Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord’s Heart is Inclined to You” (Joshua 24:23)
November 9, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you wrote one final letter to everyone you knew, what would you say? If you could give one final word of encouragement or exhortation, what would it be?

In the fall of 1796, just a few months before officially leaving office, President George Washington, having led America to victory in the Revolutionary War and having served two terms as her first president, wrote a farewell address “To the People of the United States of America” in which he emphasized the importance of religion and morality:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them…Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

In today’s Old Testament lesson the great leader Joshua, having led Israel through many battles as they conquered and settled in the Promised Land and who was now 110 years old, gave Israel one final exhortation:

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).

“Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”—these words are often found on Christian mugs or calendars. Sometimes you will see these words on a sign hung in a prominent place in the home of a family—usually a young idealistic family where the parents still like each other and the kids are still little. But in some cases, after years of “marital bliss” and “the joys of parenthood” such signs may be replaced by something different…like “Remember, as far as everyone knows we are a nice normal family” or perhaps a picture of a libation of choice with the caption “It’s 5:00 somewhere” ☺.

The reality is our choices fall short. We can be encouraged simply to make the right choice, but often we make the wrong choice instead. This is true when it comes to trying to control your weight or your temper or some addictive behavior, on and on—just making the right choice does not always work. English singer –songwriter James Blunt puts it this way:

I’m not calling for a second chance
I’m screaming at the top of my voice
Give me reason, but don’t give me choice
Cause I’ll just make the same mistake again
(from the song “Same Mistake” on his 2007 album All the Lost Souls).

Joshua knew the truth of this, and so he followed up his exhortation to the Israelites to choose to serve the Lord with an exhortation that connects with the reality of the fallen human condition, an exhortation that reaches past our will to choose to a deeper place. Listen to what Joshua says: “incline your hearts to the Lord” (Joshua 24:23).

Incline your hearts to the Lord.

Joshua points to our heart because our heart often trumps our will to choose.

The problem is that in describing the human heart Scripture is not exactly flattering. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah puts it this way: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

And Jesus unpacks this further—“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” Jesus says, “and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20).

One of the most brilliant and insightful film writers and directors is Woody Allen. His ability to capture the anxiety and duplicity of the human heart is uncanny—perhaps because he has experienced these things firsthand. Back in 1992 Woody Allen ended a longtime relationship with actress Mia Farrow when he began a relationship with her adopted daughter Soon Yi, and a massive scandal ensued. In an interview for Time magazine Woody explained his actions this way: “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love, and that’s that” (Time, August 31, 1992).

And Woody Allen is right. The heart wants what it wants. And lest we point fingers at Woody Allen, the truth is we can all think of times in our lives when we too followed our heart and did what we wanted regardless of the consequences.

At the end of the day our will to choose is superseded by our heart—the heart wants what it wants, as is reflected in the beautiful song “The Scientist” by the British band Coldplay:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
(from their 2002 album A Rush of Blood to the Head).

The Old Testament hero David, the great shepherd-poet-warrior-king, is described as “a man after (God’s) own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Yet even David had a “the heart wants what it wants moment” moment and had an affair with Bathsheba, and then after finding out she was pregnant, had her husband Uriah, a faithful soldier, abandoned on purpose in the heat of battle so he would be killed.

But after being confronted by the prophet Nathan, David repented of his sin—and what did he pray in Psalm 51? “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). David went back to the heart.

One of my heroes is Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the great English Reformer and architect of The Book of Common Prayer. Thomas Cranmer, like Joshua, goes to the heart. The current preeminent scholar on Cranmer, Ashley Null, describes Cranmer’s approach this way: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.”

And that is why Cranmer begins the service for Holy Communion in both the 1549 and 1552 versions of The Book of Common Prayer with the same Collect for Purity we pray every week at the beginning of our services of Holy Eucharist, the same Collect for Purity Anglicans have been praying for nearly five centuries:

“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP 355, italics added).

Another music reference…this time from country music star Miranda Lambert, who won several CMA awards the other night. Several years ago she had a hit called “Heart Like Mine” in which she sings:

Even though I hate to admit it
Sometimes I smoke cigarettes
Christian folks say I should quit it
I just smile and say, “God bless”…

Daddy cried when he saw my tattoo
Said he loved me anyway
My brother got the brains of the family
So I thought I’d learn to sing

I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we’d get along just fine
He could calm a storm and heal the blind
And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine
(from her 2009 album Revolution)

And Miranda Lambert is not only funny, she is exactly right—Jesus indeed understands a heart like hers.

And Jesus understands a heart like yours—to God “all hearts are open, all desires known”—and that includes your heart.

Back to George Washington for a moment…in spite of his exhortations about the importance of religion and morality for the new nation, there were other things in his heart. In his monumental 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning biography Washington: A Life Ron Chernow notes that in 1798, a year before his death, Washington wrote a letter to Sally Fairfax, with whom he had shared a “youthful dalliance” several decades earlier. Chernow observes:

“(Washington) acknowledged the many extraordinary events he had lived through, then abruptly declared that none of these events, ‘not all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments—the happiest of my life—which I have enjoyed in your company.’ This unexpected line offered the ultimate romantic compliment: Washington had won a long war, founded a country, and created a new government, but such accomplishments paled beside the faded recollections of a youthful love affair” (778).

The heart wants what it wants. The heart trumps the will to choose. That is why we cannot simply choose this day whom we will serve, that is why, like David, we need God to create in us a clean heart.

The New Testament never records Jesus commanding anyone to choose to serve the Lord. Instead, at the Last Supper, Jesus summed up the truth of the human condition and the good news of the gospel in one short sentence: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).

And the next day Jesus Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, who “could calm a storm and heal the blind” died for you because “such accomplishments paled beside” his great love for you.

And his death has completely atones for every “the heart wants what it wants” moment in your life.

In other words, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit you can incline your heart to the Lord because the Lord’s heart has always, been, is now, and forever will be, inclined to you.