Vain Worship

Matthew 15:1-14

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / March 30, 2003


            Why are we here? I don’t simply mean, ‘Why are we here at St. Giles Kingsway?’, I mean, why did God make us? What is our grand purpose as human beings?


            Through the prophet Isaiah, chapter 43, God answers this question, “Everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory”(Isa.43:7). A few verses later, He says again, “The people whom I formed for Myself, will declare My praise”(Isa.43:21).


            Why are we here? Why did God make us? God made us for Himself. God made us to reflect His glory. God made us to declare His praise.


            It is good that you are here today because in corporate worship we engage in activities that we were designed for. We were designed to declare our Maker’s praise; we were designed to honour Him.


            Yet, we learn in today’s Scripture readings, that it is possible to engage in the activities of worship without ever glorifying God. It is possible to say a prayer, it is possible to sing a hymn, it is possible to listen to a sermon, without ever pleasing our Lord.


            Call it what you will—superficial worship or hypocritical worship—either way, know that this was a struggle for the ancient Church, and it remains a struggle for the modern Church.


            In, both, the Amos and the Matthew text, the problem has two prongs. First, there is the presence of hypocrisy, and second, there is an absence of inward devotion.


Allow me to offer a paraphrase of Amos 5:21-24 in order to give a you a sense of how serious the situation was:


"Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . I hate, I despise, your Christmas festival, and I take no delight in your solemn services of worship. Even though you celebrate communion, and even though you put $50 in the collection plate, I will not accept your offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your singing; I will not listen to the sound of your organ. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."


What God is saying to the Israelites, He also says to us—God is not interested in us going through the motions of worship. God is not interested in the praises of those who disregard His law. God is not interested in the outward trappings of worship as much as He is interested in the condition of our hearts.


We see this perspective in Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees. It is worth repeating that the Pharisees were highly respected within the Jewish community. They were not on the fringe of religious life; they represented mainstream Judaism and religious respectability. For Jesus to rebuke them publicly was significant.


When Matthew explains that the “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem”(v.1), he is likely alerting the reader, indicating that this was an official delegation—something like a visitation from Presbytery.


It appears that opening pleasantries were bypassed, and the delegation immediately addresses their complaint that the disciples of Jesus were not participating in the ceremonial hand washing before eating. It should be noted that this washing was not mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the teaching of the Pharisees required it.


In Jesus’ reply we see how inappropriate it is to insist on man-made laws. Jesus asks, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”(v.3).


It is not as if man-made traditions are necessarily bad; every church has traditions unique to them—many which are quite good. The sin here is the elevation of human tradition above what God requires.


What are some examples of man-made traditions practiced at St. Giles Kingsway? My wearing of a robe and a clerical collar is a man-made tradition; our use of an organ and a choir; our liturgical responses to the Scripture readings and our liturgical introduction to prayer; our use of hymn books—all man-made traditions.


Now, again, the merit of each of these traditions can surely be defended—these are good traditions, no question. But who would question the assertion that washing one’s hands before a meal is a good idea?


It is not as if Jesus had something against hand washing! But Jesus challenges the Pharisees adherence to this tradition—why? Jesus challenged the Pharisees because they were giving priority to less important, man-made, traditions, while essential, God-given commandments were being ignored.


Thinking of our own context, may I suggest a parallel analogy to the one Jesus provides. Imagine that, one Sunday, a group of visitors arrive for worship wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Imagine also that there is an existing group within the church who are harbouring bitterness against, let’s say the Session, for a decision that was made.


How do we evaluate such a scenario? Yes, I do endorse dressing well for Sunday worship as a sign of how serious worship is—but really, is wearing jeans in church a sin? You would be hard-pressed to find a Scripture verse to say it was. However, I could point to a myriad of biblical texts that condemn the harbouring of bitterness. Yet, which group would occasion the most whispering comments? The group wearing jeans in worship? Or the group attending worship while still harbouring bitterness?


Do you see how easy it is to descend in elevating tradition above God’s command? We must not think we are immune to the types of sin the Pharisees were rebuked for. And we must not miss how radically wrong Jesus regarded their position.


If their theological imbalance was only slight, Jesus might have offered an excuse saying, ‘I do apologize. We have been traveling all day and were extremely hungry; we simply forgot—we’ll do better next time.’ Or, if Jesus thought the position of the Pharisees had a modicum of merit, he might have said, ‘Good question—let’s sit down and talk about these washings. Why do you think they are so important?’ Instead, Jesus attacks the position of the Pharisees, rebuking them for elevating their traditions above God’s commands.


And, as if the rebuke was not enough Jesus calls them “hypocrites” and likens them to the unfaithful in Isaiah’s day, “This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men”(15:8,9).


As we hear the rebuke Jesus directs at the Pharisees, we must do the earnest work of asking, ‘To what degree is this true of me? Are there occasions when I am just going through the motions on Sunday morning? Are there instances where it could be rightly said of me that my heart is far away from God?’


Friends, the sobering tone of this passage should compel us to take an inventory of our heart. What are we hoping to accomplish in this service? Is it a recognition of godliness from our peers? Are we here out of some sense of obligation or duty? For the professional, for those who fill pulpits each Sunday, is it a pay cheque we are here for?


I pray we are here for one reason; I pray we are here to worship and honour the Lord with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. If we are here for any other purpose, the response Jesus gives is, “in vain do they worship Me.


Does the love of God require Him to accept our worship regardless of how we live Monday through Saturday? “In vain do they worship Me.” Does the love of God require Him to accept our worship regardless of our motives, or the condition of our heart? “In vain do they worship Me.


I can only speak for myself, but doing something in vain drives me crazy. To invest time and effort into something for little, or no, return, is hard for me to swallow.


Some of you know that I am an avid collector of hockey cards. A number of years ago, Allie and I moved to a new apartment and I needed to create a home for my hockey cards—cards that were carefully sorted—so,  I decided to build some shelves. Now, I’m not very handy and putting up shelves is not my idea of fun, so I really didn’t put much effort into getting these shelves up. I didn’t investigate where the studs were, nor did I read the instructions on how far apart to put the braces. When I finally got the shelves up, by all appearances everything looked great, so I proceeded to load my boxes onto the shelves . . .


About an hour later, while I was watching T.V., there was a thunderous crash from the next room . . . my hastily installed shelves did not hold, and my carefully sorted card collection, 20,000 cards worth, were scattered all over the floor.


Not only was my work on the shelves in vain, but also my efforts in sorting what would go on the shelves was now in vain.


Friends, do you see how there is more at stake in superficial worship than God not accepting our praises? Our relationship with God is the foundation on which everything else rests. If we have been hasty with God, if our worship has been in vain, then it is only a matter of time before everything else crashes to the ground.


When we come to worship God, the emphasis must be on what He ordains and not on what we prefer. When we come to worship our heart and soul must be engaged. Everything else is vain worship.