Sermon: “Good News on Valentine’s Day” (February 14, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News on Valentine’s Day” (Romans 10:9-10)
February 14, 2016
Dave Johnson

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

You’re in 5th grade and you have a crush on an especially pretty brunette in your class.  Valentine’s Day is rolling around and you want to do something to show her how you feel, no easy task for a ten-year old—in some ways no easy task for anyone.  You decide to buy her a small heart-shaped box of Russell Stover’s candy.  You ride your bike to the drugstore, take your time to pick out a box that has no dents or scratches on it, and ride home through the frigid wind, your hands and face getting numb, with the box of candy tucked under your coat.

Valentine’s Day arrives and you are ready to go, the box of candy hidden in your book bag.  But then out of nowhere the nervousness hits you like a freight train.  Your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing.  At first you plan on giving her the candy during lunch or recess, but you’re nervous about what the other kids might think and nervous about what her reaction would be, so you decide to wait until the end of the school day.

The final bell rings and as everyone is leaving school to head home you grab the candy out of your book bag and…you chicken out.  You stand there holding the candy and watch her walk away with a couple of her friends, wishing you had the courage to run up to her and give her the candy.  She and her friends disappear around a corner and you turn to walk home.

A friend named Sean, who’s also in your class, walks up next to you and asks, “What’s with the candy you’re holding?”  You make up some story but he sees that you’re lying and asks, “You were going to give it to a girl weren’t you?  You chickened out, didn’t you?”  Realizing he sees right through you, you nod your head.  Then something completely unexpected happens.  He takes a small heart-shaped box of candy out of his own book bag and says, “I chickened out too.”

You start laughing and ask, “Who were you going to give that to?”  And Sean tells you he was going to give it to the same girl you were.  Instead, you both decide to sit on a bench by the playground, and while shivering from the cold, you inhale the entire box of chocolates yourself, laughing the entire time.  You get a horrific stomach ache but it turns out not to be such a bad Valentine’s Day after all.  True story.

Valentine’s Day can be a great holiday for some, but filled with anxiety for others.  How do you show someone how you really feel about them?  What if they don’t feel the same way?  Do you buy candy and roses or is that too cliché?  It can be as complicated for adults as it is for ten-year-olds.  But no matter how old you are, on Valentine’s Day you desire a heart to heart connection—as Bryan Adams sings in his 1983 hit ballad “Straight from the Heart” (an early 80’s slow dance standard):

Give it to me straight from the heart
Tell me we can make another start
You know I’ll never go
As long as I know
It’s coming straight from the heart
(From his album Cuts Like a Knife).

We desire a heart to heart connection—love straight from the heart.

Such a heart to heart connection transcends romantic love on Valentine’s Day and actually has eternal consequences.  In today’s passage from the tenth chapter of his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul is writing about the eternal consequences of such a heart to heart connection with God:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved (Romans 10:9-10).

Confessing with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that Jesus was raised from the dead is linked to your eternal salvation.  It goes back to what you believe in your heart.  You may think this is rather elementary, but I have encountered quite a few people who have been attending church for years, reciting the Nicene Creed for years, even receiving Holy Communion for years, who in their hearts actually do not believe any of it at all.

The problem is that Scripture is clear about the dark condition of our heart.  The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).    Similarly Jesus said:

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, 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 15:18-20a).

In fact, Scripture goes so far as to tell us we actually need a new heart from God.  King David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10)—and “to create” means to make ex nihilo, out of nothing.  And that is exactly what God assures us through another Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel: “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.  Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

In other words, you and I are just like the Tin Man in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (1939); we need a heart.  Do you remember what the Tin Man sang?

When a man’s an empty kettle
He should be on his mettle
And yet I’m torn apart
Just because I’m presumin’
That I could be a human
If I only had a heart

I’d be tender, I’d be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I’d be friends with the sparrows
And the boys who shoot the arrows
If I only had a heart…

Just to register emotion, jealousy, devotion
And really feel the part
I could stay young and chipper
And I’d lock it with a zipper
If I only had a heart
(From “If I Only Had a Heart”).

Does the Tin Man ever get a heart?  Well, sort of.  If you remember near the end of the film the Wizard of Oz proves to be a scam-artist, a charlatan and gives the Tin Man a heart-shaped pocket watch.

You and I do not need a heart-shaped pocket watch or even a heart-shaped box of candy for that matter.  But when it comes to our relationship with God, we need a new heart so that we can have a heart-to-heart connection with the Living God.

And that begins with hearing the good news of the gospel, as the Apostle Paul further writes in the tenth chapter of his Letter to the Romans:

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14, 17).

Last week a friend texted me a photo of a preacher—eyes closed with both his hands placed on a man’s ears, praying earnestly—and below the photo was the following caption:

Steve asked the preacher to pray for his hearing.  After a few minutes of fervent prayer with his hands clasped over Steve’s ears the entire time, the preacher stopped and asked, “How’s your hearing now?”  Steve replied, “I don’t know.  It’s coming up this Tuesday at the courthouse.”

While the preacher may have been praying for the wrong kind of hearing as it related to poor Steve, the truth is that when it comes to the gospel, we all need prayers for our hearing.  Because if instead of hearing the gospel of the unconditional love of God who longs to give us a new heart, who longs to have a heart to heart connection with, we hear an irrelevant sermon that when it comes to our eternal salvation is as helpful as a heart-shaped pocket watch, then we are in real trouble.

The truth is that although God knows the darkness of our hearts, and that we actually need God to create new hearts in us, nonetheless God remains full of unbounded compassion for us.  In his moving 2010 book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has spent decades living and ministering among the gangs of Los Angeles, puts it this way:

Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus’ soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was…Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger.  It’s full-throttled.  Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person.  This is how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being.  He was “moved with pity” when he saw folks who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd.”  He had room for everybody in his compassion (62-63).

During his earthly ministry Jesus demonstrated such “full-throttled” compassion for those he encountered, especially sinners and sufferers.  Jesus was tender and gentle.  Unlike the Wizard of Oz, Jesus was no charlatan.  When the final bell rang and it was time to demonstrate his love for you he did not chicken out, for not only was Jesus not a Tin Man, Jesus was also no Cowardly Lion—rather, scripture tells us Jesus is the mighty Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5).

So if on this Valentine’s Day you can relate in some way to the Tin Man in that you may be in need of a heart, or you feel like an “empty kettle” or “torn apart”—or if the last thing on your mind is romantic love because you have been burned or hurt or simply don’t care anymore—remember the good news of the gospel.

Jesus still has “room for everybody” in his compassion, including you.  Jesus offers you genuine unconditional love “straight from the heart.”  In fact, Jesus can give you a new heart so that you can have a heart to heart connection with the Living God.

How can you respond to all this?  Again, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That could make this Valentine’s Day the most important one of your life.

Amen.