It was the great American preacher Billy Sunday who said that “the problem with sin is that people don’t take it seriously. People treat sin like a cream cake when they should treat it like a rattlesnake.”
That reminded me of those TV adverts for fresh cream cakes with Kenneth Williams dressed in a red costume with horns and a pointed tail leading us into temptation eating cream cakes. “Go on, be a devil,” he used to say. Remember the slogan: “Naughty, but nice!” A slogan devised incidentally by Salman Rushdie. “Naughty, but nice.” The problem is that too many think temptations are best when we give into them, and that sin is simply “naughty, but nice!”
The nation of Israel understood the seriousness of sin. The whole purpose of the Jewish Law was to reveal to Israel the sinfulness of sin. The majesty and complexity of Temple worship and the whole system of sacrifices existed to make it possible for sinful men and women to come into the presence of the Holy God. But this awareness of the sinfulness of sin was not just reserved for the “religious” parts of life. The dangers of sin are present in every part of life, in work and in leisure and in the home, and so the Law made every Jew aware of the risks of sin in every part of life by teaching them to avoid all kinds of actions which could possibly make a Jew “unclean.”
For Israelites, being clean or unclean was not simply a matter of personal hygiene. Being clean or unclean also had a ceremonial and even a moral dimension. A person could become unclean by contact with a dead body, or with various diseases such as leprosy. Dead bodies would remind a Jew of the great seriousness and ultimate consequence of sin. But a person could also become unclean by eating one of the animals defined as unclean by long lists in the book of Leviticus, and so eating only foods which would be described today as “kosher”. Becoming “unclean” would have serious consequences for a Jew. They would be excluded from worship until the appropriate sacrifice had been offered. Being “unclean” would exclude a Jew from the community and even from his own family until the problem had been sorted out. So staying “clean” and undefiled was of vital importance to every Jew in every part of life. And so these food laws were a constant reminder to the Israelites of the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God.
Too many Christians today seem to have forgotten the seriousness of sin. Perhaps there has been a reaction against the attitudes of the Puritans and the Victorians where the Christian life seemed only to consist of books of rules. And many Christians have discovered the joy of God’s grace, that Christ has died for us and all our sins are forgiven and God loves us with a love which will never let us go. But many Christians seem to forget that sin in our lives now we are saved still offends and grieves the Holy God. We know that God has given us eternal life and made us His children and put His Holy Spirit inside us, and we are assured that there is nothing which we could ever do which would cause God to take all these blessings away from us. But many Christians take this security for granted and abuse the freedom God has given us in Christ.
One thing the Jews knew for certain was that God is a holy God and that sin spoiled their lives – it would make them unclean and cut them off from God and from each other. And the same is still true of sin today of course. Even for Christians like you and me. If we have sin in our lives it spoils our worship and gets in the way of our prayers. If we have sin in our lives it spoils our fellowship with God and with each other and wrecks our witness to our neighbours. Sin will rob us of our joy and sin will rob us of our peace. Sin saps away our zeal until we become listless and apathetic. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit within us and sin blocks the Holy Spirit within us until we end up trying to serve God in our own strength instead of in His. We can only have as much of the Holy Spirit’s power as we are prepared to have of His Holiness.
So why then do so many Christians still treat sin like a cream cake instead of like a rattlesnake, “Naughty, but nice”? A good Jew would work incredibly hard and take great care to avoid those things which defile a man and avoid becoming “unclean.” Why is it that Christians do not run away from sin in the same way? Why are so many Christians content to limp along in the gutter, one foot in heaven but one foot in the world?
I am not saying this morning that Christians should go back to obeying the Jewish Law. The Law served its purpose in showing the Jews their need of salvation because nobody except Jesus was ever able to keep the Law perfectly. More than that, the idea that holiness can be achieved merely by keeping a set of rules is completely inadequate. Human beings can always invent more ways of sinning than any rule book can contain. The Law of Moses and especially the Ten Commandments do help by giving us guidelines and examples of sins to avoid. But a rule book will never be enough to help us stop sinning. Even by the time of Jesus the Jewish Law had proved inadequate for the Israelites. One problem was
PEOPLE ADD THEIR OWN RULES
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
It is so easy to trivialise sin by expecting people to obey “the traditions of men” rather than discerning what really does and does not please God. Then there is the danger of falling into sin ourselves by judging other and condemning others on the basis of their culture, or for their taste in music or in clothes. Another problem with rules is that
PEOPLE BEND THE RULES
9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Whenever you give people a set of rules the first thing everybody does is look for the loopholes. It is so easy to justify ourselves in our own minds, to say “that sin isn’t really sin.” “I am entitled to an exception.” We don’t fool our neighbours, we certainly don’t fool God, sometimes we manage to fool ourselves. But the sin is just as damaging!
IT IS GOD WHO DECIDES WHAT IS SIN
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)
For 2000 years God had commanded His chosen people not to eat certain kinds of foods. But this was not because those foods were intrinsically bad for them. It was a test of Israel’s love and obedience. In this passage Jesus changes those rules and declares that all foods are clean, none are unclean. By this all Christians, even Christians who had previously been Jews, were released from the Jewish food laws.
The food laws had kept the minds of the Jews fixed on God and on His holiness. It may be from time to time that God will call specific Christians to abstain from things which are not in and of themselves wrong, but which get in the way of their relationship with God. For some it might be television, or even just particular programmes. For some Christians it might be the internet, for others some otherwise innocent hobby which takes over our lives and gets in the way of us serving God. It is God who decides what is right and wrong for us – and disobeying God is always sin. If we are taking our faith seriously
WE MUST AVOID ALL KINDS OF SIN
In verses 20 to 23 Jesus lists examples of things which are sin for all of us, not just because God says so but because they damage our relationships with God and with each other. So here is a checklist of sins to avoid.
20 He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts,
This is where sin begins – in evil thoughts.
Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
murder starts off with hatred which in Jesus’s words is just as serious,
malice – acts of wickedness
deceit – lying
lewdness – indecency
envy – jealousy,
slander – gossip,
arrogance – pride and self-satisfaction
folly – senselessness – in the Old Testament the “fool” is the man who does not know God and doesn’t want to!
Jesus says, 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ”
A checklist of a dozen things which defile a man, evils which come from deep inside us. Sins which cut us off from God and from each other. Things which spoil our lives if we let them.
Of course, being holy isn’t only about avoiding sin. A person can stand on a football pitch for 90 minutes without breaking any of the rules of football but if they never kick the ball once in that time they haven’t really been playing the game and they haven’t been any use to their team. But it is important to do one’s best to stick to the rules!! It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of sins to avoid. We all need to work harder at saying “no” to sin and “yes” to God! We need to take sin seriously, and treat it like a rattlesnake and not like a cream cake,