Cleanliness that is Godliness
You've heard the proverb made up no doubt by neat freaks and germaphobes: cleanliness is next to Godliness. One thing better than being next to Godliness is Godliness itself. I'm speak today of cleanliness that is Godliness.
Such a cleanliness as this doesn't come by washing the outside. This is what the Pharisees and teachers of the law thought. They taught that if you washed your hands before meals that made you clean before God. The Holy Scriptures do not teach this. Rules for hand washing were given to the priests and to the man with a discharge, but not to people in general. And the hand washing rules given had nothing to do with eating daily meals. The source of their hand washing rules was the "silent years" between the Old and New Testaments where God spoke no new words. During this time Jewish oral tradition passed down law after law all designed to build a hedge around the written Law of God so as to guard against any possible breaking of it by ignorance or accident.
The hand washing before meals were very involved. Jewish authorities stipulated how much water needed to be used, how it was applied, what made someone unclean. There was debate, however, even among the authorities whether water should be allowed to drip to the elbow or should he hand be tipped downward so as just to wet the fingers. Either way the leaders of the church of Jesus' day taught that doing these elaborate, detailed, solemn ceremonies prevented them from becoming unclean, defiled before God.
Before you reject this out of hand, don't you have a sense of uncleanliness before God? Don't you have a sense that there is something about you that is repugnant to the holy God? Do you think you can just come into His presence as you are? Do you think the blackness, the ugliness, the filthiness of your actions, your words, or at least your thoughts won't stand out in stark relief to the white, pure, holiness of Almighty God?
So what are you going to do about it? Make a fierce moral inventory of all that you are and aren't and do better? Consider all the people you've wronged one way or the other and make up for it? How are you going to deal with your uncleanliness that is really ungodliness? O I see; you think you get points for at least being big enough to admit it, and all that matters is you're going out from here intending to do your best. Yes, and we all no which road is paved with good intentions.
We've met the Pharisee and he is us. All our attempts to right our ungodliness by right living are so wrong they are laughable. We're like the British comedy "Keeping Up Appearances" where Mrs. Bucket attempts to be Mrs. Bouquet and looks all the more laughable and pathetic for trying so hard. O not to her. She, like us before God, thinks she's doing marvelously; she's not; we're not.
You don't get a cleanliness that is Godliness by washing the outside because washing the outside doesn't reach the depths of the problem. When you think of sin as what you do or don't do, you think you can solve the problem by doing better. Thinking evil is my problem; I'll think good. Sexual sin is my problem; I'll stop it. Thinking your problem is what you do or don't do makes your sins so many stones in a garden. You think you can just pick them up one at a time and toss them. There's my hot temper; got it; throw it out. There's my loveless treatment of my loved ones; got it; throw it out. There's my worrying, lusting, greed, and pride. I'll just pick them up and toss them out of my life.
You can live happily for sometime this way. You can think you're really progressing towards a cleanliness that is Godliness, but then like a scene from a movie where the magnitude of a situation is shown visually, your eyes pan your little garden plot. To your horror you discover that the stones in the soil aren't your real problem. No, the soil is only hiding the fact that six or so inches down you're garden is solid bedrock that stretches for miles in all directions. What defiles you isn't this or that bad thing you do or good thing you don't do; what defiles you, makes your dirty, unclean is what you are. Your rock-hard heart can never produce good thoughts, sexual purity, truth, beauty, goodness. Keep throwing out stones from the garden of your life from here to eternity, and you won't have even touched the bedrock.
We've reached the point where Lady Macbeth realizes no amount of scrubbing the outside can remove the murderous spot of blood which damns her. We've reached the point where St. Antony realized that the problem wasn't the dancing girls in town but his lustful heart which saw them every time he closed his eyes. So what help is there for such befouled, blemished, benighted people as we?
Cleanliness that is Godliness must come from outside of us because with Paul in Romans 7 we must confess that "no good thing dwells within me." We must admit Jesus is right; out of our heart can only come "evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly." Open the spicket of one of those trucks that drains porta potties and you wouldn't expect anything good or clean to come from inside it, would you?
Stop looking for cleanliness that is Godliness inside of you. But don't despair that you can't find it there. Jesus Himself told you it wasn't there; Jesus Himself told you what is there. Take your eyes off yourself O man, woman, child, and look to the Man who is God. Look to Jesus. Can you find any uncleanliness in His life? Did He ever do like you and hurt someone with His hands or even wish them harm in His heart? Did He ever say like you gossip, slander, libel or even think them in His heart? Did Jesus have a stream of consciousness that was as repulsive, as reprehensible, as vile and base as what flows out of a porta pottie?
Not at all. There, in Him, is the cleanliness that is Godliness which you need, you long for, you despair of ever having. But what of the filth that stains your hands, your mouth, your thoughts? Look outside of you to Jesus once more. There it is; all on Him, the Man who is God. And men and God are punishing Him for it. All the rage, the wrath, the punishment you know your rock hard, filthy heart deserves has been visited on Jesus. Punishing yourself, feeling bad, feeling guilty, doesn't add to what Jesus did; it takes away from it. In fact, you insult the Lord Jesus when you act like His suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying were not enough to atone, to pay for, to satisfy God's wrath against your sins and sinfulness.
Outside of you in the Person and Work of Jesus the God-Man is cleanliness that is Godliness, and by His Word of promise Jesus makes it available to you. It's outside of you in Holy Baptism which Peter calls a sprinkling in Jesus' Blood. It's outside of you in Holy Absolution which Jesus says is His Spirit in the mouth of a man to forgive not only sins on earth but before God in heaven. And the cleanliness that is Godliness is outside of you in Holy Communion where Jesus says He gives for the forgiveness of sins the very same Body and Blood which He gave and shed on the cross.
How can these things be? How can the cleanliness and Godliness of Jesus which is outside of me be the answer to the unclean godlessness that is me to the core? Because it's able to reach inside of you. Baptismal waters go more than skin deep; they flood to the depths of bedrock. Absolution enters the ears and goes straight to the rock hard bottom of your heart. And the Body and Blood of Jesus doesn't stay in your mouth but course through every nook and cranny of your body and soul where even your thoughts are afraid to go.
Here's where we don't want to trip. These powerful weapons, these potent medicines, these wondrous miracles, don't reform, remodel, or remake the dirty, hard, unclean, ungodly bedrock. They drowned it; they join it to the death of Jesus, kill it, and bury it for good and forever. The cleanliness and Godliness of Jesus don't change our fallen nature; they bring forth a brand new creation. Our old adam, our sinful nature, was created in the image of fallen Adam and Eve and so banished from the Tree of Life, from paradise and from fellowship with God. Our new man is created by God in the image of the God-Man in righteousness and truth. It lives in Eden, from the food of Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion, in fellowship with God.
Don't argue from what you think is possible to what God can do. You look inside of you at the bedrock of sin, of filthiness, of unbelief, and you think, "I might as well give in because I'm doomed anyway." No, a miracle can save you. Who Jesus is and what He did is that miracle and Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are the miraculous ways He imparts His Person and Work to you. These kill at the same time as they make alive. They don't clean the unclean heart; they don't make godly the ungodly one. They put to death the unclean heart and create a brand new clean, godly one.
The Pharisees thought they could wash their hands to be innocent. This is really no different than what Macbeth did in fiction and Pilate did in reality. Cleaning something outwardly makes no one innocent inwardly. But did you catch what the Introit Psalm says? "I wash my hands in innocence." Yes, yes, wash your hands in the innocence of Jesus which He puts in the Waters of Baptism, the Words of Absolution, and the Body and Blood of Communion. You'll never get to innocence by washing your hands even if you wash them raw, but washing them in the innocence of Jesus gives you whole new hands. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20090913); Mark 7: 20-23
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas