CREATE IN ME A CLEAN HEART, O GOD!
- A heart that doesn’t ignore your standards
- A heart that honestly acknowledges my need for cleansing
Text: Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Service Video (sermon starts at 24:15)
First they showed up in hospitals—one outside just about every patient’s door. Then they showed up in grocery stores. Lately I’ve seen them in airports and at gas stations. I keep a small bottle of this stuff in my car. At my former parish, I used to keep a larger bottle of it in the sacristy and as the offerings were gathered, I would go back into the sacristy and rub some into my hands before the communion portion of the service. What is “it”? “It” is hand sanitizer. We live in a very germ-conscience society, and we are all conscience of the need for us to wash our hands and keep them clean of germs as much as possible—so much so that you will find hand sanitizer just about everywhere you go these days! Oh, and by the way, if you even dare to ask to hold my newborn son after the service, you’d better wash your hands because otherwise the answer will be “no”—and even then I’m not so sure that I’m going to pass him around!
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the Gospel for today’s service was some sort of practical, moral lesson about washing your hands. That’s what it seems like at first. But it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Jesus’ words in the Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost have a lot more to do with having a clean heart before God than having clean hands among one another. And if that point wasn’t clear when you heard the Gospel read a few moments ago, it will become clearer as we work our way through these selected verses from Mark chapter seven this morning. Through this incident, Jesus teaches us to properly put into perspective these familiar words from Psalm 51, verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Our study of God’s Word will teach us to ask God, “Create in me a clean heart—a heart that doesn’t ignore your standards, but a heart that honestly acknowledges my need for cleansing.”
The Gospel account for today’s service took place within a year of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus is in Galilee, in the northern part of what we think of as the Holy Land. That’s helpful to know, because Jesus received a visit from “the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is in the southern part of the Holy Land, and so these Jewish religious leaders had traveled quite some distance to check out Jesus. The fact that these visiting officials arrived suggests that the opposition against Jesus is growing. Last week we heard how many of his former disciples turned their backs on Jesus. Now the religious officials of the Jews were scrutinizing Jesus and keeping a very close eye on him.
That’s when this incident took place: “[They] saw some of [Jesus’] 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. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
On the surface, this seems like the Pharisees didn’t care for the unhygienic hands of Jesus’ disciples at the dinner table. But hygiene had nothing to do with their complaint. This complaint was based in Jewish tradition. In the first few books of the Old Testament, God had given ancient Israel three kinds of laws: the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments; the civil law, which governed them as a nation; and the ceremonial law, which directed their worship life and customs. Over the centuries, Jewish rabbis identified 613 different commands that God had given his ancient people in the writings of Moses—the first five books of the Old Testament. Over time, rabbis wrote commentaries on these laws, explaining how exactly they were supposed to be carried out. Many of these laws dealt with what a person had to do to be ceremonially “clean.” Who you associated with, or what you touched, or what you did, or even certain basic bodily functions could make a person unclean, and that meant that person couldn’t participate in Israel’s worship life until they did the proper things to become “clean” again.
God established these laws about being “clean” or “unclean” to teach an important lesson about the way that sin permeates human hearts and lives. It was hard to remain “clean,” but that taught God’s point about sin’s prevalence in our lives and how difficult—yes, impossible—it is to live up to the perfect standards laid out in God’s law. Unfortunately, over time, many of the Jews forgot the big picture of these laws. Instead of seeing the overall message, they turned God’s ceremonial laws into rules that dictated every little detail of your life. There was nothing necessarily wrong with the fact that they had written a commentary on the laws of Moses (we use Bible commentaries today!), and there was nothing necessarily wrong with the fact that they had certain customs and rituals (we have customs and rituals in worship today!). The problem was that they had elevated these things above the Word of God instead of treating them as servants and tools that could be used to proclaim the Word of God. “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?’”
Jesus showed a great deal of compassion to people who were spiritually lost or confused or weighed down by the guilt of their sin. Jesus didn’t show nearly as much tolerance for self-righteous thinking that presumed that people can somehow do something on their own that will make them right with God. That way of thinking came from a heart that ignored God’s standards. And so it comes as no surprise that Jesus had a stern response to the Jewish religious leaders who confronted him. “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.’” Jesus saw through their question and called them what they really were: hypocrites! They tried to judge the disciples negatively as they hid behind the mask of their own outward words. Jesus quoted a verse from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that complained about the ancient Jews’ insincerity and then pointed out how Isaiah’s 700-year old complaint previewed the ongoing spiritual hypocrisy that continued among God’s people. They had abandoned the actual teachings of God’s Word long ago and had continued to cling to human traditions and elevate them above God’s Word!
The issue in this reading certainly isn’t about washing hands, and it really isn’t about following or not following traditions. The real issue in this reading is allowing something—anything—to get in the way of an honest assessment of our lives in light of God’s standards. The religious leaders put their own standards above God’s standards, and as a result they didn’t see their sinful condition. And the sinful nature that resides in your heart and mine can easily find some way, some set of standards, some slick-sounding reasoning that makes us think that we’re not so bad, and we certainly don’t need a rescue from the clutches of hell.
We need to strip away whatever it is that leads us to ignore the high and holy standards in God’s law, and we need to start taking God’s standards seriously. Take a walk through the commandments. Do you love anyone or anything in your life more than God? Does the name of God come within the same sentence as cursing? Did you jump out of bed this morning with nothing but excitement to come to God’s house? Have you ever chaffed under the authority of someone else? Have you ever harbored feelings of hatred and ill will for someone else? Have you ever secretly wished that you woke up one morning with another person occupying the other side of your marriage bed? Have you stolen time and money from your employer by lazy and lack-luster efforts at work? Have you used your words—sometimes spoken with the lips, sometimes typed in an email—to speak poorly of another person? Have you looked at what belongs to someone else—their spouse, their job, their income, their possessions, their place in life—and shook your fist at God wanting to know why that can’t be yours?
I am absolutely certainly that not a single soul here today came through that list of law-based questions unscathed. I’m certain of that because Psalm 14 says, “There is no one who does good, not even one,” and Romans 3 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Even my newborn son came to church this morning with the strike of sin against him, because Psalm 51 tells us, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Taking the standards of God’s law seriously is a sure way to lead us to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God”—because my natural condition is anything but clean.
This is an important matter. As hard as it is to hear, this is an important matter that we need to come to grips with. Jesus wanted the crowds around him to understand how important it is that God create in us a clean heart to replace the sin-stained heart with which we were born. It seems that the crowds backed off from Jesus as the religious leaders confronted him, but after the initial confrontation he calls the crowds back to himself. He doesn’t want them to merely hear his words, but to absorb what he has to say. If this were today, he would have insisted that they turn off their cell phones, pull out their ear buds, and put down their IPods and IPads for this. Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ … 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. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”
Remember the incident in Jesus’ ministry when a rich young man came up to him and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life? The young man thought he had kept all the commandments, but then Jesus “got him” with this statement: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me.” Jesus’ point was not to give the man his final step for earning his way to heaven. Jesus’ point was to get this man to realize that he hadn’t come close to obeying God’s law perfectly, because he loved his wealth more than God.
Keep that in mind as you think about the laundry list of sin that Jesus listed at the end of today’s Gospel. “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.” Theft and murder make this list, but notice that major crimes do not comprise the majority of this list. Jesus’ point is not to give us the formula for creating our own clean heart before God and getting enough bonus points with him to be on the right side of eternity. Jesus’ point was to get his listeners—and now us—to realize that we have not come close to obeying God’s law perfectly, and to acknowledge that we need cleansing from sin.
Some of you know Pastor Jeff Smith from our sister congregation in Petaluma. Some time ago, Pastor Smith decided that he was going to be an organ donor, offering one of his healthy kidneys to someone else suffering from kidney failure. After months and months of exams and tests, he underwent surgery last week to help save another person’s life. When a person suffers kidney failure in both kidneys, there is only one solution. You can’t exercise your kidney back to health. You can’t flood your system with vitamins and supplements to save a failing kidney. You need a transplant. You need someone’s healthy organ to replace your failing organ. Thank God for gracious people like Pastor Smith who are willing to take that step!
You and I have a spiritual disease that’s worse than kidney failure. We have spiritual heart failure. That’s what Jesus has been teaching all along in today’s Gospel account. This has been a hard sermon to preach, and I’m sure it has been a hard sermon to listen to, because if we are going to be honest with what Jesus says here, we’re not going to be inclined to pat ourselves on the back and walk out of church thinking we are pretty good people. If we are going to be honest with what Jesus says here, we will honestly acknowledge that our hearts need cleansing from sin. We will acknowledge that we need God to create in us a new, clean heart.
Praise God that long before we had this recognition—yes, long before we were born—he saw our sinful and helpless situation and in his grace decided to do something about it. From eternity, God selected his Son to be the One whose perfect heart would replace our failing hearts. Jesus entered into this world with this purpose in mind: to undergo the surgical knife of God’s judgment on the cross, where your sin-stained heart was cleansed of guilt through the blood Jesus shed for you and the punishment for sin that he paid for you. And now, through faith in his resurrection, you stand before God with a new, clean heart. You stand before God with his Son’s holy and perfect heart counting as your holiness and perfection. You stand before God with a brand new future—a future of life forever in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and a future that gladly lives for God and loves the people God has placed in your life because he gave you that new, clean heart at your baptism. As difficult as it is to come to the honest realization that our hearts need cleansing from sin, it is a thousand times more joyful to know that God performed the most amazing spiritual organ transplant imaginable, giving you the holy heart of his Son through faith in his Son, a heart that makes you holy in his eyes right now and that makes you strive to fight your sinful nature and live for God every day forward.
If you have been around the Lutheran Church for a while, you might remember two decades ago when The Lutheran Hymnal was our main worship book, and we regularly concluded every sermon singing a few verses from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” If you still remember that music, good!—because that melody made it into our current hymnal as hymn #272, and we’re going to sing it at the end of today’s service. That text and music combination may be a cherished memory from worship in a past generation, but those words in particular are so much more than a memory. Those words form the heart and center of a Christian’s prayer for daily life: Create in me a clean heart, O God! Thank God that through faith in Jesus, he already has! Amen.