|How to Miss Godís Presence
November 28, 1999 / Mark 7:1-5
Iíve decided itís easy to miss God ó to be blind to his presence, to be deaf to his voice, to be oblivious to him when he is standing right in front of you. And what could be so powerfully blinding, deafening, and desensitizing that it could have that effect? The trivial and inconsequential issues of religion. No text in all the Bible supports my thesis better than todayís.
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. 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 donít your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with Ďuncleaní hands?" (Mark 7:1-5).
For the second time (cf. 3:22) in his brief ministry, a delegation of orthodox religious leaders came to investigate Jesus. Although we donít know just how long they had been with him, they displayed an amazing ability to be blind, deaf, and unconscious to God on display to them. Jesus had just fed a crowd of thousands miraculously, and they could muster the energy to be excited only about the fact that some of his disciples were eating with "unclean" hands!
Do you wonder how such a thing could happen? Do you think it was a first-century phenomenon that could never repeat itself in our open-minded, Bible-studying, spiritually-sensitive era? We could wish it were so!
These fact-finding religious leaders came to Jesus with no questions, only answers. They had their concrete ideas of God and how he would operate, and Jesus didnít fit them. I call them "concrete ideas" for the simple reason that their thoughts were like concrete ó all mixed up and thoroughly set. They were keepers of the flame, defenders of the orthodoxy, the old-paths crowd.
In the entire Old Testament, the "washings" spoken of in a variety of texts are most often whole-body immersions. For example, the consecration of a priest to his office required a washing of his entire body in water (Ex. 29:4; 40:12). Anyone contacting another person with a "bodily discharge" (e.g., perhaps diarrhea, oozing sore, or genital secretion) or any article which had been used by such a person was required to "bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening" (Lev. 15:1-11). These and a few similar washings1 were self-administered immersions and were repeated at whatever times in a personís life the need for them arose.
Then there were occasional situations in the Law of Moses where only specific parts of the body were washed. A brass laver, for example, stood between the tabernacle and the altar so officiating priests could wash their hands and feet (Ex. 30:17-21; cf. 40:31). Because of its location between the place of sacrifice and the holy tent, this laver may have served a practical purpose as well as a ritual one. Furthermore, the ritual rinsing of hands is mentioned in Leviticus 15:11. Although these are the only two occasions of mandated hand-washing in the Hebrew Bible, the rabbis bound many other hand-washings on the pious.
Davidís words, ĎI will wash my hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Jeh[ovah]í (Ps. 26 6; cf. Ps. 73 13), are regarded by them as warranting the inference that ablution of the hands was prerequisite to any holy act. This is the form of ablution, accordingly, which is most universally and scrupulously practiced by Jews. Before any meal of which bread forms a part, as before prayer, or any act of worship, the hands must be solemnly washed in pure water; as also after any unclean bodily function, or contact with any unclean thing. . . . The Talm[ud] abundantly shows that eating with unwashed hands came to be reckoned a matter of highest importance ó Ďtantamount to committing an act of unchastity, or other gross crime.í2
With this information on the obligatory nature of hand-washing as background, one can begin to see why Jesus and his disciples were so severely criticized by the fact-finding committee from Jerusalem. But what was the source of the obligation? It was not the Law of Moses, but an inference drawn from a statement by David. It didnít come from a divine command but from a human deduction. And their worship became ó in the judgment of Jesus ó "vain" and their teaching nothing more than "rules taught by men." No, he even went so far as to say that these pious religionists valued their human inferences and teachings more than the explicit commands of God in Scripture. "You have let go of the commands of God," he charged, "and are holding on to the traditions of men" (Mark 7:8).
Legalism: The Commonest Sin?
Could this be the commonest sin of religious people? We have a tendency to become so pious that we study Scripture, affirm the value of our scholarship, and bind the results of our inferences as if they were the directives of God Almighty.
The inclination of someone like me is to impose my vision of orthodoxy, morality, and obedience to God on everyone else. After all, I take Bible study seriously! Iíve gone to a lot of trouble to learn biblical languages and interpretive skills. And any conclusion I reach is reached in good faith, and I must live in good conscience with that conclusion in order to please God. Then comes the critical false step of trying to impose that conclusion on you! To set a personal agenda of being a power broker. To judge you in light of my personal convictions, habits, and practices.
That final step might as well be called a "fatal step," for it not only dishonors you but God. It sets aside the commandment of God (i.e., Love your neighbor as yourself) for the sake of my tradition (i.e., Do this or that as I feel I must do it). And it causes me to be blind to the presence of God in you, in our relationship, in our shared experience.
The fiercest opposition Jesus experienced was not from immoral persons he challenged to repent or backslidden Jews he called back to Yahweh but from the religious leaders of his time and place. He was a non-conformist. He didnít do things the way they did ó and thought all others should. And he pushed back against their legalism that sought to impose their thoughts and ways on him!
People like the Pharisees and teachers who came down to check on Jesus that day were so caught up in their traditions that they could no longer distinguish letter from spirit, form from power, sacrifice from mercy. They really believed that their sacrifices, rituals, and orthodoxy paid God for the blessings they received. Sacrifice was their way to buy Godís favor rather than a grateful response to his love.
The toughest opposition Jesus has still is the legalism that seems to be inherent in religion. Thatís why I started this sermon with these words: "Iíve decided itís easy to miss God ó to be blind to his presence, to be deaf to his voice, to be oblivious to him when he is standing right in front of you." The delegation from Jerusalem missed God that day in Galilee. And weíre still doing it in our churches to this good day!
Let me read you a note someone wrote in this room six weeks ago this morning. It was written on both sides of one of the blue "Prayer Request" cards distributed throughout the room. In fact, the turn of the card from one side to the other is crucial. It reveals a blindness, deafness, and numbness that is the twin-brother to what Jesus ran into on a day when unwashed hands became an impenetrable barricade between some people recently come from Jerusalem to Galilee and God Incarnate.
I am presently looking for a church I can make my home. Woodmont Hills seemed to be the place for me. I was raised in the Church of Christ but have drifted because of some of the rigid standards. I find the ministerís messages wonderful and I would love to be able to hear more. However [CARD TURNS "OVER" HERE] I feel the hand clapping and raising of the hands during songs inappropriate.
It is as if this poor soul wrote: "I thought I saw God, but I came with my mind Ďconcretizedí about worship." "I heard the Word of God and it addressed my burdened soul, but my burdens are so precious to me that I will impose them on you before I will be unburdened." "This was a place where Godís love was breaking through my rigidity, but I am so rigid still that I will refuse God before I will turn lose of that inflexibility." "I was turned off by the sternness and harshness of the church years ago, but I will judge you by that sternness and harshness ó without realizing for a moment that I am a living self-contradiction who desperately needs what he is criticizing!"
But, Rubel, arenít you afraid the person who wrote that unsigned card might be here today? Oh, that is almost too much to hope for! But I prayed yesterday that he would be here and be able to see himself in this text from Mark 7!
A woman was getting ready to bake a ham and cut about three inches off the end before putting it in the oven. "Why do you always cut the end off, Mom?" her daughter asked. "Thatís the way my mother did it," came the answer.
Being curious, the mother and daughter called Grandma to find out why it was important to cut the ham that way. She told them, "Well, thatís how my mother always did it. Curiosity aroused for three generations now, the girl, mother, and grandmother went together to see great-grandma at the nursing home and asked their question.
"Well," Great-Grandma said, "my baking pan was too small for a good ham to fit into it."
Itís so easy to fall into the rut of "Weíve always done it that way! God never changes, and the gospel is fixed forever. But the circumstances of life and how the Word of God is best addressed to them do change. But our tendency to develop habits and patterns of thinking ó our unhealthy "traditions" that make the Word of God meaningless ó tell us just how things MUST BE DONE!
That sort of thinking kept Jesusí contemporaries from seeing God while he was in their midst. And it will do the same for us ó unless we value people over traditions, relationships over rules, and gospel over law.
1A man who had sexual contact with a woman during her period (Lev. 15:19-24) and, presumably, the woman herself at the end of her period (2 Sam. 11:2-4) had to undergo a full-body ablution.
2International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 ed., s.v. "Ablution," by George B. Eager, p. 14.
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