Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire – Fifth Sunday after Trinity 2011

 

I thought I’d indulge myself again today with a favourite hymn of mine, Charles Wesley’s classic “O thou who camest from above”, which we have just sung. It’s an obvious choice for a clergyman’s favourite, with the line “Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire/ To work, and speak, and think for thee”. Yet I don’t think Wesley would have restricted that sentiment to the clergy. One of the insights of the Methodist movement was that every Christian is called to ministry; every believer has – in theory – a heart’s desire to work and speak and think for Jesus, in pulpits and in public-houses, in schools and shopping centres, in all conceivable ways to all conceivable people in all spheres imaginable. Our Collect today prays about this, when it says,

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name”.

The whole body of the church; the vocation and ministry of all God’s faithful people. In our Gospel today we hear that parable that says that “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened”. The small quantity of live, active yeast transforms the mass of flour into bread. The community of believers, exercising their manifold ministries, acting out their heart’s desire to work and speak and think for Jesus, transforms the world.

Wesley’s hymn explores the interior aspect of the believer’s ministry; namely, that it grows out of the dedicated life, the life offered to God. The Wesleys had a great devotion to the Holy Communion; and they would have prayed week by week, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee”. The Prayer Book, taking a cue from St Paul in Romans 12, makes this self-offering one of the principal fruits of Communion. Having made the memorial of Our Lord’s “one, complete and all-sufficient sacrifice” of himself; and having received by faith the fruits of that redemption, we respond with the offering and dedication of our lives.

 

It is this that Wesley is exploring in this hymn, and he uses an image from the Old Testament to do so. We read in Leviticus (6:13), in the rules for the temple service, that “Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out.” My Study Bible comments that this symbolises Israel’s perpetual service of the LORD. “Kindle a flame of sacred love On the mean altar of my heart. O let it for thy glory burn With inextinguishable blaze”. I came across a quaint illustration from a 17th century book of devotion, showing an Anglican vicar in a long full surplice and college hood kneeling at the north side of an altar, with a sacrificial fire upon it, holding in his hands a smoking heart, offering himself before a sunburst inscribed “Shecinah” – the Hebrew word for God’s Presence – while the angels look on. I wonder did Wesley know that book? But this is the image he uses, at any rate.

 

This perpetual flame of self-dedication both expresses itself, and maintains itself, in the discipline of prayer and worship. “And trembling to its source return/ In humble prayer and fervent praise.” Why bother with church service? Why bother with quiet time at home? Why not just get on with doing good things for Jesus? I think Wesley would say that it is the inner offering, expressed in prayer and praise, that gives us the resources and the stimulus for the “working and speaking and thinking”, and also ensures that we are in fact doing these things “for Jesus” and for his glory. The adjectives he uses are important. Our prayer is to be humble; our praise is to be fervent. That is, both prayer and praise arise out of a lively sense of the reality and greatness and goodness of God. If we really consider who it is that we are dealing with, awesome and holy and full of loving kindness, and absolutely real; then we can only pray with humility. We may pray with confidence too; with love and trust; but always humbly. And our praise will always be fervent, that is, heart-felt; our musicianship may not be great – though we will bring the best we have – but the praise will be a real response to God’s beauty and goodness – it will have about it that touch of “the heart’s desire”.

 

For there is another aspect to this hymn; the flame that Jesus is asked to light in us is the fire of the Holy Spirit. “O thou who camest from above, / The pure celestial fire to impart.” “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel (12:49). The fire he brings is the flame of sacred love, the Spirit given to those who ask for the gift, the Spirit we read of in today’s Epistle (Romans 8:26ff) who helps us in our weakness, praying in us when we don’t know what to say or how to pray. Paul sees Christian prayer as an open-ness to God, so that God can work in and through us in ways we cannot imagine. Beneath Wesley’s “humble prayer and fervent praise” there is a movement of God within us bringing us back to our source in God.

 

It’s hard to preach about this, because one is so aware of how dimly the fire burns. Wesley knows this, and prays: “Still let me guard the holy fire, / And still stir up thy gift in me.” We sometimes lose sight of the Jesus to whom we want to dedicate our lives. Today’s gospel (Matt 13) contains two little parables, The Treasure in the Field, and The Pearl of Great Price, which invite us to realise the outstanding beauty and value of the Jesus we seek to possess.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Wesley speaks of “heart’s desire” as being at the root of the dedicated life. We are called to fall in love with God; then our self-offering is the mutual gift of the Lover and the Beloved, and all our “working and speaking and thinking” is full of that inextinguishable flame of love. And Wesley looks forward to the consummation of the offering, and the embrace of the Lover:

 

Still let me prove thy perfect will,

My acts of faith and love repeat,

Till death thine endless mercies seal,

And make the sacrifice complete.

 

 

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