September 3, 2006
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 7:1–7:23
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 7:1-23, James 1:17-27
By a show of hands, how many of you have had a brother? Or a sister? Or known another classmate at school? Or someone who has sneezed? Then perhaps you'll remember a time from your life when, for some reason or another - maybe when your sibling was being really unfair to you - that events occurred in such a way to result in your hearing one of the following phrases: "Mommmm!" "Daaaaaad!" Or maybe, "Mrs. Hopkins!" "Billy hit me!" "Sally called me a bad name!" After some discussion and thorough negotiations on the part of the aggrieved parties, this exchange was likely followed by a "Tell Sam (or Francis, or Ruthie) you're sorry." "I'm sorrrrrry." "Now this time, like you mean it." "I'm sorry." Or you're out with a friend, and they sneeze: "Achoo!" "Bless you!"
Sometimes, we say things just because they're just the things we think we're supposed to say. Even if we don't think about it. Even if we don't mean it. "Sure - I'll give you a call later." "Thanks for the fruitcake, Aunt Mabel." It's what's expected of us. Some things, we just learn growing up, and we don't take the time to really think about what the words themselves mean, or how they're perceived. "How are you doing?" "You're welcome." "Our Father, who art in heaven..."
And so, we come to the Word of God which confronts us today, to make us ask: are our words empty words? In the first half of our Gospel text from Mark, we hear Jesus calling the people to account. The Pharisees put a great emphasis on following the ritual laws that had developed over the past few centuries. In the place of the Torah, the instruction that God had given to His people at Mt. Sinai, which Moses repeated before Joshua and the descendants of Abraham entered the Promised Land, the people of Jesus' day had set up codes for most aspects of everyday life. And many of these codes focused on ritual "cleanness" and "uncleanness." You had to wash your hands in a specific way from specific containers. Avoid going into the homes of foreign people. Stay away from foods which were unclean, lest you yourself become contaminated. The tradition dictated how one would be acceptable before God.
But the problem was not specifically the tradition itself. The words that the Pharisees offered to God were empty words. All style and no substance. They took the letter of the law over there spirit of the law. And maybe we do, too.
How do we confess our faith as Christians? By our style of worship? By the words that we use? By how much we feel our faith? In our worship services this weekend, we will say together the words of both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. These two, along with the Athanasian Creed, sum up the basics of the Christian faith. But even these creeds, like the praise of the Pharisees, may fall from our lips as empty words. The problem, therefore, is not in the words, but in our minds and in our hearts.
We may become accustomed to saying certain words, or worshiping a certain way. And when we become accustomed to something, the devil stands ready. He waits for us to stop thinking about our words and our actions. Waiting until the words become empty words and the actions, thoughtless. And then, he strikes. Subtly, smoothly, the words fill up. But the new contents do not resemble the old. Maybe they seem innocent enough, in and of themselves: "I wonder what we're having for dinner?" "There's Eugene; I haven't seen him for awhile." But the damage is done.
So what can we do? How might we avoid becoming a Pharisee, so that the words of our lips do not defile us, make us unclean?
We listen. Listen again to the words from James' letter to the Christian church: "let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger ... put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." The implanted word. The word that is received by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearing, reading, and meditating on the entirety of the Scriptures.
God's Word is not an empty word. It is a powerful, dangerous word. Jesus the Messiah, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, the Word made flesh, put our sins, all our empty words, to death on the cross. The Word is at work in you and me right now as we listen.
Listen to the words of the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed as you read it aloud. Listen to the confession of faith that you are making with your brothers and sisters in Christ, across the history of the Christian church. Listen to these words, for they model how to share our faith with the people who are in so desperate need of hearing. Listen, for the Spirit of God is at work.
God's instruction changes us. Sometimes, very slowly. But it is at work. And through it, God calls us to work. This Labor Day, when many of us, ironically, take a break from labor, God calls us to a joyful task: to spend time with Him in His Word. As we remember today those among us who are heading back to school as students and teachers, we might all feel the pressure of getting "back into gear." With all the challenges and changes that this time of year may present, even those of us who are recent graduates need to remember to hit the books. The Word will be at work next weekend, which marks our Rally Day celebration, as we gather together to begin our new year of education offerings. I invite you to come to one of the three adult courses that will be starting, or to our Sunday School or youth classes. Come and listen and grow in the Word, who makes us clean.
God's Word is not an empty word. And through it, He fills us. Amen.
Let us pray:
Jesus, our Messiah, Word of God made flesh, we pray that you would open our lips to speak your Gospel in all we say, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that our words may not be empty words, but filled with witness to your grace. In Jesus' name, Amen.