I’ve never been that big of a hand washer. Certainly not compulsive, maybe a little negligent.
I think I really only wash my hands for one of three reasons. #1 is after going to the bathroom. #2… haha. #2, I of course wash my hands when I can see that they are dirty, when I can see the dirt. #3, I always wash my hands if I know someone who thinks I should wash my hands is watching…
When the Religious rule-keepers ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands like tradition dictates, they aren’t worried about germs or clean eating like we are. They’re worried about being religiously unclean. Their tradition has many rules like this from washing hands, and pots & pans, to markets & money.
The whole system was designed to prevent impurities from passing by one’s lips, defiling what God requires to be Holy.
Jesus says “You hypocrites. You’re clinging to your traditions and your clean lips, but do you realize that those hand washing rules aren’t even in the Bible? Besides, everybody knows even when you wash your hands you’re only doing it because somebody’s watching.
Meanwhile, do you realize the stuff outside of you is the least of your worries? Whatever unwashed stuff might make it past your lips number 1 bypasses your heart altogether. It goes to your stomach, and then, number 2, it all goes out into the sewer.’
“If you paid more attention to the Bible you would realize that Isaiah was right about you when he said “You honor God with your lips but your heart is far from him.”
Jesus then calls over the crowd to make this a teachable moment saying, “Listen up, it’s not what gets past your lips and goes in that defiles a person. It’s what passes your lips when it comes out. The real uncleanliness you have to worry about is not outside. It’s within.”
To those that could hear him, these were strange words from an increasingly strange prophet.
When God called Isaiah, the prophet Jesus refers to here, Isaiah was afraid. He protested God’s call, saying I can’t work for you, God, “I’m a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips!”
That’s when an angel took a coal from the Temple’s eternal fire and touched it to Isaiah’s lips saying “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Immediately Isaiah was forgiven for his unclean lips and given something to new say, new words, the Word of God, put on his lips to speak to God’s people. But, the words God gives him are strange words.
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;The Prophet Isaiah, various verses, paraphrase mine.
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and realize with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
Therefore once more I will confuse these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.
Suddenly, in an instant,
the Lord Almighty will come
with thunder and earthquake and great noise,
with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire.
They will be stunned, amazed, confused, confounded.
Thus sayeth the lord.
What kind of God promises to confound the wise and confident and expose the most religious, and to do it all with a devouring fire?
Throughout the scriptures the Word of God goes out like a fire and burns down the temples of human understanding and power. That’s why the angel puts the coal to Isaiah’s lips, the same fire that purified him also ignites his lips to spit fire, to tell the truth, truth that singes, burns.
It’s why the most popular understandings of Hell are fiery. In scripture the destiny of all impurity is to be cast into the fire. It cannot stay. It must be purified.
That’s what kept John Wesley up at night. He wanted to flee the wrath to come, the fires of Hell, so he kept a journal at the end of every day documenting every sin he committed, every impurity that came from his lips that day. But the more he kept the list the more anxious he got. He couldn’t wash his hands enough. His hands, his lips, his heart, he knew, were unclean, and destined for the flames.
He was confounded, confused about how to know, indeed, that he was on God’s good side, that he was fireproof.
He turned repeatedly to the Word of God in scripture, but could find no solace there until one night he was sitting in on a Bible Study where they were reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. That’s the letter in the New Testament that says “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.”
Wesley wrote something different in his journal about that night, “About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley had spent plenty of time in the fiery words of scripture, but that night in that Bible Study, suddenly the fire hit different. This time the fire didn’t burn. It warmed.
In a lot of the Stories of Jesus, he looks like a fiery prophet, like Isaiah, with his own flaming lips, spitting truth. In today’s story the Pharisees are confounded, blinded by the realization that they aren’t nearly as pure as they thought they were. Their own understanding is burned down and they’re left standing in the ashes.
At some level religion is always about avoiding the fire. Avoiding the flames. Religious people like us find all kinds of ways to convince ourselves we are on God’s good side, that we are fireproof. But Reality has a way of coming to us and confounding us. By loss, by failure, by some turn of life events, something gets burned down and the Word of God comes to us asking, “Do you realize you are not in control?” In large and small ways we stand in the ashen realization that our problems are not all outside of us and easily avoided, they’re deeper. They’re within our very hearts.
But the thing about the word flowing from flaming lips of the prophets is that they never end in scorched earth desolation. The ash is not the end. Always in the prophets there comes a last word, often beginning with the words “But then…” Isaiah says “but then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the def unstopped.” On that day the flaming lips of the Word of God comes not to destroy but to heal, to warm, to put a word of Good News, a new song in our mouths, to set our lips aflame with the blessed truth that there is a God whose fire can save.
Immediately after this fiery encounter with the Pharisees Jesus goes out healing and feeding a bunch of impure Gentiles, the very kind of people Pharisees would want to avoid to save themselves. And when he does, the news about Jesus spreads like wildfire from their Gentile lips.
It’s telling that when Christ is arrested and killed it’s the Pharisees and Scribes that are the main conspirators. In their confusion they turn on the one who has come to heal. It’s also telling that after they conspire with the government to murder him, while he hangs on the cross, the earth quakes, and there is great noise, and thunder, but amidst that noise and terror, what is the word that issues forth from the flaming lips of the prophet Jesus, “Forgive them. Forgive them for they are confused. Confounded. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”
After his resurrection, in many of the stories where people encounter the Risen Christ there’s always a little fire. An inviting fire on the shoreline, burning hearts when the Risen Christ breaks the bread, tongues of fire that alight over the heads of the unwashed masses before landing on their own lips as Good News for all.
Today I do plan to sanitize my hands before I greet you on the way out. Just know, it’s mostly because I know you’re watching. But don’t let it obscure the message that even if I washed not just my hands but my feet to my head, it doesn’t mean I’m all clean, or fireproof. In Christ we are freed to cling not to our own cleanliness, but to him. His is the fire that purifies and transforms, who brings us to see the ashen truth in our lives, and then invites us to rise with him and live in him as the Body of Christ with flaming lips, and burning hearts, forgiven, freed, on fire, but not consumed, aflame with the light of Christ.