Monday, August 24, 2015

God's Word...Nothing More, Nothing Less

[This was shared yesterday during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio.]

Mark 7:1-13
Sometimes, I’ve thought of compiling a book of common sayings that people attribute to God, Jesus, or the Bible, called Stuff God and the Bible Never Said

There are lots of untrue things people claim come from God. 

Like, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” In fact, the Bible teaches the exact opposite of that. Psalm 54:4 says: “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” 

Another fake Biblical saying goes: “The good die young.” According to Genesis, Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. But it makes no mention of him being an especially bad man. 

Years later, when life expectancies were shortened by the working of sin in the human race, Moses lived to the ripe age of 120 years old. And, Deuteronomy 34:7 says “[Moses] died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.” According to the Bible, people die when they die and it has nothing to do with how good they are in the eyes of the world. All human beings are sinners who deserve death. That's the bad news. But as Paul says in Romans 6:23: “...the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That's the good news. Whether we’re young or old, repentance and faith in Christ give us life, here and, in perfect unmediated fellowship with God, in eternity.

A common falsehood attributed to God these days tells us: “Jesus taught tolerance.” Not true. Jesus taught love. And He lived love. Love and tolerance are not the same thing

This isn’t to say that Christians are supposed to act as moral vigilantes, enforcing God’s moral law. We’re not Muslim Jihadists. 

But loving a spouse or a friend or a child or a fellow disciple doesn’t mean that you let bad behavior go unchallenged. 

A Christian congregation shouldn’t tolerate false teaching from a preacher, for example. And the reason is very simple: You love the people who will be guided the wrong way by false teaching and you love the one who gives the false teaching. 

We shouldn’t even be tolerant of sin within ourselves. Love of God should compel us each day to come to Christ, seeking awareness of our sins, forgiveness for those sins, and the Holy Spirit’s power to overcome the temptation to repeat them. [See here.]

What all these sayings falsely attributed to God have in common is that they reflect a desire to put human thoughts and human ideas into the mind and mouth of God. They’re a human effort to cut God down to manageable, controllable, understandable human scale. We attempt to evade God’s Lordship over our lives by claiming that these human thoughts come from God, that God is our co-conspirator in believing in and doing the exact opposite of what God, the Creator and King of the universe, has revealed to be His will.

This was the core problem with the Pharisees. We run into them at the very beginning of today’s gospel lesson, Mark 7:1-13. We’re told: “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus…” The Pharisees were in first century Judea, at the time Jesus walked on the earth, and for several centuries after His resurrection, a sect of Judaism. Pharisaism was the biggest movement in Judaism at that time.

Despite claiming great devotion to God and to God’s Word, the Pharisees’ teachings really did forget God and God’s Word. They spun off pious-sounding falsehoods like the ones I would include in my imaginary book, assuring themselves that by keeping these laws, they would be too good for God to keep out of His kingdom. And in the meantime, they would crush others less knowledgeable of their arcane rules under layers of humanly-created laws, allowing the Pharisees to feel superior and in control.

We see all this in what comes next in our gospel lesson. Verses 2 to 5: “[The Pharisees and teachers of the law] saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, 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.) 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 defiled hands?’”

Let’s be clear. This is not about hygiene. The Pharisees had created a series of laws that existed as an oral tradition in Jesus’ day and which, 200 years later, were gathered in a book called The Mishnah. Among the laws they made up was one based on ritual laws for the cleansing of hands by priests serving in the temple found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. But the Pharisees taught, and many Jews unfamiliar with the Bible thought, that every Jew had to engage in ritual washing before every meal. 

The Pharisees put human tradition on the same level as the revealed Word of God. In fact, they really don’t claim to do anything other than that when they ask Jesus: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders…?”

No matter how well-intentioned, whenever we equate human traditions, human thoughts, or human wisdom to God’s revealed will and Word, we stray from God, we lie about God

And this is true whether it’s done by the legalistic Christian who says you can’t dance, play cards, or drink beer (which would kill Lutherans), or it’s done by what we call antinomians, the loosey goosey Christians who say that God’s moral law is outmoded, so people don’t have to repent for shacking up, telling white lies, or approving of same sex marriage in the Church. 

All of this adding to and taking away from the Word of God is something people do in order to take control of their lives, others' lives, and this world. But it’s a foolish effort

As God reminds us in Isaiah 45:5: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” 

And just in case we’re inclined to replace our wisdom for that of God, God tells us: “There is a way that seems right to a man,  but its end is the way to death.” [Proverbs 16:25] 

As I’ve often told my Catechism students through the years, “If God and I disagree, guess who needs to change his mind?” 

Look at the first part of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. He quotes Isaiah 29:13 in verses 6 to 8: ““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 merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’” 

For all their scrupulous adherence to religious traditions, Jesus was saying, the Pharisees were really far away from God. 

That must have been a jarring thing for people who were in the temple all the time and thought of themselves as super-believers. 

They have their contemporary counterparts. In his book, Evangelism That Works, George Barna, a Christian who is a sociologist and student of church and societal trends, claims that half of those who attend worship at Protestant churches on Sunday mornings have never intentionally accepted Christ as their God and King. 

I’m not talking altar calls here; I’m talking intentional surrender to Christ. Beyond the ritual. Beyond the recitation of the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer or verses from Scripture, as wonderful and foundational as that all is. 

Surrender entails following the God we know in Jesus Christ, in tough times and easy, through life and through death. Barna says that half of all churchgoing Christians are committed to that, meaning that the glass is half full. But shockingly, it's also half empty. 

Someone has said that the gospel ”is not just a gift to be received, but a new leader to follow.” The Pharisees weren’t following the God you and I are privileged to know through Jesus. They were following human rules which they were attributing to God. That left them far from God.

There is good news in all of this for us today, though! 

We don’t need to be in ignorance about the will of God for our lives. And we don’t, as much of the lies attributed to God would have us believe, have to follow a weak God Who surrenders to us or our adherence to rules or our traditions or wisdom

We can know God through His Word, the sacraments, and the fellowship of believers. 

We can know that we follow the living God Who made the universe Who has entered our world and told us in John 6:29: ““The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (If you had your Bibles with you today, I would urge you to underline that passage.) 

You don’t have to follow a human rule book. You have to follow the Jesus testified to on the pages of the Bible.

This past week, I had a conversation with a man who isn’t a member of our congregation, who lives in this community. He asked about our building situation. He seemed baffled that I wasn’t worried. After a while, he said, “I guess you’re trusting in God.” 

I am. I’m certain that God will take care of us, first of all, because God sent His Son Jesus to die and rise in order to save those who dare to believe in Him. And I’m certain too, because of my experiences and your experiences with God’s faithfulness. We know, as God taught Abraham centuries ago, that God will provide for His people. 

No matter how many ways people try to distort the Word and the will of God, irrespective of how many things people claim that God and the Bible say, we know and we follow the God revealed for all as the way, the truth, and the life in Jesus Christ. He alone is true. We can say, with Psalm 62:6, “Truly [God] is my rock and salvation [not my performance, not my reasoning, not my supposed goodness, not my adherence to humanly-created religious rules or expectations, but God]; He is my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” Amen

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