Some people are obsessed with cleanliness. They are always dusting, cleaning, scrubbing and vacuuming. Now I’m not knocking that. I’d sooner live in a clean house than in a pig sty.
Before God, however, we have to be absolutely clean. We can’t approach God if there is the slightest sin in our heart.
How do we become clean? There are only two methods.
First, it is up to us to clean ourselves. We clean up our lives and hope such cleanliness is good enough.
Second, God cleans us. He gives us a new and clean heart.
Our text from Mark 7 shows us that the first method doesn’t work. We can’t clean ourselves sufficiently to come before God. Only Jesus can make us clean enough to enter God’s presence. May we come to Jesus for true cleanliness.
I: NOT LAW OR TRADITION CENTERED
At the time of Jesus there was a group of religious leaders called the scribes. They dated from about 500- 400 BC. They were legal experts. They devised dozens of rules and added to the ten commandments. They thought that these additional rules would help them to keep God’s law perfectly. These became known as the tradition of the elders. By obeying them they thought they would have clean lives. They thought they were now good enough to come near to God. They were quite wrong, of course.
Let me give you an example of some of the rules they made up in connection with the third commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’. Women were forbidden to look into a mirror for fear they might see a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it. You couldn’t trim your beard or finger nails, or carry a burden such as earrings or even false teeth. You could not walk more than 3,000 meters from your home. Parents could pick up a child, but not if the child had a toy in its hand. You were not allowed to eat an egg a hen had labored to produce on the Sabbath. If a wall collapsed on a person, it was permissible to clear away the rubble only to see if the victim were still breathing. And what could one carry out of a burning house? Only the clothes on one’s back. You could rush naked back into the flames, however, to put on another set of clothes.
Orthodox Jews still try to follow some of these rules today. One President of an AFL football club was an orthodox Jew, hence he couldn’t attend the Grand Final on the Sabbath, the Saturday. Do you know how he got the football scores? He instructed two non-Jewish security guards to tell each other the match scores as they walked past his open window. Apparently it is all right to overhear such things on the Sabbath!
Helen and I discovered some of these rules in Israel one Sabbath. We had to drink coffee without milk because it took work to milk cows and so the hotel didn’t have any milk. Also some of the lifts in our hotel stopped automatically at each floor even if no one got on or off. The reason, orthodox Jews wouldn’t have to press the lift button to get to their room as this was regarded as work!
In our text Jesus and his disciples were accused of not observing the tradition of the elders. They were eating food with unwashed ‘hands’. This hand washing was not in the interests of hygiene; it was ceremonial cleanness. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed. The water for washing was kept in special large stone jars and kept clean.
First, the hands were held with the finger tips pointing upwards; the water was poured over them and must run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was 1½ egg shells full of water. While the hands were still wet each hand to be cleansed with the fist of the other. This made the water on the hands unclean.
So, second, the hands had to be held with the finger tips pointing downwards and the water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.
The point is, if you didn’t wash your hands like this you were unclean in the sight of God. And you would be subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta (Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, 166-167).
You can see why Jesus often got into hot water with these strict Jews. He didn’t observe all the tradition of the elders.
And you can also see why Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites. They were more interested in their scribal laws than the laws of God. As long as they kept these man-made laws they were clean. It didn’t matter if they hated someone, or were full of envy, jealousy, pride and bitterness.
Jesus said that what makes us unclean is not neglecting to keep these made-up rules. They are outward things. What defiles us is what comes from inside, from the heart. The heart is the source and center of life. It is the spring from which either good or evil flows.
Take a child, for example. It might push or punch its brother or sister. Dad comes along and tells this child, ‘Say sorry’. The child says sorry, but it is clear that the sorry doesn’t come from the heart.
So the orthodox Jews thought washing their hands would make them clean before God. How foolish. But we can also fall into the same sort of trap. We can think that clean living makes us right with God. If we go to church, if we give generously, if we work hard on the job, if we read the Bible, if we say table grace, if we live a decent life – then we are clean enough to enter God’s presence.
A do-it-yourself religion doesn’t work. Our attempts to clean up our act are not good enough. We can never make ourselves clean enough to come before our holy God.
On the contrary, our heart is full of sin. It is dirty. And that means all kinds of evil pour forth – evil thoughts, motives, interests and actions.
II: GOSPEL CENTERED
So how can we get ‘clean hands and pure hearts’ (Ps 24:4) to approach our holy God? There’s only one way. And that is to confess our sinful attempts to please God and with a humble heart receive the clean heart he gives us. When did God give us a clean heart? When we were baptised. Baptism links us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only one who has ever really lived a ‘good, clean life’ before God. He alone is the spotless Lamb of God who never dirtied himself with the stain of sin. Yet in spite of his own cleanliness, he chose to cover himself with all the dirt and filth of every other person’s sin. and God chose to give him our punishment for that sin, and us his cleanliness.
In the waters of God’s holy washing, baptism, He gives us Jesus’ clean, holy life as our own and washes away the stain and dirt of our sin. That’s what you call cleanliness.
Now, by the power of forgiveness in baptism we are enabled really to do what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and our own hypocritical natures can only mimic – offer a life to God that is clean or godly. Now, in Christ, our actions as God’s people – from the rituals of our worship to the duties of our daily tasks – are clean in God’s sight. No wonder St Paul calls baptism a ‘washing of regeneration’ and ‘renewing of the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5).
In the power of our baptism we can say daily, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me’ (Ps 51:10). That’s exactly what God does for us.
As you know today is father’s day. Their role is vital. There are three things fathers need to do with their children. Much of this applies to grandparents too.
First, take time with them. As one son writes, ‘When I was around 13 and my brother was 10, father promised to take us to the circus. But at lunch time there was a phone call. Some urgent business required his attention downtown. My brother and I braced ourselves for the disappointment. Then we heard him say, “No, I won’t be down. It will have to wait”. When he came back to the table, mother smiled and said to our Dad, “The circus keeps coming back you know”. “I know”, said father, “but childhood doesn’t”’.
Second, fathers need to teach their children spiritual truths. They need to teach children that we cannot make ourselves clean before God. We are all sinners. We all need to repent, that is to own up to our sins before God. We can only become right with God through the cleansing blood of Jesus.
Children will never forget what they learned from their fathers. They will follow Jesus. Some may for a time depart from the way of Jesus, but through God’s Spirit, most of these will come back.
Third, fathers need to model Jesus by the lives they lead. If so, the following incident should never happen. Two boys were walking home from church and sharing their reflection on the lesson. They had been studying the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Little James said to his friend John, ‘Do you believe that stuff about the Devil? Do you think there really is a Devil?’ John looked at him and said, ‘Naah, it’s just like Santa Claus – it’s your dad’ .
Ahh, model Jesus. And this goes for grandparents too. It means decent language, honesty, concern for others, a spirit of forgiveness, all laced with love. (This also means that you will monitor the internet when your children surf it. There is so much evil on the internet which is so readily available.)
This reminds me of some children who wanted to watch a movie on TV. The father said no. They came up with all the regular reasons as to why they should watch it. Everyone else was seeing it. The language was pretty good – the Lord’s name was only used in vain three times in the whole movie. They admitted that there was a scene where a building and a bunch of people were blown up, but the violence was just the normal stuff. The father still said no.
A little later that night the father asked his children if they would like some biscuits he had baked. He explained that he’d taken their favorite recipe and added a little something new. The children asked what it was. The father calmly replied that he had added dog droppings. However, he quickly assured them, it was only a bit. All other ingredients were of the highest quality. He was sure the biscuits would be superb.
The children said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. The father acted surprised. After all, it was only one small part that was causing them to be so stubborn. He was certain they would hardly notice it. Still they held firm and would not try the biscuits.
The father then told his children how the movie they wanted to see was just like the biscuits. Our minds are telling us to believe that just a little bit of evil won’t matter. But, the truth is even a little bit of dog droppings makes the difference between a great treat and something disgusting and unacceptable.
Now, when this father’s children want to see something that is of questionable material, the father merely asks them if they would like some of his special dog biscuits. That closes the subject.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of fathers for the Christian upbringing of children. No one else has a greater effect on children than their father.
Some parents were visiting their newly married daughter. They noticed a turkey thawing in the kitchen sink under a dish drainer. The father asked why the drainer was being used this way.
The daughter turned to her mother and said, ‘Mum, you always did it’. ‘Yes’, her mother agreed, ‘but you don’t have a cat’!
Traditions! Traditions may be good; but some are not helpful. The traditions in Jesus’ day were not helpful. The people thought that by keeping the traditions of the elders they were clean and their life pleasing to God. They didn’t realise that their traditions were drawing them away from God.
Only Jesus takes away our sin. Only Jesus makes us clean. Only Jesus gives us clean hearts. His death on the cross and his resurrection have made us altogether new. Through Jesus and his Spirit we walk in newness of life. That’s what you call true cleanliness.
It being father’s day I thought I would finish with this little piece:
Dads Turn Out All Right – In Time.
4 years: My Daddy can do anything.
7 years: My Dad knows a lot, a whole lot.
8 years: Dad doesn’t know quite everything.
12 years: Oh, well, naturally Dad doesn’t understand.
14 years: Father? Hopelessly old-fashioned.
21 years: Oh, that man is out of date; what would you expect?
25 years: He comes up with a good idea now and then.
30 years: Must find out what Dad thinks about it.
35 years: A little patience; let’s get Dad’s input first.
50 years: What would Dad have thought about that?
60 years: I wish I could talk it over with Dad.
Rev. Peter Kriewaldt