A few weeks ago I was assisting with communion, and from the altar I watched a family with three young children start to come forward to the communion rail. Mom was carrying the little eight-month-old-boy, and as his little sister walked by, this little guy, who can’t even walk or talk yet, reached down and grabbed a handful of his sister’s hair. Of course, she started screaming, but the louder she screamed the harder he pulled. And as his sister wailed and mom and dad struggled to free her hair, this little rascal was grinning ear to ear. He knew exactly what was going on, and he was loving every moment of it. Now, what kind of child would behave like this? A Christian child. A baptized child. I know he was baptized because I was there. When he was only 8-days-old the water of baptism drowned all that was born in him from Adam, and to which he himself had added. Now at the time, he’d only had opportunity to add to his inborn sin for eight short days. Well, this little guy has been at it for eight months now, and believe me, he’s been doing some adding.
This story illustrates the point that Jesus was making in the Gospel lesson. “There is nothing from the outside that can defile a man” (Mk 7:11). A man is defiled by what is in his heart. For from within, out of the heart of man, comes all manner of evil things. Now this is not a popular message. You won’t win a popularity contest by telling people that they are by nature sinful and unclean. It’s not politically correct to say that newborn babies deserve to go to hell. These words are extremely offensive, yet the Scriptures clearly tell us that they are true. David writes in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” We are not defiled by things that we do, or by our environment or upbringing. We are born defiled, with wicked and sinful hearts that are stained black with the filth of sin. We are born this way, born with an incurable cancer that would eat away at us from the inside out.
Now the Pharisees knew that sin was a problem. They just weren’t willing to admit how bad the problem was. And so they pretended that they could cure sin by keeping the Jewish ceremonial laws – by fasting, and praying, and ritual washing. They washed their bodies, their cups and pots, and even their dining couches. But this is like taking a bath to cure gangrene or cancer. Jesus said to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mt 24:25-27).
It’s no different today. Often we care more about the outward appearance than about our hearts. Many times when we are caught in a sin, we’re sorry that other people saw, we’re sorry that we got caught, but are we sorry that we have grieved our Lord, that we have sinned against our God? It’s so easy to paint the Pharisees as the villains of the gospels, yetour sinful flesh is no different. Often, we too, try to whitewash the outside of the tomb, so that no one would suspect a rotting corpse lives inside, and so we don’t have to admit that our sinful heart is filthy and unclean.
If a doctor prescribed band-aids to cure cancer, or perfume to cure gangrene he would be denounced as a fraud. Even when the truth is harsh, you expect your doctor to speak the truth about the disease that is killing you, for you have entrusted him with the care of your physical body. What then of your pastor, the man who has been entrusted with the care of your eternal soul? Is he permitted to speak the truth, regarding the sin that can destroy your soul from the inside? Or, like the Pharisees, do we listen to our sinful nature and be concerned only with cleansing the outside of the cup? “Pastor, don’t tell me that my gossip is sin. Don’t tell me that living together outside of marriage is sin. Don’t tell me that my unforgiveness is sin!” Yet, this is exactly what your pastor must do. He must speak the truth about the unclean heart of man. “For from within, out of the heart of man, the wicked reasonings come out: sexual immorality, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemies, arrogance, foolishness” (Mk 7:20).
You see, even these terrible sins are not the real problem. These outward sins are the symptoms of the true problem, a problem that you share with the Pharisees, the disciples, and with the little baby who delighted in pulling his sister’s hair. Your true problem is the deep seed of sin that was inherited at birth, (and to which you have added, no doubt). This is the source of the cancer that spreads out and pollutes all of your thoughts, words, and deeds. And this can’t be cured by a prescription or by therapy. There is only one cure. There is only one solution. Death. Your death. You were found guilty in the court of heaven. The sentence was pronounced, the verdict was carried out, but, oh the miracle of grace, it was Christ himself who died in your place. You truly deserved temporal and eternal punishment, but you did not get what you deserved. Instead you received something far better: Jesus took all your filth, your uncleanness, your sin. He took it all upon Himself, and in exchange gave you His perfect, gleaming, spotless and pure righteousness. The sinful nature that could not be cleaned, was nailed with Christ to the cross, died, and was buried. Hear then, Christ’s declaration to you today: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3).
What word is this that was spoken to you? Perhaps you were too young to remember, so let me remind you: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This word was spoken over you, and in an instant that unclean, filthy flesh was drowned forever. You, who once were darkness, were reborn in His light, as a child of the kingdom of God. You were baptized into Christ’s death and raised into new life with Him. Every sin, past, present, and future was washed away. You are clean!
And this word was not spoken to you only once in your baptism. Christ speaks the word that makes you clean to you today. You will hear it again at the Lord’s table: “Take, eat. This is my body. Drink. This is my blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” This word is spoken over you. You receive and will receive again the very body and blood of Jesus. You have partaken and been made one with Christ’s own pure and sinless body. You are clean!
And why does Christ continue to speak this word to us? Why is it so important for us to hear this truth again and again? Because even though that filthy sinful nature was drowned in baptism, we still drag that old corpse around with us for the rest of our lives. We are at the same time, both saint and sinner. And as we go about or business in this sinful, broken world, our feet get dirty. This is why we come to church. This is why we listen to the preaching of God’s Word. This is why we remember our baptism, and gladly come to the Lord’s Table. Because attached to these outward signs, the water, the bread, and the wine, is Christ’s promise: “You are clean through the word that I have spoken to you.”
This word from Christ is more powerful than the reality of your sinful state which, though dead, is still present within you. Christ’s word is true. What He speaks really does happen. You have been washed from the inside out. Jesus suffered and died on the cross for your filthy, unclean, sinfulness. This cleansing was given to you in your baptism. In those waters the Holy Spirit washes you from the inside. Now because He dwells in you, because you have the Spirit and are cleansed all the way through, even to your heart, when Jesus says (said), “There is nothing from outside that can defile a man.” You can trust it this is a promise to you. You have been made clean, and nothing from outside can defile you – not Satan, not this world, not even your old sinful nature which is still present within you. Though still burdened by that nature it does not stain your cleanliness. That nature has been drowned and is daily drowned by the Spirit inside you. Yes, your sin is great, but Christ is greater. Hold fast to his cross. Trust in his promise, for he has declared it to be so, “You are clean.” Amen.