St Michael’s and St Barnabas 18th August 2013
So far in our sermon series we have seen Jesus doing the most amazing things… feeding the 5000, walking on water, stilling the wind, healing the sick. Matthew has presented us with miracle after miracle to leave us in no doubt that Jesus really is the Son of God, that He is worthy of all our praise and adoration and worship. And you might have thought that with all this going on everyone would have been pleased with what Jesus was doing. You might have expected there to have been general rejoicing that at last the promises of God were coming to pass, that God had come among His people to save and to bless and to heal.
And yet, as you read through the gospels, you begin to see that no matter what Jesus does, some people still aren’t happy. The religious police – the Pharisees – always seem to be there lurking in the background grumbling about what’s going on, finding some reason to take issue with Jesus. We’ll look at the reason why in a moment, but for now I just want you to take in the contrast between the end of chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15:
And when the men of that place recognised Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
Isn’t that wonderful? Lives visibly transformed just by a simple touch and a quiet word, despair and suffering replaced by hope and peace. So what is the Pharisees’ response?
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t quite so tragic. Rather than focusing on the good Jesus is doing, the Pharisees home in on the way His disciples are breaking one of their ceremonial laws. To them this transgression is more important than the fact people are being restored to health and salvation. So instead of praising Jesus, all they can do is question and accuse. They are, as Jesus says later on in this passage, blind, blind both to the wonders of God and to their own sin and shortcoming.
So why couldn’t the Pharisees see what was really happening? After all, in the beginning the Pharisee movement had started out as a force for good. They were a group of Jewish people who were concerned by the moral and spiritual compromise they saw all around them. And in response they tried to separate themselves from those who took God’s law lightly, who were willing to fit in with pagan customs of the day. That’s how they got their name – Pharisees, which literally means – “separated ones”.
But the trouble was, what they ended up with was a form of manmade religion which became more important than actually loving and serving the God they claimed to worship. And this is where all this stuff about the Pharisees begins to become relevant to us. Because you don’t have to look too far even today to see how easily manmade religion takes the place of living, genuine faith. You talk to someone who isn’t yet a believer about church, and what do they think of? Ceremonies, and rituals, and rules to obey. You attempt to explain the Christian faith and they hear a call to become all religious. Somehow, and I’m not precisely sure why, we have presented an image of the church which is all about tradition and religion and singularly failed to communicate the wonder and the joy of knowing Jesus.
That’s why when we hear Jesus’ response to the Pharisees we mustn’t fall into the mistake of thinking His words were simply addressed to the religious teachers of the time. Rather, there’s a real sense in which the question Jesus poses is directed at each and every one of us today: And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?
Now we might well protest and say we certainly don’t aim to break the command of God, and if we do, we genuinely repent and seek forgiveness. But there’s something deep within the human heart which means that whenever we hear the word of God, our natural instinct is not necessarily to obey but to see what we can get away with. Instead of doing what God actually asks of us we invent our own rules and regulations and make them the basis of our daily life. Oh yes, we may certainly believe in God, we may say we follow His word, but in practice what people see all too often is folk living by a different set of standards.
Certainly that was the case in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were noted for their piety and for their life of prayer. They had studied the word of God in minute detail and they had some of the best brains in the land working on the question of how to put it all into practice. But what they couldn’t see is that their clever interpretations and subtle use of words had actually led them to live by a set of rules that was actually contrary to what God had commanded them.
So, for example, every Pharisee would know and accept the fifth commandment as being of fundamental importance: Honour your father and mother. But they wanted to define precisely what that meant and decide how far that command should be followed. And so instead of simply honouring God’s word and obeying it, they came up with all kinds of exceptions and small print regulations.
As Jesus Himself points out in verses 5 and 6: But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honour his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. What had started out as a good and honest attempt to live separate and holy lives had ended up as a denial of the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed to live by.
And I suggest there’s a really important lesson for us here. Take, for example, all the teaching we find in the Bible about sex and relationships. To me, most of it all seems fairly clear and unambiguous – that marriage is between a man and a woman, that it involves a lifelong commitment, and that it is to be an exclusive relationship. Now sometimes for good, pastoral reasons, marriages sometimes don’t work out and until Jesus comes again we have to live with the mess and confusion of this fallen world.
But there’s a huge difference between accepting that fact and deciding actually the Bible’s teaching is no longer relevant in today’s modern age, that we have moved on and we can simply consign what the Bible says to a bygone era. Because when we do that, when we decide what God says is somehow no longer applicable, we are in danger of falling into exactly the same error as the Pharisees. That’s why all this debate in the church on the subject of human sexuality is so important. What’s at stake is not which forms of relationship should be accepted and blessed by the church. What’s at stake is whether we put our own tradition and our own thinking above the word of God.
Because, you see, here’s the rub. When we live by our own rules, we can so easily give the impression we are living good, upright lives. People may admire us for the values we hold and the real difference we make to others. But there’s one important thing that our own manmade religion cannot do and it is this: actually deal with the heart of the human problem, which is the problem of our human heart.
This is exactly the point Jesus makes in this passage when He starts talking about clean and unclean foods. To the Pharisees these regulations were at the very centre of their religion, and their strict observance helped to mark them out. But what they failed to see was that what they ate was of far less importance than a heart willing to obey God.
As Jesus tells the disciples in verses 17-20:
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’.”
Now I guess most, if not all of us, don’t come from a Jewish background, and this teaching can seem rather obvious. We don’t live in a culture which practises ritual handwashing or has strict rules about what you can and can’t eat. But just because something Jesus says is obvious doesn’t mean we should underestimate the force of His teaching.
So let me share with you a simple illustration my Sunday School teacher taught me over thirty years ago. I have here two cups. Which would you like to drink from? This one looks really dirty, and this one looks really clean. Which will you choose? Well, actually when you look inside the dirty mug you find the inside is actually quite clean. But when you look inside the clean mug you find it contains the remains of yesterday’s tea.
And if you like the two mugs contain the difference between manmade religion and the gospel. Manmade religion is based on human rules and traditions. Outwardly it looks impressive. It may be wrapped up in all kinds of wonderful rituals and ceremonies. But ultimately it does not come from God. It lacks the power of the Holy Spirit to change us where we most need to be changed – on the inside, at the level of our desires and our emotions. This kind of religion cannot deal with the stain of human sin. It can only hide it, and keep it well out of sight.
And then there is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ who died in our place for our sins. It isn’t just for people who are religious or look impressive. It is a message of undeserved grace and forgiveness particularly for those who know they are dirty and sinful and full of shame. It comes from God. It is His living word. And it is through this word that we experience the power of God to save and to bless and to heal, exactly in the same way as the crowds who flocked to Jesus all those years ago.
And you know what happens when you accept the gospel? Little by little your life becomes changed on the outside as well. As you allow Jesus to change your heart, the effects slowly start to become visible. People start to notice the difference that grace makes. It doesn’t mean that from then on you simply ignore the commands of God as if somehow they no longer matter. Rather you begin to obey them, not out of duty, but out of sheer love and thankfulness for the one who showed you such amazing grace and who lives in your heart by His Spirit.
That is the path of life. That is the path of revival. And it’s a message that overall the church in the country desperately needs to hear. Because there’s no point denying the simple truth, that the church across the United Kingdom is in trouble. You can look at the figures for church attendance. You can look at the average age of our congregations. You can look at the number of empty or redundant churches. They all tell the same story – that the church is in decline.
So what should be our response? Well, we could change the way we do our services to keep them in line with consumer expectations. We could change our teaching so that what we preach and teach is more in line with today’s world. We could change our structures to make them more like a business or a corporation. And yes, in the short term, some of our changes might make something of an impact. We might for a while be able to bring more people in through our doors or make our message more appealing to society at large.
But if we are serious about genuine, long-term renewal and revival in our church, then the lessons of church history teach me that the only way is to come before God humbly, with a broken heart, and a desire to come under the authority of His word – both individually and together, as the body of Christ.
You may be relieved to know that this morning we didn’t go through all 176 verses of Psalm 119. But take the time at some point to read it slowly, prayerfully. It is the longing and prayer of a man who takes God’s word seriously, who is painfully aware of his own shortcomings, and who seeks a new relationship with the Lord. And in many ways his prayer should be our prayer. Because unless our faith touches our heart, unless we are serious about God’s kingdom come, and His will being done in our lives, we will never experience the transformation that the gospel brings to those who believe. We will end up potentially missing out on the blessings of the gospel just like the Pharisees.
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’;
So, the question is, have you given your heart over to Jesus?