Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God
In today's Gospel from Mark chapter seven it is apparent that both the religious leaders of Jesus' day and Jesus himself were interested in this business about being clean. A clean heart is important because we need it in order to have a connection with God and with others, which is why we pray, "Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God." September 9, 2012.
Cleanliness is next to godliness. Did you hear that one when you were growing up? You may have assumed that it came from the Bible, but that’s not the case. It seems to have its origins in the nineteenth century Victorian era when advice was shared from one generation to another that everything has a place, and everything should be in its place. But the desire to be clean goes back farther than that. In fact, it’s as old as dirt.
In today’s Gospel from Mark chapter seven it is apparent that both the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and Jesus himself were interested in this business about being clean. But they had radically different views on what clean means and how to get clean. We might think that being clean is easy. We’re used to seeing hand sanitizers in every public space, inspectors who check the corners and cupboards of restaurant kitchens, and surgical technicians who sterilize equipment. But there’s a lot more to being clean than we might at first think, especially if we dig below the surface into the inner recesses of our hearts. A clean heart is super important because we need it in order to have a connection with God and with others. That’s why we pray, “Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God.”
So I Can Love God
One thousand four hundred fifty years before Jesus was born, God had given the people of Israel all kinds of laws: laws for worship, laws for governing, laws for a peaceful, happy life. Those laws were intended to fence the Israelites in so that they would not absorb the moral filth of the heathen nations around them and to drill home the truth: “God is holy. We are not.” He wanted them to realize, “There’s no way we can match up to God’s demands. We need him to help us. We need a Savior.”
But as time went by, the Israelites lost sight of the purpose of those laws from God. Religious leaders, called Pharisees, led them down that path. They put blinders on and ignored the obvious fact that God’s laws made their sins stick out like huge, gaudy billboards along the highway of life. They squelched any urges to cry out, “Lord, we need your forgiveness in order to be spiritually clean.” Instead they were delighted with what they saw in the mirror every morning. They prided themselves in their piety, added their own extra rules and regulations to God’s laws, and taught the people of Israel, “If you want to love God the right way so that he loves you, you better do what we do.”
Here’s an example. One category of God’s laws for the Israelites had to do with being clean. Those “be clean” laws made good sense from a health and hygiene standpoint but were also supposed to remind the Israelites, “God wants us to be internally, that is, spiritually, clean. But the Pharisees didn’t think that way. Instead, they got all caught up in the details of being externally clean: the exact amount of water to be used, how to pour the water over your hands, and how to scrub your hands just so. The Pharisees … do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing … And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. That’s why the Pharisees objected when they saw some of Jesus’ disciples eating food with “unclean” – that is ceremonially unwashed – hands. It’s not that Jesus’ disciples were putting food into their mouths with mud on their hands and dirt under their fingernails. They simply had not followed the strict wash-scrub-rinse procedures prescribed by the Pharisees, who were horrified, “Jesus, your disciples will be spiritual unclean eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands!”
Jesus called it like it is, “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 merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” He called them hypocrites, fakers, because, as the Son of God, he could look into their hearts and see all the dirt in there. They focused on their external “be clean” rules. Jesus focused on God’s internal “be clean” demand.
You can’t look into anyone’s heart. Neither can I. But we can look into our own. I’m not talking about using some kind of ultrasound or cardio-vascular camera. I mean, we can examine the attitudes and the motives inside our heart. Does a table prayer rattle off the tongue out of habit with little or no thought behind it? Are our offerings carefully and joyfully planned or are they leftovers after funding family and fun first? Do you wear good luck jewelry or observe superstitious rituals, figuring, “Can’t hurt, might help,” without realizing that’s actually a lack of trust in God. A little blood-red hatred here, a little green-eyed greed there, a little white lie, a little black mark on the grudge list, a gray disposition that rains on everyone’s parade for no apparent reason other than you’re thinking more about yourself than about others. Dig deep. Take an honest look. Then try to match what you find with Jesus’ demand, “You need a clean heart.” Spiritual dirt on the inside is worse than a surgeon cutting you open with unscrubbed hands and leaving a germy sponge inside because spiritual dirt is eternal-life-threatening and erects a huge barrier preventing our love from flowing to God.
How are we going to get rid of that dirt on the inside? Ask King David. His prayer is ours, “Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God.” The only way we can be clean on the inside is for God to work a miracle. He did. Listen to this quotation from a famous theologian: “Whoever is baptized in Christ is … bathed in the blood of Christ and is cleansed from sins” (What Luther Says: Anthology, vol 1, p.47). There’s the answer for how a dirty rotten sinner like me and like you can love God. It starts with God’s love for us, so pure, so holy, so clean that it scrubs our hearts clean so we can be near him. He does that for us. He does that to us. He has washed us in Jesus’ blood, creating a clean heart inside of you and me. Do you want river of love for God to pour out of your heart? Do you want a symphony of thanks to resound from your heart to the heavens? Just let it flow. Let it go because Jesus answered your prayer and mine, “Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God,” and has given us just that.
So I Can Love Others
But we want to take that a step further, don’t we? Besides the desire to have our love for God grow and flow, we want to get along with others, improve our relationship with others, connect with others. For that to happen we need to address the primary barrier which prevents that, which happens to be the same as the barrier that prevents the flow of our love to God. We’re born with a heart that’s messier than a college Freshman dorm room in the middle of the second semester. By nature we lean away from God. By nature our hearts are unclean. So, whatever smudges up our relationship with God and makes us unclean and dirty in his eyes is the same thing that messes up our connections with other people.
The Pharisees thought they had the solution for that. But they began with an incorrect assumption, that if you touch something that is considered unclean, then your heart will become unclean. Jesus countered that. He made it clear that it may be possible for bacteria and germs to enter your body and make your physically ill, but it is impossible for bacteria and germs to make you spiritually unclean. Jesus said, “Nothing outside a person can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean’. ” Then he listed a vivid string of sinful desires and actions that flow from a sinful heart. “For from within, out of people’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a person ‘unclean’.” Anybody here guilty of any of those things? Evil thoughts, sex without the commitment of marriage, an obsession with getting more money, making excuses to look good at the expense of others, wishing you had as much stuff as the next guy or gal, running someone down behind his or her back, thinking that all God’s rules apply to you except that one which you don’t like, taking unnecessary chances with your time and money. Jesus drives home his point. An unclean heart produces all these loveless actions and attitudes and drives others away.
If you want to improve your connection to others, start with a clean heart. How can that happen? Go back to Jesus. Pray once again, in fact, pray every day, “Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God,” and listen to the Savior’s answer. He sends his Holy Spirit, with pail and scrub brush in hand to cleanse our hearts through the comforting words of Holy Scripture that you hear in worship, that you read in personal study, that you discuss with fellow Christians, through remembrance of baptismal washing, and through the sacrament of the altar. That’s how your attitudes and motives change. That’s how you get filled with the desire and power to love others selflessly, to put others first, to volunteer to give a ride or donate food or pray for someone’s healing or pay for tuition and just plain be what Jesus made you to be – a loving, caring Christian. What a friend you will be, what a congregation we will be, what a community we can live in, what a world we can live in when we wake up each day to hear again Jesus’ answer to our prayer, “Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God”! His answer is, “I have!”
And sure enough! When we leave Pharisaic thinking of outer, external being clean, and enter Jesus’ teaching of being clean, it turns outs that cleanliness is next to godliness. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on September 9, 2012