Mark 7:1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 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.) 5 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 'unclean' hands?" 6 He replied, "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. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." … 14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'" … 21 For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'"
In his Civil War book, Glory Road, author Bruce Catton shows us how dirty a human being can get. He recounts an episode in which a soldier leaves a prisoner-of-war camp to rejoin his old unit. His time as a POW had left him filthy beyond description. He asks his comrades to help him get clean. They take him into a river, strip off his clothes and begin to wash and scrub. Only after this continues for a time do the man and his friends realize that he is still wearing an undershirt. The man’s body had become so encrusted that it had been impossible at first to tell the difference between a soiled piece of clothing and his own skin.
The soiling nature of sin does the same thing. From the dark thoughts we allow to fester in our minds to all the deeds of love conveniently left undone, sin does more than leave a dirty streak here and there on our souls. It makes us spiritually filthy beyond description. Left to ourselves, our hearts are so encrusted by sin that it’s impossible for us to see how lost we really are, how deep the pit of hell really is.
Sadly, because we see that sin so often we become used to it. Or we easily notice the filth in everybody else’s life, but can’t see the grime in our own lives. Or we have been living with this garbage so long that we have given up of ever getting out from under it.
That’s where the Pharisees were at. They were very concerned with washing (literally in the Greek – “baptizing”) everything to make them clean – hands, cups, pitchers, kettles, dining couches and people. They felt that by doing all this baptizing and washing that they would look on the outside and therefore be acceptable to God on the inside.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law were trusting in themselves. Their own good works. Their own outward righteousness. They made it seem like sin is something outside ourselves. Something we can take care of by washing up or changing our clothing. Something we can get rid of by simply changing our behavior.
We do the exact same thing. We clean up our act. We come to church once in a while. We dress up nice. We send our children to a Lutheran school. We cut down on the swearing. We refrain from over-indulging on the eating and drinking. We act all sweet and nice to our brothers and sisters when our parents are watching. We look pretty good on the outside. We act and speak one way, but are totally different on the inside. We look clean and spotless and hygienic on the outside. But on the inside, we are still filled with filthy, foul, contaminated hearts.
That’s where Jesus comes in. He chastises them firmly, “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 but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
The Pharisees and teachers of the law did not see how lost they were. Neither do we. But Jesus did. We didn’t see how far we had fallen. But He did. We didn’t see that the filth of our sin cannot be washed off from the outside because the filth is really on the inside. But He did.
Jesus took us into the river of His grace. His chosen servant poured baptismal waters over us. He washed us clean of the filth that has corrupted our hearts. He continues to cleanse us in the blood He shed. Now we stand before Him in washed, white robes. He washes us completely clean. Through His eyes your life is fresh and clean and new. Your days as a filthy prisoner are long gone.
Last weekend, a number of us from Epiphany and First Evan ran in the Rugged Maniac. It is a 3.1 mile race up and down the Wilmot ski hill with 25 obstacles. Some of those obstacles are running up mud hills, jumping in mud pits, and crawling through mud bogs. As the D.J. said before the race, “You will end up with mud in places that you didn’t know you had places.”
You might be baffled because you think that crawling through mud doesn’t not sound like fun at all to you. In the same way, God is baffled that we keep jumping face first into the same foul filth time and time again. We no sooner get washed clean with Christ’s forgiveness than we find ourselves filthy with another dirty word that has slipped through our lips or another thought of anger that has creased our brow or another selfish attitude that has consumed our time. Sin keeps finding us. We keep finding it. We keep crawling in the same old muck.
Jesus explains to the crowd, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.' … For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'”
You see, Jesus isn’t concerned with your outside. He could really care less if you wear shorts or a suit to the church picnic or whether you have lean turkey or a Johnsonville brat for lunch or wash it down with cranberry juice of a beer. He doesn’t care if you wash your hands before eating or not. Jesus isn’t concerned with how clean you look or act on the outside. He is only concerned with one thing – your inside – your heart.
Maybe you’ve “cleaned up your act” and you haven’t committed adultery, theft or murder lately, but think about some of the things that you have done or said over the years, the ones you deeply regret, the ones you hope no one ever finds out about. The times when you’ve behaved foolishly, hurtfully, wickedly, destructively. It felt almost like something was inside of you, driving you, controlling you.
Not a good feeling, is it? That’s why our Lutheran Confessions say about our original, inborn sin: “Original sin is not a minor corruption. It is so deep a corruption of human nature that nothing healthy or uncorrupt remains in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers. This damage cannot be fully described. It cannot be understood by reason, but only from God’s Word” (Epitome of the Formula of Concord, I. Original Sin, paragraphs 8,9).
Our hearts are grimed with sin from birth. That's called original sin because it comes from your origin. We then add a daily buildup of dirt and muck. Even if you tried, you wouldn’t have a scrubbing pad or dish detergent strong enough to wash your heart clean of sin.
But that’s why you are here today. In His Word, Jesus invites you to come clean. Not by washing your hands, but by baptizing your soul. “Come clean” doesn’t mean what the Pharisees taught or many people today think – that you have to clean yourself up before you can come to God, before He’ll accept you. No! Come clean by coming to God unclean. Admit your filth. Own up to all of your sin and guilt. Don’t cover up your sin any longer.
Let Christ make you clean. And He does! He washes you with His baptismal waters. He strengthens your weak flesh with His own flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He fills you up with a steady diet of the blessed food of His holy Word – read in your homes, taught in our classrooms and preached from our pulpit (and picnics).
Our once crucified but now living Savior comes to us today, in water, in Word, and in bread and wine. God’s Word is not about instruction, but transformation. It is not telling us to change, but changing us. We don’t decide to start over and promise God to be better, but we actually die to sin and we are raised in Christ to a new life in Him.
We can’t do any of this on our own. It is what our Savior does for us. Coming to us. Living in us. Forgiving our sins, turning our minds, cleansing our hearts, loving the unlovable, curing the incurable, saving the damnable, rescuing the lost, sanctifying the hypocritical.
On Calvary, Jesus' blood was strong enough to cut sin's grease and get rid of sin's grime. When God brings you to faith through the washing of Baptism or the working of His Word, He does His scrubbing in your heart. He applies Christ's cleanser directly to you. And not one spot of grime remains. Though you dirty your heart daily with sin, you know where to go for washing. It's back to Jesus' blood and His baptismal waters. When God washes you with the Savior's forgiveness, you are completely clean. Amen.
“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Amen.