“Voiding the Sacred and Keeping the Silly”

“Voiding the Sacred and Keeping the Silly”  Mark 7:1-13
The 14th Sunday after Pentecost (B)  8/26/18
Pastor Mark H. Hein, St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL

I have seen it a number of times lately on Facebook, the same disturbing post of a so-called pastor dancing around with a poisonous snake in a pseudo-Christian ritualistic event, getting all worked up into a frenzy… as is the tradition… with all the other people present. It was quite the sight.

The snake bites the man in the ear. I know, quite a shock, right? And this preacher man keeps dancing, exclaiming that it’s alright, it’s all good, God will protect him from any ill effect. That is, until the guy starts staggering and collapses into the arms of some of his parishioners who went from being deliriously caught up in the ritual to being incredibly shocked, sober and worried. Silly people.

I am not sure if the man lived or not. I pray that he did. His father didn’t, who apparently tried the same stunt years earlier, the post said. And many others have died in the same way, in the same misguided ritual. It happened not too far from us at my first congregation in North Carolina.

Such actions are based on the totally wrong and ridiculous interpretation of a passage in the last chapter of Mark (which some of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel do not include) where Christ says about those who believe in Him, they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.” (Mark 16:18)

The authenticity of this portion of God’s Word aside, what our Lord speaks of here, shortly after His resurrection, is the all-important aspect of our faith in Him… our faith in Jesus.

And of no surprise to us and all believers, what counts is our singular focus on Him… on Jesus… and the spreading of the Good News of the forgiveness, life and salvation we have in Him… in Christ alone.

What our Risen Lord was foretelling in the last chapter of Mark is that which, in fact, took place in the time immediately after His resurrection and ascension, in the time of the Apostles and the Early Church including the time recorded in the Acts of the Apostle’s where, yes, St. Paul is bitten by a viper and no harm comes to him. (Acts 28:3)

My friends, there are so many rituals… so many things being done now, and in the past, in a supposedly Christian context and even labeled “worship” where the focus is on anything but… anything other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Rather, it is more about or all about, “Look what I can do. Look what I am doing… what I am performing… the Me, Myself and I.”

It is nothing new… and actually quite old. Enter the Pharisees in today’s Gospel text. They were fanatics about keeping the ceremonial law, that which our Lord God had set forth to regulate the religious practices of the people of Israel. Add to that, over time, many man-made rules and regulations interjected and imposed upon the people.

St. Mark explains that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” (Mark 7:3-4)

You know what happens in our text. You know the criticism that the Pharisees level against the Lord and His disciples.

You also know Christ’s answer… His response. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’ And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’” (Mark 7:7-9)

Honoring the Lord with lips and not with hearts. Going through the motions, focusing on emotions… on the self. It happens… can happen… to more than just snake handlers and Pharisees.

Worshiping the Lord in vain. Holding to doctrines… engaging in traditions and actions that are not of God, but of men… man-made, man-imposed, man-followed. It happens… can happen… to more than just snake handlers and Pharisees.

Voiding the sacred and keeping the silly. And here’s the thing. It either has already happened or is in the process of happening to most of mainline Christianity as it is known in our world today.

So what about us… speaking collectively as a congregation… as a church family?

What about us… speaking individually… each of us… where does our true focus lie? And this, not for a while or at various times and places, but always… certainly every waking hour, but also that which gives us slumbering bliss.

Our focus… is it on us or something far above us. Is it on the physical or on the all-important spiritual, the true spiritual? Is it on the sacred or on the silly… and how do we know which is which… how CAN we know which is which?

One cannot make such a distinction apart from the presence of the sacred, the holy and divine. One cannot know apart from Holy Scripture and the Sacraments, for in them, in these the Means of Grace, we come to know, understand, appreciate, honor and hold ever-so tightly to that which truly matters… only matters… in our lives. That which is right before us. HE who is right before us… right here with us and will be until the end of the age… our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we, dear friends, not be among the snake handlers of this world who forget… who fail to see, remember and recall the infinitely greater incident involving a snake… that of Christ crushing the head of Satan, the Serpent’s skull, on the cross at Calvary.

May we not be among the Pharisees of this world, caught up in meaningless man-made rituals and fail to see that the One they are speaking with and complaining to… is the Lord God Almighty… He who alone gives us the Law… the “Thou shalt” and the “Thou shall not” … He who alone gives and is Himself the Gospel… the Good News of our salvation, full and complete, certain and sealed in Him.

Certain and sealed in Jesus Christ. To God alone be the glory! Amen.