Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sermon: Luke 11:37 - 12:12 The Woes of Religion

It’s almost two years since the G8 came to Enniskillen. Alongside all the extra security and the influx of journalists, one part of the preparations made headline news. Right through the centre of town (and even in Brookeborough), there suddenly appeared all these fake shopfronts. On the outside, it looked like a thriving business; they livened the street up. But inside there was a derelict building. There were reports of people not looking closely, trying to get into the ‘cafe’, but there was nothing to eat. You’d go hungry depending on the picture on the outside.

Those fake shopfronts are a picture of the Pharisees and religious people Jesus meets in our reading today. On the outside, they look the business. They’re very impressive. They look very holy, very religious, very committed. But Jesus exposes the reality behind the front. He goes below the surface to see what they’re like underneath. At a meal in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus exposes the woes of religion.

Now that might sound strange. We think that Jesus would like the religious people, and that they would like him. But Jesus shows us that he’s not looking for outward religion which looks good but doesn’t change the heart. So let’s listen in, to see what the marks of outward religion are, to make sure that this isn’t us.

Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. So he comes in, sits down, and starts to eat. The Pharisee is ‘amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner.’ (38). Now this isn’t just what you teach the kids, to wash their hands before dinner. The Pharisees had elaborate rules about ceremonial cleansing before eating, to show that they were clean and pure. But Jesus doesn’t bother with them. He takes his seat and starts to eat.

The Pharisee is amazed because this is something he always does. He always follows the rules. He always does it properly. And he expects Jesus to do the same. But this isn’t a rule in the Bible. It’s something the Pharisees made up for themselves to show how good and clean they were.

Jesus diagnoses the problem in verse 39: ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.’ They make sure that they are clean on the outside, they put on a good front, but inside, they’re unclean. Like the fake shops, they look good on the outside, but inside they’re dirty and undone. They need to be clean on the inside too.

That leads Jesus to launch into the series of woes. These are the marks of outward religion. The first is concentrating on the wrong priorities. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God.’ (42) They focus on the law that says you have to tithe, give a tenth of all you get. So the Pharisees are out in their garden, carefully counting and cutting the mint leaves so that they give every tenth one to God. They’re meticulous - but they neglect something greater - justice for the oppressed, and love for God! Religion can get obsessed with the wrong priorities, and things that don’t matter as much.

Second, religion is more concerned with position and respect. And for those of us in robes, this is something to be listened to carefully. ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marker-places.’ (43) Do we see religion as a way to be seen and respected, or are we serving God and sitting where it’s practical to lead the service from? It’s a heart issue. We need to see below the surface.

Third, outward religion makes other people unclean. To step on a grave was to make a person unclean. But an unmarked grave was a danger - you didn’t know you had stepped on it. Religion has a way of affecting others, leading them astray, without them realising.

At this point, one of the lawyers steps in. He’s watching the Pharisees get a hammering, and he’s offended on their behalf. So Jesus tackles the teachers of the law as well. Woe four: religion burdens people and doesn’t help them. By setting all these extra rules, it adds a burden to people trying to follow, but it doesn’t help them live for God!

Woe five: They honour the people who attacked the true spokesmen sent by God. Jesus mentions an A-Z of martyrs, Abel through to Zechariah, all of them sent by God, and all of them attacked and killed by the religious people who didn’t want to listen to what God was saying through them. It seems that there were loads of special tombs being erected for the prophets, but Jesus says that they’re really celebrating that these people are dead!

The final woe is that the key of knowledge is taken away. By making God’s word awkward and obscure, the lawyers don’t enter in to knowing God, and they make sure that no one else can either. The door is locked, and they’ve thrown away the key to stop people getting in.

The woes of religion: a focus on looking good, while being far from good. The Pharisees and scribes are furious and begin to be very hostile towards him. Towards the end of the passage, Jesus summarises the woes of religion in one word. Look at 12:1. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees that is, their hypocrisy.’ Hypocrisy is like yeast - it spreads quickly, and affects everything it comes in contact with.

Perhaps you’ve invited people to church only to hear that they don’t want to come. That the people in church are all hypocrites. We need to hear the diagnosis of religion, to see if this is us. Are we like this? Jesus gives his disciples three ways to beware of hypocrisy; three answers to outward religion. Let’s look at them briefly.

First of all, fight hypocrisy with integrity. If hypocrisy is appearing to be one thing but actually being something else, then integrity is being the same all the time. ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ So don’t let secrets flourish. Live in the light. Be open and honest. Let some people inside, to know the real you, not just the ‘you’ you show the world.

Secondly, don’t fear people, but fear God. Some of us live to please other people. Everything we do is for them, and what they will think of us. But don’t worry about their opinion. God is the one whose opinion matters - who can throw people into hell. But even as we fear him, remember that (at the same time) he loves you. If God knows about and cares about the sparrows, then how much more will he love you? So fear him, but don’t be afraid! Living to please God, in the light of his love transforms us.

And lastly, don’t be ashamed of Jesus. If we live as his people, if we acknowledge him; then he will acknowledge us. It’s not about being religious, and obeying a set of rules. It’s about being in relationship with Jesus, being connected to him.

The danger of religious hypocrisy is real - we can look good on a Sunday morning and be a terror through the week. But knowing God, being in relationship with him changes us, and helps us to live for him, knowing his love and care. ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th February 2015.

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