Pastor Walther / September 6, 2015 / Pentecost 15
Mark 7.1-8,14,15,21-23 / Close to God
Do you feel close to God? I guess that can be a tough thing to measure, can’t it? Especially since there is no unit of measure for the distance between you and God, how do you know? It’s kind of amazing to study people and the things they do to try and feel close to God.
The Jews had traditions. They had their rituals and their law that had been set up to make them feel like they were getting closer to God. Originally, God had given them the Ten commandments and other ceremonial laws to demonstrate that they were different from the people around them because the Savior would come from Israel. However with time, the people of Israel forgot why they obeyed the commandments. They forgot what they were looking forward to. They focused on the Law as the way to salvation and forgot the promise of a Savior, who would save all people from their imperfection. So, a couple centuries before Jesus, Jewish leaders came together and decided that God’s law was so holy that it would be good to set up some mini-laws to avoid breaking the big laws, by ignorance or even by accident.
Think of it this way: The speed limit is 45 on certain roads. That is what the Department of transportation saw fit for the safety of cars, pedestrians, wild life, and so on. That is the law of the land. Let’s just say for hypothetical reasons and to prove my point, the department of Transportation decides that they will ticket you at 40 miles an hour, five miles an hour below the posted limit, just so that you don’t disobey and break the 45 mile an hour barrier. A little silly right?
Well, that’s what the Jewish leaders were doing. They came up with 613 rules regulating the Israelite’s life down to the smallest detail. We hear some of these rules that they had come up with in other parts of the Gospels. They would have to pray with these things call phylacteries and pray their required prayers, they couldn’t walk one step too far on a Sabbath, and here in the context of our lesson, hand washing.
Now hand washing before a meal can be a good thing. One of my long standing part time jobs was working for the Waste Water treatment plant in my hometown. In short, if you don’t know what Waste Water is, it is all the sewage that comes from your house. It all comes to the Waste Water plant to be cleaned. We were literally working with fecal matters. So at lunch time, I always made a point to wash my hands AND use hand sanitizer. But, the old veterans of the plant would waltz in to the lunch room and sit down, maybe they’d wash their hands on a good day.
But the Jewish people didn’t wash their hands for sanitary reasons. This was a whole other matter. That’s what’s great about the Gospel of Mark. He really describes these Jewish practices well for the non jewish audience. Mark describes why this was a regular Jewish practice: Jews considered Gentiles to be unclean, making them unclean in God’s eyes. So if Jews went to Jerusalem’s Festival foods and came back, they would wash their hands, fearing that they had accidentally brushed up against a Gentile or anything even belonging to them. These Jewish leaders even stipulated how much water needs to be used and how the water was to be applied. Now, keep in mind, none of this was in the original Law that God had given. But, it didn’t seem like the God’s Law was enough. They wanted to ensure their salvation. They wanted to get closer to God.
People want to get closer to God. They want to get closer to this idea of peace, or nirvana, or some type of utopia in their lives here on earth. Sometimes, it’s the simple “oms” of spiritualism, that if you find some type of inner peace, you have found God. Even other types of wrongly named Christian groups do the same with their definition of religion. They think that the tradition of repeating a prayer over and over again using prayer beads is the way to God and to receive forgiveness. Or they set up traditions based on what the church has set up around the bible, rather than simply listening to what the bible says.
I often find myself in the same boat as these Pharisees, stuck focusing on the outward actions. I come to church, I sit down, I read and sing like a robot. I hear a part of sermon, I go home, I feel like I’m good enough in God’s eyes because I simply sat on a wooden pew. Half the time, I’m not even thinking of the words in the lessons, or the words of the hymn, or the words of the sermon. My mouth moves to the music, but my mind is stuck on the food I have to prepare for tailgating, or how tired I am from staying up too late Saturday night. We almost think that the location of our posteriors has a direct correlation to our salvation. If our butt is placed here, we are going to heaven, even if our mind is elsewhere. Obviously, we do want you in church! It is important for you to be here. But we also want you to hear God’s word and not let it simply go in one ear and out the other. Our problem is that our hearts are so often not listening like Jesus quotes in this Isaiah passage.
It's not that we don't want to do be close to God, right? The pharisees were interested in leading a God pleasing life. I guess we could say that they were admirable in their attempt to obey God’s law. They had motivation to be close to God. But they were misguided. Off the back, you can see why they did what they did. They knew God’s law was holy. So they wanted to do their best to keep it. But that same action became the problem as they focused only on what they looked like. That is the worst form of self deception, where a person thinks they are what they actually are only pretending to be. The more these scribes and Pharisees came into contact with the holy integrity of Jesus, the more they appeared to be what they really were.
When we stand before God’s holy word, we see what we really look like! We may be interested in going to heaven or doing good. Be we are often misguided. Sometimes we think that our actions are what gets God’s attention. But, we see in the face of God’s holy Law, we are no where even close to God. That’s why Jesus takes a stand here. Being unclean doesn’t come from unwashed hands or certain foods, but it comes from sin, from evil thoughts and actions. Literally, Jesus says, uncleanness comes from the “evil dialogue” in your head. In our minds we have a running dialogue where we ponder ideas. The problem with the dialogue is that it often leads to action or it reveals itself as spoken words. It should be clear that Jesus sharpened the edge of every commandment. He taught that even hatred is murder and that a lustful look at another person is adultery. By nature, we can never be close to God.
Jesus chops down the argument of our sinful minds and of these Jewish leaders. He did so simply with who he was. He is our complete opposite. He was the complete opposite of these Pharisees and scribes, which is probably what made them so jealous because they must have realized that Jesus was infinitely better than they were. His humility contrasted their pompous personalities. His sincerity with their hypocrisy. His sympathy with their cruelty. His selflessness of dying for all people with their selfishness of worrying only about themselves and these silly made up laws.
It's not that Jesus didn’t obey some of their traditions. However, when they put them in conflict with God’s law, then he had a problem. Sadly, these Jewish leaders viewed these traditions as equal, if not greater, than God’s written law. All the wrong practices of these Jewish leaders came from their crazy false conceptions of God’s will and His word, which is why Jesus clashed with them as he insisted with them what God actually willed and said in his Word.
That same conflict happens today when people try and separate the teachings of the Bible from the practice of those teachings. Every thing that we do as Christians and as a Church should go back to what God’s Word has to say about that topic. The problem is when people have their own agenda and force that upon God’s Word, rather than God’s word influencing our lives. You see that with churches that go against what the Bible says about certain topics like marriage or our roles in life, simply because they don’t want to listen to the difficult teachings of the Bible. They fail to take God’s word in its entirety. Here, Jesus shows the importance of needing the whole Scriptures. Jesus condemns the actions of these leaders and anyone who gets rid of God’s word to achieve their own agenda or their view points. Removing God’s Word from the equation of our Christian living is deadly in God’s eyes. It doesn’t make us closer, but separates us even further from God.
Do you see how our natural intention of getting close to God is so terribly unsuccessful? Instead, it’s just a selfish and short lived attempt at trying to find happiness in this life or make ourselves look good. It’s setting ourselves up as god. Pharisees taught that man has a “good disposition” by nature and a free will to choose what is good. For Jesus, the starting point is the exact opposite. The reality is this, we can’t get close to God on our own. It’s like a daredevil trying to jump the Grand Canyon at the widest part. There’s no way it can be done, no matter how straight it may seem, no matter how far you get out there. You will always come up short, landing at the bottom. We are hopeless.
King David phrased it beautifully: “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me!” I can’t get close to God. But you know what? It is Jesus who brings us near to God. Jesus perfectly obeyed all of these laws for us. He has made us clean in God’s eyes. Ephesians 5:26 reminds us, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.” God comes close to me.
In Jesus’ eyes, this conversation of washing hands was practically irrelevant because he has already made us clean. You know, I thank God that he makes me clean through Jesus and that he sees me as righteous because I mess up so much. I need to get back to why God gave me and the Israel nation the Law in the first place. It’s not for me to try and look good in front of God. No, It reminds me that there is someone better who saved me because He could actually obey these laws. It reminds me that because God loves me so much, I want to love him back and demonstrate that love to him. It's to show that I’m different from the world around me. Jesus is the key. He is what brought us to God. Have you ever had just a really good hug? It’s amazing. Locked in. You feel love and a wonderful bond. God brings us in even closer when we are in His Word, like best hug of our lives. Now that is close to God! Amen.