To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
A little over ten years ago, a man names A.J. Jacobs began a quest. The premise of his quest was simple, but the execution of it would be anything but. In short, his plan was to read the Bible from cover to cover and say, “You got it!” This was an experiment for him to find out what it was like to be ‘super-religious,’ and learn what all the fuss was about with this best-selling, history-marking, world-wide influence of a book called the Bible. So this was his plan – to read the Bible cover to cover, write down every rule, regulation, and law he could find, and spend the year of his life trying his absolute hardest to do exactly what the Bible said. He wrote a book about his yearlong experience – The Year of Living Biblically: One man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible. Coincidentally, this author also wrote a book about his endeavor to read through the entire encyclopedia – The Know-It-All: One man’s humble quest to become the smartest person in the world AND he wrote Drop Dead Healthy: One man’s humble quest for bodily perfection. A.J. Jacobs chronicled his experiences after taking on these massive personal and social experiments – but did any of them actually work? Can you really become the smartest person in the whole world, simply by reading the encyclopedia? I mean, there’s always something more to know. Would it ever be possible to attain bodily perfection? Time and age are respecters of no person – death comes calling eventually. I didn’t read those two books because what do you need to hear about supreme intelligence and bodily perfection when you’ve already got both J? Hardly…I don’t have those! But I was intrigued by Living Biblically book. Could anyone do what this man had set out to do? I already knew the answer, but I wanted to see if he’d get there.
A.J. Jacobs took on a daunting task of “living Biblically,” but his premise was fatally flawed. The assumption that he was working with is similar to what many think about religion today – that it’s really all about what I do. Looking at the Bible as a ladder you climb to God means you’ve missed the most important truth of the Bible – the Christ at the center. Then you’re left quibbling over the required length of your tassels, which fibers not to mix in your sweaters, and which clean snacks you should have in your refrigerator. This is nothing new. God had given his law to his Old Testament people – his moral law, which applies to all people of all time; and his ceremonial and civil law, to set Israel apart from the nations around them. This was to preserve them as a nation until the promised Savior from sin would come. As time went on, it seems that people largely pushed aside the promised Savior and focused almost entirely on the laws of God as the way to get to heaven. Add a little more time, and religious leaders and teachers went ahead and added even more laws to the law of God – just to make sure they wouldn’t even come close to breaking one of God’s. But in the minds of the people, the man-made laws took precedent over God-given laws. That’s the issue in our gospel lesson for today. The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders)…So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
The issue at stake here was not the moral law of God, but a man-made addition to the ceremonial law of God. The Pharisees had elevated their own notions about the word of God up to the very level of Scripture itself, and their concern about hand washing wasn’t hygienic or even spiritual. It was superficial and self-serving. When they called out Jesus’ disciples for eating with unclean hands, do you think the Pharisees were interested in having people examine the disciples’ dirty finger nails or were they hoping people would take a peek at how squeaky, ceremonially clean the Pharisees’ hands were? Jesus didn’t miss his opportunity to show the Pharisees and us that obedience and worship is a matter of the heart before the hands.
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Your hands are washed, but your heart is filthy. Your clean cuticles and pristine palms can fool the human eye, but God knows your heart is saturated with sin. Doing what outwardly appears to be the right thing for the wrong reason isn’t so right after all. This is the natural condition of the human heart – to look at the law of God as some kind of measuring stick that I can use to compare myself to my neighbor, or even to look at how far I’ve come since a few years ago. Let us not give up meeting together, the writer to the Hebrews encourages. Instead of rejoicing to go the house of the Lord, I say to myself, I’m in church every Sunday and those folks can’t be bothered to show up more than once a month! Pray continually, Paul tells us. But I can hardly keep both of my eyes closed in prayer when I’m too busy looking over at him and thinking how impoverished his prayer life must be compared to mine. Support the work of the gospel, we hear. But I can’t help but notice that nobody else seems to be giving as much of their time and money as I am. Doing what outwardly appears to be the right thing, but with a rotten heart, isn’t so right after all.
Maybe my problem isn’t using God’s law to elevate myself above my neighbor. Maybe I just try to elevate myself before God. But the only way to do that is to lower the bar of what God says. In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs realized that the list of rules was daunting and restrictive, so he’d have to make some compromises. He’d substitute a little here, and promise to try harder at that stuff over there. He was conducting a social experiment, so his compromises are understandable. But don’t we want to do the same thing in the church? My sinful nature wants to elevate itself before God, and thinks that it can, but the only way to do it is to lower the bar of God’s law so that I can do it, promoting the false notion that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness and unstained holiness. God’s Be perfect, turns into my just be better than him. Jesus’ Love the Lord your God with heart, soul, strength, mind, turns into my just try to put God first a couple weekends a month. God’s right and wrong in his moral law become my, Oh, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re not hurting anyone. Inside each of us lives the old opinion of the law, and the opinion is this: that I can work my way into God’s favor. But the unbending, unflinching law of God doesn’t look for progress, it demands perfection. The only measuring the law does is to see how I measure up – not compared to my neighbor and not even compared to myself, but only with the unstained holiness and righteousness of God. How do I stack up?
Do you see how deep the problem goes? The sins of the hands are just symptomatic of a problem with the heart. By nature, the sinful human heart is absolutely incapable of love for God, concern for neighbor, or obedience to the law. Contrary to popular religious opinion, you don’t start with a blank slate, in the neutral position – only to have your eternal fate determined based on how far you move the needle toward “good” and away from “bad.” By nature, our hearts have lost that race even before we knew where the starting line was. Remember how we started this service? I confess that I am by nature dead in sin – start with the root problem and realize where the faithless worrying, selfish pride, sins of habit, and sins of choice come from – straight from the sinful heart that beats inside each one of us. Jesus said as much, For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. That’s an ugly laundry list and it speaks an even uglier truth about my heart’s natural condition. No true obedience, no joyful service, no sincere love can come from the natural human heart, because the natural human heart is dead in sin. To demand obedience from the sinful nature is kind of like telling a corpse to be better at being alive. So where does that leave us? What do we need? Clean hands or a cleansed heart? You can fake the one – because people see it. But you can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. He sees to the root of the problem.
When Jesus preaches the law, he doesn’t pull any punches. The truth of his word shows my sin in its unvarnished ugliness and my inability to save myself in bold print. He does this, not to be provocative or sanctimonious, but to show me the totality of my need, only to proclaim the fullness of his rescue. The heart is the problem, so we pray with King David, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. And he has. He has washed you – not with soap, but with water and the word. In your baptism, Jesus reached his nail scarred hand into the dark abyss that was your life and he pulled you out, calling you by name. Through that water and word, Jesus has connected you to himself – all that he is and all that he’s done. Fulfilling every letter of God’s holy law – for you. Pouring out his divine blood on Calvary’s cross to cleanse both heart and life from sin – for you. Rising from death, leaving sin dead and buried and the door to eternal life open behind him – for you. This is the gospel that is preached into your ears. Do you remember what came after the confession of sins? I forgive you all your sins…why? Because I feel like it? Because you’ll do better next time? Because you deserve it more than the people who aren’t here today? No! I forgive you all your sins, because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again…God made us alive with Christ even when were dead in our sins. Washed in baptism, connected to Jesus, assured of his forgiveness, you are the recipient of the greatest organ donation in history – in place of the sin ravaged, dead heart you were born with, you receive the perfect heart of Christ Jesus – his perfect life of obedience credited to your account; his death the payment for your sin; his resurrection your guarantee; the heart of his Holy Spirit beating inside of you. And from that new heart of Jesus comes praise, obedience, thanksgiving, love for God, and love for neighbor, prompted, empowered, and enacted by the gospel of Christ for you.
Right now, we live as people between two worlds. In Christ, we are sinless saints of God. In our flesh, the sinful heart we’ve had since birth still clings to us and tries to take control. Go to your baptism and drown that sinful nature with all its evil deeds and desires, and arise as the new creation Christ has declared you to be – and see what a difference that makes. The sinful nature looks at the law of God and wants to use it to promote myself – how much better I’m doing, how much God owes me. The new heart, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit looks at the law of God knowing that God doesn’t owe me a thing, but that he’s given me everything in Christ – my life, my forgiveness, my salvation. The new heart, the gift of the Holy Spirit looks at the law of God and doesn’t see a hand for patting myself on the back or a ladder to climb up to God. It looks at the law of God and rejoices to respond to his amazing, undeserved love with a life that looks at God’s law and says, “Good idea…I want that, too.” The new heart looks not to myself to see how far I’ve come, but looks out with a love that looks to the needs of my neighbor and says, “I can do that.” And when you fail; when you’re confronted with the reality of a sinful heart, go back to your baptism where Jesus gave you his. You’re a new creation. You can thank, praise, serve, and obey – not to earn God’s favor, because you can’t. You can thank, praise, serve, and obey, because you already have God’s favor in Christ. When it comes to the law and your life, Jesus is everything – because Jesus cleanses hearts…and hands!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy - to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.