Sermon: Who is Your True Enemy? (Mark 7:14-23)

Text: Mark 7:14-23
Proper 17, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Perhaps you have heard a version of that quote. The original came from an American naval officer in 1813 after the Battle of Lake Erie. It was made famous by Pogo the Possum in several cartoon strips in the early ’70s. Ever since, it continues to resurface here and there in moments of honesty, transparency. 

This quote makes a point similar to Jesus in our appointed Gospel. Of course, Jesus’ version comes out of a different context. Yet, both the quote and the Gospel reading tell us the truth about the source of evil and our condition.

The enemy is inside us

Last week Jesus criticised the Pharisees for making a religion out of cleanliness, actually believing that it was next to godliness. This week, Jesus deals with the Old Testament’s kosher laws and all the restrictions. The OT law had a dietary chapter. Chapter 11, to be exact, in what else but the book of Leviticus, God’s Big Book of Holiness for his holy people. The forbidden foods list went like this: no mice, bats, or crawling critters. Mammals that both ruminated and had cloven hooves were OK, but one or the other. They would forego the camel, the rabbit, and of course, the pig. Seafood was OK provided it had fins and scales, but shellfish was out. A handful of birds you probably wouldn’t want to eat anyway were forbidden. As were insects, although “winged swarming insects,” were on the menu.  The religious leaders believed that “you are what you eat.” If you ate something “unclean” (bacon-wrapped scallops, for example), then you would be unclean, unholy, and unfit to appear before God.

So Jesus starts talking to the crowd. “Hear me, all of you, and understand” (7:14). Then, with everyone’s attention, Jesus taught about what makes a person genuinely unclean. In a departure from (or, at least, an expansion of) the Old Testament Law, Jesus declared food does not make a person unclean. What goes into the body is not the problem. It is what comes out. “Out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Such evil comes out because it already lurks within. As Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”

This is about the identity of our true enemy. This is an essential point because it is far too common to find mortal enemies around every corner in our increasingly polarised culture. Who is my enemy? It is the network pushing fake news. It is the political party trying to destroy the country. It is those people who hurt and wronged me. It is the local school board, the ambitious colleague, the omnipresent screen. There are many enemies. Notice they are always someone (or something) out there.

Jesus shows us the source of evil: what comes out of your heart. Ever had an evil thought? Dare I ask if there has been any sexual immorality? What about theft, murder, adultery, coveting (no problems there, right?), wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. That’s quite a list. Does anyone dare say that this list doesn’t touch them in some way? And if you did, you know you would be a liar, and the truth would not be in you. Where does all the evil in the world come from? Not from foods, from within you. Your heart is corrupted to the core by sin. These are what defile a person; what defile you. You are your own worst enemy. Fast all you want. Abstain from whatever foods you wish. Food won’t touch the heart. Food won’t get rid of the sin that has taken over your heart like some alien. Food won’t commend you to God. Food can’t fix the unbelieving heart.

That’s at the heart of it. Unbelief. And the Law won’t help you. The Law says, “Believe,” but it can’t make a believer out of you. The Law says, “Do this and don’t do that,” but all your doing and not doing won’t fix that evil-producing heart of yours.

What’s to be done about this enemy? 

What does this mean for the Christian life? First, it means we are in trouble. We have three enemies in fact. Our epistle reading calls out the Devil. Elsewhere we read of the world. The world, our own sinful nature, and the devil. They conspire to destroy us. The message is relatively simple: We need to be on guard. I need to say this clearly and forcefully. Most of us are in the habit of practically ignoring our sin.  As one theologian put it: “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” Fighting our own corruption is hard. Putting to death those sinful desires in us on a daily basis is difficult. As a result, the evil lurking in our hearts comes out far too often in the forms Jesus mentions.

Second, and this is where the good news really is good, there is one who reigns over all our enemies.  He is the victorious one, the conqueror of death, the master over sin, the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ basic point is that purity laws, including food laws, don’t actually touch the real human problem, and that that is what the gospel addresses. What Jesus said and did for you, brought the Old Testament scriptures, the whole covenant with Israel, to a completion, a new fulfilment. The scriptures spoke about purity, and set up the laws as signposts to it; Jesus is offering the reality. When you arrive at the destination you don’t need the signposts any more, not because they were worthless but precisely because they were correct.

Third, there is a promise of deliverance for the future. Jesus will return and end the tyranny of evil for all time. But we have a lot more than simply hope for future relief . There is also the beginning of a transformation of our lives here and now. A radical change in the human heart is what is needed. Resetting the hands on the clock will not do it. Education and culture will not do it. Social reform (as required as it may be!) will not do it. Even revolution and a new world order will not make it. There is only one answer: regeneration. No power in the world can make a bad heart good. Only the Gospel can do that. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

So there is only one solution. There must be a new heart. “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

A new heart is what we need, and that is what God gives. A heart that beats with the Spirit, a heart free from Sin and Death, a heart that is not bent toward evil but toward God, a heart that is not curved in on itself but is turned to God in faith and to your neighbour in love. That’s the heart that Christ died to win for you. That’s the heart you received in Baptism. That’s the heart the is fed by the Word and sustained by the Body and Blood.

Yeah, the old Adam is still there. We are “at once sinner and saint, old and new.” That means we have to contend with a bit of Romans 7 tension for a while. We remain what we are and become something more. We have good and evil lying close at hand, often in the very same act. It means living under the cross of Christ’s forgiveness, being God’s chosen and holy people. A washed people. A forgiven people. A pure people.

Uncleanness is not just a matter of externals. It is not a matter of hand-washings and food. It is a matter of the heart. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” You are your own worst enemy. And you have a saviour. You have Jesus, who has given you a new and clean heart in Holy Baptism. He feeds you with a food that goes into you and sustains the believing heart. There is food that makes you holy. You are what you eat. The food that Christ gives you is the Bread that is His Body. The Cups that is His Blood. That diet actually makes you holy, the way Leviticus, with its clean and unclean foods, never could. There is a holy Food. Holy by the Word. Holy because of the death and life of Jesus. Making you what it is – the Body of Christ. The Feast is ready, prepared at Calvary. The Table is ready, prepared by the Word. The Table is here and now for you to eat and drink and live. Here is a food that makes you holy. Holy communion. Holy church. Holy people.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: