Today I want to talk about Pharisees.
These guys were people trained and disciplined in the teachings of the Old Testament. They knew the scriptures inside out, better than most people. They studied them religiously, they preached to the people in the synagogues.
These guys were the experts, the ones everyone trusted to set the example of how to live godly lives according to the Old Testament. The ones the general public, even the non-religious, looked to for guidance. If we were living in those times they'd be the men we went to if you wanted forgiveness or spiritual guidance. The experts.
Yet how does Jesus treat them? With contempt, that's how. He calls them 'blind guides', 'hypocrites' and challenges their knowledge of scripture.
Why does He do this?
The answer is, because they had become religious. They had become legalistic. As Jesus said, they forgot the heart of the law and stuck religiously to the doctrine. They had become so blinded by their religious practices and their status they had lost what the message of God was all about, they had become arrogant. They thought they were righteous and it was everyone else who was blind and needed knowledge of God. Tradition, religion and pride had come between them and God.
Jesus said "If you were blind, you would be without sin. But since you say 'we see', your sin remains" (John 9 v41). By that, he meant that we as His people need to recognise our need for Jesus and how our sin has blinded us to Him, we need to humble ourselves before Him.
We often think of ourselves as 'the enlightened ones' don't we? Be honest. Nowadays, we have the internet, tv, dvd, cd, mp3 all telling us all the information we need to know. You can find all you need on google. There's nothing that's inaccessible to us.
In a Christian context, we are finding out more and more about the original Greek meanings of Biblical texts, more about the culture and history of the Bible. Even as Christians, we can think that now we know as much as we can ever know, academically at least, about the Bible and Jesus.
There's a real danger that we can start to think that all the knowledge we have makes us the experts. To think we know everything there is to know. That as Christians in today's society we have it sorted.
When I look at the 'established church' today I see this more and more. Now the term 'the church' is associated with the Anglican or Catholic church by the general public.
Now what is happening is people look at those things and call them hypocrites, old-fashioned, traditional, conservative and dogmatic when it comes to the Catholics and Protestants. They see them as 'the established church' and so linked with the past that they seem out of date.
The result of that a lot of vicars, even at the highest level of the Anglican church in particular is watering down its message, becoming more liberal, and forgetting the heart of the gospel. A lot of the the Catholic church still, to my mind, sits on a pedestal and allows the public to have a perception of it which sets it above and beyond all other institutions and the final authority on all things to do with the church.
Now that's not to say that these denominations don't have a lot to offer the church. This certainly doesn't apply in all cases, and there are many churches and church leaders within these denominations that are really standing up for God and making a big difference for Him in this world. I don't discount that whatsoever. These traditions both have their own blessings and their own strengths.
The point I am making is that the perception of these two groups is of the 'established church', stuck in the past and not relevant today. And it doesn't appear they are doing too much to make themselves relevant - apart from moving towards a more liberal, non-Biblical agenda.
They are becoming more and more religious. More like the pharisees.
We in the West are becoming more and more like the Pharisees. If we're not careful, as individuals and as a church, we could start to think that there's no more for us to learn. That we have all we need. That going to church is enough.
There's a danger that Christianity can become a routine, a hobby and that as individuals and a church we can start to get stuck in tradition, habit, routine and start to think that we have all the knowledge and wisdom we can get. That we have the final and definitive answer on things.
This could not be further removed from what Jesus wants.
We need to get away from these things. More than that, we need to run away from this. We need to stop being religious. We need to start living out our faith, and not allow ourselves to become like the Pharisees.
We need to recognise that we have still so much to learn, that in comparison with God what we know is nothing. We need to be open to what God is doing and what God has to say to us. We need to be open to change. We need to get back to the heart of the gospel, and not become like the pharisees.
Being a Christian is not being religious. It is not just going to church and house group.
It is a lifestyle. It is something that must affect how you live you life. You values, your attitudes, your perspectives. Every day, everywhere you go, everything you do. In private and in public.
The term to believe in something has been distorted. The way its described in scripture is as something that you put your complete trust in, something that affects your whole way of life.
To truly live as a Christian, we need to put our total trust in Jesus and put Him and His values at the centre of everything we do. We need to get to the heart of His message and make that the key thing that defines and forms the bedrock of all our values and our lifestyle. We need to be alive, living as Jesus wants us to live every day.
The two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind and all your strength' and the second is 'Love your neighbour as yourself'.
These two cover all of the other commandments, they are at the root of our faith. These two commandments should form the foundation stone for our lives.
Loving our neighbour means not just those close to us, but those in our church and our community in the world. And we do that by serving, by giving and by buying ethically - amongst other things. It means treating people with grace, mercy and forgiveness, putting others before ourselves.
Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength means everything we do puts God at the centre. Every choice, every life decision, everything we do with ourselves, must aim to please God. In whatever we do seek to be like Jesus, put Him first. It means giving up our own lives and agendas and putting Him in charge. It doesn't mean we all have to be church leaders, pastors or worship leaders. It means wherever we live and work putting God at the centre. It means be obedient to whatever He calls us to. Devoting our lives to becoming more like Him and following Jesus' example.
We need to make sure we don't get so stuck, so conformed and integrated into the way of life we have in the West that Christianity is something we only do at church or in church-related things. That Christianity doesn't become a hobby, or a routine.
It has to be our way of life.
I apply this equally to myself, I constantly find myself falling into this trap and have done in the past. Its not easy to put into practice.
But its one of the most important things we can do. Maybe even the most important. We make mistakes, of course we do. None of us get it right all the time. Sometimes its very hard to find God in our lives at all.
But our goal is to fulfill these two greatest commandments and become like Jesus. That has to be the key to our life, and if we are aiming and working and committed to doing that, then Jesus will help us to achieve it more and more.
Whether we're in a good time or a bad time, the most important thing, the one thing we need to hold on to, is our desire to become like Jesus and live according to His values.
Whatever else happens, however we do at that, that should be our goal. Get away from religion, get away from legalism. Get to the heart of the gospel and make that the heart of everything we do.
And the church needs to do this too. Be counter-cultural, be humble, make a difference. Not be afraid to be controversial if it means sticking to the truth of the gospel. To communicate its message and be a church not stuck in tradition or political correctness, but rooted in truth and presenting the message in a way that shows it as it really is - living and relevant and never needed more than it is at the moment.
This change all starts with us. If we all start to put Jesus at the centre and the heart of what we do, if He is at the root of all we do, if we are open to what He has to say to us and willing to change, then together we can make a difference. We can come together as a church and show the world what our faith is all about, and what the church really is.
Jesus didn't tell us to be religous. He showed us the example of how to live life the way God intended. He is our marker, our example. He came to 'bring life in all its fullness'. If Jesus means that much to us, then it will come out in every area of our lives.
To be honest, I'm sick of people saying Christianity and Christians are all about rules and religion. Its not at all, and the church and Christians need to stop giving that impression.
Jesus is about bringing freedom. The cross liberates us from the poison in our beings called sin, which pollutes us and brings us down.
Christ sets us free from this through the cross to live the life He called us to.
His values. His standards.
When we muck up, He has the love, grace, mercy and power, through the cross, to forgive us, forget the past and get us back on track. We are not bound by sin anymore if we're Christians, we're free of sin, and we have forgiveness. The teachings of the Bible aren't there to restrict us, but set us free.
Our goal is to become like Jesus and we do this as our way of life. If we make mistakes along the way, Jesus brings us back every time. We have that security and that should give us confidence that we are not alone and can reach that goal.
Its not easy, its never easy. But if we want to be like Jesus and build a church the way He intended it, its the only way we can be.
Free of religion and restriction. Free of sin. Freedom from our past and our pain.