+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It seems as if the Gospel reading for this morning is an all out assault on tradition. Jesus scolded the Scribes and Pharisees for their holding so rigidly to tradition. “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
But, tradition, in of itself, can serve a positive or a negative purpose. In fact, sometimes tradition doesn’t serve any purpose at all. I’m reminded of a story about a woman who was preparing a big ole bone in ham for her families Christmas meal. She began by taking a butcher knife and bone saw and cutting the end portion off of the ham. She then placed it in a pan and put all of the spices on it along with nice glaze and then she put in the oven.
A friend was there in the kitchen watching, asked, why do you cut the end off of the ham before you bake it? The woman said it’s what my grandma always did when she baked a ham. Well, as it turns out, grandma cut the end off of the ham because those big ole hams she baked at Christmas just wouldn’t fit into the pan she had.
Some traditions don’t serve any purpose at all. More often than not though they do serve a purpose. In the end, the traditions we practice will have a positive or a negative effect, depending on what we believe and teach about the traditions.
As you know, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod follows a number of traditions. For instance, we are, by and large, a liturgical church, which means, we follow a certain form of worship. The various Divine Services in our hymnal are the tradition we follow. Those services have been handed down from generation to generation. Many of the elements of the services we follow go back thousands of years.
We are very traditional too in that we follow a church calendar, emphasizing throughout the year various seasons, such as Advent, and Christmas, Lent, and Easter, and so forth. And, of course, in each one of those seasons we practice certain traditions associated with the season.
We are a traditional church because we believe the traditions we follow are good and helpful. We believe they are beneficial because of their emphasis on the Law and the Gospel and because they support in each of us a solid and broad foundation of faith. Consequently, many of us, myself included, lament the less traditional forms of worship and the less traditional practices that have been adopted in the last 20, or so, years by many of the congregations of our Synod.
Our Lutheran forefather’s, who faithfully handed down to us the traditions of our church, were rather intelligent men. They foresaw the possibility of division arising in the church over tradition. Consequently, they gave us some instruction on how we are to treat tradition, including our much beloved worship forms. They wrote, “with regard to (traditions) that have been established by men, it is taught among us that those (traditions) are to be observed which may be observed without sin and which contribute to peace and good order in the church, among them being certain holy days, festivals, and the like. Yet we accompany these observances with instruction so that consciences may not be burdened by the notion that such things are necessary for salvation. Moreover it is taught that all ordinances and traditions instituted by men for the purpose of propitiating God and earning grace are contrary to the Gospel and the teaching about faith in Christ.”
So, traditions can be followed without harm. In fact, they can be quite beneficial to our faith. However, they can also become terribly divisive and destructive and even detrimental to our faith when we consider them necessary for salvation. That was the case with the traditions followed by the Scribes and Pharisees. Their traditions were loathsome in the eyes of God mainly for two reasons. First, they saw their traditions as an outward sign of their righteousness, but all the while their hearts were far from God. And second, they tended to put their traditions over the commands of God.
“ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Tradition can never compensate for our essential need for God’s forgiveness and grace in Christ. It can’t, in and of itself, quite the conscience that cries out for absolution. It can’t, in and of itself, mend the broken heart, or, soothe the troubled soul.
Tradition is best used when it serves the Gospel. For instance, the sign of the cross is made by some, not because it demonstrates Christian piety, or, because it invokes a magical blessing on the one who makes, it. Rather, it is made because it brings to memory Christ and Holy Baptism, for it was in Holy Baptism that the sign of the cross was made upon the sinner’s heart and mind to mark him as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.
Likewise, we follow certain worship forms on Sunday morning, not because they make us acceptable to God, or, because they are necessary for our salvation. We follow them because they serve us the gifts and the blessings of God in word and song. We follow them because they are a recitation of God’s Word and “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”
Ultimately the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees lead them away from an honest view of themselves and from a faithful use of God’s Word. They ignored the wickedness of their own hearts because they preferred to focus on how their traditions made them look on the outside. Thus, in another passage in Scripture, Jesus condemned them again. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
If you’ve been cutting off the end of the ham to prepare it for Christmas dinner, you can probably stop doing that. It really doesn’t serve any purpose. On the other hand, to the degree that faith traditions point you to Christ and Him crucified for your sins and for the sins of the world, that’s a good thing.
That great philosopher and cynic, Woody Allen, once said, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” For the Christian, it’s really much more than that. It is a vivid reminder of the permanence that is ours in Christ, “who is the same yesterday, today and forever,” and who, in death and resurrection, “was reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them.” This, my friends, is permanence. “Today, in the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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