One of the big problems Jesus was always up against in his ministry was a religion that, in many ways, had lost its spirit. Many of the Jews at that time were very meticulous about the proper rituals and going through all the right motions on the outside, but on the inside they were spiritually dead. There was no life in their faith, no inner love for the Lord, and no spirit. One time, Jesus even compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, all clean and pretty on the outside, but what was inside was dead.
But before we look down on the Pharisees, we better remember that there is a danger here for us too. Going to church and saying your prayers can become an empty habit, and nothing more. You just ‘go through the motions,’ but your mind and heart and spirit are not in it. You rattle off the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, but your mind is miles away. You stand up and sit down at all the right times during the worship service, but your heart is elsewhere. There is always the danger that our faith, that powerful, intense, life-changing truth, will get smothered in ritual and tradition, and finally become nothing more than a habit that has lost its meaning.
But we must think clearly about this, because the usual way of dealing with this problem has only made things worse. We know that ritual and tradition can become empty and dead, so we begin to react negatively to those words. We say, “Oh, its just a ritual.” Or we say, “Rituals and traditions are not all that important. It is what’s in my heart that counts.” Or, “We don’t need to be legalistic about going to church every Sunday. A person should go to church because they feel like going, not just out of habit.” And there is some truth in all of this. Faith should indeed be more than habit and tradition and ritual.
However, the solution is NOT to be found in getting rid of the rituals, habits, and traditions. People might complain that the ritual is dead, and so they stop taking part in the ritual; and then, there is nothing left at all. We Lutherans like to say that we are not legalistic about going to church every week; but for many, not being there every week has very rapidly led to not being there at all. In many Lutheran churches, the only place where there is any growth is in the growing list of inactive members. Many churches, even growing churches, face problems of declining attendance when neither the habit nor the faith is passed on to the next generation. Ritual, tradition, and habit can become empty. But it is deadly to end that all and replace it with nothing. (continued…)
Matthew 23:27-28 — (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Isaiah 29:13 — The Lord says: “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.”
Almighty God, you have surrounded us by a great cloud of witnesses– those who have followed you in lives of faith in the past, and now rest from their labors.
As you strengthened them in their time, strengthen us now.
Inspire us to throw off all that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely.
As you sustained them, keep us running in the race that lies ahead,
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.