Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 16B, preached on Sunday, August 26, 2012.
Is there a parent or child who has not gone through the awful experience of a child's forced apology? Even when the child does spit out the right words, he is a terrible actor and the rebellion of the heart is not hidden at all. Therein is the origin of the word hypocrite – the wearer of a mask. Long ago actors wore wax masks to hide who they were behind the character they were playing. It all comes together today in Mark's Gospel – the right words spit out before God but the mask that hides the unrepentant heart. Recalling the words of Isaiah, Jesus speaks of the divergence between the outward actions and the desire of the heart, the substitution of the doctrines of men for the doctrines of God, and the power of God to unite the inward desires of the heart with outward behavior through the Word of the cross.
So lets just jump in here. Jesus's disciples are accused of failing to wash their hands and the food their hands put into their mouths. This has nothing to do with cleanliness but with a symbolic or ceremonial washing which gives thanks to God. Jesus does not tolerate much from these accusers and hits them right back with Isaiah's words condemning lips that say the right worship words but hearts that remain unrepentant.
Some have tried to make this about rituals or ceremony. They wrongly think that Jesus is saying He would rather have sincerity over good form. But that is simply a lie. God had ordained much of this ritual for worship so it cannot be that God does not like ritual or ceremony. What God cannot abide is when we get the outward right but our hearts remain unrepentant. What God rejects is when we substitute the things we want to do for the things He has commanded. Lutherans should not be ashamed of ritual and ceremony in worship. What ought to shame us is that what we say and do is often at odds with our hearts. This goes to the heart and core of confession and forgiveness. And that is the same charge on those against ceremonial things.
Jesus complaint then is about unrepentant hearts - piety that masks unbelief and or unrepentance. It is not a choice between inward and outward. It is about the unity of lives that proceeds from the repentant heart out into the words and actions of a person's life. This is a first commandment issue. We are turning away from what God has said to focus either on what we want to do or what we think we can do. If we cannot be holy, we can at least be sincere. If we cannot be sincere, at least we can look holy. But both are lies.
The vanity of worship is not that we have ceremonies or ritual but that the words and actions of the liturgy are at odds with what is really going on in our hearts. That is why we begin with confession and absolution. By starting with the confession that we are sinners, that we deserve death, we take off the mask to be honest with God and with one another. Into such honest confession comes not the condemnation of an angry God but the sweet voice of absolution of our loving God. To our failures, lies, and masks, God comes with Christ’s death as payment for our sin and with his resurrection to raise us up from our death of sin to life in Him. Then and only then can true worship happen.
What God rightly expects of us is not a choice between sincerity and ceremony but an outward life that reflect the repentance and faith of our hearts. No outward behavioral change can transform the heart. If it could, the Law would work. But it doesn’t. No, the transformation of the heart is God’s work in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Jesus does not lament that what the Jews were doing was wrong but that their hearts were not in it. They were unrepentant. They did what they thought they were supposed to do but believed God would overlook the fact that this obedience was more about them than Him. Too many of us Christians are in the same predicament. We do the right things because we think they are good and should be done but our hearts are not been honest about sin. We love the Jesus of our imagination more than we love the Jesus of the cross. We prefer an inspirational leader to the Savior who shed His blood to save us from ourselves.
The solution does not lie in ditching ritual or ceremony. The solution does not lie in trying to be more sincere. God does not need us to indulge in any more naval gazing. We don't need to look inside of us. We need to look to the cross. We need to focus upon the love that became flesh for us, on the suffering for our sin that bore the fruit of redemption, and the life that overcame death’s hold on us. The solution lies in repentance – not a once in a lifetime change but the daily response of the heart to the mercies of God in Christ – living out our baptism.
The Word of God calls us to what it alone has the power to do – transform our hearts, to unmask sin, and to release us from its absolute rule. It is not fear that leads us to lay down our masks but the compelling power of love – love revealed on the cross. The heart is reborn by the power of such love to live in an attitude of daily repentance before the Lord. Grace is the currency of our salvation. Obedience is the Spirit’s work in us responding to that grace and love in Christ. You cannot be holy from the outside in but the work of God in our hearts results in the desire to be His people and live under Him in His Kingdom.
What we offer to the world is not the inspiration of our outward lives but the gift of honesty in which we lay down our masks and make confession of our sins, rejoicing in the mercy that lifts us up again. For too many of us, Christianity is like a child’s forced apology. We keep our hearts hidden from God and settle for a thin veneer of words and works to cover up what remains hidden within. Today is about the removal of the mask, the honest confession of our sin, the Spirit’s work of repentance in our hearts, and the fruitful lives of good words and good works that flow from God’s work in us.
To those tempted to choose between sincerity and ceremony, we are reminded that the worship that pleases God is not our choosing but His revelation. God speaks. We listen. He enables our response and that response is born of faith. From that faith flow the good words and good works of worship, witness, and service. True gain and godliness is the fruit of repentance, the work of the preaching of Christ and Him crucified. Amen.