************ Sermon on Mark 7:8 ************


By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman


This sermon was preached on July 17, 2005


Mark 7:1-23
Mark 7:8
"Boundary Markers"

Introduction
Suppose you are at a stop-light. A 1960's Volkswagen Van pulls up beside you. It is plastered with peace signs and bumper stickers that read "Make love, not war." Its driver has long hair, granny glasses, and glass beads. Right away you know a hold-over hippy is next to you.

Suppose you are at the same stop-light. A brand new BMW pulls up beside you. The driver's hair is styled. You spy a Rolex on his wrist. He's snacking on pat้ and sipping white wine. Right away you know he is a yuppie.

Suppose that beside the BMW is a Chevy. Both passengers have spiked hair – his is green and hers is yellow. You see pierced lips and cheeks and noses. You hear loud music. Right away you know they are punk-rockers.

How come you are able to identify the hippie and the yuppie and the punk-rocker? Because of something sociologists call "boundary markers." Boundary markers are highly visible practices that serve to distinguish people inside a group from those who are outside the group.

Did you know, every church and every faith has boundary markers? Every church and every faith has highly visible practices that serve to distinguish people inside the church or faith from those who are outside the church or faith. Consider the chador worn by Muslim women, or the jeweled forehead of a Hindu woman, or the clerical collar of a priest, or the 7 daily calls to prayer of the Muslim faith, or the clothing and horse and buggies of the Amish. All of these are boundary markers.

I The Rabbis Versus Jesus
A I think you know how zealously the Pharisees guarded the Sabbath (see Mark 2 & 3). For instance, they became upset that Jesus' disciples began to pick some heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath. It doesn't matter that the disciples were hungry. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, the disciples were "doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath" (Mk 2:24).

After the episode with the grain Jesus went into a synagogue. A man was there with a shriveled hand. According to the Pharisees, by healing this man Jesus was "doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath" (Mk 2:24).

Or, consider the matter of hand-washing. We read about that in Mark 7. The Pharisees insisted that no food ever be eaten until hands first received a ceremonial washing. It made no difference if hands were already clean. Before eating a meal or having a snack, the rules of the Rabbis say hands must first be washed. But Jesus allowed His disciples to eat without a ceremonial washing.

Or, consider the matter of fasting. The Pharisees strongly believed in fasting. They and their followers fasted at least once a week; the more devout fasted twice a week (Lk 18:12). Even the disciples of John the Baptist fasted but Jesus never made His disciples fast.

The Pharisees became so upset with stuff like this that they "went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus" (Mk 3:6). As Jesus put it in our text,
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

B A look through the Gospels tells us that when it came to the law the Pharisees were obsessed with things like circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping and eating habits. This is strange, to say the least. After all, not even the Pharisees would ever say that these areas were the heart of the law. They all knew what the heart of the law was. Moses put it down in black and white in the book of Deuteronomy:
(Deut 6:4-5) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
So why all the emphasis on circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping, and eating habits?

It is obvious that the Rabbis and Pharisees spent a great deal of time focusing on boundary markers. Circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping, and dietary regulations were important boundary markers for them. These kinds of boundary markers, more than anything else, determined who was and was not a Jew, one of the people of God. These boundary markers were the litmus test for determining who was inside and who was outside the people of God. You know what a litmus test is. A piece of treated paper is put in a liquid. If the liquid is acid the litmus paper turns red; if the liquid is base the litmus paper turns blue.

Do you know what was wrong with the Pharisees' boundary markers? Their boundary markers overemphasized the presence or the absence of certain behaviors and ignored other, far more central matters. As Jesus put it,
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

C When you read through the gospels it almost seems that Jesus went out of His way to offend the Scribes and Pharisees by ignoring their boundary markers. He cared nothing about their litmus test. He was not impressed with circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping, and eating habits as a means of identifying the people of God.

Jesus had no use for boundary markers that bound the conscience on superficial matters. Jesus had no use for boundary markers that weighed people down. Jesus had no use for boundary markers that made religion and faith a burden instead of a joy. As our text puts it,
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Instead of focusing on boundary markers Jesus focused on what lies at the center of faith and religion. For instance, when asked about the heart of the law, Jesus' immediate response was, "Love God above all; love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk 12:29). Likewise, when He was asked why His disciples did not follow the ritual hand washing customs of the Pharisees, Jesus pointed out that what makes a man unclean is what arises out of the heart (Mk 7:20-22). Another time the Scribes and Pharisees indicated that their boundary markers and blood-line made them children of Abraham. In contrast, Jesus says that Abraham's children "would do the things Abraham did" (Jn 8:39). What he meant was that true children of Abraham have Abraham's faith and righteousness.

D Permit me an observation: people of faith are always tempted to define religion by boundary markers, to measure devotion and spiritual maturity and spiritual growth by boundary markers, to approve or condemn on the basis of boundary markers. We see this over and over again not only in the history of the church but even in pages of the New Testament.

Think of the first Church Council. It was held in Jerusalem. Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). The issue was boundary markers. The Church Council said circumcision was not required. What counted was not the boundary markers but the heart. What counted was not rules and regulations but faith. What counted was not circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping and eating habits but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They echoed the words of Jesus:
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Think also of the dispute between Peter and Paul. Before certain men came from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jewish believers joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. Do you see what Peter and the other Jewish believers were doing? They were observing boundary markers. When Paul saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, he admonished Peter in front of them all (Gal 2:14-16). Paul, like Jesus, focused on the center rather than on the boundary markers. What matters most of all is faith. What matters most of all is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What matters most of all is the heart. Paul agrees with the words of Jesus,
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

II Do We Have Boundary Markers?
A I said before that every church, every faith has boundary markers. Every church, every faith has highly visible practices that serve to distinguish people inside the church or faith from those who are outside the church or faith.

Boundary markers tend to differ from church to church and even from generation to generation. Among strict Baptists 50 years ago smoking, alcohol, and guys and girls swimming together were the boundary markers. For Christian Reformed people 50 years ago the boundary markers were dancing, card-playing, theater or movies, and Sunday observance. Many of you might remember the time when women peeled potatoes on Saturday night and men shaved on Saturday night rather than doing such activities on Sunday. Needless to say, many Baptists and Christian Reformed people don't observe these boundary markers anymore.

Some Christians have turned the consumption of alcohol into a boundary marker. No where does the Bible tell us it is wrong to drink. It does tell us it is wrong to get drunk or to be addicted to much wine; this is a sin in God's sight and those who make a habit of this are only asking for other problems. And, the government forbids us to drink and drive. Yet, some Christians make complete abstinence from alcohol a boundary marker.

It isn't only conservative churches and Christians that have boundary markers; liberal churches do too. Their boundary markers are such things as: God is called "she" and "mother," gay rights, abortion rights, condoms and sex education for teenagers, the support of revolutionary movements in third-world countries, America bashing, and public criticism of the President.

So I want to ask: what boundary markers do we have today? Do we have any visible practices that serve to distinguish people inside the church from those who are outside the church?

Now I am not saying that boundary markers are wrong. We need them. But I do want to point out some of our boundary markers. And then I want to point out the danger that could result from having them.

B We have boundary markers in worship. For instance, Trinity United Reformed Church has decided to have a mostly traditional worship service.

Reading the Ten Commandments, or something similar, is a boundary marker within most Christian Reformed Churches.

Having a second worship service and attending a second worship service is an important boundary marker. We recognize this as one way to keep the Sabbath Day holy.

Christian Education is another of our boundary markers. That is why we strongly encourage all our families to give their children a Christian school education.

Catechism preaching, when it comes right down to it, is a boundary marker. We don't find it anywhere in the Bible. But by it we recognize the importance of teaching and preaching doctrine. So, we have made it a boundary marker.

III The Danger of Boundary Markers
A Every church, every faith has boundary markers. It is good that we have them. But they can also be dangerous. Let me point out four reasons why.

First of all, a focus on boundary markers can trivialize holiness. I love the story of what happened to me in one of the previous churches I served:
A lady from the church came to see me. "Pastor," she said, "do you drink beer?" "Why do you ask?" I said. "I went by your house last week and I saw a case of beer sitting on your lawn."
This bothered her so much that she couldn't sleep for a week. She was much relieved when I explained to her that it wasn't my beer. I told her some of the young people dropped their empty cases on my lawn the previous night. [I don't want any of our young people to get an idea from this.]
This lady had reduced her pastor's holiness to a certain kind of behavior.

Do you see what boundary markers can do? They can overemphasize the presence or absence of certain behaviors and ignore other far more central matters.
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

B Second, boundary markers can lead to a kind of legalism and a form of improper judging. Christians who won't drink alcohol, for instance, sometimes dismiss Christians who drink as being less spiritual, less committed, less religious. Some who attend the second worship service look down on those who don't. And, some who support Christians schools make Christian education a kind of litmus test for being Christian Reformed. If or when we have this kind of attitude we really are being no different than the Pharisees.
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

C Third, boundary markers can put a barrier between people and the gospel of Jesus Christ. What would have happened, do you think, if the Jerusalem Church Council required Gentile believers to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses? The church would have remained Jewish. What would happen, do you think, if we say every member has to join a Bible Study, or attend the second worship service? We would drive people away from the Lord.
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

D Fourth, boundary markers can draw attention away from the heart of the gospel. What matters most, my brothers and sisters, is not the boundary markers but the heart. What matters most of all is not rules and regulations but faith. What matters is not circumcision, fasting, Sabbath keeping and eating habits – though all of these are important – but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

Conclusion
Boundary markers. Every church has them. I suspect that boundary markers are especially important to those who attend Sunday evening worship – and that is a good thing. That means you people are especially committed to what makes us different and distinct from other churches in town. However, we need to realize that boundary markers can be dangerous to and the opposite of the Christian gospel. For our salvation is not by observing the boundary markers but by belief in Jesus. And, devotion and spiritual maturity and spiritual growth are measured not by adherence to boundary markers but by the presence of spiritual fruit like love and joy and peace. We never want Jesus saying about us what He said about the scribes and Pharisees:
(Mk 7:8) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.

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