The Church must be responsive to the authority of God. As the Creator, He is the potter who shapes and cares for all creatures. Through His words, deaf people are made to hear and blind people see. In marriage, wives are filled with joy, respecting their husbands; husbands unquestionably love their wives sacrificially. In the Church, the commandments of God prevail over the traditions of men. In all of these relationships, God’s authority remains thoroughly righteous and gracious.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer. Amen
Has it ever crossed your mind, the role rituals and traditions play in our lives? Let me tell you some of mine. Every morning, when I get up, I perform four (I guess you would call them) rituals). (1) I wind the clock on the mantel in the living room – to avoid having to reset the clock if it is allowed to unwind. (2) I make a pot of coffee – two cups (one for each eye) gets me going in the morning (3) I feed the cat – there is no living in the same house with a hungry cat. And (4) I bring in the morning newspaper – hoping to find some good news for a change. There! Now you know.
You have heard the expression: “Shower and shave.” Well, I have turned that around. I shave and then I shower. I have a practical reason. When I shower, the mirror in the bathroom gets so steamed up I cannot see to shave.
As you have heard me say in the past, even our cat has a ritual. Every morning, promptly at 5:00 o’clock, she is on the bed telling me it is time to get up and give her her morning serving of cat food and her small treat of milk.
The dictionary defines a ritual as “a pattern of actions or words followed regularly and precisely”. Every one of us has certain rituals that govern our lives. Take the four rituals I perform every morning. If I skip one of them, my getting up seems somehow out of step.
And what about traditions? The dictionary defines a tradition as “a long-established custom, practice or belief, often handed down from generation to generation”. When my younger brother and I were growing up, Santa Claus set up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve after we had gone to bed. Our two older brothers carried on that tradition as they established their own homes and families.
Customs and traditions have also defined the life and practices in the church. German immigrants coming to this country settled in communities and built churches. One church in the Midwest called a congregational meeting to discuss whether they should introduce English into the worship service. One woman spoke up and declared quite adamantly: “If German was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us!”
The Lutheran Hymnal (the old red hymnal that some of you remember) was introduced in 1941 and served the church for nearly forty years. In 1982 Lutheran Worship (the blue hymnal) was published. Changing the hymnal exposed strong feelings. One church was having a rather heated discussion on whether to adopt the new hymnal. Finally, an exasperated member got up and announced: “I do not care what hymnal we use, as long as it is red!”
A pastor accepted a call to a church. On one of his first Sundays after arriving there was a baptism of an infant. At the end of the Baptism Service, as the pastor was about to introduce the new member of God’s family to the congregation, a woman from the altar guild came and placed a red rose on the child’s chest. The pastor had never seen that done before. So, after the service he asked the altar guild members about the meaning of the rose. They replied: “We do not know, that is the way it has been done for as long as anyone can remember.”
Can you see the problems we are talking about? Like the rose, traditions develop in the church whose meaning is often lost by time. Like the choice of a hymnal, certain customs take on a life of their own. Like the question of whether to introduce English into the worship service, some practices take on the aura of church doctrine.
The Pharisees were, without question, the most tradition-bound of all the Jews. Through the years they had accumulated over 600 laws that they insisted must be observed. In the Gospel Lesson Mark describes just a few:
“The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” (vss.3-4)
Now, listen to the exchange that took place between these Jews and Jesus :
“(The Pharisees and scribes) saw that some of (Jesus’) disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed…And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” (vss.2, 5)
Jesus answered them with the words we heard this morning, spoken by God through the prophet Isaiah:
“This people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)
Let us be clear. Jesus was certainly not implying that washing hands is bad practice. Good hygiene was as important then, as it is now. But He rejected the Pharisee’s insistence that washing the hands must be observed as a religious ritual equal to the Commandments given by God. He expressed His strongest condemnation at their insistence that tradition takes precedent over God’s Word and command:
“He said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’” (vs.9)
As I said, each of us has rituals that govern our lives. And as I have just shared, customs and traditions also define the life and practices in the church.
One time, I was reading Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus from one of the new translations of the Bible. A woman said to me: “I prefer the King James Version.” “It is beautiful language,” I agreed, “but not everyone today understands it.” “I do not want to understand it,” she said, “I just want it to sound nice.”
I once asked a Bible-study class: “Why do we stand at certain times in the worship service. A class member answered: “I guess because we have always done it that way.”
How many of you know the seven last words of the church? That is right. “We never did it that way before.” When the new music settings for the Divine Service were first introduced members of one church objected. They even passed a resolution at a voters’ assembly allowing only the setting from page15 in the old red hymnal to be used.
I have cited these illustrations. But they raise a question: Have we allowed certain practices or customs in the church to take on the aura of God-given commands? Was God describing you and me when he declared:
“Their fear of me is a commandment (you can substitute ritual, tradition or custom) taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)
Our oldest grandson is a computer whiz. Problem is, when he and I discuss computers I feel like he is talking to me in a foreign language. I took our car in to have some service done. The mechanic described to me a problem and what he was going to do to fix it. He spoke a different language than our grandson. When I am discussing a point of music with another member of the symphonic band we talk with different words than those used by our grandson or by the mechanic. Every trade and every discipline (and yes, every age generation) has its own set of words (its own vocabulary). This also holds true of the church.
At His trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared:
“My Kingdom Is not of this world.” (John 18:23)
Why, then, has our Lord taught you and me to pray:
“Thy kingdom come…” (Matthew 6:10)
In the Small Catechism Martin Luther answers that question:
“The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayers, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.”
Jesus says: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)
The Scriptures declare that Jesus Christ died to pay our debt for sin and rose as our assurance that God forgives and accepts us. God has given that saving and redeeming Message the power to bring us into the life that Jesus promises, both now and for eternity).
In his Letter to the Christians in Rome Paul is very clear on the effect God’s kingdom should have on our lives (your life and mine). He told the Romans:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Let me restate what I said last Sunday. It is “the will of the Lord” (see Ephesians 5:17) that your life now (and mine) should be so transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Gospel that we will model (mirror) (not perfectly, to be sure) what our life with our Lord will be in eternity (in His kingdom).
Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples they were to…
“Go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)
That commission still stands today. But we need to understand the challenges we face.
I was leading a group of high school age young people in a bible study. I asked them to name some words they hear in church that they do not hear in school. As you can guess, they had no difficulty coming up with a long list of words. One boy gave us the word “alleluia”. I asked him what it means. He thought for a moment and answered: “Hooray for God!” Now I know, we do not express it quite that way in our worship, but he was not off the mark.
But these young people exposed a problem for you and me today. People once understood (or at least were accustomed to hearing) many of the words we in the church use. Today, when we talk to people outside of the church we run into a cultural and generational division. Like the computer whiz, the auto mechanic, or the musician, you and I are talking to people with words and ideas that are completely foreign to them. The apostle Paul faced this very same problem. He tells us how he solved the problem:
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law…so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law… I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)
Usually, in the sermon, we are presented with a problem or with a question. And then we are lead to solutions to the problem, or answers to the question. Not this morning. Instead, let me lay three questions on your hearts and minds. (1) Is the world justified when it accuses us (you and me) of “talking church” that they do not understand? (2) Do our rituals and our traditions stand in the way of our proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our community? And (3) How can we (you and I) communicate the saving message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen (see 1 Timothy 3:16) to a world that stumbles at the message of the Gospel and considers it utter foolishness (see 1 Corinthians 1:23)?
That is the challenge before us (before you and me) as we continue to look at revitalizing our church “(to) by all possible means…save some.” (see 1 Corinthians 9:22) That is the challenge before Hope Lutheran Church. It is a challenge you and I cannot simply ignore because it means the difference between life and death for the world.
In Jesus’ Name – Amen