Our Savior’s Way
A woman was watching the news one night and heard that a car was driving the wrong way on the toll road. She knew that her husband was coming home on the toll road. She got worried so she called him on his cell phone. When he answered, she said, “Honey, I want you to be careful. I just heard on the news that there’s one car going the wrong direction on the toll road.” He exclaimed, “One car! There’s hundreds of them!” The story is make-believe, but this human characteristic is not. People, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, believe that they are absolutely correct. No question about it. Those other cars on the toll road–they are the ones that are wrong. It couldn’t possibly be me. And it’s at this point that we start to lose our focus and forget why we do what we do. The most important thing becomes our need to have other people believe that we are right—rather than whether we really are right or wrong.
There is an ancient story about a traveler who fell ill. He collapsed exactly between two villages. This presented a problem. The leaders of the two villages each decided that the village the sick man was closest to would take care of him. Here was the probem–One village insisted that the distance be measured from the man’s navel. The other village argued that it should be calculated from the man’s head. While the two villages argued over this jurisdictional issue, the man died.
Do you think the same kind of thing happens to people as they try to relate to God? Is it possible that our understanding of what is good and right and pleasing to the Lord can become myopic— short-sighted? Is it possible that like the man driving the wrong way on the toll road, people seeking to honor God can actually be traveling the wrong way? Is it possible, that like the two villages arguing about the sick man, people seeking to honor the Lord can be majoring in the minors while souls are dying?
In the Gospel Lesson for today Jesus is trying to tell the religious leaders exactly that. You see, about 500 years before Jesus was born, a group religious people decided that their main interest was upholding the letter of God’s law—dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s.” This would have been great if they were actually doing what God wanted them to do. We heard in the Old Testament Reading—God’ desire is that his people faithfully obey him. But what these people did was different. They insisted that God’s law be followed—but as they interpreted God’s law. They developed an oral tradition of rules and regulations and rituals and they insisted they everybody live by these requirements. Anybody who did not, they said, was not honoring God.
Let me give you an example. Handwashing became a law. It went like this—before a person ate, 1 ½ eggshells of water (this was before they had measuring cups) had to be poured over the hands. But this couldn’t just happen any which way. To fulfill the requirement of the law it had to be done just so. The hands were held with the finger-tips upwards. Then 1 eggshell of water was poured over them until it ran down the wrists. Each palm was then cleansed with the fist of the other. Then, the hands were held with the fingertips pointing downwards. The remaining ½ eggshell of water was poured on them from the wrists downwards so that it ran off at the fingertips. Now, I want to remind you, this was not a matter of hygiene. It was a matter of ritual. It had to be done this way, even if a person’s hands were spotless.
You see, this group of people—they called themselves the Pharisees— believed you needed to do this to please God. If you didn’t wash your hands in exactly this way it was a sin. So when a group of Pharisees and some Scribes come down from Jerusalem to check Jesus out there’s a problem. They see Jesus and his disciples and they notice that Jesus and his disciples are not washing their hands in the proscribed way. And so they go berserk. They accuse Jesus of breaking God’s law. They say, “You are not teaching your disciples to honor God. You are not upholding the traditions of our ancestors.” Their underlying message is, “So, you must not be from God either.”
At this point Jesus throws a Bible verse at them. He quotes from Hebrew Scriptures and says, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is meaningless, because their teachings are just rules made by human beings.”
Now, let’s put this in a modern context. The Pharisees and Scribes were driving the wrong direction on the toll road—they insisted that Jesus and his disciples were wrong. The Pharisees and the Scribes were worried about dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s.” And they insisted on doing this while the people around them were perishing. In short they spent their time majoring in the minors and forcing other people to do the same. And the real tragedy of this is that they were convinced that they were right. They believed that they were doing all this in the name of serving the Living God. But it truth is—it was a complete perversion of God’s law.
Those Scribes and Pharisees who came to see Jesus are long dead. But their spirit lives on to this very day. You see, whenever we take a matter of grace or a matter of preference and turn it into a requirement of the Kingdom of Heaven, we too honor God only with our lips. When our worship becomes a matter of law—This is the way it has to be done!—rather than a matter of grace, we honor God only with our lips. But the real tragedy of living a life of bondage to man-made laws and man-made rules is that Christ came and shed his blood and died for us set us free. This is something that Jesus told his followers up front. He said, “Indeed, the time is coming and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The Father is looking for people like that to worship him. God is a spirit. Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23- 24).
The worship of God is not about the rules and regulations. It’s not just about clothes we wear or the liturgies and hymns and praise songs. Honoring God is about celebrating God’s story—the story of salvation in Jesus Christ. Honoring God is about meeting him in this place on his terms and not on ours. Worship is not about getting together to do something for God—but rather to receive something from God. To receive his forgiveness—to trade our guilty sins for his perfect holy righteousness—that’s what Jesus won for you on the cross. And when Jesus rose from the dead he proved that the old way of doing things was gone forever. There is new life, a new beginning in him. Jesus set you free from death, from sin, and from the burdens of the law. Jesus has done it all and he has left no thing undone. He dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s” for you. May God grant you the perfect peace that comes from knowing this—that you live your life every day under his grace and that forgiveness and freedom is yours in Jesus Christ.