Vicar Kyle Backhaus

Every one of us has them, whether they be with family during the holidays or something that we do everyday to make life easier. They are traditions. Traditions can be beneficial to us, as they may help us to complete tasks; traditions can also help us remember where we came from and who we are. I can remember a tradition that my family had growing up. Every year on Christmas Eve my family would go to a family friend’s restaurant, after that we would attend a candle light church service, followed by a long drive home looking at all the wonderful Christmas decorations. Although this tradition may have seemed pointless at the time as a kid, I can see why my family did it. It was a chance to spend some quality time together, which is important in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

But not all traditions serve a purpose. Jaroslav Pelikan one of the greatest minds in Christianity of the last century wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.” Pelikan was not arguing against tradition, in fact he was a very strong supporter of tradition. What he was against was a blind acceptance of tradition. In other words he wanted people to understand what and why they were continuing a tradition, instead of just going through the motions. This vain traditionalism so easily creeps into our lives when we forget the meaning, the history, or the purpose of a tradition.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find a situation like the one just described. About 500 years though before the birth of Jesus, a group of laymen emerged who were interested in the letter of the law. As time passed they created 613 laws that regulated everything in a Jewish person’s life, even the smallest of tasks were covered in these laws. They re-wrote God's decrees according to their own way of thinking and demanded that everyone among them follow them. If people were in violation of these rules they were accused of not following God. And so by the time Jesus arrives the Jewish people had lost sight of God’s laws and His promises and were caught up in traditions of men that they didn’t truly understand. 

Vicar Kyle Backhaus

Every one of us has them, whether they be with family during the holidays or something that we do everyday to make life easier. They are traditions. Traditions can be beneficial to us, as they may help us to complete tasks; traditions can also help us remember where we came from and who we are. I can remember a tradition that my family had growing up. Every year on Christmas Eve my family would go to a family friend’s restaurant, after that we would attend a candle light church service, followed by a long drive home looking at all the wonderful Christmas decorations. Although this tradition may have seemed pointless at the time as a kid, I can see why my family did it. It was a chance to spend some quality time together, which is important in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

But not all traditions serve a purpose. Jaroslav Pelikan one of the greatest minds in Christianity of the last century wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.” Pelikan was not arguing against tradition, in fact he was a very strong supporter of tradition. What he was against was a blind acceptance of tradition. In other words he wanted people to understand what and why they were continuing a tradition, instead of just going through the motions. This vain traditionalism so easily creeps into our lives when we forget the meaning, the history, or the purpose of a tradition.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find a situation like the one just described. About 500 years though before the birth of Jesus, a group of laymen emerged who were interested in the letter of the law. As time passed they created 613 laws that regulated everything in a Jewish person’s life, even the smallest of tasks were covered in these laws. They re-wrote God's decrees according to their own way of thinking and demanded that everyone among them follow them. If people were in violation of these rules they were accused of not following God. And so by the time Jesus arrives the Jewish people had lost sight of God’s laws and His promises and were caught up in traditions of men that they didn’t truly understand. 

Even something as simple as washing your hands became a law with many traditions attached. Before and after they ate they would pour water on each hand with a cup, switching hands each time. And while pouring water over their hands they had to say a specific prayer. This tradition of washing your hands was not tied simply to a meal time. If a person entered the temple, if the person had fallen asleep, after trimming your nails, or cutting your hair, after touching your nose or ear, all of these things required you to wash your hands. Now for Jews this was not an issue of hygiene. This was simply a tradition that had to be performed. It had to be done, it didn’t matter if your hands were spotless, you had to wash after these things to please God and to disobey was to sin

So you can see why, when the Scribes and Pharisees saw that Jesus disciples sat down to eat, without washing their hands they went crazy. They blamed Jesus for it! “You are not teaching your disciples to honor God like our ancestors did.” They targeted Jesus for he was the leader of the group.?  

But let me ask you a question: What’s the real problem with the position of the Pharisees and Scribes took? I mean, what’s wrong with wanting to honor tradition? Even today many people wash their hands before meals, or upon the completion of certain activities. Hand washing can be a good thing, and with what we know about the spreading of germs, viruses, bacteria, it seems like washing your hands before a meal would be the right thing to do.

The real problem was not unclean hands but unclean hearts. The Pharisee’s had lost sight of what was truly important.  They had forgotten God’s promises to them to send a Savior, and so they were busy enforcing laws instead of looking at the Messiah that was right in front of them. You see, man's law had been placed above God. People were being mislead by these men and their 631 laws, and souls were put in danger all because man's tradition was placed before God. It's for this reason that Jesus condemns the Pharisee’s so harshly. Listen to what he says.

Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” "Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them.” (Matthew 11:46-47)

Pretty harsh don’t you think? You see, the traditionalism and the legalism of the Pharisee’s was costing people their very souls. He says, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites as it is written: ’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

But Jesus wasn’t against all traditions, for he followed many of the traditions of the day. He went up to Jerusalem as tradition would have it, to celebrate the Passover. The disciples begged and pleaded him not to go, for they knew that many of the Pharisees were in rage with Jesus, since he had elevated himself above the traditions of men. But Jesus went anyway. He was not doing this to fulfill a vain tradition, but he went to fulfill the tradition of the Passover lamb. For he was the true Passover lamb, the one whose death would pay for the sins of the entire world, it is this tradition that is the center of all that God has given us in His Word. But there was nothing traditional about his death. For the sky turned black and the earth shook as He gave up his last breath; and three days later death was defeated when the tradition of a grave was broken. For the empty tomb sends forth shouts of joy that God has bought us back from sin, death, and the devil. 

So we know that Pharisees held to the traditions of men over God, but what about us? We too often have forgotten the meaning and purpose of the traditions that we hold so close to our heart. Take Christmas for example, Christmas has become a time when we all run around like crazy, searching for the perfect gift for husband, wife, mom, dad, brother, and sister. We are tempted to trade the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Savior, for running around like mad and giving gifts. Same goes for Easter. We are tempted to trade the cross and the empty tomb of our Lord and Savior, for a rabbit that brings colored eggs and candy. Yet we profess that we are Christian above all else.

We all have this sort of inconsistency going on in our lives. Mark Twain once said, “We’re all like the moon. We have a dark side we don’t want anyone to see.” Twain’s right! There is a side to each and every one of us that we don’t want exposed. We would be mortified if what was deep inside ever saw the light of day. So we cover it up – afraid to show it. And we hide it in a mix of Christianity, and vain traditionalism such as WWJD bracelets, cross necklaces, Christian sayings. All of these things we do to “put on Christ”, but our hearts still dwell in sin.

But God demands more than this. He demands that what we say, and do and believe match up. You see the outside is not what matters most to God. He wants your heart. He wants the outside to match what is on the inside. He wants the traditions to have meaning and purpose to remind us who we are in Christ. For He is the one who worked in us make those changes, and He is at work changing hearts through the forgiveness that Christ won on the Cross for us. Ezekiel prophesied about God's people; He said, I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36.25-27)

Have you ever felt as if you can’t possibly measure up? Have you ever felt like there is no way that you will ever be able to please God or keep His laws? Have you ever truly looked at your life and the commandments of God and realize that you fall short? If you have, it’s a good thing, because when you recognize this, the law has done its work. We need help. For we can never attain what God has asked of us, which is Perfection! We need clean hearts. And God is giving us them through Christ.

You see coming to church to worship God is not about rules and regulations as the Pharisees thought.  Worship is not about coming together to do something for Him but rather God gathers us, so that God can do something for us. In worship He pours out forgiveness, He trades out our blood soaked sinful rags, with the perfect pure spotless robes, that Jesus won for us on the cross.

Let us recall the tradition of washing that the Pharisees were so quick to enforce. That was a tradition of man. But you were washed by the tradition of God in Baptism. In that gift He washed away your sin so that you may be as His bride the Church, who is without spot or wrinkle or any such thing so that you may be holy and without blemish. For in baptism “God has turned things upside down! The Potter says to you, the clay “I have remade you into a fruitful field. I have opened your eyes to see more than gloom and darkness, indeed, in your poverty, I the Holy One of Israel gave you my words which bring true Joy!

Brothers and Sister, Jesus has set us free from the weight of the law. He has taken away the burden of having to try to live up to demands of senseless, traditions. He has set you free to love and to serve your neighbor. God has cleansed your heart through baptism and He now works through you to honor Him in service to Himself and your neighbor.

God grant you the peace that comes from your new heart which was given by Him through the waters of Holy Baptism. Amen.

 

Luther Memorial Chapel & University Student Center | 3833 N Maryland Ave | Shorewood, WI  53211
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Divine Service: Sundays - 9:00a Mondays - 7:00p Bible Study & Sunday School: Sundays - 10:45a