It could be as simple as washing your hands you’ve been to the toilet, having a cup of coffee or beer at set times during the day or night, watching TV from a certain lounge chair, mowing the lawn or planting a crop the same way each time, sticking to ‘Holden’ or ‘Ford’ when buying a new car, or saying grace at mealtimes and bedtime prayers.
Even today,perhaps you are sitting in the same spot you usually sit.
You may have a good reason why you sit there, but maybe you sit there simply because you’ve always sat there! Your routine, your practice, your habit, your custom, or your tradition is that you sit there.
If you sit somewhere else, worship just isn’t the same, is it? If someone else is occupying your usual seat, you might even get quite upset and try to bore holes with your eyes into the back of the head of the person who ‘stole’ your seat!
Now there’s nothing wrong with having traditions, in fact we even need them.
While some may argue routines can make life boring, routines can also structure our life in such a way that we feel safe and secure to live in freedom and joy.
You could say traditions or routines are a bit like ‘home’. Sure, it’s nice to be on holiday for a while and have a break from normal routines, but it’s also nice to get ‘home’ and back into the security of routine.
The problem with traditions is that we might try to impose them on others.
Take the Pharisees and scribes for example.
They were faithful religious people, perhaps not unlike you.
They would read the Word of God and try their best to live by it. In fact, to make sure they lived out the Word of God, they created certain traditions or customs to live by so they wouldn’t break any of the commandments and therefore live as holy people of God.
One such custom was they would wash their hands a certain way before every meal. Now, washing hands before meals is simply good hygiene and necessary for our health and the health of others. But when these people saw Jesus’ disciples eating food without washing their hands, they were horrified and openly criticised them, and even criticised Jesus for not correcting them.
Now, whether Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands at all, or whether they didn’t wash their hands the correct way like the Pharisees’ custom, we don’t know.
What we do know is that the Pharisees and scribes, those ‘faithful people of God’, were imposing their own set of traditions or customs on others, and judging them accordingly. They were looking down on the disciples and wanting them punished for their lack of faith,
simply because they didn’t wash their hands the right way before eating!
But where in the bible does God command us to wash our hands before eating?
He doesn’t! This isn’t a command of God, but a tradition of men. It’s OK and even helpful to have traditions, but to impose them on others or punish them for not keeping our own personal traditions, is wrong.
Despite the Pharisees’ best intentions, they had made their own man-made tradition or custom into a law that sat equal with, or perhaps even above the commands of God! Put another way, they were trying to make themselves look holy by doing their good little works.
No wonder Jesus calls them hypocrites!
They’re acting out their faith, living up to their own man-made traditions and customs to make them look like they’re faithful people, yet as soon as they open their mouths with criticisms or insults toward others, everyone can clearly see their hearts for what they are: callous, cruel, harsh, bitter, and sinful.
Despite their good intentions, they had set up their own little traditions as their idols; over and above God.
Now we probably all want to say we’re glad we’re not like those judgmental and cruel Pharisees and scribes, but here’s some bad news: unfortunately there’s a Pharisee in all of us, eager to come out and assert itself.
Just think about it…have you ever criticised, either in words, or even by your thoughts, the actions of someone else in worship?
Perhaps you sit during Confession, but the person next to you kneels.
“Look at them kneeling, as if that’s going to make you a better Christian – it’s all a pious act, a great show of repentance, but I know how you live!”
Or maybe you kneel, but the person beside you sits. “Look at them sitting as if they’ve done nothing wrong to repent of, don’t they take their confession seriously?
Are they truly sorry for their sin?”
Now, there are good reasons to kneel during confession. But the action of kneeling or sitting during confession is not commanded by God.
To look down on others because they sit or kneel is to place a human tradition above God’s Word. By judging people to be ‘no good’ because they sit or kneel, is to set up a human practice into an idol.
The only time we should place a human tradition so highly is if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. So in any congregation, is his Gospel at stake whether you or the person is a ‘sitter’ or a ‘kneeler’? No! Is it necessary all kneel? No.
In a similar way,
you may appreciate a worship service where the pastor chants liturgical parts, where hymns are played on an organ, and where the whole service is quite structured and formal, or you might prefer a worship service where a band plays songs,
where a pastor tries to avoid any hard to understand theological terms, or where we might use drama or dance to communicate the Gospel.
You might like one or the other, or even a mix, but a personal preference should remain as such.
When you impose your own set of traditions, customs, desires, or preferences on others and criticise them when they don’t do it or don’t like it, is to do what the Pharisees where doing.
However faithful and well-intentioned you may be, if you impose your own set of traditions or preferences on others, you’re setting up salvation by works. And this goes for the Pastor too, because
Attending ‘traditional’ worship won’t save you.
Attending ‘contemporary’ worship won’t save you. This said, a good worship service will always point to Jesus and deliver his gifts.
But kneeling or sitting during confession won’t save you. Sitting in that same seat every Sunday, or even sitting in a different seat every Sunday won’t save you.
Washing your hands the right way before eating won’t save you (although it might save you from possible infection). The good news is that Jesus saves you.
Jesus knows we’re naturally idol worshippers. We naturally worship ‘things’, but we also naturally worship our routines and practices.
In this way, many of our practices, no matter how ancient or recent, and no matter how well-intentioned, can be either helpful or harmful.
They’re helpful when they’re a natural expression of our faith in Jesus alone who saves us. They’re harmful when we’ve turned a tradition or custom into an idol and we sacrifice those ‘heathens’ around us who don’t worship your same idol.
The trouble with idols is they always demand sacrifice. All too soon, our idols progress from a desire, to a demand, to a judgment, and into punishment. That’s no way to live in the light of the Gospel of Christ!
We don’t have to throw out all our traditions, routines, customs, practices, or habits. We don’t have to impose any new ones either.
But if we’ve turned any of our desires or customs into idols that others should also practice, then we need to turn to Jesus.
Our outward appearance and actions that others see won’t make us clean.
Our ‘righteous works’ won’t save us.
You can wash the outside of a rotten apple as much as you like, but it still remains rotten. The rottenness of our heart is exposed by our evil thoughts and desires: stealing, murder, adultery, jealousy, low or no moral values, taking advantage of others, pushing the boundaries of decency, disrespectful speech, arrogance, and foolishness. Our ‘traditions’ can’t hide our rottenness.
There’s only one who can create a clean and holy heart: that place within us that motivates and directs our thoughts, words and actions. Jesus alone can make our hearts clean so that what comes out of us is also clean and holy.
As we attend worship, the Word of God settles on our hearts to wash it clean and to bring forth the fruits of faith through our actions.
Although baptism might seem like an outward act, it makes the whole person clean. Although eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper may seem just a tradition, actually the grace and love of God is at work.
Through faith, Jesus enters us to clean us from the inside out. Only he can get rid of the rottenness of sin within and help us live in grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, and love.
If we’re going to impose anything on anyone, let it be the love and forgiveness of Christ on each other.
If they don’t live up to our standards or agree with our traditions, love them. If they don’t live out their faith the same as us, accept them as our brother or sister in Christ.
If their words or actions annoy us or frustrate us, forgive them. Our ‘traditions’ won’t save us.
Jesus saves us and thank God for that. Amen.