Give Us Clean Hands
Mark 7:3-4: For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.
James 4: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double minded. Be distressed, mourn, and wail…”
August 26, 2018 / Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear Friends in Christ,
Ten Steps for Hand-Washing – Do a little search on your computer on the subject of hand washing, and you’ll find dozens of articles. Trust me. There is “Five Steps of Handwashing”, “Six Steps of Handwashing”, “When and How to Wash Your Hands”, “Handwashing Do’s and Don’ts,” and my favorite, “Ten Steps for Hand Washing.” I was curious what the additional four or five steps might be, and in an article for Hospice workers, here are the final four steps, in case you’re wondering. #7 Use a dry disposable towel to wipe your hands. #8 Use towel to turn off faucet. #9 Use towel to open door. #10 Throw the towel in the trash.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and other religious leaders had added hundreds of man made rules to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, and on the subject of handwashing, they had taken rituals meant for priests, they had elaborated on these traditions, and then imposed them on regular folks. Dr. William Barclay describes this handwashing ritual with no less than two hundred words,
“There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands. Note that this handwashing was not in the interests of hygienic purity; it was ceremonial cleanness which was at stake. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that the water itself was clean in the ceremonial sense, and that it might be certain it had been used for no other purpose – nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with fingertips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a ‘log’, which is equal to one and a half eggshells full of water. While the hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the ‘fist’ means [in verse 3, but translated by the NIV ‘hands’]; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now ‘unclean’ because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with fingertips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the fingertips. After all that had been done, the hands were clean.
Our sermon theme today is “Give Us Clean Hands.” Two parts to our sermon are 1) It is in our human nature to turn things upside down. 2) It is in God’s nature to cleanse us from the inside out.
Part #1- It is in our human nature to turn things (upside down). In Isaiah’s day, foolish sinners were thinking they could hide their plans from the one who knows all, they were like clay telling the potter he hadn’t formed them, they were like creatures telling their creator he didn’t know what he was doing. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had taken laws meant for priests and turned them into obligations for common people, they had taken sabbath laws meant to help the common person find rest for both body and soul and turned them into burdensome commands. In our day, church people can be so busy rewriting job descriptions that we don’t take time to listen to the neighbor whose marriage is falling apart. We can sit in church going through the motions thinking we are fulfilling our religious obligations and at the same time falling into arrogance, complacency, and worse. It is in our very nature to fall short of the glory of God, as did the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, as did the chosen people of God in Isaiah’s day.
Traditions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. Jesus himself did keep some of the traditions. He went regularly to the synagogue, as was his custom. He went up to Jerusalem for annual pilgrimage festivals. Paul urged the Corinthians to maintain the traditions as he delivered them. He urged the Thessalonians to stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us. Three observations from our text for today about turning the things of God upside down.
Observation #1 about the Pharisees turning the things of God upside down: To teach man made rules as being (absolutely necessary). You had to do them even though God had not commanded them to be done. For example, you had to wash your hands at certain times and in certain ways before you could eat. But God had not said that you had to do that. They were adding human rituals as though they were coming from God.
Observation #2 - To hold to traditions as a way of (earning merit before God). Good and decent people were led to believe that they could earn their salvation, or at least contribute to it, by doing these things. The thought was that if you followed certain traditions, you could be piling up points with God. (Story of a good and a decent man who called me to his bedside as he approached death, he looked me in the eyes with a worried kind of a look, he asked me if I thought he was a good enough person to go into heaven. I answered no, and of course I explained that none of us were good enough, apart from Christ.)
Observation #3 - To use the traditions of the past as a way of (avoiding the clear commands of God} In Jesus’ day, there was a tradition that if you declared some of your money “corban”, that is a gift dedicated to God, then it was off limits. You couldn’t use that money for any other purpose. Even if your parents needed help. And so the Pharisees were circumventing a clear command of God, “Honor your father and mother” by using a man made tradition about “corban” as their excuse.”
The truth is that we all stand without excuse before Almighty God, if left to our sinful nature. Praise be to God that we have not been left alone to our own resources, we have not been left alone to our own abilities to keep God’s commands, we have not been left alone to try to clean ourselves up and make ourselves somehow and in some way acceptable to the holy and all knowing maker of heaven and earth.
Praise be to God that Sermon Part #2 is true! Sermon Part #2 - It is in God’s nature to cleanse us from the (inside out). There really isn’t much for Good News in our Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today. And so we go to the wider context in all of Scripture to find out how to be standing in the presence of God with clean hands and pure hearts. Two familiar Gospel truths we find in Scripture, from beginning to end.
Familiar Gospel truth #1 is that The blood of Jesus cleanses us (once and for all) The Old Testament way of having pure hearts and clean hands was for the priests of God to offer all kinds of sacrifices to atone for the sins of His people. There were burnt offerings of bulls, sheep, goats, turtledoves and pigeons to gain access to God’s favor. There were grain offerings to provide for the sanctification of the priests. There were peace offerings of bulls, cows, sheep, and goats to gain meat for the priests and communion for all with God. There were sin offerings of sheep, goats, turtledoves, or pigeons for certain intentional sins and built offerings of rams for unintentional sins. In these ways, Old Testament people of God prayed, “Give us clean hands, give us pure hearts, help us to not lift our souls to another.”
Praise be to God that Jesus Christ lived the perfect life we could never begin to live, he fulfilled the law in a way we could never hope to fulfill, he found his way to Jerusalem, he suffered all that he was sent to suffer, he entered the holy of holies once and for all, he was crucified until dead and buried, he offered himself up once and for all, our sins are forgiven, our debts cancelled. In Baptism, we are washed, we are claimed, the sign of the cross is placed on our heart and on our foreheads, our journey of faith begins with pure hearts and clean hands.
Familiar Gospel truth #2 is that We need for God to create in us clean hearts (again and again and again) While it is true that on the one hand it is true that Christ died once and for all, it is also true on the other hand that we need to have a daily dying to sin and rising up in the Easter victory. At the same time we are saints that soar and sinners that struggle. Even as we celebrate being born again in baptism, we parents and godparents and grandparents and congregational members promise to help the little ones spend their days renouncing the enemies of the faith in daily repentance.
Last Sunday Pastor Muther closed a three week sermon series based on John chapter 6 conversation between Jesus and Jewish leaders with three thoughts. Thought #1 was that Jesus doesn’t ask us to repent of one thing in our life, he insists that we repent of everything. Thought #2 was that the discipline of the Christian is to remember what Jesus says again and again and again. Thought #3 was to wonder what battles we are fighting that we shouldn’t be fighting and which battles we should be fighting that we aren’t.
David prayed for help in fighting his battles in this way, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
James said this about how to fight our battles with God’s help, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double minded. Be distressed, mourn, and wail…”
One Step for Coming Clean Recently I read an article by Rich Loughery in National Review with the title “Trump Needs to Come Clean.” He suggested that in terms of his past affairs with women outside of marriage, that if the president would just admit what he had done, the payments he had authorized to keep people quiet, and asked for forgiveness, that all kinds of Americans would accept his apology, even if they continued to disagree with him and worse.
I have no idea how that kind of apology would play out in the court of public opinion, but this I do know. The kingdom of God is like a king of Israel who came clean before God with sins of adultery, sins of murder, sins of arrogance, and sins of deceit. In response, God forgave the iniquity of his sin. The kingdom of God is like a husband who confesses to his wife that he has fallen into selfishness, it’s like a wife who admits to her husband that she has stumbled into stubbornness, it’s like the teenager who comes clean on her habit of sassiness, it’s like the baby boomer who comes clean on his habit of walking right past his neighbor wounded and broken and asking for help. And again and again and again, God forgives the iniquity of their sin. Give us clean hands, give us pure hearts. Let us not lift our souls to another.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther