Note: I am not a pastor. However, my pastor was called out of town this weekend, and I was asked to preach in his stead.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is today’s Gospel lesson—especially the last three verses.
Quick tip on reading the Bible: You might have noticed that the first word of today’s Gospel lesson is “and.” That’s usually a pretty good indication that whatever came before it is actually kind of important to the part you’re about to read. So let’s briefly look back at last weeks’ Gospel. If you remember, the Pharisees were confronting Jesus over a break with tradition—his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating, and he didn’t rebuke them for it. And no, the Pharisees weren’t huge germophobes or anything. They were concerned with being pure before God—specifically, certain parts of the Levitical code that God gave them in order to set them apart from the world. They took the Law very seriously–as we all should. And so, when they read our Old Testament lesson for today, “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live,” (Deut. 4:1) well… they wanted to be sure they obeyed.
Now the Pharisees weren’t stupid—or at least not entirely so. I don’t know about your record at keeping God’s Law, but “do this and you shall live” isn’t particularly comforting to me based on my own performance. It would have been hard for the Pharisees not to have realized this at some point. Over time, they decided that if they were going to get better at keeping God’s Law, they needed a system to help make themselves holier, cleaner, purer. And so they developed one—a new set of rules and traditions designed to help them follow God’s rules and traditions. If they could properly regulate what goes into a person and keep them pure enough… well, maybe they could make themselves righteous before Him.
So they took the law seriously, but not seriously enough. For God also said, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it.” (Deut 4:2) Rather than helping them keep the Law, their system actually led them away from it. They taught their own system as though it came from God. And so Jesus told them, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:8) They wanted to be so sure they followed their own system that they were perfectly willing to sacrifice what God had commanded them. In today’s lesson, Jesus sets the record straight. “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:14-15) In other words, it was never about not eating pork or washing your hands. That was just to set you apart from the nations.
You see, the Pharisees misunderstood where their true problem was. It wasn’t that they weren’t quite disciplined enough in regulating these worldly influences. It wasn’t that their society didn’t abide by godly values anymore. It wasn’t that they were ruled by an oppressive government that was often very uncomfortable with their religion. In our text today, Jesus explains where the real problem lies: “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. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)
Jesus does not paint a pretty picture of our hearts, and yet, how often are instructed by friends, by television, and by gurus, academics, and philosophers to follow our hearts when we need guidance? “Do what feels right.” “Look inside yourself for the answers.” “Search your feelings.” “What does your heart tell you?” From what Jesus describes, our hearts are the last places to look for advice on being better people. Here’s what your heart tells you: It tells you to be sexually immoral—to fornicate, as we used say. “You and your boyfriend love each other, so it’s ok if you sleep with him.” It tells you to steal. “Oh, just illegally download that album; it’s not like you’d actually buy it, so nobody’s losing any money” It tells you to murder. “You know, euthanizing your sick grandpa or aborting your unexpected child would make a lot of people’s suffering go away.” Your heart encourages adultery. “Well, you’re not really in love with your wife anymore; if you want to feel that way again, you’re just going to have to find someone else.” It’s covetous. “You’re the one who really deserved that promotion; not Bob of all people.” I could go on. Jesus certainly did; I gave examples for a third of what he listed. Whatever the particulars of your hearts’ inclinations, if you really don’t think you’re guilty of things like deceit and pride on a regular basis, then you’re certainly guilty of foolishness as well. That is the bleak reality of our hearts. And yet that is what the world tells us to look to for guidance.
There is no system we can devise that will fix this. There are no tips on being a better you or habits of highly effective people that can clean up this mess. No techniques for getting in touch with our inner selves are going to help us because our inner selves are rotten. We are not up to this challenge. As Paul tells us in today’s epistle, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) The voices telling us to follow our hearts are not merely the ramblings of a few misguided people—they are deceptions from the pit of Hell. It is a demonic message that people are giving us.
But… God has not left us to this plight. Despite our wicked hearts, He has provided for our needs. Paul tells us “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” (Eph 6:10) He tells us to put on God’s armor—all of it. And one thing you should notice right away about the armor Paul describes is that everything is from outside of ourselves. “The belt of truth” (Eph 6:14) isn’t my truth or your truth; it’s simply Truth—God’s truth. Not “true for me”, but True for everyone. “The breastplate of righteousness.” (Eph 6:14) Our righteousness does not come from ourselves—thank God—it comes from Christ. Theologians call this “the Great Exchange.” Jesus took our sins to the cross to be atoned for; and in return we receive his perfect righteousness before God. Needless to say, that’s a pretty good deal. “As shoes for your feet, put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15) Yes, ironically enough, the Gospel of peace prepares us for battle with the world. For the peace given to us by the Gospel is not with the world, but with God; and peace with God means enmity with the world. But this Gospel makes us ready because we have nothing to fear from the world; Christ has won and there’s nothing left that it can do to us. “Take up the shield of faith:” (6:16) the faith by which we receive all of these benefits—the faith that is, itself, a gift of God, as Paul explains earlier in this letter. This faith shields us because it leaves no room for Satan’s lies. “Take the helmet of salvation.” (Eph. 6:17) Once again—completely free gift. Our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, a faith that is in Christ alone not in ourselves or our systems.
And finally, Paul tells us to take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Eph. 6:17-18) You might have noticed a certain transition here. We receive God’s word and immediately use it to pray and seek his aid—things we do. Utterances coming out of our hearts, and this is a suddenly a good thing after the big deal Jesus made about our hearts? What happened? God doesn’t stop at simply marking us off as “saved” and moving on. He doesn’t just dismiss us and say “Do whatever you want; I don’t care.” God puts new words into our hearts—His words. And when His word is in our hearts, it also flows out of us in prayer and supplication—and indeed in all facets of our battle with this world. Our hearts are corrupt, but God has not left us heartless. He has, in Baptism, buried our old selves and begun a new life within us. And He regularly feeds this new life with his word and with His own body and blood.
We still carry our old sinful hearts with us; a realistic look at your past week in comparison with Jesus’ list today should confirm this for you. But that sinful heart is no longer alone. The Holy Spirit is also at work within us. We are, at the same time, saints and sinners. Until Christ returns, we have both natures at war within us. There is a conflict raging in our hearts. But as our battle continues, how do we know which side is which? How can we tell whether something is coming from our old nature or our new nature? The answer is the sword of the Spirit—the Bible. It divides truth from error. If you want to know if what’s coming out of you is from your own sinful heart or from your new nature in Christ, compare it to what God says in the Scriptures. God is neither a liar nor a schizophrenic. He’s not going to put something in your heart that’s contrary to what he declares in His Word.
So you see, even the new self looks outside of itself. We do good works; it’s us who does them. We learn, we strive, and we struggle to do them. But we must not look to systems or to our own hearts to make it happen. Saints look to God for what they need. So let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We, and our hearts, are in his care. And there is no better place to be.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, bearing His Word unto life everlasting. Amen.