In his helpful sermon on the Luke 1 history of John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, this morning, Pastor Lucas Weeks pointed out there is an inconsistency in how the angels of God respond when we question what they tell us. Specifically, the Blessed Virgin Mary asked, “How can this be?” and was given an answer with no recriminations made against her whereas when Zacharias asked what was essentially the same question (though for different reasons), the Angel of God disciplined him by taking away his speech until John was born.

So we understand from God’s different responses, not that God allows women to question, but punishes men for doing so. Sarah was confronted for laughing in the privacy of her tent, we remember.

No, the issue isn’t which sex asks the question, but what sort of heart the question issues from? Pastor Weeks pointed out there are questions born of unbelief, of doubting the Word of God, and then there are questions born of a simple desire for information. Zacharias’s question was born of a heart doubting the word of God whereas Mary’s question was born of a heart that believed, but was curious. Zacharias asked God to prove the truthfulness of His promise whereas Mary asked God to explain how He was going to accomplish His promise?

Here we meet a basic principle of Christian sanctification: hearts matter more than appearances, actions, and words. The classic text from Scripture is Samuel’s explanation for God passing over Jesse’s other, older sons, instead choosing young David whom his father and brothers were all dismissive of:

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1Samuel 16:7)

Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at our hearts.

Now let’s think about how to apply this to the perpetual and painful work of sanctification carried out by the Holy Spirit in each of us through our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s no surprise Christians are tempted to focus on outward appearances. It’s always been so. What dangers does this pose?

We could fence ourselves off from sinful participation in Christmas, finding a mate, and Covid. No trees, no dating, and no mask or vaccines, for instance.

But what about those brothers in Christ who have a Christmas tree, allow their daughters to like a certain boy, and go into stores wearing masks? Should we appeal to our elders to discipline them? Should we ask the elders to excommunicate brothers in Christ who have been vaccinated?

Of course, this is not to say our practices concerning Christmas, dating, and Covid are value neutral. Each of us must make decisions concerning these things by faith, and whatever is not of faith is sin.

Nevertheless, does this mean we should condemn those in our churches who have different convictions concerning these matters?

Just no.

Recently, several souls in our church have spoken or texted or emailed me about these matters, asking whether there isn’t right and wrong in each of them, and I say both “yes” and “no.” Yes, in that each of these decisions requires us to stand before God and do what we believe honors His law. But no in that each of these decisions requires us to humble ourselves, recognizing we may be wrong and thus must not judge our brothers in Christ by our own standards.

Many parts of Christian life are unclear. Can we all please acknowledge this? Was the Apostle Paul not warning us of this when he gave pastoral advice concerning meat sacrificed to idols?

Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

Are any of us able to admit we’re limited to the outward appearance, and don’t know the heart? Must God submit Himself to our judgements concerning the right and wrong of Christmas, dating, and Covid?

And what about head coverings? Should women cover themselves during the entire worship service, or just during prayer? Maybe just to be safe, women should cover themselves from getting out of bed in the morning to getting back in bed at night. That would be safe, right?

Enough with our fixation on outward appearances.

God looks on our hearts.

This is not to say outward appearances don’t matter. Surely they do. But do we admit the limits of our knowledge and understanding? In humility and love, do we accept one another as Christ Himself has accepted us?

Yes, Christmas observances, dating practices, and Covid masks and vaccinations are acts of faith or unbelief. No question about that.

But are we each certain we know our brother’s heart? Must Christ be divided over these things?

In the end, what matters most is not whether we got these things right, but whether we were humble and loved one another as we each lived by faith in the areas Scripture cannot be made as explicit as we’d often prefer.

Love covers a multitude of differences between men of good conscience. If, that is, love covers a multitude of sins.

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