Monday, August 24, 2015

Sermon on Mark 7:1-13, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "Lip Service"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today in our Gospel, in a dispute about handwashing, Jesus takes an unlikely position. He defends His disciples who had not washed their hands before eating. Neither Jesus nor the Pharisees were arguing about good hygiene—but the discussion was about ritual purity or cleanness instead. A question of religious observances. The Pharisees and scribes paid passionate attention to detail, and strictly obeyed the traditions passed down by the elders. Among their many traditions were a long list of ritual washings. This included special washings of hands, utensils, cookware, and dining couches.  
Seeing Jesus’ disciples eating with unclean hands, they cried foul, because obviously Jesus hadn’t taught the their religious practices well. Jesus replies and shows that the heart of their whole “worship” was wrong. In fact, He shows that their heart wasn’t in it at all. They were more concerned about minor, manmade rules, than they were about the major things of God’s Truth. It wasn’t true religion of the heart, worshipping and living from a right heart toward God. Instead it was keeping up a shiny, glossy veneer. A surface impression of holiness, of uprightness, that seemed impressive. And they were puffed up with a sense of pride about their great “reverence” towards God, and looked down on the disciples who seemed backward or irreverent, because they didn’t follow these practices. The manmade traditions had come to take the place of God’s own Word and commandments. Their so-called worship was just the teachings of men, not the teachings of God.
The Bible tells that man-made religious rules have “an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). Certain self-made religions seem impressive or their followers may seem to be doing great, holy, and difficult things. They may follow a very strict and harsh regimen for their body. But the Bible warns that the outward display doesn’t stop our flesh. Our flesh is not so easily defeated. Forcing man-made rules upon ourselves is not going to change our heart. As we said last week, sin and temptation are wound up in body and soul. The trouble runs deeper than skin, than just our flesh. This is why Jesus said their worship was mere “lip service” and hypocrisy, not true worship from the heart.
But if manmade rules are not true honor of God with heart and lips—then what can stop the flesh? God’s commandments of course. But their effect on the flesh is much more drastic than we might have hoped for. In fact, God’s commandments bring death to our flesh. If men’s rules leave it unharmed, God’s rules kill the flesh. God’s law crushes the heart of sin, while man’s laws can only govern external behavior, but the heart is untouched. God’s commandment touches heart, soul, mind and body. Jesus would later teach them that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. God’s far-reaching law exposes our sins of thought, word, and deed. It declares the penalty is death.
No wonder we avoid God’s Law and try to create cheap imitations instead. They give an appearance, a surface show of “godliness” and uprightness. But they leave our heart untouched and hypocritical. We like our manmade traditions as a substitute, because they let us feel better about ourselves, or even can impress other people. But they don’t produce true godliness and righteousness from the heart. Sincere obedience to God’s commandments, on the other hand, might not always be flashy or impressive. It may even be completely unnoticed, hardly seeming “religious” at all. Obedience to God’s commandments and His calling, looks like the faithful carpenter, car salesmen, or concierge doing their job with faithfulness and integrity. It doesn’t necessarily look like the “pious religious person” going through ritual washings and speaking elaborate prayers or fasting for incredible lengths of time. That’s not the proof of spirituality.
Obedience to God’s commandments is doing what God has commanded, not what man has commanded. It looks like a citizen doing the right thing when no one is watching, and not looking for any reward or praise. It looks like the single person living in purity, until God blesses them with a spouse. It looks like children obeying and respecting their parents—not just in youth, but in adulthood as well. It looks like parents taking responsibility to raise their children in the knowledge and discipline of the Lord. In short, obeying God’s commandments is in the midst of everyday life, not in invented rituals or traditions. True Christian spirituality is found in the cross of Jesus Christ and in His Word, and in the Sacraments—the traditions or things that God Himself has passed down and commanded. We must be able to tell the difference between manmade traditions, and what is given from God. We must never elevate manmade traditions over God’s commands, or use them as a source of pride and superiority over other disciples or followers of Jesus. Any of these uses of tradition treats God’s Word as insignificant.
Jesus shows the danger of manmade religion. He knows there are many examples He could cite, but one in particular showed how the Pharisees approved of lip service to God, while neglecting God’s commandment. It was called the rule of “Corban.” This unfamiliar word to us, was a well-known practice to the Jews of Jesus’ day. It was a way of willing or endowing your wealth or property to the Temple of God, after your death. Now that certainly seems like a noble and harmless thing in itself. People create wills and endowments to bless charities and churches all the time. But the catch, Jesus points out, was that when a persons’ own father and mother fell into need—maybe they were elderly and needed financial support from their children—the adult son or daughter could answer back “The help you would have received from me is Corban—that is, a gift dedicated to God.” In other words, I can’t help you because my money is pledged to God. And they denied help to their own parents.
The Jewish rulers approved, because of course, the money was going to a good purpose—the Temple. Doesn’t God want people to give generously back to Him? Yes. Isn’t that more important than the needs of my aging parents? No! Jesus answers strongly, that they have voided the Word of God. They obey the manmade Corban rule, but break God’s own commandment to Honor your father and your mother. 1 Timothy 5:8 says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
The problem with this kind of manmade religion, is that it hurts people while claiming to help or serve God. Do we ever place duties to man, higher than our duties to God? Obedience to men’s ideas, rather than to God’s truth? Are there trendy “new” religious practices like labyrinths or unusual prayer techniques, that are not taught or described anywhere in the Bible, but seem to offer a deeper, more satisfying religious experience? Manmade traditions and religion didn’t die out in Jesus’ day—the invention of new forms of religion, and new rules and rituals to supposedly bring one closer to God, is as old as the earth.
There’s only one escape from this false, shallow religion, that covers up our sinful hearts, and pleases the eyes and ears with lip service and hypocrisy. The only escape is to Jesus. To hear the condemnation of our sinful hearts, and to have our sinful flesh crucified with Him on the cross. In our baptism, we have been crucified with Christ. Our old sinful self is put to death, with all its hypocrisy and lip service. And we are raised up with Christ Jesus, a new person. Because Jesus died and rose for us. He is the escape from false religion, because He is the true religion. He served God with a true heart, and with true lips. Jesus served God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, as we were never able. His obedience is full and true, and by obeying the commandments of God, that really matter—He helped and served His neighbors. Jesus’ life was completely lived for and toward others.
While He obeyed God’s commands wholeheartedly, He paid no attention to the “extras” invented by men, that were the source of great pride to the Pharisees. He did not obey their additions and extensions of the law, and continually faced their disapproval for it. But God’s Law gave Him much more important things to do. To show perfect compassion, to speak the truth in love, to stand against injustice or falsehood, to teach God’s Word in whole, without subtraction or addition. God’s Law occupied His every thought, like the blessed man of Psalm 1, who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night (v.2).
Jesus is our rescue. He changes our lip service to lips that truly praise with a thankful heart, for all God has done for us, and won for us in His cross and resurrection. Jesus changes our sin-broken heart for a heart that truly believes and truly cares—that desires to obey God’s great commandments. This life, as a disciple of Jesus, needs no praise or commendation from men—this life, humbly following our Savior, has the commendation of God. It’s the life of humbling ourselves as sinner’s before our Savior, and receiving His amazing forgiveness, grace, and a new life. This new life of ours, is hidden with Christ, in God. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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