A number of years ago I happened to meet a county health inspector. As we were talking I said to him, “I bet you don’t eat out much at restaurants.” He said, “Oh no way. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen.” Then, he proceeded to tell me stories about the strange and gross things he had witnessed at restaurants during his inspections. After talking with him, it took me awhile before I was able to go eat at a restaurant again.
Basically what the health inspector told me is that he had seen some absolutely filthy restaurants. The kind that you’re sure to get sick from. If you go into a restaurant and it’s filled with roaches and rat droppings, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get sick from eating there. What’s inside the restaurant defiles all the things that the restaurant produces.
Now, in Mark 7:14-23, Jesus talks about food. He says that with regards to our relationship with God all foods are clean. That is, it’s not what we eat that makes us unclean before God. The Jews were very observant about what foods they could eat and not eat, because they thought that they would defile themselves if they ate certain things. But, Jesus says this isn’t what’s important; in fact, he’s fulfilled the full Law and he is the perfect one that these dietary restrictions were pointing to. Instead, says Jesus, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
As Jesus implies, we are born, due to our fallen nature, like dirty restaurants. At birth, we are unclean in our hearts, as so we shouldn’t be surprised that as we get older unclean things come out of us, because the things inside defile all that we do. In the case of the restaurants its things like e-coli and botulism; in the case of us, it’s the things Jesus mentioned – all manner of sins.
If we expect clean things to come out of us, we need to be cleansed first. We can’t expect to produce good things if what’s inside is dirty, just as we can’t expect a dirty restaurant to produce clean food. So, like a dirty restaurant we need a health inspector to come in and show us all the things that are wrong and then we need a cleaning crew to get things into shape. Only then will we produce good things.
We hear in Deuteronomy the Lord telling His people to listen to and perform the Law that He is giving them (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9). His Law is their wisdom and understanding. God uses His Law in the same way a health inspector does his work. God’s Law diagnoses what is wrong with us. It shows us what is unclean within us. It shows us that what is inside is what defiles us. It shows us what needs to be cleaned up. What it doesn’t do, though, is actually clean us up. For that we need a cleaning crew.
And this cleaning crew is the Holy Spirit who comes with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the Law shows us what’s wrong, the Gospel cleans us up. The Law shows us that we are defiled on the inside, while the Gospel deals with this problem. Through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel and the Sacraments, God not only forgives us of all our sins, but also cleans up the mess within us. He cleans the restaurant, so to speak. And once He cleanses us by bringing us to faith in Christ, He then works within us to produce good works, works that are beneficial to the life of the world. He justifies us in His sight and then sanctifies us to produce good works.
So, when we come into this world, we are like dirty restaurants, condemned by the righteous health inspector. Since we are defiled, all the works we produce are tainted as well. A bad restaurant can’t produce enough pies and bacon to make it worth going there if the pies are rancid and the bacon is green. Likewise, in our fallen state, our works are tainted and we can’t produce enough of these rancid works to earn our salvation. We can’t cleanse ourselves.
But, God in His mercy has cleansed us through the death and resurrection of His Son and through the life-giving faith of the Holy Spirit. He received you just as you are, but you are no longer just as you were, because He has rebirthed you through the waters of Baptism to be His cleansed child. And so through His Word and Sacraments you have been brought to faith, cleaned up, and enabled to produce good works. The good, clean works flow from what God has first done for you and to you; what you now produce comes out from this new identity in Christ that God has given you.
This is Paul’s point in Ephesians 6:10-20. You have been saved, you have been redeemed from the power of sin, death, and the devil, you have been cleansed. Therefore, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Paul then says that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and his powers. They are like roaches and rats that want to come back in to the restaurant to infect it and make it what it once was. They want you to go back to what you once were.
So, just like a restaurant needs to be continually cleansed to keep it clean and fumigated to keep out roaches and rats, so too do you need to be continually guarded against the infestations of evil that are always waiting to re-infect you. Paul says to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the ready shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Word of God by which the Holy Spirit works. Once gilded with all these armaments, pray and keep alert and guard against the power of evil.
And we do this by continually receiving God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. If we neglect these gifts of His to us, we should not be surprised that we fall back into the way we once were. We should not be surprised that we again become as unclean restaurants, producing unclean works.
So, we have a continual need to come before the Lord to receive His gifts by which He continually cleanses us, for He has promised to work through His Word and Sacraments. When you were Baptized, the Lord cleansed you by uniting you with Christ’s own baptism, his death and resurrection. But, just as you don’t clean a restaurant and then leave it be, but rather must continually keep up the maintenance, so too does the Lord not leave you be to fend for yourself, but instead continually maintains you in the faith.
So, He gives you His Word by which you are kept up in faith and cleansed by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel – this Good News – is that Christ died and rose for you. It’s a gift, God did it, even though you were unclean and undeserving. You were filthy with your sins, but God graciously forgave and cleansed you of all of them through Christ. God is like the cleaning crew that comes into a condemned restaurant and saves it and puts it back into operation. God has forgiven you, cleansed you, and put you back into life with Him. And throughout your life, God continually cleanses you with His Word to keep you in faith in Christ, to keep you clean and guard you against the infestation of sin.
And God gives you His Word in a number of ways, because we need to be cleansed with many tools. He gives you His written Word in the Bible: you read about God’s promises to Israel, His Church, and their fulfillment in Christ. He has given you His proclaimed Word: you hear the Gospel proclaimed to you and how God in His mercy has made you His child through Christ and made you part of His people. He has given you His incarnate Word: you eat and drink the body and blood of Christ that was given up and poured out for you.
And then when Christ returns he will clean everything in all creation in full, for the last and final time. He will cast out all the roaches and rats of the devil. He will remove all sin and evil and death from the world. And Christ will raise you up, cleansed thoroughly with his righteousness to dwell with him forever. The cleansing that has begun in this life will be perfected with Christ’s return so that in the life to come there is no longer anything defiled in all of God’s creation. God has promised this to you and has fulfilled it here and now through the death and resurrection of Christ and will complete it when Christ returns for you. Amen.
(Image: By CDC / Minnesota Department Of Health, R.N. Barr Library; Librarians Melissa Rethlefsen And Marie Jones – Public Health Image Library, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63447726 )