Sunday, August 23, 2009

got water?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2009
Mark 7:1-13

Our retreat theme last week was “got water?”. It was a take-off on those commercials for milk in which someone would be eating, for example, chocolate chip cookies, only to find out that the milk jug was empty. Each commercial would close with the words “got milk?” on the screen. Water may not go as well with cookies as milk does, but water is essential to life. We can picture a commercial about a person who just finished exercising only to find their water bottle empty. The words “got water?” would then be put up on the screen.

This is what the Pharisees were saying to Jesus. Water was essential to living according to God’s will. When the disciples ate with unwashed hands, they should have seen that it was the same as if they had no water after exercising. Or no water when they needed to take a bath. Or no water to clean their dishes after a meal. It’s inconceivable to not drink after exercising or not to keep yourself clean or wash your dishes. It was inconceivable to them to disobey the tradition of the elders.

How many hurt feelings have been caused in families because certain beloved traditions were thrown out in favor of something new or different? How many factions have sprung up in churches because concern wasn’t taken for the way things had always been? A husband thinks it’s not a big deal at all to visit his in-laws on a regular basis, when the wife is set to do it for the rest of their lives. One group has always taken care of the Christmas decorations in a church which were donated by founding members of the congregation when another group comes along and decides that different decorations should be used. It is not hard for us to understand where the Pharisees are coming from at all. Traditions have a way of becoming law to us. Traditions are the way it is; the way it should always be; the way it must be.

This where the Pharisees were coming from. Why couldn’t Jesus see it? Jesus, don’t you have any water for your disciples? It’s an easy enough thing to do, to wash before you eat. Why do you let them defile themselves by not abiding by God’s will?

This is where the Pharisees tip their hand. If they were to exhort the disciples to a salutary practice, that would be fine, even laudable. If they were to show them the benefits of this, both physical and spiritual, they would be helping the disciples. But that is not what they do. They force upon the disciples something that is not God’s will. Something that is their own will. They seek to control others by what they think is right.

Jesus does not speak out against traditions. He knows traditions are beneficial. He knows they can provide physical and spiritual guidance and grounding. But He does speak against placing traditions over the will of God. And this is where water comes in. God is not afraid to use physical things to do His spiritual work. He is not above using common things to bless people in a heavenly way.

The Pharisees were all too ready to seek their justification in washing. Washing their hands before eating, washing of cups, of pots, of copper vessels, of couches. By following this strict code, they knew they were purified—not just physically, but also spiritually. They could look into their own hearts and see that they had done what was necessary to cleanse themselves inside and out.

But Jesus shot down such a notion. Washing yourself with water does nothing more than washing the outside of yourself. Washing a cup does nothing more than make it clean so that when you use it you won’t get sick. There’s only one thing that can cleanse you inside. Only one washing that will purify you spiritually. That’s the washing God gives you.

Amazingly, He uses water. But the key in His washing is not the water. It’s what the water is connected with: His Word. That’s the thing the Pharisees were missing: the Word of God. The Tradition of their own elders, laudable as it was, was more important to them than the Word of God. It had for them replaced the Word of God. They had come to put their trust in the tradition of the elders rather than keeping their trust in the Word of God. Jesus comes along and says, Yeah, use the water, but not just by itself. Wash your hearts. Wash your minds. This can only be done by the washing of water with the Word. God’s Word tells us what His will is, not any tradition or any other human source.

God’s will is that everyone be saved. Jesus died for every person. God’s will is that we be cleansed of our sin. That’s why He’s all for the washing idea the Pharisees proposed to Him. Just not in the way they proposed it. They proposed a righteousness in themselves. He proposed a righteousness outside of themselves but applied to them. They proposed a washing they could see, He proposed one that would cleanse what they could not see, their sinful hearts.

The Pharisees come at Jesus with a challenge. It’s really an attack. They see themselves as righteous in themselves. They don’t need Jesus, they have themselves. They are righteous in their own eyes because they have their tradition they keep, and therefore they are certain God is pleased with them. Jesus responds with a counter attack. An attack on their undeniable unrighteousness, their wholehearted sin against a holy God. But we ourselves miss the point of Jesus’ words if all we see is an attack on them. His point is not to tell them they’re wrong so much as it is to free them from their bondage. In attempting to be holy they have placed themselves in the place of God and have bound themselves in their sin and therefore eternal damnation.

Jesus wants to give them true freedom. A washing that will free them up not just to follow salutary traditions, but to serve others, to rejoice in God’s grace, to live under the favor of God rather than their own attempts at self-righteousness. Baptism is life giving water. It is a doing away of all that is inborn in us, the sin, the curved-in-on-ourselves nature we bear, and the incessant drive to convince ourselves that we’re okay as we are. Baptism purifies us. It cleanses us. The words Jesus speaks to the Pharisees are as true for us as they were for them.

Next time you drink a cold glass of water, think of the refreshing waters of your Baptism. Next time the waters flow over you when you take a shower, be reminded of the cleansing and purifying waters you were washed with in your Baptism. Know the will of God for you. It is in His Word. It is in the washing that is connected to His Word. He cleanses you so that you may be clean. He washes you so that you may rejoice that what He desires of you He grants you in Baptism and forever. Amen.


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