Thursday, 22 November 2018

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8

Every mountain range has a highest point, a summit. There’s something special about getting to that point and being able to look down on the world below, even if you’ve only climbed a fairly modest hill.

Chris Bonington, the veteran British mountaineer, wrote about the exhilaration he felt after getting to the top of Everest, knowing that he was, for those few minutes, the highest human being on the face of the earth. As another mountaineer said when asked why he climbed mountains: “Because they’re there.” Summits exist to be reached!

Jesus gave his disciples that list of “Blesseds” which are often called “The Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-10). They’re all wonderful, in spite of being so brief, and as Christians we should reflect on them regularly: blessed (which means happy) are the poor in spirit... those who mourn... the meek... those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... the merciful... the peacemakers... those who are persecuted because of righteousness...

Plenty to ponder and be challenged by there!

But I have always felt that the most deeply thought-provoking is the one that sits in the middle of the list: “Blessed are the pure in heart” (verse 8). For me, this is the summit of the Beatitudes, perhaps even the Everest of the whole New Testament.

I love that little word “pure”. It’s a simple enough word, of course; it just means “clean”. But it conjures up for me various quietly satisfying images: washing, fresh out of the machine, hanging on the line; a carpet of snow you wake up to in the morning, before people’s shoes and car tyres start to muddy it; even, dare I say it (don’t picture this), myself emerging from a warm soapy shower after being hot, sticky, stinky and dirty. Luvverly.

But Jesus, of course, is talking about purity of heart: the inner you and me, the real you and me.

Unless we’re medical people, we tend to think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, rather than as a muscle pumping blood around our bodies. But to the Jews of Jesus’ day it was neither of those things: they thought of it as the seat of will and thought. The state of your heart was what dictated the kind of person you were; it’s what made you, well, you.

And so to ask ourselves if our hearts are “pure” is extremely challenging.

Oh, anyone, with just a little bit of effort, can make themselves reasonably good on the outside, no problem: some neat clothes, a tidy hair-cut, a whiff of something nice, perhaps, coupled with a ready smile and a friendly manner - sorted. What more can be expected?

Answer: a whole lot more!

God calls us to have an inner being which matches that outward appearance. Here is the psalmist in Psalm 24: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart...” Or in Psalm 73: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”

We may be inclined to link purity of heart largely with sexual purity, and of course that is an important part of it. But only a part. Purity is in fact to do with literally everything that goes on in that part of me that only I (and God) know: honesty and integrity, humility and sincerity, motivation and true desires.

The big question, of course, is How can I achieve purity of heart? Well, it’s a life-time’s work and a daily - indeed hourly - battle. But I don’t think it’s over-simple to say that we have a two-fold resource which will help us if we really mean business: the example of Jesus; and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The example of Jesus is what we find outwardly, in the Bible; so read, reflect, digest, obey! The power of the Spirit is what we find inwardly, for he lives inside us; so pray, and be open to his promptings!

And we have too a wonderful incentive. For see how Jesus completes this beatitude: “...for they will see God.” To see God is not just to enjoy a panoramic view from a mountain-top, however glorious that might be. No: this is something else altogether. The apostle John puts it like this: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

If that isn’t enough to keep us climbing towards that summit, then I don’t know what is. And if there’s any other summit more worth climbing, then I don’t know what that is either.

Summits are there to be reached: Matthew 5:8 above all.

Purify my heart,/ Let me be as gold/ And precious silver./ Purify my heart,/ Let me be as gold,/ Pure gold... Purify my heart,/ Cleanse me from within/ And make me holy./ Purify my heart,/ Cleanse me from my sin,/ Deep within. Amen!

(Brian Doerksen)

Blest are the pure in heart,/ For they shall see their God;/ The secret of the Lord is theirs;/ Their soul is Christ’s abode.

(John Keble and William John Hall)

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