Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:14-23
Dear people who wrestle with spiritual forces: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
We are foolish if we think that we are basically good and decent people deep down. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we got angry and sinned. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we spoke evil of our neighbour. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we pursued sinful pleasure.
Jesus says sin comes from the heart. Our heart is who we are. When we sin, we expose our hearts, we expose ourselves for who we really are. When we sin, we are acting according to our character.
The sins that we commit are merely a symptom of our status as being sinful. We don’t become sinful because we commit sin. Rather, because we are sinful, we commit sin. Because we have sinful hearts, we sin by what we do and by what we leave undone. We are defiled by sin, and we defile ourselves further by what we think, say, and do.
Jesus says, “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.”
We cannot help but squirm when we hear such lists of sin in Scripture. We expect one accusation may not hit its mark with us, but the next one will. We may not have physically murdered someone, but we have envied them and been jealous of them. We may not have physically stolen that which belongs to another, but we have coveted it. We may not have physically committed adultery, but we have had evil thoughts.
The reality is that no accusation of the Law actually misses the mark with us. When we think some accusation of the Law has missed its mark with us, we are merely being blind to our sin. We are not understanding what perfection God’s Law actually demands of us.
And the bigger issue is that, as I said, all these sins are just symptoms of the true problem – our sinful heart. In one person, certain symptoms or sins are more obvious, and in another person other symptoms or sins. Some of us are better at hiding the symptoms, but we all have the same sinful heart.
When they fall into sin, some people will say, “The devil made me do it.” It is true that we are in a battle not against flesh and blood, as we heard in our Epistle lesson, but against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. But the truth is that the devil and his demons cannot make us do anything. They tempt us. The world tempts us. But we sin because of our sinful heart.
Besides, demons rarely come uninvited. We dangle our fingers in shark-infested waters with every sin. The young man says he was tempted by the devil, that’s why he committed adultery. But he first opened the internet to a porn site, opening a portal for the demons to come into his home. He first allowed his mind to be filled with lust and hardened his conscience, inviting the demons in. There are no victimless crimes, no small sins without consequence (reworked from a paragraph in a Rev. David Petersen sermon on Matt. 15:21-28).
The young woman says she was tempted by the devil, that’s why she shoplifted. But she first coveted what she did not have. She was first jealous of what others had and discontent with what God had given her. She allowed the demons to harass her with desires and hardened her conscience, inviting the demons in. To harden your heart to commit sin is inviting in demons. Sin is a dangerous activity that pleases the spiritual forces of evil, but grieves the Holy Spirit.
Of course, it is not just the young that sin. Slander and gossip are more common with those who have more free time on their hands. Often, pride becomes a bigger struggle as we age. Discontentment and bitterness are common as it seems that everyone else has it easier. After a lifetime of sinful patterns and habits, it is easy to have a conscience hardened by sin and not even recognize sin to be sin. After years of inviting the demons in to roost and harass, there isn’t much fight or resistance left.
We all need our sinful, defiled hearts to be cleansed. We cannot be cleansed by our own efforts to do better. We cannot be cleansed by trying harder or intending to do our best. We know which road is paved with good intentions.
Cleanliness is not a matter of focusing on our weaknesses and getting stronger. Remember, sin is a problem of the heart. Sin comes from the heart. The sins we commit are simply a symptom of who we are.
Cleanliness must come from Jesus. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because He is the Lamb of God without blemish or spot. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because only He is perfect and clean of sin. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world because He is the Lamb of God that was led to the slaughter without complaint.
Jesus never sinned, even through all that He suffered. He didn’t sin when others spoke evil of Him for healing the sick. He didn’t sin when He was reviled and mocked. He didn’t sin even as He was beaten, whipped, spit on, and crucified.
Why then did He suffer so much anguish, grief, and bitter pain? Why did He suffer so cruelly when He never did anything wrong? Why was the sharp sentence of death spoken on an innocent man? It is for your sins that your Lord languished. Yes, all the wrath and anger of God for your sin was poured out on Jesus. All the punishment that you deserve for your sins was put on Jesus. The defilement of your heart was put on Jesus. The sinless Son of God died in sadness, so that you, the sinful child of man may live in gladness.
This is why we thank and praise God. Not because we’re such good Christians. Rather, because we miserable sinners have been forgiven; because we will not get the punishment that our sins deserve; because we will receive the gift of eternal life which we do not deserve.
Jesus has not forsaken us in our weakness. He continues to strengthen us through His Word. Since our strength will not suffice to crucify the desires that still entice us, He gives us His Holy Spirit to reign within us and win us to all good works. He gives us His own body and blood to continually give us the forgiveness of sins and nourish us to eternity.
Jesus knows our weakness. That’s why urges us to confession and absolution often. That’s why He urges us to holy Communion often.
Do you think Jesus is prescribing medicine that we don’t need? Are hearing His Word often and receiving His Sacrament often unessential and unnecessary for our lives? Far from it. It is through these that we receive forgiveness as He removes the defilement from our hearts. It is through these that He strengthens us to curb the symptoms of sin that flow from our hearts. It is through these that He gives us new desires to live a life pleasing to Him. It is through His Word and Sacrament that He brings us before His throne in heaven to give us the crown of joy at last, where with all the saints forever singing the sweetest hymns of praise, we too, will join with praise to our God (portions of these last paragraphs are rephrased from LSB 439). Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]