Because We've Always Done It That Way!

Text:  Mark 7:1-13

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Traditions are everywhere.  We have our family traditions when we gather together for Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Certain stories are told, special deserts are to be had, and special games are to be played.  Year after year, the same routine happens.  We also have sports traditions in hockey, football, basketball, and even golf.  Lucky shirts are worn, beards are grown out, and fun rituals are performed in order to not jinx the tournament.  We have work traditions too.  We are told the stories of the founding of the business with certain slogans and work ethics that are to be mimicked and practiced every day.  We even have traditions in the church.  The church has a calendar, specific church attire is worn, potlucks are regularly scheduled, certain feasts are celebrated, and traditional orders of service are practiced. 

These traditions are nothing more than the passing on of customs and beliefs from one generation to another younger generation.  These traditions though can be good or they can be bad.  They can teach and pass on valuable and worthy aspects of a generational heritage or they can perpetuate sinful habits from one generation to the next.  On the other hand, there are some traditions that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever, but are basically done because we’ve always done it that way—it’s tradition!

Now, with all that said, in our Gospel reading from today it seems as if Jesus is unleashing negative judgment upon all traditions.  We heard Him say to the Pharisees in a very snarky tone, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” 

Now, we must especially take note of Jesus’ strong words as a church, for as you know Zion Lutheran Church is a part of a denomination that has a long heritage with a number of ancient traditions.  In other words, we are a part of a group of churches—some 6,000 churches in the United States and many more across the world—that have agreed to follow certain forms of worship, follow a certain church calendar, and have certain practices that have been handed down from previous generations.  Indeed, many of the elements of our Sunday Divine Services and things that we do as a church go back literally thousands of years.   

With that stated, we must ask ourselves, if Jesus is advocating the removal of all traditions?  Do we as LCMS Lutherans need to be purged of tradition, to have some sort of modern day reformation?  Some people would read today’s Gospel reading and would conclude that this is the case.  They shiver at customs and rituals and would advocate that any and all traditions in the church should be thrown out, that the slate should be wiped clean.  However, history has shown us that when certain traditions are eradicated from the church, new traditions have a way of popping up in their place.  In other words, when ancient traditions are removed from the church, these ancient traditions are immediately—whether it is intended or not—replaced with contemporary traditions.  This is just the way that it is.  We are people of tradition.

But is this what Jesus is so concerned with in our Gospel reading?  Is Jesus an anti-traditionalist?  Should all tradition be condemned, burned, and discarded?  The answer is no.  You see, what Jesus is against in our Gospel reading is ‘bad’ tradition.  Yes, there is such thing as bad tradition and there is such a thing as good tradition.  As we will hear later, good traditions should be preserved, passed down to younger generations, respected, and revered.  However, bad traditions should be resisted, rejected, and scoffed at, as Jesus did in the Gospel reading from Mark. 

You see, what Jesus is so concerned about is that the Pharisees during the first-century had a hyper-piety.  This hyper-piety of the Pharisees led the Pharisees to follow certain manmade traditions that were not even in the Old Testament scriptures.  Furthermore, the Pharisees elevated these manmade traditions to the status of being God’s Law.  Somewhere along the way these manmade traditions were elevated to the status of God’s Word, as if God prescribed them Himself, when He actually did not.  To put it another way, these traditions were formed on the basis of mankind’s own voice and spiritual experiments, not by God’s command, which led to these traditions taking the place of God’s Word.  Mistakably, the Pharisees were enforcing these manmade traditions upon the people as if they were God’s binding Word, which resulted in people essentially following the traditions of man rather than the Word of God.  They were doubly damned: bound in manmade traditions with no voice of God. 

Dear friends, any tradition that you or I create—whether old or modern, whether rustic or contemporary, whether boring or hip—any tradition that is developed from our own self-centered opinions, our own selfish desires, and our own agendas; any tradition that we create that opposes Christ and His forgiveness; any tradition that elevates itself above Jesus and His Word… is evil and must be rejected.  I humbly ask us this: what old looking or modern looking traditions have you and I established in our life and in our church that stand in opposition to God’s Word?  Furthermore, in what ways have we invented for ourselves traditions according to our own reasoning that serve us, appease our sinful nature, excuse our sin, deprive love to our neighbors, and dismiss God’s Word? 

Dear friends, when our own voices shape our traditions and when we allow our manmade traditions to guide us, while distancing God’s Word from us, we have then fallen into that which Christ condemns in our Gospel reading from today.  We must repent of our foolishness and self-deception. 

All this stated, we are beginning to understand that tradition can be bad.  However, it can also be good.  It can oppose Christ or honor Christ.  It can stand in the way of scripture or elevate scripture.  It can point us to ourselves or it can point us to Christ.  It can bind a conscience or reveal the peace of the Gospel to a conscience.  We can wrongfully hang our body on a bad tradition or a good tradition can bring us to the body of Christ hung on a tree. 

Ultimately the traditions of the Pharisees led them and the people away from an honest view of themselves, as sinners in need of grace.  Furthermore, their traditions created a layer between them and God’s Word.  As a result, they ignored the wickedness in their hearts while counting themselves righteous.  They created their own traditions, waved their fingers at those who didn’t pass muster, patted themselves on the back, and considered themselves worthy, while the Lord was off on the sidelines. 

Believe it or not this was one of the things at the heart of the Reformation of the Church in the 1500s.  Martin Luther and the Reformers actually were not anti-tradition, but rather, intentionally rejected many of the Roman Catholic Church’s traditions that obstructed the Gospel from the people and that wrongfully obscured the Word of God.  They rejected traditions made by human beings for the purpose of appeasing God and for earning grace, for this eliminated the need for the bleeding savior.  That’s right, they excluded traditions that were contrary to the Gospel and that were contrary to the teachings of the Christian faith.  However, we must—I repeat—we must keep in mind that the Reformers did not abolish every single tradition of the time.  Why not?  The reason why was that many of the traditions and ceremonies actually ‘did’ serve the purpose of teaching the people what they needed to know about Christ; many of the traditions ‘did’ lead the people to the confession of their sins and the reception of the Savior.  These good faith traditions and ceremonies were preserved by the Reformers!  It would have been foolish to toss these out, for they were noble, good, and true.  They served the saints of the church by bringing them to Christ and His Word.

Traditions are either formed from the imaginations of mankind or they are shaped and inspired from the Word of God.  You and I must reject bad traditions, for they assault the faith of the children of God and lead the faithful away from Christ to reliance upon human wisdom, human piety, and human false doctrine.  These bad traditions lead us to our own agendas, our own piety, our own doings, and our own work in regard to salvation; they lead us to the pits of despair, hell, and damnation.  However, good faith traditions can and should be respected, insofar as they point you and me to Christ and Him crucified for our sins and for the sins of the world. 

Baptized Saints, while we respect faith traditions not because they make us acceptable to God, or, because they are necessary for salvation, we respect them and follow them because they direct our attention to Christ Jesus and His gifts.  For example, the pattern of our services, the candles, the paintings hung on the wall, the sign of the cross, the changing of the colors on the altar, the changing banners, the architecture of the church, the artwork created by saints of the past, bowing at the altar, the stained glassed windows, the clothing and vestments of the pastor, and all the decorations are not just a meaningless show, but rather grant beauty, dignity, and reverence.  This beauty and dignity and reverence are not for the sake of being worshipful, but rather are for turning our eyes, ears, and minds to Christ and His gifts.  These good faith traditions block distractions and pull us out of our sometimes mundane lives so that we can hear—so that you can hear now in this Divine Service the crystal clear Words of Christ, “Come to me and I will give you rest.  I will make you clean; you are clean for I bled and died for you.  You are forgiven.  You are redeemed.  You are adopted as my child.  Take and eat, this is my body.  Take and drink, this is my blood, given for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  You are mine.  Do not fear.  I will be with you to the end of the age.” 

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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