Our Lord, wash us by your Word, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sometimes we Americans tend to consider actions as “only ceremonial.” In fact, I’ve watched over the years how ceremony has been downgraded in this country. You might have observed it also. I won’t say anything personal or name any names, but we’ll just observe that the last several graduations I have attended, including middle school, high school, and college graduations, students have become less likely to dress up under their robes. They are more likely to clown around at these ceremonies than they used to be. And the audience, during the solemn ceremony of conferring degrees upon candidates, some of whom have worked very hard at great personal expense, in the case of college degrees often living in poverty as they struggle to receive an education, the audience sometimes treats the event like a basketball game, whooping and hollering and generally not conducting themselves with the decorum the event demands. After all, we say, it is only a ceremony. It isn’t really like anything is happening there. It’s just a piece of paper.
Is this the way God views ceremonies in the Bible? In Mark chapter 7 we are presented with ceremonial washings. And while some would like to see these washings as being simply signs of another washing, the washing done in our hearts by faith, it strikes me that the ceremonial acts of people commanded by God in Scripture are more than simple signs. When the people are sprinkled with blood of a sacrificial animal they are cleansed. Yet if their hearts are not broken in repentance, there’s something wrong. They have been proclaimed clean but then they don’t live in accordance with God’s proclamation. When we engage in all those ceremonial washings in Mark 7 but then treat that which is purified as if it is unclean the ceremonial washing was to no avail. It wasn’t worth anything. Yet when we are washed, when we are cleansed by the Gospel, when God washes us in the water of baptism, when he gives us all his gifts including forgiveness, life and salvation, God has actually done something in us. In Isaiah chapter 55 we read that God’s word does not return to him without accomplishing the purpose he has appointed for it. In Hebrews we read that God’s word is living and active. He does something through the public reading and the hearing of his word. We can expect it to be effective. We should expect it to be effective. We should be surprised when the Word of God is proclaimed, when it goes forth in words and with the accompanying signs of baptism and communion, and it seems ineffective. That should be what surprises us. Our expectation should be that through the Word of God we receive faith to draw near to God. He is recreating us to be holy as he is holy. After all, actions have consequences. When God acts we should expect consequences.
What is that consequence of being a Christian, one washed by the regeneration of the Lord? First we should expect to see that we fear, love and trust in God. When the Lord works in us by his Word we are changed into his image. We should expect that our words and deeds will change. We should expect that the attitudes that are lying underneath those words and deeds will be changing. We should expect to see that our values are conformed into the values that Jesus, God the Son, has. We should expect that he will call us and enable us to submit to him as the wife submits to her husband. We should expect that we will have a desire to honor God in all our actions. After all, God’s action in us should have consequences. But what happens when we look to ourselves for evidence? What is the outcome when we look inside ourselves and see how our hearts are being conformed to Jesus?
There are probably two different ideas we can get when we look to our hearts. One of them might seem pretty positive at first. For example, before I trusted the Lord I was pretty impatient with other people. I can look at my behaviors over the past thirty-odd years and I can see that I have changed in that respect. I’m a lot more patient with other people than I used to be. I don’t end up in arguments with my wife as much as we did when we were first married. I’m more patient with my second child than I was with my first. I can see some progress. That seems positive, right? It’s a good thing. But what if I am expecting that to be the sign that I’m doing really well? What if I say my hope in eternity is based on the fact that I’m a patient person? I’ve just set myself up as an example. Now if you aren’t patient like I am maybe I think you must not be a Christian. Or maybe I decide that all patient people are Christians. That isn’t true either. Or maybe I decide that I’ve gotten all better and no longer enter into sin because, after all, I’ve arrived. I’m a godly person and don’t need any repentance. It looked like a good situation at first but do you see how I have turned it around into selfishness and sin? I may be patient but I’m also arrogant. My pride is running the show. That’s one idea we can get when we look to ourselves. Not a good outcome. What’s the other idea we can get when we look at our hearts? The Bible is full of character qualities that I don’t have. The closer I look at them the more I see I don’t have them. Want some samples? Look at Galatians 5 and consider the fruit of the Spirit. So in the power of the Holy Spirit we have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. How are you doing on those? No, maybe you’d better not answer. We can be arrogant and say we are doing a super job, and I hope everyone is doing a super job. But the more we look honestly at our hearts, the more we see we are failing. And this realization that we fail can drive us to despair. It can crush us.
Arrogance or despair. Neither is what we want. Neither one will help us. But there’s something else we can do when we look at our hearts. We can hold them up to the light of God’s Word. And we can turn to our Lord in repentance. Then we accept his forgiveness by faith. We ask that the Lord would have mercy on us. We accept his forgiveness, and we see that the Christian life is a life driven by God’s forgiveness. This inspires us to have faith in Christ. This moves us to repentance, to godly sorrow, and to receiving his forgiveness again and again. This changes us into his image as he works in us by Word and Sacrament.
Is it just ceremonial? Well, the fact is, in the Bible there isn’t anything that is “just” ceremonial. If it is a cermony that our Lord instituted it accomplishes something. And it accomplishes something because God is powerful. He acts through his word and through the signs he has given to accompany his word. He delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation, creating faith in our hearts as he nourishes us through our ears when we are hearing the Word of God. Actions have consequences. God’s actions have consequences.
So how will we respond? Will we go on our own way, like the people Isaiah addressed, rejecting God’s power, simply looking to our own ability, our own wisdom, and treating the actions of God as some sort of signs of something else that we don’t want, that we don’t care about? Or will we be changed in heart, will we be repentant, will we approach him in faith, trusting that he will accomplish in us all that his mercy demands? May the Lord give us grace to devote ourselves to Word and Sacrament, to prayers, to fellowship with one another just as the first Christians did. May the Lord give us grace to live out the Gospel which he has given us. May the Lord work out his consequences in our hearts and lives.
Do you believe that the Lord in his Word delivers grace to you? Do you believe he gives you life? Then may the blessing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ pour out upon you and flow through you so you too may deliver his mercy, grace, and love to this world. Delight in the Lord! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.