Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
August 30, 2015
As I considered today's readings, I noticed a theme in the three readings. Mark in his gospel has Jesus confronting the Pharisees and scribes about what it is that defiles the faithful. James uses the term undefiled to describe true religion and even the Psalmist wrote about God's desire for us, “you love righteousness and hate iniquity.” So I guess the theme this morning is going to be defilement.
There is a lot to the whole saga of these readings. We will let the statement in the Psalm stand for itself, God love righteousness and hates iniquity, or other versions speak of good and wrong or wickedness. No surprise there. So let's start with Mark.
It is yet another confrontation with the Pharisees and the Scribes.
The Pharisees were very strict in their interpretation of the law. They believed in adherence to every jot and tittle, every rule and interpretation. The impression we have from the bible and other writings is that they were often more interested in the appearance of righteousness than actual righteous living. In reality, most Pharisees were very interested in following the Lord; they were misguided in how to do it. This could be said about a lot of Christians today. That's partly what today's lesson is about.
On to James, his was called the epistle of straw by Martin Luther. Luther struggled mightily to live a pure, undefiled life and continuously failed (as we all do). Luther knew that perfectly righteous living was impossible. When he discovered that Jesus taught grace, that Jesus came not to condemn but to save, his outlook was changed. And as he read the epistle of James, he read much about how rules and dos and don'ts, the very thing he was seeking to leave behind. Realizing that it is grace alone that saves, Luther, and other theologians throughout the years, felt that this epistle didn't convey the message of Jesus and his grace as well as others. So the term the epistle of straw.
Now to the question of defilement. It is not a word that is used a lot in church these days. In reality, it is much more an Old Testament thing. There were many things that made one defiled or unclean in the Old Testament. Eating with Gentiles, entering a Gentile's house, touching a dead body, certain meats were unclean and of course, as Mark explained today, eating with unwashed pots and pans or with unwashed hands. Note that all these things are happening outside the body; they are not internal but external. The Old Testament rules were about obeying laws; the New Testament is about growing in relationship with Jesus. The Scribes and Pharisees were concerned with the outside defilement; Jesus was concerned with what defiles the heart; “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” He went on to list a bunch of defilements—twelve in all which I don't believe was an exhaustive list but a list of examples. Jesus concluded, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." Interestingly, the lectionary schedule skips a couple of verses here. What is skipped is Jesus and the disciples going into a house and the disciples themselves asking about this. Is it true that what we've learned and understood about defilement has been wrong? Jesus explained again, “Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” The New Testament has many examples of all things being made clean. In Acts we read of Peter's vision of the unclean foods with God's instruction to eat. When Peter said he would not eat unclean food, God declared that what he is showing Peter is that those foods are now clean. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean” It is clear that with the coming of Jesus, the idea of ritual defilement was past, it had done its purpose. The purpose of the Law is...well, I wrote this in my sermon notes years ago and don't remember where I got it. “The (Old Testament) Law was given to convict us of our own sins, not the sins of others.” The law in essence serves as a mirror, in which sinners discover their need for grace. When we put all our efforts into obedience of the law, our religion can become about what others see; like the Pharisees. We can do religious looking things on the outside, but what comes from within shows our true colors.
Religious looking things...an interesting phrase I think. We probably all know what I mean by that; the very thing Jesus condemns in the scribes and Pharisees. Another statement from my notes—I should explain I keep a notebook of statements, ideas that I run across during my days that may be fit for a sermon someday. It just so happens that some fit today's sermon very well. Again, no reference, “religion calls us to repent of our sins; Christ calls us to repent of our self-righteousness.” Perhaps the greatest barrier to receiving Christ as Lord and Savior is our own self-righteousness. If we fail to see a need for a savior, if we are doing pretty good on our own, there is no room in our lives for Jesus. It is when we recognize our failures, our sin, our unworthiness to enter into a holy God's presence; yes our present day defilement, it is then that we are ready to find peace with God. The grace of God comes not to the worthy, but to the sinful, the repentant, the defiled—made undefiled. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and guilt, grace that is greater than all our sin.
So what is James's use of the term “undefiled religion” saying to us? We've talked about what defiled religion looks like; doing every little detail in order to look good to others and even to God. But all our good deeds cannot measure up to the call of God in light of God's infinite holiness. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Again, not an exhaustive list but pure, undefiled religion is serving others. Undefiled religion is choosing to minister to others. A key word here is choosing. Coerced service, even in Christ's name, is simply going back to the way the Pharisees practiced religion. “You will do what we say and you will do it in order to be judged righteous by us.” God makes clear in all of scripture that our judgment of one anothers works will not determine if they are righteous or unrighteous in God's sight. God looks at each one of us and sees the righteousness of Jesus as we are found in relationship with Jesus. And, as we've learned, but it never hurts to hear again and again, as we repent and enter into relationship with Jesus, the Holy Spirit fills us with the desire to live for others; in other words, to live an undefiled type of religion. The desire for service comes not from our own gumption or initiative, James tells us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” And so, like salvation, we depend on the grace of God to bring us to undefiled religion. Dependence on God...may we learn to lean not on our own understanding but look to the Father of lights for our inspiration.
J. I Packer in his book Knowing God writes about God's wonderful knowledge of us. Of course, if we look at our feeble works of religion, we may not feel so good about God watching us. Here is what he wrote about knowing God and God knowing us, “What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—That (God) knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends upon his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention is distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love is utterly realistic; based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me..and quench his determination to bless me.”1
So never think that our religiousness impresses God. God sees through our pretenses. God knows our true motives. God loves us despite the fact that this love is based on prior knowledge about our very worst. But God loves us too much to leave us at our worst. The power of the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and we can learn to live as Jesus lived; as servants, putting others first, caring for the widow and the orphan.
“Religious” types love to point out others' failures and their own good works. Pure and undefiled religion is not about putting ourselves first but understanding that we are all sinners and at the mercy of God's righteous judgment. When we understand that, then we can accept God's grace and learn to give grace as we've received grace. Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace—that's how our next hymn describes it. Receive it, live in it and share it as servants of our holy, merciful, loving God. Amen.
Hymn: Marvelous Grace of our Loving God 240 HLC
1Swindoll, Charles Swindoll's Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes pg 236