel 36:22-30 and Hebrews 3:12-13
March 3, 2013
Pastor Rus Howard, Kishwaukee Community Church
22 Say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. The nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
26 I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and to be careful to obey my rules.
28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.”
12 Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
In 1999, the Confessing Church Movement in the PCUSA which led to the formation of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, which led to Kishwaukee Church’s decision to become members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church began with a simple radio interview broadcast on WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, PA.
A woman in her mid 20’s was being interviewed about decisions she made which had recently transformed her life. In the interview she tells the story of many single women in their 20’s. She was raised Christian, was in love, and was living with her boyfriend. However, she was not happy. She decided that she needed God back in her life and went to worship at the local PCUSA Presbyterian Church, which she said was filled with warm and gracious people. She did not hide the fact that she was living with her boyfriend, which we use to call, living-in-sin. No one was bothered by her decision. The congregation loved on her and the Pastor did not bat an eye when she went to him for counseling about what was wrong with her life. She did not feel close to God and life was not any better, even though she had been worshipping at the church for a year. Her live-in boyfriend did not worship with her.
One week someone invited her to attend another, more biblically conservative congregation. The members were as loving and gracious as they were in the PCUSA congregation. However, when she went to the Pastor of this church for counseling, looking for wisdom about how to feel closer to God and how to have a less difficult life, he responded differently to her admission of living with her boyfriend.
He essentially told her, God cannot bless you as long as you are living with your boyfriend. You are more attached to your sin, than you are to God. There is no room for God in your heart. That’s why you do not feel close to Him and why you are having difficulties in your life.
He then told her, “You need to tell your boyfriend to move out, tonight.”
That evening she told her boyfriend that he needed to move. She had doubts about doing something so radical. Two years later she was on the radio rejoicing not only in her closeness to God, sense of His presence with her, and the changes in her heart, but the multitude of problems which had beset her life for years had ended.
Her story constantly reminds me of this truth: “If we do not deal with our sin, our sin will deal with us!”
While we naturally turn to the New Testament to read how God has chosen to deal with our sin, for those who come to Him, I frequently turn to Ezekiel 36 because I love the way it tells us how God helps us deal with our sin.
Sin corrupts and sickens our heart. Sin leads to heart disease. The more we cling to our sin, the worse our heart disease. God’s desire is to cure your heart disease.
In Ezekiel 36:22-36 God promises that He will do all the work necessary to get get your heart healthy. He has a plan to cure your heart disease and to deal with your sin:
- He has promised to give you a new heart (Ez 36:26).
- He has promised to cleanse your heart (Ez 36:24-25). This cleansing will wash away your idols. Your idols are you and the sins you hang onto for dear life.
- He has promised that along with your new heart, cleansed of your sin, He will give you a new Spirit (Ez 36:26).
I love the language here … God says:
I will take you …
I will sprinkle you …
I will cleanse you …
I will give you …
I will put in you …
If you listened to your English or language arts teacher for only 5 minutes anytime between the 2nd grade and the 12th grade, you will know that God has promised to do all the work for you. He is the actor, you are the recipient.
God is promising to give you a gift, which all you need to do is receive. It’s like Christmas without having to buy gifts for anyone else. It’s like a birthday party, but God is doing all the giving.
God is wanting to give you great things, a new heart and a new spirit.
There are two reasons God wants to give you a new heart and spirit.
First and foremost, if you re-read Ezekiel 36:22-23, He is doing this for His name’s sake, for His glory, for His honor, so that the world will see His holiness. While it is humbling that God wants to do great things for us for His names sake, rather that because we are so wonderful, let’s rejoice that we are beneficiaries of His desire to prove the holiness of His great name by transforming us with His love and grace. (Ez 36:22)
If you are not numbed by your familiarity with Psalm 23 then you at least know God always acts on His behalf. Psalm 23:3 reads, “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
God has promised to act on your behalf for a secondary reason. Being second in God’s heart, just after Him, is a great place to be. After His love for Himself, you are God’s next love. I like knowing this. It helps me feel better about myself.
The secondary reason for God promising you a new heart is that your current heart is like a stone, it is cold, dead, lifeless, devoid of love, compassion, and feeling. If your cardiologist said, “Your heart is like a stone” you would not hear him because you’d be dead.
Without the new heart God wants to give you, you are dead to God. Periodically, we hear someone say about a family member or former close friend, “He is dead to me!” If you say this about someone you are recognizing that while the individual is still physically alive, you abhor that person, you hate them, you despise them, you have rejected them 100% with absolutely no chance of them ever meaning anything to you again in your life.
But God’s feelings and desires for you are the total opposite of this. Instead of you being dead to Him and suffering the consequences of God’s curse, He wants you to have a heart which is alive to Him and in His love. God does not want to say, “You are dead to me!” Instead God wants to say, ”You are my people, and I am your God!” (Ez 36:28).
Not only does God desire to be your God, He wants to bless you with abundant provisions which will sustain you the rest of your earthly life. He makes this promise in Ezekiel 36:29-30. He wants you to be rich in His blessings of land, grain, and fruits.
God wants you to be able to sing Psalm 23:1 at the top of your lungs: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!”
This is what God desires for you. It was His desire yesterday, it is His desire today, and it will be His desire for you into His eternity.
What do you need to do to receive all of this?
Accept His gift, let Him do His work!
Have you ever been forced to receive a gift from someone whom you do not wish to receive a gift? Of course you have, we all have.
Each of us painfully remembers what we felt when someone we hate, despise, don’t like, with whom we are angry, and towards whom we have a cold heart. When this person shows up at our house with a gift, any gift, but worse yet a lavish gift of love, we stand before them frozen.
You say to yourself: “I don’t want this. I don’t want a gift from you. Please take it away because if I accept the gift, I will have to love you and I will have to make room for you in my heart and I do not want to do that!”
Jesus taught us that the Greatest Commandment in life is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
If I asked each one of you,“Do you love God?” I am confidant that each of you would say, “Yes!”
However, if I asked you if, “Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and you told me “Yes”, I am not sure I would believe you. I would not believe myself, if I said Yes to you if you asked me this question today.
My disbelief may offend you, but let’s be honest. All of us love ourselves and a few other things in this world, more than we love God. It’s part of our human condition. Remember Romans 3:23, “We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” Our first and foremost sin is that God is not our number one love. This is our heart disease … God is not our first love!
When the Holy Spirit inspired to John to write the book of The Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Spirit told John to write to the church at Ephesus saying:
“You guys are doing a great job being faithful to so many of my ways. You can recognize a false apostle from a mile away, you have the patience of a saint, you have endured hardship and suffering without whining, and you even hate those people who endorse believers marrying non-believers and who write-off sexual immorality as an insignificant offense against me.”
If I heard these accolades from God, I’d be smiling a mile. But, then God lowers the hammer when He tells John to also write:
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had for me at first.”
Haven’t we all. Our sin is self-love. Our sin is idolizing the self! Our sin is self-indulgence! Our sin, in whatever shape or form it has taken up residence in our heart prevents us from loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind.
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said,
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Our sin is that we have loves which prevent us from serving God as lord of our life. If you think you are exempt, remember the Call to Confession used earlier in today’s worship, it is from 1 John 1:8, 9
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Ours heart are diseased because of our sin.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews exhorts us to deal with our sin. In our world which approves of doing anything we want this is a tough truth for us to practice, even in the church. Listen again to what the writer of the Hebrews said:
Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
The writer of Hebrews makes two specific points:
- A heart filled with sin and evil can become an unbelieving heart;
- A heart filled with sin can become a hardened heart, a stone cold heart, dead to God.
A heart tainted by sin will reject God’s gift of mercy and grace. It will reject God’s new heart and new spirit. It will reject life in order to cling to the sin it loves, even when the sin is killing it.
His exhortation is clear. Either deal with the sin which has captured your heart or sin will deal with you!
I have told you this today not only because it is The Truth and it is a Word for all of us, but it has become a Word specifically for me.
For several months I have been wrestling with God about a particular sin which set up camp in my heart before I cam to Kishwaukee, but which did not reveal it’s ugliness until after I began my ministry here at Kish.
Last week my brother in Christ Jim Yearsley and this week my Spiritual Advisor Hope Parks, God convicted me that I must confess and repent of this sin, confess and ask your forgiveness because this sin has hurt my ministry here at Kish.
My sin has diseased my heart.
For the past 6-8 months I have been struggling mightily with a multitude of stuff in my life. For a long time I was convinced that my struggle was related to my circumstances, which if changed, would cause my struggles to disappear. I had developed a long list of circumstances to blame.
This week God convicted me otherwise. He told me that my struggles are related to the condition of my heart not my circumstances.
My struggle is related to my heart being out of sorts, out of tune, out of sync, with Him and with His heart. Simply put my heart has wandered from my first love for Him. I want that love back. I need it back. Losing it has come at great cost to me and, I fear, to you.
My sin has held me back from God. My sin may not sound serious to you, but it has become a millstone for me, pulling me away from God and from people I love, i.e. you.
My sin is a fear of rejection.
All of us fear rejection. While I fear rejection from my enemies, my friends, and others, the rejection I most fear is rejection by you. I will come back to this in a moment.
I do not fear rejection from God. I have Romans 8:35, 37-39 down pat:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It sounds good that I do not fear rejection of God. But this is my problem, I am so fearful that you might reject me, I take very little comfort in knowing that God will not reject me.
My fear of rejection by you has become so overwhelming to me that it is dominating my life.
Furthermore, this fear is paralyzingly my pastoral ministry with you and for you. If you said to me, “Pastor Rus, I like you, but I don’t know if …” I’d understand.
My fear of being rejected by you me is preventing me from loving you, caring for you, and leading the church, in the way which God intends.
My sin, my fear of rejection by you or I should say by the members of any church, began before we ever met. You’d think that after being loved and cared for by you so well for the past 2 1/2 years, I would have overcome my fear of being rejecting by you. But I have not. My sin which is my fear, has taken deep root within me and is hurting us.
The skeleton in my closet is I was once betrayed, rejected, by multiple groups of Christians who I knew, loved, and served faithfully in a four year prior to coming to Kish.
I was rejected …
- By clergy in the PCUSA who I had encouraged and supported in their faithfulness;
- By members of the Peters Creek Church, people I had pastored well, but who did not want to leave the PCUSA;
- By staff members who I hired, who I had believed in when no one else did and who I had fought to hire and to keep;
- By members of the Peters Creek Church whom I had trusted and called close friends after we entered the EPC;
- By leaders in the New Wineskins Presbytery with whom I worked and fought alongside in the trenches;
- If this was not enough, I was then rejected by a very close friend of 30 years. Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
The details of how I was rejected or whether I deserved this rejection are insignificant to me anymore. Nor are these details something which Rori and I desire or plan to discuss in the future. These are details which God has told us to leave in the past.
What is significant is that their rejection, the rejection of brothers and sisters in the body of Christ was so severe, my family and I, particularly Rori and I lost many of our dreams for our future.
I do not want to be hurt like that again. I do not want Rori to be hurt like that again. Three years ago, I promised myself that never again would I allow this to happen to us.
To protect myself from rejection, I have built walls around me. You may not see walls, but I am sure you have felt them. Please understand, you are not responsible for my building these walls. Only I am.
These walls have prevented me from having genuine intimacy with you as your Pastor and friend. Yet this is an intimacy and friendship for which I am desperate. As you can imagine, my walls have kept God at bay. In the process of protecting myself from rejection, I have kept God out of much of my heart.
John says you cannot hate your brother and claim to love God. My sin, my fear of rejection by you, is a evil and insidious variation of this truth:
You cannot NOT love and not have intimacy with others and have loving intimacy with God!
Please hear what I say next!
It’s not that I do not love you, I love you with all my heart or the part of the heart which does not fear rejection. I know that you love me. If I have $100 for every time I have told someone that I am serving the most loving and caring congregation I have ever served, I could retire comfortably.
But here’s my sin, my problem, I have been afraid to love you to the point where if you ever did reject me, it would hurt me.
My focus on self-preservation has grown into a sin with serious ramifications in the 3 most important parts of my life:
- Spiritual – My fear has caused me to keep God at bay. This is the most serious ramification of my sin.
- Personal – I am denying myself the intimacy and friendship which I desire to have with you. I, like you, need close friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ in my church. Yes, Kish is my church.
- Pastoral – My fear has affected my leadership and service as your Pastor. Your Elders who are the best group of 12 Elders I have ever worked, can attest to this. I know that I am frustrating them. I have been timid and erratic in my leadership. I have been defensive and have become hyper-sensitive to any whiff of criticism or conflict. I have been moody. I have been distant. I have been afraid to personally engage with you. I have been like a skittish cat in your presence. I have been unable to relax as your Pastor. I have come to realize that even when I am trying to communicate love, compassion, grace, and mercy, I frequently communicate hardness and a harsh judgmental spirit. I want the old Pastor Rus back, the Pastor Rus which many of you have never seen.
My fear, my sin has not served me well. C Neil Strait wrote this about sin, which I am afraid has become a fair description of my ministry:
Sin does not serve well as a gardner of the soul. It landscapes the contour of the soul until all that is beautiful has been made ugly; until all that is high is made low; until all that is promising is wasted. Then life is like the desert, parched and barren. It is drained of purpose. It is bleached of happiness. Sin then, is not wise, but wasteful. It is not a gate, but a grave.
I know that once I let God get into my heart again, He is going to take away my fear of rejection and He is going to help me to love you with abandon, as any Pastor should. But, I hate to say it, but this scares me big time. Because if I love you with God’s abandon, and if you ever reject me (which I no reason to believe you would), I will be crushed.
This is my sin, it is my problem. You are not at fault for my fear of rejection.
So what am I doing about this sin which has taken up residence in my heart when God wants full claim to all my heart.
Since my sin, my fear of rejection has affected my ministry for God I must confess my sin, repent of my sin, and ask Him for His forgiveness. I have done this. I have also asked God to restore my heart.
While I am mindful of the truth of David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51:4, when he prayed:
Against you Lord, you alone, have I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
I am equally mindful that I have sinned against you.
My sin has affected my ministry with you, probably in more ways than I am aware. I know that my sin has hurt you and has hurt us as a congregation and community of faith. I apologize that I have clung to the pain of my past and in so doing I have hurt you. I ask for your forgiveness. I ask that you will pray for my healing and that I will let God bring His grace to me so I can bring His grace to you.
I am praying that I will let God soften my heart. I am praying that I will accept His amazing grace and that I unchain myself from my sin, my fear, and that God frees me from hurts of the past.
On Monday, Hope Parks told me to read Deuteronomy 1:6-8 when God spoke these words to Moses:
“Moses, you have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country and into the lowland along the sea. I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land, enjoy the blessings I have set before you.”
Hope and Jim, on behalf of God, have been telling me the same:
Rus it is time to move off of your mountain of hurt, anger, bitterness, fear, and shame. It’s time for you to break camp from your sin, your fear of rejection, and take possession of the good land and the blessings God has set before you.
They have reassured me that once I leave this mountain of bitterness and fear, God’s anointing will penetrate my heart rather than be like water which runs off of hard, dried-out, drought stricken soil and is wasted.
As God’s anointing penetrates me, my head and my heart, I will, again, be filled up with His grace, mercy, love, and acceptance. Then as His love reigns in all of my heart, in all of my soul, and in all of my mind, He will remove from me my fear of rejection.
Then, like a miracle of biblical proportion, the walls of Jericho which I have constructed with such care, will come tumbling down and we, as Pastor and congregation, as sheep and the over-promoted shepherd, as brothers and sisters in Christ, can walk into His Promised Land together.
This is the work I have to do. I am not asking for pity or sympathy, but I do want you to understand my struggle. I need your prayers, your encouragement, and your forgiveness, as I begin this journey from my mountain of pain, bitterness, anger, loss, shame, and fear, to where God wants me to feast with you in the work of His harvest.
For Communion today, instead of the Elders serving you in your seats,
I invite you to coming forward for Communion
Let your coming forward represent your decision
to confess and repent of your sin
to leave the mountain of your sin
in to come to His grace.
As you wait to come forward,
as you are coming forward,
and as you return to your seat,
join the congregation in singing the two songs
as lead by Julia and the Praise Team.
The words will be on the screen.
Remember God’s promise given in the Book of Isaiah:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Then your eyes shall be opened and your ears unstopped;
Then you shall leap like a deer, and sing for joy.
For waters break forth in your wilderness,
and streams will flow in your desert.”
Seven or eight years ago after worshipping with my Dad in my home church, he said to me, “I am concerned for our new Pastor, I really like him, but he does not seem to be connecting with the congregation.”
I said to him, “Dad there are 3 types of pastors. The professional who does his work very well, but is emotional disengaged from his congregation. There is the all-in pastor who is fully engaged, in personally caring for his congregation. Then there is the pastor who use to be all-in, fully engaged personally caring for his congregation. I will bet money your pastor has been hurt badly. He’s wounded and he’s trying to protect himself.”
Never did I realize that my words to my Dad would be prophetic words about me. But they were. I put the emphasis on the past tense. I know there may be days when I limp, but it is easier to run when you are not clinging to sin in your heart.
If you are limping because you are clinging to sin in your heart. Leave the mountain and enjoy the blessings promised in Isaiah:
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
The Lord will give you
a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord,
that He may be glorified.”