Where's the Problem?
The usual question you ask when facing a problem is what is it? Jesus teaches in this text that the better question to ask is where is it? Because inevitably if you're wrong about where the problem is you'll be wrong about what it is, and then the solution will be wrong too.
Is the problem outside of us? Is the problem bad TV and worse movies? Is the problem the sexually explicit dress of some people? Is the problem people who are jerks? Is the problem outside of me in my poor upbringing, my difficult spouse, my dysfunctional family?
If the problem is outside of you, then the solution will be inside of you. Once you locate the problem outside of you, you won't look for the solution there too. If my problem with evil thoughts comes from bad TV and movies, then the solution is within me not to watch those things. If my problem with lust and sexuality comes from how others act and dress, then the solution is for me to look away and stay away. If my problem in living comes from what happened to me as a child, my arrogant spouse, my broken family, then it's up to me to pull myself up by the bootstraps, to rise above my family, my upbringing, my spouse. Once you see your problem is outside of you, then it's easy to believe the solution is inside of you. You have what it takes to deal with, to solve, to overcome your problem.
If this is the case, you know what you're expecting to get out of church, out of Jesus, out of your faith'? Motivation. You need a worship service that will pick you up, hype you up, rev you up to go back to your daily life and tackle your problem. You need a worship service that makes you feel good about yourself because everything outside of you makes you feel bad.
Of course, motivation won't be enough to tackle the problem which you know to be outside of you. You're going to need tools too. So you need a church to equip you. You need the Sword of the Spirit, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation. If the problem is outside of you, then your problem is you don't have those tools. It's not that you stab yourself with the Sword of the Spirit, or that you think your righteousness is an adequate breastplate, or that you think your faith is strong enough to be shield or that you carry your helmet of salvation in your hand rather than wear it on your head.
The problem can't be you; it's just a lack of tools and then of training. Bible classes become sword drills; worship services become how to use your shield, your breastplate, your helmet. Your problem is a failure in training. The reason you sin is not because you're born sinful but because you don't use your tools rightly.
When you see your problem as something outside of you, you can know 3 things absolutely. #1 you don't need a savior, at least not the Savior Jesus is. You might need the Mormon savior who gives you a hand up out of the pit your sins have cast you into. You might need a psychological savior who rescues you from your bad choices by helping you make better ones. You might need a health club savior to train you better to fight against the devil, but you don't need the savior Jesus who is so named by the angel because He will save us people from their sins.
If the problem is outside of you, then the solution is inside of you and you don't need a Savior. You don't need someone to keep the Commandments perfectly because you think you can do better next time. You don't need someone to be punished for your sins because you have excuses to show you don't deserve to be punished. You don't need a savior who redeems you from sin, death and the devil. You just need one who can help you to keep fighting them.
If you think your problem is outside of you, then #1 you don't need a Savior and # 2 you don't need Means of Grace. The Means of Grace, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are how the forgiveness Jesus won by His perfect life and innocent suffering and death are given to sinners. But if you think your problem is outside of you rather than you, you need something practical. If you think you can win the fight against your lusts you don't need forgiveness, you need motivation, tools, and training. If you think your problem is difficult people in your life, then they might need the forgiveness of the Means of Grace, but what you need are ways to handle them so you don't end up feeling so bad about yourself.
If you think your problem is outside of you # 1, you don't need a Savior, #2 you don't need Means of Grace, and # 3 you're a hypocrite. You're a hypocrite because you think you're better than you are. You don't realize how far fallen you really are. You see yourself mired in some mud here or there. The mud is outside you on your shoes, clothes, and hands. You act as if God must be pleased with you because you're not a filthy as those bad people on TV and in your life. The reality is that you haven't just stepped in a little mud that others have left behind. You're floating not in mud but waste that comes not from outside of you but inside. You're a hypocrite if you pretend this isn't the case.
Is the problem really inside of me? What does Jesus say? From within, out of men's hearts come not just evil thoughts but evil deeds, evil words, and evil attitudes. All these evils come from inside. All these evils didn't start after being raised by wretched parents, being married to a jerk, or being surrounded by bad things. This evil started in the womb. David says in Psalm 51 that in sin did my mother conceive me. The Lord declares in Genesis that my first conscious thoughts are only evil. And no it's not that the devil interjects the evil into my heart. He can magnify it but it originates with me. "Out of men's hearts" it comes, says Jesus.
So if my problem is inside than the solution can't be inside. No matter how hard I try, no matter how completely motivated and trained I am, evil continually pours out of my heart: evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds. And this is what I'm guilty of before God. Before men I may not be guilty of sexual immortality, theft, murder, adultery, or deceit, but before God I sure am. When I pretend I'm not, then I'm playing the hypocrite. But it's so painful, so hopeless, so ugly to admit the truth that it's not the world around me that is damned, I am.
Sure people sin against me, do evil to me, perhaps wronged me when I was a helpless, innocent child, scarring me for life. But all that is not really my problem. None of that damns me. None of that makes me stink before high heaven. No what soils me is the waste pouring out of my own heart: this fountain, not of youth, but of sewage that is more faithful than Old Faithful in spewing out befouling things.
That's what I need an answer to. And do you think motivating me with happy thoughts will help? Do think having me sing how much I love Jesus will enable me not to smell my own stench? Or do you think I just need better tools and better training at using those tools? What tool can you give me that can do anything more than reach the outside of my body? What can positive thoughts do in a heart that can only produce evil thoughts? Say you teach me how to deal with the genuinely dysfunctional people in my life. I'm still a person wallowing in my own filth, but hey, I'm dealing with those dysfunctional people.
I don't need a motivator; I don't need an equipper; I don't need a trainer. I need a Savior. I need someone who will come all the way down where I am, into my filth, into my waste, into my evilness. I have met the problem and it is me. It's not that I occasionally sin here and there. It's not that I do this or that wrong. No, there is nothing about me, in me, or from me that is not sinful. No wonder the devil can so easily convince me I'm going to hell. What do I look like but a son of hell?
So don't have me sing happy tunes. Don't tell me to be more positive. Don't tell me that if I just get proper equipping and training my problem will be solved. No it won't. I don't need outward direction but inward cleansing. I don't need strengthening, instructing, exercising, or motivating, I need medicine. I need to be cleansed and healed. And no amount of me bleeding, sweating or crying can do that because even my blood, sweat and tears are filthy. God's blood, sweat, and tears are holy; they're clean; they heal. But God is a Spirit; He has no blood, sweat or tears.
For that reason, God became a man. He became flesh so that He would have blood to bleed, sweat to bead, and tears to cry. In the flesh, Jesus did all that was required of us but we could never do. Then holy Jesus went to the cross in the flesh bearing our sins, our filth, our evilness that is so deep we sense it in our bones. There He bled, cried, and died for your sins, for all your sins. For those sins you don't think that bad and for those sins that are so ugly and smelly you can hardly bear the sight or smell of them, Jesus suffered, was damned, and died.
The blood, sweat and tears of God clean completely. It's not a matter of what you can believe, see, or sense. God the Son offered His pure life in exchange for your filthy one, and God the Father said, "It's a done deal." So Jesus got your filth, and you got His holiness. His blood, sweat and tears dripped into Baptism, into Absolution, and into Communion. You partake of them and are cleansed, healed, forgiven. There still will be problems on the outside, but your real problem, the one on the inside, has been taken care. Your fallen heart will still spew evilness, but as it does the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus in the Means of Grace will flow over you cleaning, washing, and forgiving you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XV (20060917); Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23