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What's in your heart?

February 24, 2019, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Matthew 15:1-20) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Matthew
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Matthew 马太福音

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Title: What’s in your heart?
Date: 24th Feb 2019
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Once, I was conducting a funeral. The usual process is for the casket to be placed into the hearse, and then the family, relatives and friends will then follow along behind to walk a short distance for the funeral procession. What was different that time was that I had a very enthusiastic funeral director that day. To describe it using local slang: “his pattern is more than badminton”. The final straw for me was when the hearse was moving off, he asked the family members to touch the hearse as it was moving forward. Now, if it were one or two children touching the hearse as it moved, I would have forgotten about this incident, since I am generally flexible about such matters. But I was really upset that day because that was a big family with many sons and daughters with their spouses. So you can imagine the scenario where they were all squeezing with one another trying to lay hands on the back of a moving hearse. The funeral procession is typically a somber and emotional moment, and so it was certainly not the right time to start an argument with the funeral director. But at the next funeral with the same casket company, I intentionally went early to talk to them. They apologized and explained that the funeral director was new, and they arranged another funeral director to work with me that day.

I do not doubt that the funeral director meant well. Maybe he picked up the practice from other funerals or maybe he created it himself. Maybe it was a way to help the grieving family to remain in contact with the casket somehow, or maybe it is for some other reasons. But to the family, it became just an instruction that they had to follow, and out of filial piety, they did it even if they did not understand it. This is why I’m starting with this story. There is nothing inherently wrong with human traditions. There can be meaningful intentions behind each practice. But I would like us to reflect on these key questions:
• When do we start focusing more on keeping a practice than expressing its meaning?
• When does a practice become a burden or a form of control over others?
• When would be the time to transform a practice to express its meaning fully in a new context?
These are questions that I hope would help us evaluate practices and traditions, and not stick to them blindly just because they are supposed to have meaningful intentions.

In our passage today, the argument was about a tradition of washing hands before meals. If this were for hygiene purposes, then I will stand fully behind the Pharisees and scribes. It is actually good practical advice to wash your hands before you eat. But this was about spiritual defilement, that somehow what you eat or how you eat will make you a ceremonially unclean person. So it was about holiness. However, there is nothing in the bible that talks explicitly about hand washing before eating. So this must have been a human tradition extended from the biblical laws over the years. The most likely suggestion is this: in Exodus 30: 17 Then the Lord said to Moses, 18 “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. 19 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. 20 Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, 21 they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”

You can infer from this passage that the washing of hands and feet was a form of ritual cleansing for the priests to serve in the temple. Even though the Pharisees and scribes were usually not priests, as that was dependent on levitical lineage, but they aspired to keep to the high standards of priestly holiness. In Exodus 19: 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” It is God’s vision that not just the descendents of Aaron, but all of God’s people become holy priests. Most of the Jews did not keep any extra rites and observances according to the priestly standards, especially those living in Galilee such as the disciples of Jesus. But for the Pharisees and scribes, generations of religious leaders since the time of Ezra have added traditions upon traditions to “improve” the level of holiness for themselves, and even unto the general population. For example, they did not just wash hands and feet before meals. They also cleaned the outside of the cup and dish for similar reasons. (Matthew 23:25-26)

So what is wrong with a little extra holiness here and there? On the surface, there seems to be nothing wrong. It is just like a little more insurance, more cleanliness, more exercise, more nutrition, a little extra is always good. But you also notice that each of these is about better protection for yourself. But this is not the true purpose of holiness. In the church retreat later this year, we will look at the book of Leviticus and explore this in depth, but for the purpose for today’s passage, I will give everyone a fundamental understanding. The true purpose of holiness is not just for protecting oneself, but for the purpose of serving others. That is the role of a priest. Being holy allows you to reconcile people to God, and bring divine forgiveness between men. So there is nothing inherently wrong with the practices to encourage holiness, but if you lose the true purpose, not only do these practices become meaningless, they can even become burdensome to others and turn one into being judgmental and self-righteous.

How do we know that these Jewish leaders who came to challenge Jesus had lost the true purpose of holiness? One, they “nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (v. 6). Taking care of one’s parents is one of the most basic Jewish commandment, but these Jewish leaders set up a loophole that these provisions for the parents can be converted into Temple offerings. Presumably, most people would not use this loophole since honoring your parents is not just a Jewish commandment, but also a prevalent value in surrounding cultures. But for those hated their parents so much that they did not mind the social stigma of being unfilial, they could use this loophole to stay legal. Jesus used this legal loophole as an example of how these Jewish leaders were not honoring God’s original intention for human relationships. Then Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 to say that their hearts were not in the right place. All these religious practices could not bring them closer to God because it is not the practices that make you holy, it is the thoughts in your heart. If God and his will are not your desire, but the praises of man from your appearances are, then these practices are meaningless. So Jesus called them blind leading the blind, because they did not know what they were doing. Holy hearts lead to holy practices, because everything you do becomes holy when you do it for God. Practices alone do not make you holy.

So I did a quick self-reflection to see if I am blind leading the blind. And I realize to my horror that sometimes I am blind indeed! I challenge you about practices like punctuality for worship, bible reading, cell group attendance and evangelism, when I should have first challenged your heart. I am blind if I think that the KPI of these practices would make you more holy, when I should have asked you to seek first the kingdom of God. I cannot be blind if I need to bring you to life. I must let you know God. I must show you what the kingdom of heaven is about. Then you will do the practices to be holy because you know you have a priestly calling to serve. In 1 Peter 2: 9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

The purpose of holiness is to serve others in the ministry of reconciliation. #Preservetoserve. Since we have been saved by Jesus out of darkness into his wonderful light, we must preserve ourselves by living in the light so that we may serve and reach out to those in darkness. This is also the reason why the disciples of Jesus did not need to do anymore ceremonial washing of hands. Because the best way to express that you belong to God is to follow Jesus. But what does it mean to follow Jesus? Isn’t it also expressed in the form of practices? That is true. We cannot do without practices like worship, fellowship and mission because following Jesus means Jesus is part of our daily living. We should not compartmentalize our lives into spiritual times and secular times. When we look at Leviticus, we observe that God has instructions for all aspects of Jewish daily living, including relationships and material things. Again we will explore all these in depth during our church retreat, but I will share a basic understanding for our take home message today.

How should we follow Jesus? It begins with a willing heart to respond to God’s calling. It is a response to acknowledge who God is and what he has fully completed in Jesus Christ. In doing so, we profess that whatever we do in terms of practices is purely by grace, and the value of our works rests in the perfection of Jesus himself. It is a relationship of trust and empowerment. This is what we express in every Sunday service, and this is our source of our faith when we are out in the world witnessing through our words and deeds. We may feel we are ordinary against the darkness of the world, whether it is conflicts or the evil thoughts of man. I feel that way too, simply because that’s the truth. We are not chosen because we are special. Neither was Israel. So it makes me more rooted to the true source of strength: Jesus. Whenever I am overwhelmed by the task, God’s word gives me insight on how to proceed. This is the work of the holy Spirit. The only difference is the courage to act after drawing strength from God. I think the reason priests can minister to those in need because they experience the mediation between God and man themselves. One moment they are with the Lord, the next moment they are with fellow men. The experience makes them precious instruments. When the people ask about God, they can say yes, I was with God. When they are with God, they know what to ask because they were with the people.

This is the mindset I use for my religious practices. Outwardly, it is no different from any other Christians: worship, scripture reading, prayer, serving people. What keeps any of it from devolving into meaningless rituals is to remember the purpose of holiness. So in terms of life applications, we may be doing the same as before. But when you realize you have a priestly calling as a Christian, it gives proper meaning to the practices. When we worship, and spend time with God’s word and prayer, we are connecting to God. And when we evangelize, whether it is in our daily work and family or through good deeds, we bring our connection to God with us. When your presence reflects the presence of God, that’s when you know you have God flowing from your heart. May we be living instruments of God, fulfilling his divine purposes for us.

Matthew 15:1–20 (Listen)

15:1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

  “‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
  in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

(ESV)