Sunday, August 31, 2003

Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

On August 31, 1688, John Bunyan died in London, England. He is best known for his writing, particularly the book "Pilgrim's Progress" which sells more than any other book except the Bible. He was more than a writer. He was a teacher and preacher, and the perfect example for our lessons for this week. We commemorate the life of this man of God this Sunday.

John grew up in the church, a Puritan, but he really wasn't very faithful. He swore, read trashy novels, danced, bell-rang and played games on Sunday. His puritan brethren considered his actions improper. He joined the army at sixteen and was spared from death when a fellow soldier asked to take his place as a sentinel. John knew at once that he was spared for something big.

He married a woman and they lived a life of poverty. Her Christian father gave them two books, which John read over and over again. He was bothered by what he read. One Sunday, he heard a voice ask him if he would repent and go to heaven, or continue his life and go to hell. John felt condemned, beyond forgiveness. He tried to make up for his unsavory life - tried to keep the commands found in the Bible, read daily, stopped swearing and the other improper things. On the outside he looked like a Christian, but inside he had no peace.

Then one day he heard four women praising God and sharing their faith. They talked about the miserable state of their faith, about God's forgiveness and the love of Christ. He could tell they had a joy he had never known. Their words had an impact on his life and it was through reading Luther's commentary on the book of Galatians that he realized that none of the things he was doing would ever give him peace. He could only be justified by faith. He continued to struggle, but began preaching the Gospel, telling others about Christ. People came from far and wide to hear him.

What he was doing was illegal in England. The officials were afraid that street corner preaching would cause revolt. Though he was not political, he was arrested and put in jail. His jailers offered him the chance to be released several times, but always with the condition that he not preach. He could not promise such a thing so remained locked behind bars for twelve years. He wrote many of his books during that time, including "Pilgrim's Progress."

I can imagine John Bunyan trying to live up to the words found in today's Psalm. He so longed to be right before God and to go to heaven that he worked hard to overcome his life of improper behavior. He tried to be blameless, righteous, honest and trustworthy, but he never found peace in his good works. He was not on a firm foundation, easily shaken by his fear and doubt.

He's no different than the rest of us. Even the Jews, who had the most intimate relationship of all people with God, could not stand firm. The Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy tells about the gift of God to His people - the Law. It was not a burden; God gave them the Law for a purpose. He would be glorified by their obedience and they would be seen by the world as a great nation. "Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there, that hath a god so nigh unto them, as Jehovah our God is whensoever we call upon him?"

They knew they would be blessed by the keeping of God's Law and set apart from the rest of the nations. But they fell short. They forgot to tell their children and their children's children about the Lord and all they had done. They forgot His Law and turned to other gods. They sought the help of other nations instead of trusting in the Lord. Rather than keeping the Law as a gift, they tried to use it to ensure God's blessings. The interpreted the Law and turned it into hundreds of detailed rules. They made God's gift into a burden, expecting the people to keep all the rules perfectly. Many of the Jews glorified themselves, putting down others who did not live righteously as they. The Pharisees and teachers of the law attacked Jesus' disciples for eating with unclean hands.

The Gospel passage gives us a glimpse of the way they lived. They never ate unless they washed their hands. Now, washing our hands is a good thing. We teach our children to wash before eating. We even have hand sanitizer for those times when it is inconvenient or impossible to make it to a sink. However, the washing was ceremonial, representative of a deeper cleansing. It was a religious act, not hygienic.

When they approached Jesus about his disciples, He answered with a prophesy from Isaiah. "This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men." Then He told them that uncleanness had nothing to do with dirty hands. It is about heart, about faith. He went on to tell them that what comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. "For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man."

They had let go of the commands of God and were living according to their own traditions. They taught their children to work for the blessings of God rather than to trust Him. The gift had slipped from their hearts and they forgot God's promises. Jesus came to turn things around, to melt their hearts and renew their relationship with God. He came to show them true righteousness. It is not a righteousness that can be earned or rewarded, but rather a right relationship with God that comes through faith.

James tells us that it is the word of God that saves us, which He sent from heaven to give us a new birth. The perfect law was a gift from God, one that frees us to be all that God has blessed us to be. Our religiosity does nothing for our faith; our traditions do not bring us closer to God. Too often these things harden our hearts and make us turn from the truth. Like John Bunyan, we are unable to find peace or salvation in our works. We learn that it is only through the grace of God, found in Jesus Christ, that we can truly be righteous.

In that grace we recognize that true religion has nothing to do with clean hands or special ceremonies. It has nothing to do with following a bunch of man made rules that seek to interpret what God spoke to His people. It is not about appearing right before men, but about trusting God in our heart.

Jesus tells us what happens when a heart is hard; James shows us the life that trusts in God. "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." The hard heart looks like John Bunyan - first when he rejected God altogether with his wayward ways, then when he tried to earn his way into heaven. When he realized he could not be saved by his own power, but only by the grace of God, he began to truly live a life of peace.

John Bunyan died on August 31, 1688 because he had traveled in bad weather to help a father and son that were arguing to be reconciled to one another. He became very ill with fever and died. During his lifetime, and for every generation since, his witness has touched the lives of more people than we can possibly count. Through him, we see the truth of this week's lessons - that we cannot earn righteousness or do enough to be rewarded with salvation. When he tried, he knew no peace. It is only through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ that we dwell in the sanctuary of God and live on His holy hill. With Jesus, we will never be shaken. Thanks be to God.

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