+ 14th Sunday after Pentecost - August 26th, 2018 +
Series B: Isaiah 29:11-19; Ephesians 5:22-33; Mark 7:1-13
Beautiful Savior Lutheran, Milton
Everyone has traditions. If any of our family stops in or around Tillamook, OR, we go to the cheese factory. When you’re at a baseball game you sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the 7th inning stretch. Towns like Milton have memorials to honor the service and sacrifice of our military.
The word “tradition” means something handed on from one person or from one generation to the next. Like the baton in a relay race handed on cleanly to the next runner. The Christian writer G.K. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead.” If all we do is focus on the present moment we have no regard for the past. In keeping the traditions, our past becomes our present.
All religions have their traditions too – rites, ceremonies, practices, holy days, feasts, fasts, etc. Christianity is no exception. Even the simple act of reading lessons from the Scriptures and preaching on them is a tradition that reaches back to the synagogues. The Bible is a tradition: books, letters, Gospels, and psalms handed on from the prophets, apostles, and evangelists and copied and translated by Christians in the past and handed on to us. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the singing and chanting of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are all part of the “tradition.”
You might think of tradition as a vehicle, a means of bringing the past into the present and handing on what is most valuable and important, sort of like a moving truck from California to Milton, WA. Now imagine, as you’re on your summer road trip through Mt. Shasta or the Olympic National Forest but you never look out the window of the car except at the road ahead. All you stare at are the dials and dash lights of the car, or if you’re in the backseat, the drop-down DVD player. And you never see the snow-capped mountains or the lush green of the forest around you. All your attention is on the vehicle. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Why bother with the gas and the trip? Why not just sit in the driveway and admire your car?
That’s what happens when tradition takes over. Traditions can be good, but they can go bad too. Like when we forget why we have a certain tradition and all we say is “Well, it’s always been that way.” Or worse yet, when our traditions lead us away from or become more important than God’s Word.
This is what happened with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They were steeped in tradition – 613 things to do and not do in order to do the righteousness of God. Washing hands and feet and dishes and cushions, not just for personal hygiene but for ceremonial purity. And like all religious types, they took note who followed the traditions and who didn’t. Who washed their hands and cups and saucers and who didn’t. They pointed it out to Jesus when His disciples dared to eat with ceremonially unclean hands.
Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Jesus quickly turned the tables on them quoting Isaiah: “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from. In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.”
When tradition takes over, when the vehicle becomes the thing itself, as Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Jesus illustrates his point with the 4thCommandment: “Honor your father and mother,” which also includes taking care of them when they’re old and providing for them. But the tradition of the Pharisees said that if you declared a portion of your wealth to be “Korban,” which was like sacrificing it in advance, then you didn’t have to use it to help your parents. And God was supposed to be pleased with this, because the sacrifices were for Him in the end, so how could He possibly not like that?
What’s the problem? The problem is thinking God needs our sacrifices. That’s not Christian. It’s pagan. Keep the gods fed and liquored and happy. It doesn’t work that way with God. He doesn’t need or want anything from us but faith. That’s all He wants. Faith. Trust in His Word and promises. And the faith he wants us to have, he gives as free gift.
“I desire mercy not sacrifice.” He says it all over the Scriptures. Jesus repeated it to these same Pharisees. I desire mercy not sacrifice. Mercy to the neighbor in need. Mercy to mother and father. Mercy to the broken stranger in the ditch. Mercy to the least and lost and lowly. Mercy to sinners. Forgiveness to those who have wronged you. Mercy even to those who hate you and revile you and persecute you.
Lip service to God, that’s easy. Just say go through the motions. But mercy to those whom God has placed in your life, not so easy. Faith toward God, fervent love for one another. That’s what He desires. Faith-full hearts from which flow with mercy and love toward others.
When we elevate tradition over God’s Word rather than a servant of God’s Word, we become preoccupied with what we’re doing for God rather than what God has done and is doing for us. Take worship for example. Worship isn’t about what we do for God. It’s about what God in Christ is doing for us – forgiving us, washing us, feeding us. His Word, His Baptism, His Body and Blood. It’s not about our making ourselves pure. We can’t. A sinner cannot purify himself from Sin. Cleansing must come from outside, from above, from the Son of God who became our Sin in our flesh and died our death on a cross. That’s the focus of worship. Not in our hearts, not in ourselves, nor in what we do but in Jesus and what He has done.
Prayer, praise, thanksgiving, worship, and tradition are good. And God delights to hear from us as a loving Father delights to hear from His children. But we worship isn’t about us pleasing God; rather, we pray, praise, and give thanks because in Christ we are pleasing to Him.
With all their religious rules and regulations, ritual washings, and traditions, the Pharisees missed the one needful thing. Jesus. They missed God’s mercy in Jesus. They missed the cleansing that all their washings could not work. They missed the most wonderful thing God has ever done, and will ever do, for the world – the sending of His beloved Son in the flesh to be our savior. They were like noisy patrons at a comedy club, so busy talking to each other, they missed the punch line and didn’t understand why everyone around them was laughing. They were so busy with their traditions, with their religious dos and don’ts, they missed the great good news that Christ came to save sinners not saints. That He came to redeem sinners not the redeemable. That He came to raise the dead not the living.
We would have missed it too. We focus on our hands rather than the hands of God. We focus on our doing rather than God’s doing. We focus on what we think God wants from us rather than what God says He wants from us – mercy not sacrifice. For we are all Pharisees in our sinful hearts. And just like the Pharisees, the problem isn’t with tradition, it’s with us. We make idols for ourselves and think it’s our sacrifices that save us. But we’ve got it all backwards.
The only sacrifice that matters is the One Jesus offered in obedience to His Father. The only offering that can be held before God is the offering of Jesus’ life for your life. Jesus let his hands become defiled and hooked with nails to a beam of wood for us. Jesus endured a horrible human tradition of condemnation and execution on a cross to give us a true washing of rebirth and regeneration that cleanses our defiled hearts.
Today Jesus declares, “You are cleansed from sin and clothed in my sacrifice; there’s no amount of tradition keeping, much less commandment keeping, that is going to make you pure enough to sit at my table. There is nothing you can offer God that is going to make it right again. I’ve done it all for you. Come; you are welcome. Never mind your burdens, sins, and hypocrisies, come to me and my table, and I will welcome you, feed you, cleanse you, forgive you and save you. The Pharisees will cluck their tongues and wag their accusing fingers at you, but come to me all you who are heavy laden. And I will give you rest.”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Special note of thanks to the blog of Rev. William Cwirla for the ideas and outline of this sermon. I get by with a little help from my friends.