Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Great Physician's Diagnosis

Texts: Ezekiel 36:22-32; Matthew 15:1-20

WE'RE A VERY HEALTH-CONSCIOUS nation. One way we raise health awareness is by dedicating certain weeks or months to some disease or other. Like, February is National Heart Month. So all through every February the Heart Association runs public service announcements urging us to take care of our hearts. You'll hear about the symptoms of heart attack and heart disease and congestive heart failure, and always you'll be urged to go see your physician to get checked out if you're experiencing any of these.

In the same spirit, how would it be if a nonprofit action group-- let's call it the Church-- would run a PSA something like this (cue the ominous music and the caring and serious announcer):

"Sluggishness in doing good. Rebelliousness against God. Evil thoughts. Evil deeds. Murder. Adultery. Sexual immorality. Theft. False testimony. Slander. These are all symptoms of Hard and Dirty Heart. Think you don't have any of these symptoms? That's a sure sign of Pride--the most dangerous symptom of all.

"100% of all people everywhere are infected with Hard and Dirty Heart, and without treatment, the condition is 100% fatal.

"But there is hope! Make an appointment with Jesus Christ the Great Physician at your local church this coming Sunday. He has the medicine to cure Hard and Dirty Heart and make your heart clean towards God and soft towards your fellow man. Don't delay! Remember, without Jesus Christ, the death rate is 100%. With His treatment, your cure is 100% guaranteed!

"This announcement has been brought to you by the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

Think that'd go over on KDKA or Froggy 104? Or would the listeners think it was over the top?
They shouldn't. And we shouldn't. Of all health awareness announcements, it's the one where we can be assured that the statistics are totally accurate and the advice is sure.

Jesus Christ is known as the Great Physician. That's largely because of His healing ministry when He walked this earth. But even more, Jesus is the Great Physician because He's the only one who can diagnose our basic human sickness-- without error or mistake. He's the only doctor who can deliver an absolutely effective cure.

And every last human being is or ought to submit to His care and be His patient.

When you're a patient, you're the one being acted upon. The physician is the agent. He's the one giving the medicine, running the tests, performing the surgery. Now today, we're urged to be "partners" in our medical care, and not just patients. And to a great extent that's a good thing. But there comes a time when you're a patient, pure and simple, and there's no arguing about "partnership." When you're under anesthesia, you're not cooperating with your surgeon, it's all up to him or her.

If that's so for our human physicians, how much more is it true for the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, the Son of God!

Our reading from Ezekiel should open our eyes to the truth of this. The Lord God of Israel, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is speaking to the exiles in Babylon. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, He's also speaking to us. Notice this: all through this passage it's all about the Lord and what He will do and why He will do it. He will show the holiness of His great name. He will take His people out from among the nations and bring them back into their own land. He will make them clean. He will put His Spirit in them. He will cause their land to be prosperous. And so on and on. The Lord God is the Great Physician of His people Israel, and the only role they have as His patients is to loathe themselves for their disease, for their sins and their detestable practices.
There's a joke that goes, "What's the difference between God and a surgeon?" Answer: "God doesn't think He's a surgeon." Well, here in Ezekiel 36, the Lord God begs to differ. He is Israel's surgeon, and He's taking on their case strictly for the sake of His holy Name. With a human physician that would be insufferable. For God, it is only just and right. He alone is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise. The universe will be healthy and whole only when every creature gives God the worship due His name. But here, God's own chosen people have caused Him to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. The pagan nations were saying, "Ha! The Lord God of Israel, He isn't much! He took on that miserable people, He gave them His laws and covenants and put them in that fine and fertile land. And all they've done is disobey Him and make Him look weak! Those people were so bad, He couldn't keep His promises to them and had to kick them out of their promised land! He must not be so holy as He claims!"

Do we think we're better than our ancient ancestors the Jews? We don't dare. How often do unbelievers say that kind of thing about Christians today? Is the Lord's name profaned in the world because of our hard and dirty hearts? I'm afraid too often, it is.

But the Lord our God is holy. He is able to cure Israel of their deadly disease, and He is able to cure us. And He will do it, not for our sake, but for the sake of His holy Name, so all the nations round about, so all the unbelievers who doubt His power will know that He and He alone is the great and Sovereign Lord.

The Great Physician diagnoses our problem and its cure in verses 25 and 26. He says, "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols." The Pharisees in Jesus' day were concerned to the point of panic with ritual uncleanness: God Almighty is concerned with the dirtiness of our thoughts and deeds. Our hearts and minds are filthy with idols and their worship. True, we don't physically bow down to idols of wood and stone. But we're still idolaters. You know what idol every one of us worships every day? The idol of Self. It's the idol Satan set up in the hearts of Adam and Eve way back in the Garden of Eden, and we humans have been burning incense and making sacrifices to Ourselves as gods and goddesses ever since.

The Lord knows we need to be cured of the dread heart disease of Self and Sin, because it's 100% fatal. The Lord says in verse 26, "I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

Think what it means to have a heart of stone. Can a heart made of stone beat? Can it pump blood through the body to keep it alive? Can it feel compassion towards its neighbor? Can it swell with joy towards its Lord and Creator? Can a heart of stone even be alive? No, no, no, no, no, and no! A heart of stone is dead. A heart of stone can do nothing, simply nothing to change or soften or cure itself.

And a heart of stone is what every man, woman, and child ever born on this planet starts out with. We all are born hard-hearted and unclean, caring only about ourselves and what will make us happy and fulfilled. And if anyone else gets in the way, watch out!

Our only hope is the merciful intervention of the Great Physician. Our only help is the Lord God making us His patient and giving us a new hearts of flesh instead of our old hearts of stone.

And here is the good news! The operation doesn't depend on me or you! The Holy Spirit comes to us while we are still dead in our sins and makes us alive in Jesus Christ. God Himself takes all the initiative, He does all the work, God in Christ suffered all the pain. The Word of God is the Great Physician's scalpel that cuts away our disease. The shed blood of Christ is the medicine that washes out our impurities and makes us healthy and whole.

The new heart God promised the house of Israel in Ezekiel 36 is the same one He gives to us-- it is the new and clean heart of Jesus Christ Himself. His heart is the one that makes us alive. His heart is the one that now beats in us with compassion towards our neighbor. His heart is the heart in us that we lift up with joy, thanks, and praise towards our Father in heaven.

Some people might say, "I don't want the new heart of Jesus Christ in me. I'm offended because God says He's going to save me only to vindicate His own holiness. I'm insulted because He says there's nothing special or good or deserving in me that forces Him to come and cure me. I'm going to be saved on my own terms, or not at all!"

Oh, you silly human! Don't you realize that you can't be saved on your own terms? Don't you understand that when the Great Physician operates on you for the sake of His holy Name, that's the best and most wonderful thing He can ever do for you?

The benefits of God's surgery were wonderful enough under the Old Covenant: Plentiful crops, prosperous towns, plentiful livestock, and a burgeoning population. Under the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, it's even better! We have gained nothing less than eternal unity with the holy heart of God! For now for Jesus Christ Himself keeps God's laws and decrees within us. Jesus Himself, by His new and clean heart working within us, does in us what is pleasing towards God, and brings us every blessing of obedience.

But there is still one big problem, of course. Our new and true heart is the heart of Jesus Christ, yes. But our old dead, dirty, stoney hearts keep wanting to push Jesus aside and go back to running the show. They tell us all sorts of deadly lies about how things can be. And here's the deadliest lie of all: It's when our old sinful hearts whisper, "Hey, I've got it under control! Jesus has saved you, but now I can handle it by myself! I can keep God happy with you. I'll just use Jesus as a Good Example and make sure you keep all the rules about how to be good and acceptable to God, no sweat! Whaddya say?"

This is a lie from the pit of Hell. This was the false cure the Pharisees were perpetrating in Jesus' day. They thought they were the nation's spiritual physicians, but their prescription was all wrong. They thought people could be holy before God by following outward rules. Wash your hands a certain way before you eat! Set up a trust to send all your spare cash to the temple fund, even if it means Mom and Dad will starve! No, you can not haz cheezburger--that's milk and beef in the same meal! The Pharisees were pushing all these outward practices like magic pills to make the people pleasing to the Lord. They'd totally forgotten that the outward laws and ordinances given through Moses were always about what a person was like on the inside. It was always about having a clean and loving heart before God and man. The ceremonial laws were never supposed to be a substitute for true inward spiritual health. But that's what the Pharisees had made of them.

Jesus calls the Pharisees "blind guides." He could've called them "quack doctors," too. He told Peter and the other disciples not to follow them, and He tells us, His modern-day disciples, the same thing. We don't need rules and regimens for holy living, we need the radical heart surgery performed exclusively by the Great Physician, Jesus Christ.

Once Jesus has done His work in us, the only follow-up directive is for us to wholly rely on Him. He is in us, by His Spirit, living His pure life of obedience within us and through us. Always, continually, refer all your troubles, all your temptations, all your fears back to Him and His finished work on the Cross. He will make sure that the fruit of a clean heart, like pure thoughts, affirmation of life, faithfulness, sexual purity, respect for others' property, truthfulness, gracious speech, and every other virtue-- that all these will proceed out of you without your being able to stop them!

For Jesus did not save you then just walk away. No, He sustains His new life in you by the power of His Holy Spirit. He ministers to you by His means of grace; that is, by the preaching of His holy Word and by partaking in His Holy Sacraments. Maybe you'd never thought of Holy Communion as a health tonic. But it is. Here at the Lord's Table Jesus feeds us with His body and cleanses us with His blood. Here our hearts are lifted up to Him and we and all His saints are joined more closely to His eternal life. Here we are filled with a new sense of what our Lord did for us when He died for our sins on Calvary and what He keeps on doing for us, day after day after day.

Believe the Great Physician's diagnosis. Accept the new heart He died to give you. Live in the joy of His Holy Spirit. Jesus lived and died and rose again to make Hard and Dirty Heart a disease of the past. In humility and thanksgiving, for the sake of God's holy Name, come, receive the Cure He offers you, and be healthy and whole, alive and utterly, joyfully clean. ________________________

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