February 2020

Dogs & Deaf, 23 February 2020

Dogs and Deaf
Series—Mark: The Real Jesus
Mark 7:24-37

Series Big Idea: Mark’s gospel is the most concise biography of Jesus.

Big Idea: God is perfect, His timing is perfect, and His plans are perfect.

Do you trust God? We all know the spiritual, Sunday morning answer to the question, but what about Monday morning? If you’re like me, you are fully of questions for God, and most of them begin with “why?” It’s rather audacious to think we could understand anything better than the Creator of the universe. It’s okay to ask God questions. You can be real with God. I encourage you to pour out your heart to God…every day. He can handle it…and all of life’s trials.

Although we occasionally have topical sermons, most of the time we go verse-by-verse through the Bible, something known as expository preaching. We start with the text and ask three questions of it: What did it mean? What does it mean? So what?

When we go through books of the Bible—as we’ve been doing with the book of Mark—it’s tempting to skip over difficult passages or those texts which may seem less interesting or relevant. I must confess the seventh chapter of Mark is not my favorite chapter in the Bible, but as we’ve seen the past two weeks, there are some important things Mark wants us to know about Jesus. As we finish the chapter, we see two different encounters with Jesus. The first is with a Gentile woman and the other with a deaf man.

Let’s dive in…

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. Mark 7:24)

Tyre is a city in Lebanon and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. This is the only biblical mention of Jesus leaving Palestine.

Why would he want to hide? There are several possibilities:

  • He wanted to avoid the crowds who wanted to use Jesus for their own purposes
  • He needed to get alone with his followers/disciples and teach them
  • He was simply tired and needed some privacy and rest

Jesus was led by his mission, not the crowds. He knew what to do and did it. God is perfect.

Jesus is arguably the most famous person to ever walk the face of the earth. He was on a mission to change the world, which he surely did. Nevertheless, he had an agenda, a plan, an intentional strategy for doing so. His mission was to seek and save the lost, not necessarily gain the biggest crowd as quickly as possible. In our culture, we assume the more fans and followers the better, but building a social media platform is different than transforming humanity!

I used to think the only thing that mattered was the “what.” I’ve becoming increasingly concerned about the “how of a situation.” It’s been said that timing is everything, so the “when” is also vital in any action plan.

So another reason Jesus may have not wanted to find him is it wasn’t the right time for him to go public.

God’s timing is perfect. He’s never late, though rarely early. He knows when to act.

This was true for Jesus and his ministry. It’s also true when we pray. Can you trust God’s timing?

In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. (Mark 7:25)

Do you believe in angels? Do you believe in demons? They are both real, spiritual beings. Demon possession is real. We discount it in our hyper-scientific culture, but you don’t have to travel far around the world to see the supernatural world on full display. There is an unseen, spiritual dimension to reality. Angels and demons are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible.

She falls at the feet of Jesus. She’s desperate. She loves her little daughter, yet this demon was wreaking havoc. She needs an exorcism.

Demons are real. Demon possession is real. But God is greater. Hallelujah!

The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. (Mark 7:26)

She’s a Canaanite. She’s not Jewish. She’s a Gentile. Last week we talked about the huge tension between Jews and Gentiles. It is at the heart of Jesus’ response.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

What? Does Jesus call this woman a dog?

There are a few different understandings of this metaphor. Some have suggested the children refers to Jesus’ disciples and the bread is his ministry, his teachings. It likely is a reference to the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jew and his first priority was to the Jews. The dogs refers not to women, but the Gentiles.

There are two Greek words for dogs. One is a negative word that we might call an ugly creature or a violent dog (like the two German Shepherds who bit me when I was a boy). Jews would sometimes use this scavenger dog word to describe Gentiles. The word Jesus uses here, though, refers to a household animal. We love our children. We love our pet puppies! Is there a priority? Yes, but both are loved.

Jesus is not always fair, but he loves equally.

John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that He gave us Jesus. There’s an old song which says Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. He died for every child—and every man and woman—who responds to his invitation to follow him, to make him LORD, to surrender control of their lives to their Creator and the one who proved his love by laying down his life on the cross…and rising from the dead, conquering sin and death.

But Jesus is not always fair. Just look around! We’ve all been given different gifts, childhoods, opportunities, and talents. Hundreds of people followed Jesus, but his focus was on a dozen…and really on three: Peter, James, and John. How do you think the other nine felt when they heard stories of Jesus and his best friends?

Our culture emphasizes fairness and equality, but listen…you don’t want fair. You don’t want to give you what you deserve. You and I deserve death and eternal punishment for our sins. Without Jesus we’re hopeless, lost, and separated from God. The scandal in Christianity is not God’s judgment, but God’s mercy. The scandal is an innocent, holy, perfect God was killed for selfish, arrogant, rebellious sinners like us. The most unfair thing in the universe is that God loves us…and proved it. It’s like Dave Ramsey says when asked how he’s doing: “better than I deserve.”

I don’t always understand God and how He works, what He’s doing. I have many questions for Him, but I know I’m loved, I know Daddy knows best, and the rest is faith, it’s trusting that the God of the universe understands reality better than I do.

God’s plan was to begin with the Jews, but not stop there. In the first book of the Bible, it is revealed that,

Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. (Genesis 18:18)

Not Jew only, but Jew first. Is that fair? It doesn’t matter. It’s God’s plan…and you’re in it!

By the way, Jesus said,

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:31)

Could this apply to the order of the Jews and Gentiles?! Today, Gentiles are not dogs, but rather children alongside the Jews.

This woman doesn’t go away and give up. She presses in.

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

She knows God’s love is not exclusively for the Jews, even if it begins with them. Children and dogs both get food…at the same time. She just wants a crumb, a small miracle, a simple expression of grace.

Then he told her,
“For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29)

He performs a miracle. It’s already done!

Jesus is impressed with her faith…and tenacity. What about you? Do you pray once and give up? It’s okay to be real with God. Jesus never scolds her for persevering. He praises her for it. Often our prayers are not answered on-demand. God’s timing is usually different than ours. He loves to hear you pray. I believe your voice is the most beautiful sound in the universe to God. Really.

I love my kids. I love it when they text. Calling is even better. FaceTime is better still. The best is when we’re together, in person. I love my kids. I love interacting with my kids. God does, too. He wants us to engage, to ask, to persevere, to pour out our heart.

It may seem like God is playing hard-to-get, hiding, or just ignoring you, but I assure you He’s at work. He hears you. He’s responding, but His timing is not always ours. While we get impatient and want everything now, He’s got all the time in the world. Literally. He’s at work in us as well as through us, refining our character, teaching us, and writing a story on our hearts that usually takes many decades to tell.

Ask…and keep asking. It will be worth it. It was for this woman. The demon left her daughter. Her prayer was answered.

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:30)

Have you given up on God? Have you quit praying that prayer? Have you put your faith on auto-pilot? Are you just going through the motions, defeated by disappointment with God? I want to challenge you to persevere, to keep praying.

Years ago, someone gave me a beautiful image of a giant parachute hanging from the ceiling like a big bowl. He said when he prays, he imagines writing his prayers on paper and placing them in the parachute. Each prayer causes the parachute to get heavier and heavier until it eventually bursts. It might be that your next prayer is the one—after hundreds or thousands or millions—which will lead to that breakthrough. Don’t give up!

Mark continues with a different story in a different place with different people.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.
There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. (Mark 7:31-32)

Jesus was gaining a reputation as a healer. Who doesn’t want free health care?! Here’s a deaf man who could hardly talk, and his friends beg Jesus to heal him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him,
“Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). (Mark 7:33-34)

Is this how you’re supposed to heal, Jesus? Does he really want your spit in his mouth?

We like formulas. Pray these magic words and all of your dreams will come true! Jesus heals different people differently. In the case of the woman’s demon-possessed daughter, he didn’t even meet the girl, he just declared her healed. With this man, he takes him away from the crowd and sticks his fingers in his ears and tongue to open them with one word.

Jesus’ plans are always perfect, even when they seem odd.

At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:35)

No speech class is required. What a beautiful miracle. Then Jesus does something that would drive any public relations director crazy.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:36-37)

Was Jesus using reverse psychology, telling the people to be quiet in hopes that they would rebel and spread the word of his amazing power? I used to think that, but I believe Jesus was sincere. As we saw earlier, he had a mission, a timetable, a plan. He needed to disciple his…disciples. There were sermons he needed to preach, people he needed to encounter. He knew the sooner he became famous, the sooner the religious leaders would want him killed.

The prophet Isaiah said,

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6a)

The Messiah is here!

God is perfect. (what)
God’s timing is perfect. (when)
God’s plans are perfect. (how)

Yet we have the audacity to ask why. We question the Creator of the universe. And He’s actually ok with that, so long as we don’t give up…so long as we engage with Him.

Matthew records Jesus saying,

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

This doesn’t mean we always get what we want, and it certainly doesn’t mean we get it when we want it, but we are encouraged in more than one place to ask, to seek, to knock, to engage with God. He wants us to pray. Yes, He knows what we want before we ask, but He wants us to ask. Every good Dad loves to give gifts to his kids, but they don’t want to be a vending machine. They want a relationship.

So What?

Perhaps the message in both of these stories is to ask and keep asking. You can analyze the woman’s story and compare children and dogs. You can discuss the irony of a loud crowd trying to help a man who couldn’t talk followed by the man talking and Jesus telling the crowd not to talk.

God sees you. He knows your name. He knew you before the creation of the universe! He saw you in your mother’s womb. He knows the number of hairs on your head (or how many used to be on your head!). He sees every tear you cry and every smile on your face.

God hears you. He hears every prayer, every word. He listens, too. He cares.

Do you trust God? Do you trust His plans? Do you trust His timing?

I know it can be hard. I’ve been praying for years for things, for people, for healing, for reconciliation. I don’t understand why it’s taking so long, but I’m seeking to trust God. Instead of why, I’ve been asking, “What are you up to, LORD?”

God is perfect, His timing is perfect, and His plans are perfect. God can be trusted.

Prayer: I believe. Help me in my unbelief.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
  • Clean & Unclean, 16 February 2020

    Clean and Unclean
    Series—Mark: The Real Jesus
    Mark 7:14-23

    Series Big Idea: Mark’s gospel is the most concise biography of Jesus.

    Big Idea: Looks can be deceiving, especially when it involves matters of the heart.

    Are you are rule-keeper or a rule-breaker?

    Whether you like them or not, laws are a part of life. There are scientific laws like the law of gravity which says if you drop a bowling ball on your foot, it’s going to hurt. There are human laws, those rules designed to help us flourish such as stop at a red light, pay your taxes, and don’t hurt animals.

    Some laws have a shelf-life and become outdated over time. For example,

    In Missouri, you can't drive down the highway with an uncaged bear in your car.
    When parking your elephant at a meter in Orlando Florida, you must deposit the same amount of change as you would for a regular motor vehicle.
    It's against the law in North Dakota to serve beer and pretzels at the same time.
    In Winona Lake, Wisconsin, it is illegal to eat ice cream at a counter on Sunday. 

    In Arizona, it is illegal for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs.

    In Michigan, it’s illegal for women to cut their own hair without their husband’s permission.

    In Ohio, it is illegal to get a fish drunk.

    Last Sunday we returned to our study on Mark’s biography of Jesus and looked at the Pharisees and religious leaders who were so devoted to tradition and laws that they missed God in the process…especially when he was standing in their midst! They were determined to stop Jesus…at all costs.

    Our text for today in Mark 7 is discussion of clean and unclean. Those words in our culture might describe one’s clothes or car, but here it’s a reference to the Jewish laws which governed everything from diet to fabrics to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Are you clean or unclean? Looks can be deceiving, especially when it involves matters of the heart.

    We live in a binary world of us versus them. Black or white. Republican or Democrat. Love or hate. In or out. Our divisions usually pale compared to the Jew and Gentile separation. The laws created by God to enhance the welfare of the Jewish people became—over time—nothing more than a checklist of external rules to obey with little regard to the internal heart or love for God. Last week we saw Jesus address the issue of hand-washing. There were religious customs for hand-washing that had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with determining who’s in and who’s out, who is a Jew and who is a Gentile.

    One of the most common ways Jews distinguish themselves is through their diet. Today we call it…kosher. It’s based upon Old Testament restrictions on certain animals including pork and shellfish. Halal among Muslims is somewhat similar. Keep in mind, the issue behind the dietary laws is not necessarily physical health, but rather distinguishing one’s self from others. We said last Sunday the word “Pharisee” meant “separated ones.”

    Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (Mark 7:14-15)

    This was a radical statement, one of many that would rile up the Pharisees and religious leaders. Though it is not explained to the crowd here, Jesus is declaring the entire kosher system null and void. As we’ll see, it’s not that the laws were bad, but they were for a season…and Jesus’ arrival signaled a new season. It goes without saying that Jesus changed the world. He changed how we relate to God…and one another.

    I must admit Old Testament laws can be confusing, especially to modern Christians. Much of the New Testament controversies and debates in the early church dealt with the role of Jewish laws for Christians. These matters are still discussed today. Recently, Pastor Andy Stanley wrote a somewhat controversial book, Irresistible, which examined the role of the Old Testament and its laws on modern Christians.

    Verse 16

    If you’re paying close attention, some of you may notice verse sixteen is missing from some of your Bibles. What happened? We don’t have the original writings or autographs of the Bible books. We do, however, have very reliable copies. Before the invention of the printing press, people would hand-copy the Bible for their occupation, often on scrolls. Every letter was crucial, and if a mistake was made, they would often destroy their work and start over.

    Over the years, the Bible has come under tremendous scrutiny…more than any other text in history. There is tremendous evidence to conclude it is about 99% reliable with perhaps thirty or forty errors. Pastor Soper discussed this on Friday’s Mission119.org devotional. Thirty or forty errors might sound like a lot, but when you consider that’s less than one per book and most of the errors involved a piece of punctuation, spelling, or a slight numerical variation, you quickly realize there is no historical book even remotely close to the reliability of the Bible. In fact, there are more errors and discrepancies in Shakespeare’s works than in the Bible.

    Some—but not all—manuscripts of the book of Mark include verse sixteen which adds Jesus saying,

    If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mark 7:16, NKJV)

    This was a common expression which Jesus said on more than one occasion, including Mark 4:23. Did he say it again here or was it added by the copyists? We’re not sure. Does it change the meaning of the text? Not one bit…nor do the other minor errors scholars have found after comparing about 5000 different manuscripts of the books of the Bible.

    (Back to our story!)

    Jesus spoke in parables, simple stories used by Jesus to teach a moral or spiritual lesson. It was not uncommon for him to tell a story his disciples failed to understand. It may seem obvious to us, but the Jewish traditions were so ingrained in the disciples, they were clueless about any alternative.

    After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. (Mark 7:17)

    I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were clarifying the meaning of Jesus’ teachings or they wanted to hear more, but Jesus’ response makes it obvious they missed the point.

    “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? (Mark 7:18)

    In case you didn’t know, Jesus is fully human. He’s fully God, too, but he’s fully human. We often picture him as some flakey, angelic white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes whose feet never really touch the ground, but that’s just artistic fantasy. He’s a real person with real emotions. He has never sinned, but he was not always “nice.” Sometimes tough love is necessary in relationships. Often we do things to get the attention of others. In this instance, he spoke the truth plainly, calling out their ignorance.

    “Are you so dull?” I love that!

    For those of you who like the Shakespearean King James, it says,

    Are ye so without understanding also? (Mark 7:18a, KJV)

    The New King James reads,

    “Are you thus without understanding also? (Mark 7:18a, NKJV)

    The New Living Translation says,

    “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. (Mark 7:18a, NLT)

    I like the New International Version, though!

    “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? (Mark 7:18)

    You’ve probably heard the expression, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If you fill your body with junk food, you’ll probably regret it…eventually. If you fill your mind with trash, most likely trash will come out of your mouth and life.

    The Jewish culture—especially the religious people like the Pharisees—were less concerned about physical health, though, and more concerned about how other people viewed them. One writer put it this way: the old legalism was, “What’s in your refrigerator?” If you had pork or shellfish or anything non-kosher, you were considered unclean, tainted, a bad Jew. Kosher became a test, not about one’s relationship with God, but rather one’s relationship with the religion.

    Similarly, many legalistic Christians have forbidden any use of alcohol…and condemned anyone who has even a sip of wine at a special occasion.

    I’m not encouraging the consumption of alcohol. I can’t stand the taste of alcohol, but the Bible never explicitly prohibits alcohol. In fact, Jesus made some great wine (John 2)! Under-age drinking is a sin. It’s against the law. Drunkenness is a sin…and if you can’t stop with one glass, don’t start! But some judgmental Christians will put you in one of two categories: drinker or non-drinker, sinner or saint. It’s not about the health benefits of alcohol, but what they personally think about you and your character as a result of your beverage preference. This attitude was similar to that of the Pharisees and their dietary laws.

    By the way, the writer who called old legalism “what’s in your refrigerator?” describes the new legalism as “what’s in your driveway?” Think about that for a moment.

    Back to our text,

    “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? (Mark 7:18)

    For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:19)

    This was a radical statement Mark makes to his readers. Kosher is no longer necessary. The traditions related to diet were no longer relevant because the rules were no longer the pathway to God. Jesus was! Matthew records him saying,

    “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. (Matthew 5:17)

    Jesus brought the Old Testament to a new completion, a new fulfillment. The laws were signposts. When you arrive at your destination, you don’t need signposts, not because they have no value, but because they were correct. The laws led to Jesus the Messiah.

    We don’t need to offer animal sacrifices in the temple, thank goodness. We don’t need to avoid eating pig (though I do since I’m allergic to pork!). We are no longer under the Old Testament laws, not that they are bad or wrong, but they’re obsolete.

    I encourage you to follow the Ten Commandments, but if you break the Sabbath, you need not fear the death penalty given to Old Testament Jews who did so. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), hallelujah! We’re not saved by our good works, our mastery of the law, our outward perfection. We’re saved by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Does this mean we should eat, drink and be merry, doing whatever we want? Hardly! It does mean we start from the inside, not the outside. We begin with our hearts. What matters most is the inside, not the outside.

    It’s Black History Month in the USA and I’m reminded of Dr. King’s brilliant statement,

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    I think Jesus would say,

    I have a dream that my friends will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by the food in their refrigerator, but by the content of their character.

    He went on:
    “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mark 7:20-22)

    This is not a comprehensive list of sins, of course, but what we might call a dirty dozen.

    Sexual immorality is all kinds of inappropriate sexual activity outside of marriage. Theft and murder are obvious. Adultery is sexual immorality by a married person with someone other than their spouse. Greed or coveting involves inappropriate cravings for what belongs to another. Malice is another term for wickedness or simply evil.

    Deceit is trickery, cheating, or dishonesty. Lewdness is lustful, rude or profane desires. Envy is similar to greed and jealousy. Slander is hurting someone or God with your words. Arrogance is pride, exalting yourself above others. Folly is moral and spiritual insensitivity or foolishness.

    None of these just happen. They begin in our heart.

    All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:23)

    Elsewhere, Jesus said,

    A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45)

    Sin begins inside, not outside. It begins with temptation, a thought, an idea. You don’t accidentally walk up to someone and murder them. You don’t randomly commit adultery. You don’t rob a bank without a plan (unless you want to get caught!).

    Jesus’ half-brother, James, described the four-step process of sin:

    When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13-15)

    Desire – deception – disobedience – death

    It’s not a pretty picture…and it describes all of us. So many people today talk about getting in touch with your feelings, listening to your heart, being true to yourself, finding yourself. That’s a certain path to destruction, family, because our hearts are dark and depraved. The problem in our world is not them, it’s me. The solution is not trying harder because the solution is not within me. It’s Jesus. True holiness is internal, not external, and it begins with surrender, making Jesus LORD.

    What Jesus is addressing with all of these statements is religion. Religion is human attempts to earn God’s favor. It involves personal expressions of perfection and a holier-than-thou attitude which elevates one’s self while putting down those around you. It usually involves pride, judgment of others, and an attitude which isolates. The New Testament if filled with accounts of the self-righteous, and I’m not aware of a single instance where Jesus praises their behavior.

    On the contrary, Jesus highlighted the humility of the broken. He applauded the meek and weak. He encouraged the sinner to pursue righteousness, but never promoted religion. He simply invited people to follow him, to make him both Savior and LORD. He’s still doing that today. He said all of the laws of the Old Testament and the 613 laws of Moses could be summarized in two: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

    Perhaps you’ve made a mess out of your life. I’ve got great news for you! Nothing you can do can make God love you any more than He already does, and nothing you can do can make God love you less than He already does. He made you, He knows you, He loves you, and His arms are open wide to welcome you into His family, to forgive you, to heal you, to make you new. What do you say? I know, it sounds too good to be true, but that’s grace. That’s why Jesus came. He knew we couldn’t perfectly follow all of the rules, no matter how hard we might try. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to obey God and become like Jesus. He came to die for us…lost sinners…all of us!

    Perhaps you’ve tried to follow all of the rules, and done pretty well. Nobody’s perfect, but most people think you are. It feels good to be around sinners because you are so superior. Unfortunately, in the eyes of God your pride undermines all of your good works. As I said again last week, I’m a recovering Pharisee. I’ve struggled with pride, a sin which can be hidden from others.

    We all need repentance. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, His standard of perfection. Big sins or little sins all lead to death. They separate us from God and others. They may be visible or invisible sins. They made be sins of commission which we commit or sins of omission, failing to not do the right thing.

    This isn’t just about individuals. As a church, we’ve sinned, too. I’ve heard so many stories about the great things First Alliance Church has done. We’ve held onto the truths of the Bible while other churches have “watered down the gospel.” If that’s true, it’s a good thing, but how easy it is to take pride in our good deeds, our good theology, our righteousness (see Isaiah 64:6). As we saw in last week’s text, it’s easy to make our human-made traditions more important than God’s timeless Word. We can easily slip into legalism and drive away the very people who are seeking God.

    God’s desire for First Alliance Church is a broken and contrite family, a religion-free church, a group of humble, desperate, God-fearing, masterpiece-restoring, Jesus-following men, women and children who are more concerned about their own hearts than the behavior of others. They begin inside, with themselves. King David wrote,

    Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (Psalm 139:23)

    He also wrote these famous words when he acknowledged his sin with Bathsheba,

    Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

    You can wash your hands with water, but the only way you can have a clean, pure heart is through repentance and Jesus.

    The world says you are what you do. Jesus says you do what you are. It begins with your heart.

    How is your heart. Clean or unclean?

    Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
  • Tradition Rules, 9 February 2020

    Tradition Rules
    Series—Mark: The Real Jesus
    Mark 7:1-13

    Series Big Idea: Mark’s gospel is the most concise biography of Jesus.

    Big Idea: Motives matter and tradition should never be more important than obedience to God.

    I love Celebrate Recovery! I’m so grateful for Sherry and Hollywood and the others who lead this vital ministry on Wednesdays at 7 PM. I’m grateful, too, for the team at Saddleback Church who took the 12 Steps and enhanced them with a robust biblical foundation. Although Celebrate Recovery is perfect for anyone struggling with grief, loss, and pain, it may best be known for its ability to help those dealing with any form of addiction.

    Arguably the most important step of the twelve is the first one, to admit we are powerless and that we have a problem. No transformation can begin while denial is present, so let me begin with this admission…

    My name is Kirk and I’m a recovering Pharisee.

    This month we’re returning to our series from the gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the biographies of Jesus. It’s clear and concise. We began this series in 2017 and have taken quite a few breaks along the way! I doubt we’ll finish it this year, though I encourage you to read the book of Mark this year…and every year! Over the years, we have looked at every verse in the first six chapters, bringing us to chapter seven. Our text today revolves around one word…tradition!

    It begins,

    The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

    What is a Pharisee and why do I consider myself a recovering Pharisee? I’m glad you asked!

    There are actually many debates about this group of religious leaders, but here are a few things we know:

    1. 1. They were the authorized teachers of Jesus’ time
    2. 2. Many of them were politically active
    3. 3. They were significant, popular, and influential in Israel
    4. 4. They were the largest of the groups within Judaism, possibly numbering 6000 members during Jesus’ life
    5. 5. They promoted not only their own holiness but also that of other Jews
    6. 6. Their chief concern was purity within the story and tradition of being Jews, God’s elect people
    7. 7. They were highly religious and devout

    Is this a good thing? Yes. Can it become a bad thing? Yes.

    We usually think of Pharisees as legalistic, self-righteous, hypocritical bigots who look for the speck in the eyes of others while ignoring the 2x4 plank of pride in their own. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for all Pharisees, and it certainly wasn’t their intention.

    In fact, hardly any group of people are always bad…or always good. This is important to remember, especially in our day of division and stereotype. There are few things that can be said about ALL Republicans or ALL Democrats or ALL refugees or ALL African-Americans or Asians or ALL rich people or ALL Christians or ALL Catholics or ALL doctors or ALL Buckeyes! Labeling is harmful. Period. We need to look at each person as an individual masterpiece in need of varying amounts of restoration.

    Josephus, a first-century Jewish writer, said the Pharisees were

    • - considered “the most accurate interpreters of the laws”
    • - the leading sect of the Jews and “extremely influential among the townsfolk”
    • - devoted to Torah—the Law, the Jewish Bible—to its interpretation, and living according to the Torah

    When we mention the Pharisees, we often think of zealots, likely an extreme form of Pharisaism. Saul—who became known as Paul in the New Testament—was a zealot. He was so passionate about preserving the Jewish nation that he oversaw the killing of early Christians who began following Jesus rather than Judaism. To that end, Dr. Scot McKnight makes these observations:

    1. Pharisees, with others, opposed John and Jesus for their kingdom ministry (Matt 3:7). 2. Pharisees had a “righteousness” that Jesus said was inadequate (Matt 5:20). 3. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for eating with the wrong sorts (Matt 9:11). 4. Pharisees had a different fasting routine (Matt 9:14). 5. Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons in allegiance with Satan (Matt 9:34). 6. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their sabbath practices (Matt 12:2). 7. Pharisees wanted Jesus to attest to his vocation with a sign (Matt 12:38). 8. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their lack of handwashing before meals (Matt 15:1-20). 9. Pharisees taught things Jesus thought were contrary to God’s will (Matt 16:6, 12). 10. Pharisees tested Jesus’ “theology”/”practice” on divorce (Matt 19:3). 11. Pharisees wanted Jesus put away (Matt 22:15) and Jesus knew it (Matt 21:33-45). 12. Pharisees were accused of hypocrisy by Jesus (Matt 23). 13. Pharisees are nearly absent in the trial scenes of Jesus. [They did not have the power to put him to death.]

    They had a clear interpretation of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, and opposed any other interpretation or practice related to it, which explains their conflicts with Jesus. They obviously thought they were right and, therefore, anyone who didn’t believe and behave exactly like they did was a heretic, an enemy. They had a noble motive to protect the nation of Israel.

    Here’s the real issue: The Pharisees saw the Torah largely as a comprehensive rule book which must be followed in order to please God. Jesus taught the Torah was about loving God and loving others.

    Now let’s return to our text.

    The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

    Washing hands is a very good practice, especially before eating or touching any part of your face. The Mayo Clinic says the number one way to avoid the cold and flu (or coronavirus) is to…stay away from sick people! They add, “Don’t put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth” and “wash your hands frequently, especially when out in public.”

    Actually, the issue here was not related to physical health, but rather tradition. They didn’t literally wash their hands, but merely rinsed them (Mark 7:3-4). There’s nothing wrong with tradition in and of itself. We have many traditions here. For decades, First Alliance Church has gathered on Sunday mornings. Why not Tuesday at 11 PM?
    We take communion on the first Sunday of the month. We take a benevolence offering on the second Sunday of the month. We sing at least one hymn each Sunday. We have a group of men who pray each Tuesday morning. We have activities on Wednesday evenings. We have annual services on Good Friday and Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Why? Tradition!

    The problem arises when tradition becomes an idol, more important than Jesus. The Bible itself can become simply a tradition if it becomes more important than Jesus. Our faith is based upon a person, not a book.

    In the context of this scene, the Pharisees had built an agenda which was both political and religious. Does that sound familiar? Scripture was being interpreted and applied through an agenda related to revolt against Rome. God’s Word got polluted.

    So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)

    The Jewish religious leaders began with accusation. Their question is literally, “Why don’t your disciples walk…?” Why are they not following tradition? The religious leaders loved to find fault in others, especially someone as popular and threatening to them as Jesus. The issue really wasn’t hygiene, but rather tradition given to the people to add to their burdens (Matthew 23:4). Jesus had already broken their fasting and Sabbath traditions (Mark 2:23-3:5) and now they’re looking for more evidence to discredit him and elevate their own status. At issue was these teachers had access to the written Torah, but they also relied upon the oral traditions of their forefathers.

    A little bit of background is necessary to grasp this event. The Jews—as God’s chosen people—saw themselves as special. They sought to distinguish themselves from Gentiles—or worse, Samaritans. By ceremonially washing, they announced they were special while others were “unclean.” What was once a good reminder that they were God’s elect became an empty ritual filled with pride and religious separation. Such washings were tangible and visible.

    Jesus taught that while externals matter, it’s possible to do the right things externally while having a sinful interior life. For Jesus, the focus was always about loving God and loving people. These two commands would summarize the 613 laws in the Jewish tradition.

    He replied, “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.” (Mark 7:6-8)   

    The word “hypocrite” means “play actor.” These religious people would often perform for crowds their good deeds despite their wicked hearts.

    Have you ever done something you didn’t feel like doing? It can be easy to pretend with people, but God always knows our hearts. He knows our thoughts. He knows our attitudes.

    It reminds me of a little boy whose mother kept insisting he sit down in his highchair. When he finally unlocked his knees and plopped into the seat, he declared, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I'm still standing up on the inside!”

    The Pharisees knew how to impress people by their actions, but on the inside they were becoming prideful. They were more concerned about human traditions than the commands of God. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially in our consumer culture where we are assaulted with the message that it’s all about us. “This is MY church and I want things done MY way, regardless of what the Bible does or doesn’t say.”
    The Pharisees generally began with good motives, but they lost their focus. Instead of knowing and loving God, they became more concerned about looking good for others and even thinking their good works would win them favor with God. We call that religion.

    I like to think of religion as anything we do to try to make God like us, but He already loves us. That’s why He sent Jesus to live and die and resurrect for us. We can’t earn salvation. We can’t get to heaven—now or after we die—by following the rules. We’re saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).

    And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (Mark 7:9)

    If you wear a fancy suit on Sunday but fail to love your neighbor…
    If you have memorized the book of Mark but fail to love your neighbor…
    If you attend a church service every Sunday but fail to love your neighbor…
    If you wash your hand or your face or your car or your clothes but fail to love…

    Don’t believe me? Here’s what Paul, the former Pharisee, said,

    If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

    The Pharisees had abandoned God’s commands while keeping human tradition.

    Back to Jesus…

    For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:10-13)

    These Jewish leaders begin with teaching tradition as God’s Word (Mark 7:7), setting aside God’s Word (7:8), rejecting God’s Word (7:9), and robbing God’s Word of its power (7:13). It doesn’t matter how sincere you are or how religious you are or how pious you appear to others, God sees your heart.

    Jesus says they do many religious things. They do many traditional things, yet they miss the point…love God and love others as they love themselves. While they claim to love God, they don’t even love their own parents, breaking the fifth Commandment. They dedicated their wealth to God while failing to support their parents. They place tradition above God’s Word.

    Let me say again traditions aren’t necessarily bad, but when tradition rules above God, when preference rules above the Bible, when we do the right things for the wrong reasons with bad motives, we risk becoming like the prideful, self-righteous Pharisees.

    And I’m a recovering Pharisee. You might be one, too.

    I used to not only follow the rules but judge others who didn’t behave just like me. I still do, sometimes, which is why I’m recovering.

    I used to get nervous when someone didn’t worship exactly like me, dress like me, or think just like me. I still do, sometimes, which is why I’m recovering.

    My focus needs to always be on Jesus. What would make Jesus smile?

    I’m a recovering Pharisee. I sometimes want people to see how good I am. I don’t smoke, chew, or go out with girls that do! Look at me, mister holier-than-thou.

    It amazes me how much the religious people seemed to dislike Jesus…and vice-versa. You can serve God or religion. You can follow the Bible or tradition.

    Motives matter. Underneath everything we do is an attitude, good or bad, self-serving or God-serving, prideful or humble.

    Are you a Pharisee? Are you, like me, a recovering Pharisee?

    How is your heart? Why do you do the things you do? Is it to make yourself happy? Is it to impress others? Or is it to honor God?

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

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