Sunday, September 23, 2018

Who Is The Greatest?

Readings: Psalm 1, Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12, Mark 9;30-37
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, September 23 2018

Who were your heroes when you were growing up? Whose pictures would you have put up in your room? (If you had a room in which you were allowed to put pictures up in)? And what kind of role models were they? When I was in my early teens I started off with a few sporting pictures, mostly race car drivers, but later on they gave way to rock stars and momento's of things I'd done or places I'd been.

When I think back, some of the people whose pictures I had on my wall didn't make for good heroes. I used to have a picture of Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist. As a rock guitarist he was a genius, but when it came to mastering life he was a dismal failure. Whilst proclaiming a message of love, peace and freedom through his music, in his personal life he couldn't hold down a relationship, he could be hurtful and ego-centric and far from being free he was addicted to a drug habit that eventually cost him his life.

What kind of role model is that? What sort of hero? I guess there must be something in me, that made heroes out of racing drivers and rock stars; something in me (and maybe in you) that admires people who flaunt convention, flirt with death and live "Life on the Edge."

One day Jesus was talking with the disciples about what sort of a Messiah He would turn out to be, and far from getting the point, they wandered off on their own and started having a discussion about, "Who is the greatest?” This was not the sort of conversation they wanted Jesus in on because when He asked them, "What are you lot arguing about?" they lapsed into an embarrassing silence.

It was all part of the learning process. Jesus couldn't really start explaining God's way of doing things until they had worked through for themselves some of the ideas about what made a person great and what made people, including themselves, important. In the pecking order of life, who were the great ones, who were the important ones?

It's a stupid argument to become involved in.

  • Farmers could claim to be the greatest, because they produce the food and drink that everyone, from the pet hamster to the President consumes.
  • A teacher could say, no I'm the most important. Under my influence the minds and lives of the future are shaped.
  • A doctor could say, I'm the greatest because I keep you alive, I fix you when you are broken, I have the knowledge to make things right.
  • A funeral director may say, it's O.K. for you lot to brag about what you do in life, I'm the only one who can deal with you when life runs out. No-one else will take that upon themselves.
  • And so it goes.

Jesus refuses to be dragged into the argument. He calls them over and says something along the lines of, "Come here, sit down, we need to talk this one through. So you want to be the first do you? You want to be the hero, you want be the big guy? Then stop worrying about where you come in the scheme of things and start concentrating on how you can be of service to somebody else! Drop all this stuff about your rights and your needs and start worrying about how someone else's rights can be fulfilled and how someone else's needs can be met."

Then, somewhere around, there's a little kid playing, maybe making a bit of noise in the way that so infuriates us important adults when we are trying to concentrate. I know. I've done it.

I've sat in a service and there's been a kid in front or behind making a commotion. You do imagine what is going through peoples minds. Is the preacher up there thinking, "I've got a right to be heard. I worked hard on this message!" Are the the choir members thinking, "We don't want that racket ruining the anthem we've been rehearsing all week"

Are those sitting around the child thinking, "I came here to listen to a sermon, not some noisy kid." And are the parents thinking "This is our church. We've got a right to be here, hey... when we had our child baptized... you guys promised to help us bring this child up in the faith and right now we are having serious problems!"

It could be my friend was right. Whenever he hears of a family with a new arrival he likes to tell them... "Now you are in for trouble. Don't you realize that children are your parent's way of getting there own back?"

Being part of any kind of family is a high calling. Being part of the Christian Family is a real challenge. We all feel like we have our rights and our needs and when those rights and needs don't seem to be met we start thinking like the disciples, "Hold on a minute, who is important around here, whose needs take priority?”

On the basis of this passage of Scripture, the Kingdom way is about putting others needs before personal rights. And for each group of us in the congregation, Little ones, Youth, Older adults, Parents and Singles, all of us need to think not only about what has this church got for me, but how can I help the others of my family, who are maybe at a different stage of life or experience be a part of the family. To paraphrase a famous quotation, "Ask not what your church family can do for you, Ask what you can do for your church family".

To bring that point home to the disciples, Jesus invited the noisy kid over to where He sat with His disciples. He put His arms round the child and said something along the lines of, "You know something, If you can recognize the rights of a little child like this, if you can welcome and receive what he can teach you, then you'll be doing the will of God, then you'll be coming near to greatness, then you'll be a hero. Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives me; and whoever receives Me does not just receive me, but Him who sent me."

At the time Jesus was speaking children had no rights, no privileges, no legal status, no voice whatsoever. They were non people. They didn't matter. They didn't count. We have lost the element of surprise that this incident must have had on it's first hearers. Our social conventions are so radically different to those of antiquity. Sometimes we look upon childhood with a romantic view, as a period of simplicity and innocence. In those times no such notion existed. A child, particularly a female child, just didn't count for much, simply wasn't important.

That child stands for all people who are not held in high regard, all those without a place, all those without a voice. Those who others label and call names to make themselves feel superior. Those who are seen as useless or no-hopers or just "Different.” We often pay lip service to the view that the "First shall be last" so long as we are not challenged to the test of accepting someone whom we consider a real "Outsider."

The theologian Karl Barth describes the radical acceptance of others as the basis of Christian Ethics. "To think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable as one to whom Jesus Christ is brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with them on this assumption."

All of this brings us full circle to where we started, thinking about heroes and who is important and what it takes to be great. I very much doubt that anybody here will be running home to change the pictures on their walls or that any of us will go out and try and find a few pictures of Karl Barth, the disciples, or Jesus Himself in an effort to give ourselves good role models to follow.

Because, after all, greatness is about a lot more than image. It's not about looking good or even about winning the admiration of others. From the Kingdom perspective, a view which has the habit of turning everything upside down, greatness is measured by how great you make others feel. Importance is about what importance you give to others lives, particularly those whom the world denies any real significance.

A dieing man once said to Mother Teresa, "All my life I have lived like an animal. Now you are letting me die like a King".

You want to be great? You want to be important? Then forget about being great and being important and get on with the business of sharing the love that God has given you with a needy world. There's a hymn that speaks of Jesus in this way:-

"Thou who wast rich, beyond all measure,
All for our sake, becamest poor"

That is greatness. One who would rather die on a cross for our sake than see us divorced from God's love. One who prayed, for others, "Lord, not my will, but thine be done."

Serving ourselves only leads to a never ending desire for more of what we don't have. Christ challenges us to serve one another, to say "Yes" to God and in doing so discover an otherwise unattainable peace, a peace born out of having the humility to count others as more important than ourselves.

May God help us to govern our lives by Kingdom values
and see each other from a Jesus perspective.
That's what is important.
That is true greatness.
And to God's name be all glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

*HymnWho is Greatest in the Kingdom?
NETTLETON D (#355 "Hear The Good News of Salvation")
Text © 2018 by Carol Winfrey Gillette. Used with permission.

"Who is greatest in the kingdom? Who among us is the best?"
The disciples were debating: "In God's reign, who will be blest?"
Jesus, had those twelve forgotten? Faithful living has a cost —
And to journey where You'd lead them, they would journey to the cross.

"Who is greatest in the kingdom?" The disciples heard Your call:
"If you want to be the first one, you must be the last of all."
Do not think that high position is a thing that you deserve!
"If you want to be the first, then, be the first to humbly serve."

"Who is greatest in the kingdom? Who will take the throne and reign?"
Christ, You put a child among them, and You told them once again:
"If you give a child a welcome, then you also welcome me."
Faithful service, not ambition, builds up God's community.

Monday, September 17, 2018

What Sort Of Messiah?"

Readings: Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 8:27-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, September 16 2018
One day Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road. He asks them "Who do the people say I am?" The disciples gave Him some of the answers that were floating around. "Some say you are John the Baptist. Others say you are Elijah or one of the prophets come back to life."

Jesus then makes the question real up close and personal. "
What about you? Who do you say that I am?" There was probably a moment of silence as they waited for each other to speak. It is Peter - the bold one - who eventually responds, "You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God."

Jesus replies "
Well done, you are absolutely right (and the way Matthew's gospel tells it He adds that this was something God had revealed to Peter.) But then comes an intriguing sting in the tale. Jesus says: "You’re right. But don't you dare tell anyone!" Why?

Why did He tell them not to tell anyone? You would think He would be saying "Spread the word, the Messiah has come." Instead Jesus tells them, "Shush... keep it to your self." It’s something the scholars call the "Messianic Secret."
Here’s one of the reasons. Although the disciples had started to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, they didn't really know what a Messiah was. “The Messiah is coming! The Messiah is coming! The Messiah is coming! Hold on. What’s a Messiah?”

Now according to the Jewish Rabbi's of the time this was how the Messiah thing would work out. The world would get worse and worse, spiraling down into a moral and spiritual vacuum. When things could get no worse God would send Elijah to prepare the way of the Messiah.
Then when God's Messiah arrived, he would be a great warrior king, with political clout and military might, who would physically crush his foes. He would unite the people in a great Armageddon battle against whoever oppressed God's people. Finally he would take his throne in Jerusalem and rule Israel in peace and prosperity. It would be just like the "Good old days" when David was king, but better.

You can't blame the disciples for wanting that kind of Messiah. The Romans had occupied the country. Pagan ideas and culture were corrupting the people. Even the high priest was little more than a puppet in the control of a pagan power. The time was ripe for a heroic warrior Messiah to come and conquer the Romans, and take his place on the throne of David.

But that was not the sort of Messiah that Jesus came to be. If people, especially the people closest to Him, thought He was that sort of Messiah it could be a disaster. Tell them that the Holy Conqueror prophesied from ancient times had come and they might go form an army and try to draft him as Supreme Commander. Hundreds or thousands could die and Jesus true mission would never be revealed.

So Jesus explains to His disciples God's plan for the Messiah. "
The Messiah must go through great suffering. Even the elders and religious authorities will reject Him. He will be killed and in three days rise again."
This was, of course, a contradiction to everything the disciples expected. God's anointed king suffering and dieing? No way Hosea! That was blasphemy. To suggest that God would allow pagan Gentiles to torture, mistreat, and even kill God’s all powerful Messiah was just wrong. It would be like Superman being taken down without the aid of Kryptonite!
So Peter rebuked Jesus. He doesn’t suggest that Jesus was mistaken, Peter rebukes Jesus. Anyone growing up in a traditional Jewish society would be horrified to observe Peter taking such a tone with his teacher. Disciples just didn’t go around rebuking their teachers!
And how does Jesus react? Strongly! He calls Peter a mouthpiece of Satan. He wants Peter to know that, yes, He was the messiah, and good on you Peter for recognizing that, but Jesus wasn’t going to be the sort of Messiah that Peter had been expecting.
The true Messiah’s mission involved suffering and death and resurrection. Peter was making a devilish suggestion in telling Jesus that He had no need to go to the cross. No Cross… no redemption, no forgiveness, no death to be conquered, no resurrection necessary.

Maybe Peters problem was that he defined victory in human terms not in God's terms. Jesus then gives them God's definition of victory. "
If any want to be my followers let them take up their cross and follow me." Take up a cross? Only thieves and criminals took up a cross. The Bible says, "Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree." What could Jesus mean?

He continues, "
For those who seek to save their life will lose it, yet those who lose their life for me and the Gospel will save it." This contradicted logic. If you want to save your life you should fight and even kill to preserve it. But here Jesus says the way to life is through death. "For what do you gain if you gain the whole world and lose your life?" This was turning everything upside down. It would take the disciples a long time to come to terms with this.
The same applies to us. We are no more enlightened then they were. True life, says Jesus, isn't found in human achievement or personal gain. Neither is it found in political or military power. It is found instead in spiritual power, in relationships with each other and with God, in worship and in service and abandonment to the will of God.

Friends, why do we bother coming to church? I would suggest that one of the reasons we involve our lives in the church, is because we are people who really want to live and really want the best out of life for ourselves and for our families and friends.
It could even be that, like Peter, we have recognized that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of living God, but maybe we're not exactly sure what that means or how we should go about telling others. And though we believe that Jesus can give us eternal life, not just life in heaven after death, but abundant life in the here and now… these words, about the cost of following Him, seem difficult and troublesome.

Jesus says, "
If you want to follow me you must take up a cross. Because if you try to hold on to life you will lose it, but if you surrender your life for me and the Gospel you will have true life. After all what good is it to gain the whole world and never really live."

In a "Pain killer culture", trying to understand where suffering fits in with God’s will is a tough cookie. Jesus challenges us to turn our thinking upside down. Through His miracles and works of healing, through His compassion for the crowds and for individuals it is clear that God takes no delight in human suffering.

Mother Teresa, that great missionary to the poor in India, used to instruct her novices, "To truly love, is to fight against evil. You cannot fight without receiving blows. You can not help the suffering without suffering yourself."
In our materialistic, pain fearing world, people love to hear the voice of the miraculous Jesus. Witness the success of those who preach a gospel of instant prosperity or ceaseless blessing. People are not so sure they want to hear the word of the Cross. What sort of Messiah would call us to such a thing?The idea is no less shocking now as it was then.

But … listen… just as God’s Messiah wasn’t the sort of Messiah that people expected… maybe abundant life is not about all the things people often think it is. Maybe "the good life" is not being materially well off or even comfortable. Maybe abundant living does not depend on being in good health or even on good terms with everyone.
So let us, we who confess Him as Lord in the early years of the twenty first century, ask ourselves, "What sort of Messiah?" The sort that tells us that anything goes and we are not to worry about our sins, or our neighbors, or about injustice or poverty, but simply accept blessing after blessing from His hand? One who says, "Don't worry, be happy... live for ever and ever in a pain free, trouble free world?"

Or are we to hear the voice of one who explained His mission to His disciples in terms that involved undeserved suffering, a cross, a resurrection and a promise of the empowering presence of His Holy Spirit to all who would come after Him. Who spoke of
picking up on the pain, the shame and the rejection of others and placing it on our shoulders to help them carry it up a hill towards forgiveness.

One who saw prayer as an opening up of our selves to God's will, rather than as an exercise to persuade God to do things our way. One who spoke of putting our self interest aside, dieing to ourselves and being prepared to live and die for one another. Do we want to hear the radical voice of a revolutionary Jesus or do we want a “Panacea Messiah” to solve all the world’s problems and tell us we don't have to get our hands dirty, because it will be all right in the end?

I read the gospels and I am challenged to believe that God's desire for this world is that it be a place of miracles and blessing and healing and hope. But I am also challenged to see that love is not simply an emotion. It is a weapon to destroy all that cheapens and lessens and takes away life.
To enter the fight means not sitting back and letting God take care of everything, but actively wielding the weapon of love, which may mean putting ourselves in situations that can only be traveled through with faith and whose only hope is in the ability of God to turn hopeless situations, like Crosses, into places that sing with the joy of resurrection emptied tombs.
"What sort of Messiah?"
There is only one and His name is Jesus.
All others are simply pretenders and charlatans.
And the way to life is found in His call to service.
"If any want to become my followers,
Let them deny themselves
And take up their cross
And follow me".

May God help us, by God’s Holy Spirit,
to be true disciples.
In Jesus name.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Touched By God

Readings: Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9, James 1:17-27, Isaiah 35:4-7, Mark 7:31-37
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 9 2018

“Touched by God.” What does it mean to be “Touched by God”? Is it a moment of inspiration? Is it when a particular need is met? Is it a lifelong journey? Well.... yes... all of the above and a whole lot more. More importantly, what does it take for our lives to feel the influence and touch of God upon them?

Our gospel reading from Mark this morning gave us the story of a man suffering from a hearing defect that also gave him an inability to speak. Then his life is touched by Jesus and he is made whole. At the start the man is in a pitiful state. He comes to Jesus, not of his own volition but is brought by his friends. They ask that Jesus lays His hands on the man. They seem convinced that to do so will result in some sort of blessing upon his life.

Here's one of the first things we need if we desire God to impact or lives. We need to trust that God has the ability to handle our situation

We run into problems in our Christian life because we see the intervention of God as a last resort, rather than our first port of call. We try everything else and then we pray about things. Prayer should come first, because prayer is the listening side of our relationship with God.

What was this man's problem? He couldn't hear; he was unable to listen. Because he couldn't hear anything, he couldn't say anything. His speech was impaired. Unless we can nurture our faith through personal private prayer we become not "speech impaired" but "faith impaired."

In our prayers we are not always sure what to ask for. Right at the start of this account is a picture of how we can pray. Sometimes we don't have the assurance of faith to ask for direct healing or for a miracle. But we can always ask God to lay hold of the situations that troubles us. We can do that in the simple faith that God knows how to handle things.

When I watch a professional football game on the Television, I'm always impressed by the distance a professional can throw the ball. I'm even more impressed by the guy who manages to catch it at the other end. I've always been a useless catcher. If they gave "A" Grades for fumbling, I could win a scholarship with my skills. I can get hit by the ball on the nose, on the knee, I can flay my arms about and run in the general direction, do everything but catch the thing!

On the other hand, God is a great catcher. It doesn't matter how hard you throw your prayers, how off course they are, how out of position you are, when God hears your prayers, God doesn't fumble or stumble, but lays hands on the situation that is troubling you. "Ask" says the scripture, "You will receive."

Field your problems in God's direction and you'll see some results. It may not be the result you expected, or even exactly what you asked for, but God won't let you down.The men who brought their friend to experience the touch of Jesus knew they could trust Him. That's why they came to Him.

But Jesus didn't do anything right away other than withdraw far from the madding crowds and go off to some private place. You see that too is something important for our lives. A second thing this passage teaches us about seeking a touch of God, is that we have to make space in our lives to spend personal time with God.

This man didn't find his healing among the crowds or in the business of life. He had to withdraw and be alone with the Lord. He had a particular set of problems that needed to be dealt with in a specific way. It was important for Jesus to spend time alone with Him so that He could deal with him His way. There is an importance to being alone, having a quiet place, and a quiet time with Jesus. We are all unique creations of God. God does not deal with us all in exactly the same way.

Sometimes we try and solve our problems in another persons way. We read a book about how “so and so” dealt with such or such a thing and think, "Yes, that's what I need to do, that's how I should be handling things." Oftentimes it's not. Because we are unique individuals and our situations aren't those of someone else.

The insights of other people may be some help. I don't deny for one minute that we all have a great deal to learn from each other. But there are those times when we just need to get on our own with God and get our life sorted out. Maybe you recall that Old Testament story about Jacob wrestling with an angel.

Jacob is an inheritor of God's promises. He had a life that was on track, going places. But then he tries to cross a river and there is a man, described as an angel, who won't let him pass. He gets into a wrestling match with the angel. Somewhere in the middle of it, he realizes, that he is actually wrestling with God. His life had the ability to take on new possibilities and greater significance. But he's got to deal with his past and his problems before God can make that happen.

Until he had a very personal struggle with God, though he trusted in God, his faith was not his own. Yes, he knew of his father Isaac's faith. He had most definitely heard the stories of his grandfather Abraham's faith. But, he was only living his faith vicariously through their faith; it had not been solidified in his life. It is only after this struggle that we read of God in Scripture being identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac AND Jacob.

It is the same for us. Our parents faith, our families faith, our friends faith, even our churches faith, won't take us where God wants us to go. We have to make it our own. And that can be a struggle. It may leave us walking in a different way. And it takes place through personal time, one on one, with God.

If we desire lives that know God's touch, we need to trust that God has the ability to carry us through. We need to take the time for personal encounter with God. Thirdly, we need to be open to whatever God wants to do in and through our lives.

When Jesus prays for this man he uses the words "Be opened"; in Aramaic; "Ephphatha" in Greek "Dianoigo" (pronounced: Dee-an-oy'-go). He doesn't say "Speak up" or "Be made whole" but "Be Opened," a phrase that could be used in a variety of situations. An old Scots translation translates this verse as "Be thou unbarred," using the imagery of a prison cell whose iron rods are removed to set the prisoner free. It could also mean to open your mind or to open your soul.

It sounds like one of those trendy expressions you hear on TV, "Free your mind." Jesus said it first. 'Ephphatha," "Be Opened.” But not open to anything, open to His touch, open to His love.

The way the man is healed is, well, different. Jesus puts his finger in the mans ear, then spits on his hand and touches the mans tongue with it. Saliva was regarded in days gone by as having some medicinal qualities. Still is. Have you ever noticed the way an animal will lick a wound or even a mom will spit on a handkerchief and wipe a child's face with it?

There was nothing magical about Jesus saliva anymore than there is about mum saliva. But it meant something to the man who was being healed (just as it means something to a child) and through what was a very common action the man was touched by the love of God. We need to be open for God to act and move in whatever way God chooses!

In verse 34, before He heals the man, we read that Jesus sighed. Time after time He was confronted by people who had closed minds, who couldn't seem to see or hear or grasp the wonderful significance of who He was and how much and how deeply they were loved by His Father God.

Jesus sighed. In that sigh is contained the sigh of all people who feel "Ugh, it's just getting too much for me!" Good news. God knows how you feel. Jesus can help. Just open up and see what happens.

Such help is not anything we deserve. God comes to us in spite of who we are, not because of it. So often we are blind to the things that really matter in life, so useless in speaking out, so in need of a touch of God. Kind of like the man in our bible reading.

So remember what happened to Him. God met him right at his point of need. Why should He deal with us any differently if we come to God in humility and in faith? We have nothing to offer God but our broken lives .God will take what ever we can give. All God asks is that we get around to giving it.

I began this message by asking “What does it take for our lives to feel the influence and touch of God upon them?” This encounter Jesus has, with a man who needed healing, offers some great insights.
  • We need to trust that God has the ability to handle our situation
  • We have to make space in our lives to spend personal time with God.
  • We need to be open to whatever God wants to do in and through our lives.
May we each, in our own unique way and within our own specific situations, be able to say that our lives have been touched by God. And, blessed as we are, may we, like the friends of the deaf and mute man, who bought him to Jesus, seek to be a people who bring a touch of God's love to others. To God be the Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Heart Of Righteousness

Sermon Series: MARK MY WORDS
 Readings: Psalm 45:1-9, Deuteronomy 4 :1-9, James 1:17-27,Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 2 2018

What does it mean to be a righteous person? Is it just a matter of sticking to the rules? Is it about obeying the Ten Commandments? Is it giving away everything we have to the poor? Is it about not doing things like cheating or drinking or smoking or cussing or fighting?

And if we do stick to the rules, obey all the commandments, give everything we have away to charity, never cheat on anything (no - not even a speed limit), never drink a drop of alcohol or inhale any cigarette smoke (either passively or impassively), never let one unpleasant word fall from our lips and never lift a hand in anger (no, not even in self defense), will that make us righteous?

We may outwardly appear to be a pillar of religious virtue, but does that mean we are necessarily a righteous person? The answer that Jesus gives may surprise us. You can keep every law, written or unwritten, that you know, but at the end of the day remain a cold, hard, empty, shell of a person who knows little of God and still less of love.

Who is it in the scriptures that Jesus constantly criticizes? Is it the publicans and sinners? Is it the leper or the tax collector? Is it the woman caught in adultery or that officer in the Roman army that were oppressing the Jewish people? Those are people He befriends. He saves His harsh words for the religious folk, the Pharisees, Sadducee's and their like.

Ironically, these were the people who desperately wanted to be righteous. Every action they took symbolized that desire. But somewhere along the way a detour got them off a track that led to righteousness and onto a track that led to legalism. So what is righteousness?

Righteousness is first of all a spiritual principle.

At the start of the Jewish religion, the law meant the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. The Pentateuch carries much detail about daily living. Its laws are laws of community designed to help, not to hinder people, in living a decent life. It also seeks to remind the Hebrews that they are to be a people ‘set apart’ to do the will of God, be a witness to the nations of what a nation that honored God could be like.

Around about four or five centuries before Jesus was born there were in Israel a group of scholars who had a real passion for definition. Every law had to be defined, amplified and expanded into thousands on miniscule little rules, regulations and laws governing every possible aspect and action of life. What became known as the “oral law” or “the tradition of the elders” became a standard for measuring righteousness. They were eventually written down in a book called the Mishnah.

Some of the rules concerned exactly how hands should be washed in order that they are ceremonially clean. This was more than just hygiene for hygiene’s sake! To fail to wash your hands after the manner of the law didn’t mean you were dirty in a health sense, but you were unclean in the sight of God.

When the Pharisees observe Jesus and the disciples, sitting down to a meal, and not observing all these minute details, they ask, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" They ask, not because of any concern for health, but in order to prove that the disciples, and ultimately Jesus Himself, were religious frauds. If they couldn’t be trusted in the little things, then how could they be believed when it came to life’s deeper questions!

The reply that Jesus gives is both harsh and sarcastic. He says to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'

We shouldn’t minimize the insult contained in these words. He is telling them that they are vain, dishonorable, hypocrites, out of touch with God and blinded by man made traditions. Harsh words to people who thought they were seeking to live God’s way!

Their attention to detail meant they overlooked two primary laws. They were to love God with all that they were, and love their neighbors as much as they loved themselves. Although they didn’t realize it, the principle that was really motivating their lives was not “God’ or even their “Neighbor”, but was ‘Self, Self, Self.” Their own salvation was their primary concern. To be seen as a separate breed from the common folk was their aim.

They were overlooking the primary spiritual principle of all... love. When legalism takes hold, love is the first casualty. When Christianity starts to become a matter of unwritten laws it stops looking out to those in need and starts looking in on itself in judgment. Spirituality becomes measured, not by it’s capacity to reach out to those who need a touch of God, but by how well the lives of adherents live up to the particular unwritten codes of the community. And if you don’t measure up, you are no longer welcome.

Righteousness is a spiritual principle that has to do with the capacity of Jesus to love others through our lives. You may remember the list of virtues that Paul described to the Corinthian church. He speaks of being able to speak in tongues and prophesy and of having the ability to understand the great mysteries of God. He claims the faith to be able to move mountains, and that he could indeed give away everything he had to the poor. Why, he would even face martyrdom to defend his religious principles. But he concludes, at the end of the day, if any of it has been done with out love, then it has been a waste of effort and completely out of touch with the will of God.

Righteousness is first of all a spiritual principle – the principle of love.

Righteousness is secondly a spiritual quality.

In our text, this encounter Jesus has with the Pharisees becomes a teaching moment for the crowds who look on. He uses the simple fact that external things, such as food that’s unclean, hands that are unwashed, and dirty kitchen utensils, cannot defile the inner spirit, but it is the heart – the willful and soulful center of a person - that determines a person’s righteousness. It was not outward deeds that made a person holy, but inward spirituality.

Often during evangelistic campaigns an invitation is given for folk to receive Christ in their hearts as Lord and Savior. Such a dogmatic statement is criticized in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. We are accused of narrow mindedness and of causing offense to other religions, because they also claim to lead a way into God’s presence.

My argument with such criticism is that other religions do not claim to offer the living presence of God as a power within a person’s heart, something to be received and embraced. Other religions deny that Jesus rose from death and paint Him as just another martyred prophet. Other religions tell us that the resources we need are locked inside ourselves and we can be our own saviors. Jesus tells us He came to be our Savior and that through Him we can have intimate fellowship with God and that the presence of His Holy Spirit within us can energize lives.

I cannot help but declare Jesus Christ as unique when that is exactly what the gospel message declares is the Good News. It would be as though I were a car salesman and I had a brand new car for sale, the most reliable, wonderful, luxurious car ever created, and rather than extolling it’s merits I start saying, “Of course, it’s not really that special, I mean any old vehicle can get you around town, there’s nothing unique about this one! Make do with what you’ve got, you don’t need the best’.

There is no other religion that makes the claims that Christianity makes. There is no other religious figure that has done what Jesus Christ has done. There is no other religious book that describes God in the way that the Bible does. It is unique. Pretending that it is not so, just in case somebody who believes something different may be offended, is not only illogical, but is also misrepresenting the claims that Christianity makes.

Only Christianity declares that righteousness is a spiritual quality that is produced in our lives through the action of the love of Jesus upon our hearts. Only Christianity suggests we need to seek for God to cleanse us and renew us and recreate us in our inner most places with Holy Spirit love. Only Christianity declares that the way to righteousness is cultivating a Christ-like life under the influence of His living presence. Righteousness is a spiritual quality, the quality of a life indwelt by the living presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit.

Righteousness is thirdly a spiritual lifestyle.

Lest it sounded earlier that I was suggesting that outward acts were unimportant and that if you had it together with God in your inner self then you should live as you please, on the contrary, if you are in a heart relationship with God, you start wanting to do the things that please God, not the things that please only your self. Nobody who desires a holy life seeks to express it by living an unholy lifestyle.

In verse 21 Jesus clearly says, "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."

Jesus makes it clear where the battleground is! It’s inside us. As we allow His love to conquer our hearts, then from out of our lives good things will flow. Elsewhere Jesus teaches us, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, and then all these things shall be added unto you’.

Our passage today raised the question, “What does it mean to be a righteous person?” Clearly it is not simply an act of sticking to the rules.

Righteousness is first of all a spiritual principle. A commitment to love. To love God. To love our neighbor. To cherish the life that God has blessed us with.

Righteousness is secondly a spiritual quality, a quality that comes from the love of God, In Christ, dwelling in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Righteousness is thirdly a spiritual lifestyle. Whilst it is not our acts that dictate our righteousness before God, we should be suspicious of anybody who claims to be living Gods way, but from whose life there flows nothing good. The evidence of spiritual quality is that it produces a spiritual lifestyle.

Help us Lord to be the people you truly want us to be.
Help us Lord to grow in our relationship with You,
So that our love for others may deepen.
Help us Lord, not just to look on the outside,
But to be those who are being renewed by your Holy Spirit inside;
And all this to the glory of Our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.