Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Real Law and the Real Gospel

Immediately below, you'll find video of this morning's worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. After that, you can read the text of today's message. Have a blessed week!

Mark 7:1-13
In seminary, we Lutheran pastors are taught that every sermon we preach must include both God’s Law and the Gospel.

God’s Law is anything that makes a moral demand upon us and reveals our sinful natures. God’s Law, distilled in Jesus’ Great Commandment--to love God completely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, which itself summarizes the two tables of the Ten Commandments, shows us how God expects human beings to live and how far any human being is from keeping those commandments. God’s Law, from “You shall have no other gods before Me” to “You shall not covet [what is your neighbor’s],”  is meant to drive us to despair through recognition of the fact that we can never do enough or be good enough to merit entry into God’s Kingdom. God’s Law leads us to say, “I am lost and I need to be found!”

The Gospel, on the other hand, is what God has already done in Jesus Christ to save we sinners from the death and condemnation we deserve. The apostle Paul proclaims this Gospel--literally, this good news--when he says in Romans: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8) In other words, in Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves: Christ lives a life of utter obedience to God’s Law of love for God and love for neighbor, bearing the condemnation for sin we deserve, so that we can have life with God. As Paul also says in Romans: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) The Gospel leads us to confess that in Jesus Christ, we have been found!

So, what to do with today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 7:1-13?

In it, we find Jesus, going full-tilt Law on Pharisees and scribes--that is, supposed teachers of God’s Law--who have gathered around Jesus. Their probable motive is the same one they’ve had for previous encounters with Jesus: They want to make Jesus look like a fake teacher who violates and teaches others to violate God’s Word and God’s Law.

In just the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has fed 5000 with five loaves and two fish, then walked on the raging waves of the sea, and healed countless people. These acts were leading some to declare Jesus the Messiah sent from God or even God Himself. For none of them did Jesus ask for money, power, influence, or anything else. But none of them caused the Pharisees and scribes to praise God or to extol Jesus as Savior.

Instead, the Pharisees were bothered by Jesus.

Specifically, they wondered why Jesus didn’t make His disciples wash their hands before dinner. They ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)

Two points need to be made about this question.

First, the Pharisees aren’t interested in hygiene. They didn’t know about germs and couldn’t have cared less if they had.

That leads to the second point about the Pharisees’ and scribes’ question: The “law” they see Jesus’ disciples violating isn’t part of God’s Law at all. It’s actually part of what they themselves call “the tradition of the elders.” Essentially, they’re accusing Jesus and His disciples of blasphemy against God because they don’t adhere to a rule that’s part of the traditions handed down orally by Jewish rabbis.

Jesus will have none of this though. He cites words from God that make up part of the passage from Isaiah that’s our first lesson for today: “‘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.’”

And then Jesus says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8)

Jesus needs to go “full-tilt Law” on the Pharisees and scribes in order to remind them of what God’s Law actually says. We need to be reminded of that sometimes, I think.

A pastor once told me about a parishioner whose child was to be confirmed on Pentecost one year. The parishioner had come from a church where the confirmands marched into the sanctuary in the middle of the service like bridesmaids were once taught to walk down the aisle. When the pastor told this woman that wasn’t how they planned to conduct the service, she became incensed. Finally, the pastor told her that if the other parents in her child’s confirmation class wanted to do that, it was fine with him. He was trying to convey to her that it really wasn’t that important. When the other parents said they didn’t feel this tradition of her former church was really necessary, the woman went to the church council. When the council told the woman they saw no reason to mandate a “Here Comes the Bride” procession, she left the congregation, saying she was going to find a church where her child could “really be confirmed.”

We religious folks do have a tendency, as Jesus says, to “let go of the commands of God and [hold] onto human traditions.”

For the Christian, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with traditions as long as we don’t confuse them for the Word of God, the will of God, the Law of God.

The Pharisees were so hung up on doing things in what they thought was “the right way” that when the long-promised Messiah came into their lives, they spurned Him for not doing things “the right way,” their way.

But why do we do this, invent our own versions of handwashing laws or another Jesus mentions in our lesson that the Pharisees and scribes liked, refusing to take care of their parents and instead, piously giving extra money as offerings?

One reason we erect these fake religious laws is that, unlike God’s Law, we can keep the ones we make up. They’re within human reach. For the adult child in first-century Judea who would rather not give his parents any money, the Pharisees’ law was terrific. And, to take another example, the law about handwashing was easier to keep than God’s actual command to love God and love neighbor.

Another reason we religious folk adopt these law traditions is to look righteous, to appear to be good God-believing people. To make an impression on people. This is why Jesus uses the term hypocrites to describe the Pharisees and scribes. Hypocrite was the word in the Greek in which Mark wrote his gospel for actor. Jesus was saying that through their fake laws born of tradition, His accusers were play-acting at faith in God. But our relationship with God and our eternal salvation doesn’t depend on how we look to other people.

A friend of mine and I were talking the other day and agreed that one of the greatest gifts we’ve received through Christ is the freedom from being overly concerned with others’ opinions of us. There’s freedom in knowing that the only assessment of our lives that matters is the assessment of God. Those who think that God’s assessment of them depends on how they keep God’s Law or the expectations of others rooted in human traditions must either be left in despair or in a false pride that leads to hell. But those who know that God saves us through the Gospel live with joy even in sorrow and peace even in turmoil and calm, no matter what the world thinks of them.

Jesus perfectly keeps the actual Law of God we human beings can’t keep.

He dies as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

He rises from the dead.

He does all this to deliver everlasting life with God to all who repent and believe in Him.

Life with God is no more complicated than that.

We don’t need human rules to do what only Jesus has done for us.

And so, we are left again today with Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)

Jesus has been sent to you to bring you a life with God that begins now and is carried on to perfection beyond the grave. Neither God’s Law nor human traditions can save you for this life. Only Jesus can. Trust in Him. Amen