Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17B, preached on Sunday, September 2, 2018, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.
I’m going to be blunt: you’re not a good person. I’m not a good person. No matter what popular opinion day may be, deep down inside, we humans aren’t good. We like to think that we are. We hope and we desperately want there to be some sort of divine goodness in us, but there isn't. Deep down, in our hearts we’re evil...and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
Now, I know this doesn’t sound very nice. It’s not the uplifting message you came to hear. It’s depressing to think about, but it’s the truth. And at some level, it’s a truth that we all know, so we try to correct it.
We would like to be good, to be clean, to be free of sin and evil. And we think the best way of achieving this is to avoid that which is unclean, to avoid sin. After all...can you be a bad person if you don’t do bad things? Aren’t we sinners only because we sin?
This goes along with our Gospel reading from last week (Mk 7:1-13), where the Pharisees questioned Jesus because His disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. The Pharisees assumed they were clean, that they were good because they followed all the ritual purity laws of the OT. Hoping to stay undefiled, they constantly performed ritual washings and they only ate the kosher foods. They let nothing unclean enter their bodies. They touched nothing unclean. They avoided defilement at all cost. And because of this, they thought they were clean, free from sin. They thought defilement came from the outside. And so do we.
We think we’re clean and pure and good if we just avoid the things that aren’t. Now, we’re not worried about defilement from the foods we eat. We’re not concerned about becoming ritually unclean by touching blood or shaking hands with an unbeliever. But we do think sin and evil come from outside of us. We’re morally good, or at least, morally neutral, and it’s the sinful world around us with all of its temptation that causes us to sin. If we just avoid these things, if we avoid foul language, the gossip of the day, the obscene images on our TV screens, greed for money and power, the violence that sells at the box office, the blatant disregard for human life or the estate of marriage as God designed it...if we just avoid all of this, then we should be good, right? … Wrong. You see, all of this, this evil and sin, it’s not from the world around us. It’s from us.
We’re not neutral, and we’re most certainly not good. The sin we see in the world, it’s not a product of the world, it’s a product of us, of our sin, the sin that resides in our fallen human heart. You see, we’re not sinners because we sin. It’s the other way around. We sin, because we’re sinners. We’re not unclean because we do unclean things. We’re unclean, because our heart is unclean. This is what Jesus told the people and His disciples.
Responding to the Pharisees’ accusations Jesus said, “The things that come out of a person are what defile him...Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled” (Mk 7:15b, 18b-19a). The Greek here is more explicit than our English translation. What Jesus says is that what goes into a person comes out into the latrine. You see, unclean foods and eating with unclean hands, the things the Pharisees worried about, they don’t defile a person, because food doesn’t enter the heart. Defilement doesn’t come from the world around us...it comes from the sin that’s already in our hearts.
Speaking stern Law, Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mk 7:20-22). These are the unclean things that reside in our hearts. This is the sin that is in each and every one of us. Listen to that list. These aren’t small things. They’re not tiny sins. This is pure evil. That’s what’s inside all of us. And this is what makes us unclean.
Our hearts need to be cleansed of this sin and evil. But we can’t do it. We can’t clean our hearts by avoiding sin. Fighting temptation, not giving in to our lustful thoughts, keeping our mouths shut so we don’t slander or speak angrily about our neighbors, these are good, but they don’t clean out our hearts. Doing the good works of God’s Word, loving our spouse and children, going out of our way to care for those in need, being content with what we have, these are good, but they don’t clean out our hearts. The only way for our hearts to be cleansed of the sin and evil that reside in them is for God to clean them. King David knew this.
Our Introit for today comes from Psalm 51. This was King David’s psalm of confession after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. And in these words, words that we sing today, he prays for God to clean out his heart. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!...Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow….Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:2, 7, 10). This prayer of confession, this prayer of faith, looked to God for restoration and for cleansing, and God answers this prayer. He answers it with the blood of Christ.
God washes clean your hearts of sin with the innocent blood of Christ that was shed on the cross. There, the sinless Son of Man died the death that we sinners deserve. The cross seems to be unclean, a thing of death, and it is. It is a thing of death, but it’s by Christ’s death that you’re made clean. The blood of Jesus is far from being unclean. The blood of Jesus is the only thing that makes you clean. It’s the only thing that washes the guilt of your sin away. It’s a scarlet bath that makes you whiter than snow.
In your Baptism, God provided you with a cleansing flood that drowned the sinner in you. In your Baptism, He washed you with the “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Ti 3:5), giving you not only a clean heart, but a new one. This new heart has no desire to sin. This new heart despises the evil that resides in our Old Adam. This new heart looks to Christ for cleansing. This new heart wants to hold fast to the good and holy commands of God, to live out Christ’s righteousness that we’ve received.
In Psalm 119, which we also sang today, we said, “I long for you commandments….Keep steady my steps according to your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me. Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts” (Ps 119:131, 132-133). I often wonder if we truly long for God’s commandments? The sinner in us surely doesn’t. The sinner loves the evil heart that we have. But the saint made clean by the blood of Christ doesn’t. Ps 119 are the words that come from a new and clean heart, a heart that’s free from sin. Having been washed clean by the blood of Christ, we rightly want to live according to God’s command. We want to abandon the sin and evil in our hearts, not in an effort to cleanse our hearts ourselves, but because we’ve been given a new heart and we love the Lord with these new hearts.
By ourselves, deep down, our hearts are filled with all sorts of evil. But in Christ, washed clean by His blood shed on the cross, washed clean in the waters of baptism, we’ve received His righteousness. And in faith, we want to live according to that righteousness. With faith we strive to live lives according to God’s Word, according to His commandments, turning from sin and temptation. With faith we pray for God to create within us clean hearts. We pray for a renewed spirit so that we might delight in God’s law and lead righteous lives according to it. And thanks be to God that He answers these prayers, giving us clean hearts, washed by the blood of Christ. In His name...Amen.