Today I not only preached at Trinity United Reformed Church in Upminster but also at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.
Although the style of worship differed, the message was the same.
The Bible reading is the gospel reading for today as taken from The Revised Common Lectionary.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 7:4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” 7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,
7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
We all need rules and regulations in our lives. Think how chaotic life would be if everyone did their own thing without regard to anyone else.
Just imagine what would happen if we chose to ignore red traffic lights and come zooming down Corbets Tey Road at 70 mph. Anyone get in the way and we mount the pavement. Want to shop in M &S ? No problem. Park where you want, never mind the yellow lines.
See something you want? Just take it.
Someone annoy you? Kill them.
We need order in our lives.
God knew this and it is why have gave the Jews, his chosen people, a set of rules to live by.
Some of the rules were about safe living in a hot country, to keep physically well and avoid infection. Hence the rules about eating pork or sea food. As we know you get all sorts of stomach bugs from eating badly prepared food. I suspect many of us here have had a dodgy takeaway at sometime and bitterly regretted it.
Other rules were about morality, our relationships with other people. Just look at the misery and pain there is when relationships fail, when people cheat on their spouse, when they get into relationships that God says are wrong.
Regardless if people say they love each other if they step out the safe zone that God has given them, then they enter an uncharted mine field often with disastrous results.
Society now tells us that any relationship is ok as long its loving. The website Ashley Madison has been in the news recently. Its strap line is “Life’s short, have an affair”.
But the Bible tells us otherwise.
I heard a report on the news a few years back of a priest who had finally been prosecuted. In his defence he said that he had been taught that adultery was a sin, but he didn’t know that having sex with children was wrong!
Finally there are rules about our relationship with God. These are for our spiritual well being.
If we are Christians then God is our Number 1 and him only. You cannot have a pick and mix approach to your faith. Many will remember the sweet counter at the long gone Woolworths with its pick and mix selection. It will do you no good to take bits out of the Bible and then mix in some buddhism, islam, hinduism and new age thinking. You just end up lost and confused. And if you are not careful you stray completely away from God and are lost for all eternity.
God says to us not to do certain things, because he loves us and wants us to be safe. How many parents here have ever prevented their children from sticking fingers or metal objects into electric sockets? You did it because you love them, not because you want to spoil their fun or stop them exploring the home.
So when God says “don’t go there”, he is saying for our safety and well being.
The easiest way to check these things out is to see what the Bible says and then see if they fulfil this simple test in John 5:23 “He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”
If a religion does not recognize and honour Jesus as the Son of God, then it is not something a Christian should be involved in. Never mind if they are nice sincere people, they are not teaching that Jesus is the one and only way to the Father.
And so to our reading from John 7. I picture the Pharisees circling round Jesus like a pack of wolves seeking a moment to over whelm him. They were always trying to prove him wrong, and throughout the gospels we read about their attempts to trip him up with their questions.
The Pharisees knew the law very well. In fact in their attempts to understand it they made it even more onerous. For example when it came to washing their hands they didn’t stop with the hands but kept amending the law until you were washing all the way up to the elbow.
They were well meaning men who were afraid that they may offend God by not trying hard enough to keep to the rules. Indeed at the time of Jesus it was thought that if there was someone who could keep all the rules just for one day, God would then send the promised Messiah. One man did lead that perfect sinless life, and they missed him. His name was Jesus and he lived right amongst them.
So the Pharisees thought they had come up with a good one this time.
“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” they say to Jesus.
But they have confused the purpose of the some of the rules. Remember some are about hygiene and others about our spiritual well being.
These Pharisees think that what God wants is for everyone to obey all the rules all the time. And so they get into an argument with Jesus about how important it is for his disciples to wash their hands.
The Pharisees thought the rules were what made you holy, never mind what was going on in your mind. But Jesus was quite harsh in his criticism of them. Throughout the gospels we read that he treated the ordinary people with compassion and empathy but not the Pharisees. This verse is taken from The Message translation, Matthew 23:27 “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh.”
Of course hygiene is important but that doesn’t necessarily affect your eternal life.
Anybody can follow the rules, What really matters is what goes on inside of you. What goes on in your heart. The heart has been thought to be the centre of one’s thoughts and emotions.
As Jesus said in our reading Mark 7:21 – 23 “ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
The rules can’t save us from what comes out of our heart. That was a problem that the Pharisees didn’t or couldn’t see.
At a previous church we had a man who thought it was all about the rules, many of which were man made. He got so angry when he thought the rules had been broken. It was really surprising that his typewriter didn’t catch fire from the angry furious letters he wrote to the church council and the minister.
Many years King David recognised this problem when he was challenged by the prophet Nathan about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba which had resulted in the death of Uriah the Hittite. He wrote in Psalm 51:10 “Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a faithful spirit within me.”
Clearly something has to be done as the keeping the rules does not heal the human heart.
Jesus came not only to pay the price of our sins and put us right with God but also to fulfil God’s promises made in the Bible. This is just one of them and we read it in Jeremiah 24:7 “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
When you come to faith in Jesus, God gives you his Holy Spirit to live in you as your guide and counsellor and he does renew your heart so that you begin to become more like Jesus, although we all still struggle with our old broken human nature.
However when we do trip up and sin we have the assurance in 1 John 1:9 “ If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
So to sum up. When looking at the rules for living that God gave us in the Bible, some are for our physical well being, some for our moral welfare and the rest for our spiritual health.
And whilst some of the rules for living in a hot climate are not relevant to us now, the rules about morality and spiritual well being are still to be observed despite what many is society may tell us.
If you have been trying to live solely by the rules, maybe its time for you to accept the offer that Jesus makes to every man woman and child, that through faith in him you can be forgiven and given a new heart and the promise of eternal life.