Quite a few years ago I was the photographer at a wedding at an Orthodox church and was amazed at the ritual involved in the ceremony.
They did things, which I had never experienced before.
The priest had a censor filled with smoke which he waved around.
He led the couple around the altar three times.
The way they did things in that church were quite different from what I had ever experienced and it was quite interesting.
For many years I always thought that as Mennonites we don’t have rituals, we just simply follow the Bible until one day a minister from another church pointed out to me that we also have rituals.
Experiences like these have caused me to think about what the appropriate expression of our faith really involves.
It is difficult for us to critique ourselves regarding our religious practices because we take them for granted, but it would be good to think about what we do and whether it is a faithful expression of our faith in God.
For example, one of the principles which our forefathers were very careful about is the practice of separation from the world.
Because of that, they did not participate in the political system and they did not have radios or TV’s.
Somewhere along the line we have decided that rejecting these things is not a part of what it means to follow God.
But by embracing these things have we really moved forward in faithfully following God?
How do you make these decisions?
I know that there are people in our circles who go to bars as a place to have fun and enjoy their friends.
I know that there are people in our circles who would never go into a bar because they see it as a compromise of faith.
I also know people who go into bars deliberately to meet people so that they can share their faith with them.
Which of these people are following God faithfully?
What does it look like to follow God?
This morning, I would like to direct our thinking to Mark 7:1-30.
In this passage there are two stories.
In the first story, Jesus encounters a group of people who are very religious, but who don’t really follow God faithfully.
In the second story, Jesus crosses a boundary which would have caused the religious leaders to question his faithfulness.
There he meets a woman of deep faith.
In these stories, we get to the heart of the matter and discover what kind of a heart it is that God seeks.
I. A Heart that is Near to God
The story begins when a group of religious leaders from the center of religious observance, Jerusalem, come not to discover who Jesus is or what He is up to, but in order to criticize Jesus.
We read in verse 2 that they “saw some of his disciples eating food with ‘unclean’ hands.”
One suspects that they watched just long enough so that they could find some ground for accusation.
We are not surprised at this action because Jewish religious leaders had already accused Jesus on other occasions, for example, of blasphemy in Mark 2:7, keeping bad company in 2:16, breaking Sabbath on several occasions and working in Satan’s power in 3:22.
The practice of hand washing was one which arose out of the requirement for priests to ceremonially wash their hands before serving in the temple as outlined in Exodus 30:19.
But over time this requirement began to be expected not only of priests entering the temple, but also of all Jews all the time.
In our day when we have hand sanitizers in every corner and have grown up hearing our mother say, “dinners ready, go wash your hands” it is a little hard for us to grasp why Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands until we remember that physical cleanliness was not what the Pharisees were concerned about.
Their ritual of hand washing had little to do with getting their hands physically clean.
They were concerned about religious defilement.
They were afraid that when they were out in public, they might have touched someone who was not religiously clean.
Perhaps someone who had worked on Sabbath, or someone who had been in contact with a Gentile.
Their hand washing was a religious ceremony designed to remove the moral filth they had encountered in the public setting.
It isn’t hard to see that such practices were a terrible burden for anyone who wanted to make sure that they did not get morally polluted by contact with the world.
So the washing was a ritual required to wash off the contamination not of germs, but of association with unclean things.
Jesus was fully aware of the intent of their question, which was really an accusation.
He saw into the heart of the matter and into their hearts and He accused them of being hypocrites.
The summary of his accusation is found in Mark 7:8 when he says, “you have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
Then he proceeded to explain how they ignored God’s truth and held tightly to traditions that did not come from God.
The law of God was very clear about a person’s relationship to their parents.
Even in the Ten Commandments the law was clear.
You must honor your father and your mother.
But there was another law, which was the law of “Corban.”
The idea of something dedicated to God was familiar in the Old Testament.
When Joshua and the Israelites destroyed Jericho, God decreed that Jericho was dedicated to Him and all of it should be destroyed.
But the idea of Corban, although similar was not a Biblical law, but a tradition.
A person could declare his property dedicated to God.
This seems noble and good, but the problem was that this dedication did not mean that the person could not use his property for himself, it just meant that it was not available to other people.
So if his parents needed help and his property was “Corban,” he could not use it to help them.
It was a clear illustration of a tradition of men directly violating a Word from God.
McKenna says, “Christian history is tragically replete with examples of a spiritual Truth being represented by a meaningful symbol, elevated to a required ritual, substituted for the original truth, and finally perverted to justify an evil act.”
That is what had happened in this case.
The ritual may have arisen out of noble intentions, but by this time it had simply become a human ritual and was even working against the intentions of God.
Jesus supports his accusation of hypocrisy by quoting Isaiah 29:13 saying, in Mark 7:6, 7, “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.”
What was the problem of the Jewish religious leaders?
They had a reputation of knowing God and being the people of God.
They did all the right stuff to demonstrate to the world that they belonged to God.
But, they didn’t know God.
All of their religious practice was just so much talk.
Jesus’ accusations get stronger and stronger.
In verse 8 he says they let go of God’s commands.
In verse 9 the statement is stronger indicating that they set aside the commands of God.
In verse 13 we read an even stronger statement when Jesus accuses them that they nullify, the word of God.
So it is evident that they engaged in worship of God, but the worship was lip worship and not heart worship.
As we hear this story and the quote from Jesus we realize that what God is looking for is not people who engage carefully in all the right rituals, but people whose hearts belong to Him.
One of the most frightening verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:21-23 which says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.
Away from me, you evildoers!’"
These verses invite us to ask ourselves, “Am I just going through the motions or does my heart belong to God?”
We may have attended Sunday School since we were 2 years old and we may still consider Sunday School as the most important place to be on Sunday morning, but if the things we have learned in Sunday School are all in our head and if we are left with a heart that is cold towards God, then we are not where God wants us to be.
Our heart is not near to God.
We may have gone forward at a gospel meeting, camp or youth event and declared a commitment to God, but if we are now living in disobedience towards God that is not what God wants.
What God is looking for is a person whose heart is near to Him.
We may have been baptized upon confession of faith and we may practice all the rituals of obedience that we have been taught in church.
We may not do this and do that, but if our heart is not near to God, on that final day we may well hear the frightening words, “I never knew you.”
How do we know if our heart is near to God?
A heart near to God is a heart which desires to know God more.
It is a heart which loves God and has a growing love for all of God’s creatures.
It is a heart which wants to obey God, not because of fear of punishment, but rather from a heart of love and respect for God.
It is a heart which is looking forward to the day when we will see Him face to face.
When Jesus accuses the Jewish religious leaders that they are a “people who honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” He is not only accusing them, but also inviting us to examine the state of our heart.
A Heart that is Cleansed by God
Jesus did not immediately answer the accusation of the Jewish leaders.
Instead he got behind their accusation to their hypocrisy.
But he still had the accusation in mind and rather than address his answer to the Pharisees, he addressed it to the crowd.
All of those listening would have understood the importance of ritual hand washing and many of them would have seen it as normal.
The problem with hand washing was that, although in the beginning it may have had some purpose to illustrate moral cleansing, at this point, it had lost that effect.
So Jesus said to the crowd in Mark 7:15, "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.”
In saying this, we need to remember that Jesus was not commenting about healthy eating, but rather about the relationship of food to morality.
So Jesus pointed out that it isn’t what enters a person that defiles him, but rather, what comes out of a person.