Preached 3 December 2006 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
How many of you have washed your hands at least once this morning? Everyone. Of course you have. It’s a matter of hygiene, isn’t it? Getting rid of germs, microbes so that we don’t catch or spread diseases.
But there is another reason why sometimes people feel the need to wash their hands. There was someone in the New Testament who famously washed his. Who was that? Yes, Pilate – the Roman procurator who had just sentenced Jesus to death. He hadn’t wanted to do it. The mob had forced him into it. And now he wanted rid of the guilt of his decision; so he washed his hands. It’s where the expression, “I’m washing my hands of it” comes from.
Another famous hand-washer was Lady Macbeth. I showed a film clip at the 9.30 service where she is walking in her sleep carrying a candle which she sets down before rubbing her hands together as if washing them. “Yet here’s a spot,” she says. “Out damned spot! Out I say!” Then, a little later: “Will these hands ne’re be clean?” She’s just killed Duncan, the King of Scotland, you see, in order to help Macbeth her husband to gain the throne. But her sin and guilt will give her no peace. So in her sleep she washes her hands to try to be rid of it.
Pilate, Macbeth … even in popular music. In her album Blurring the Edges, Meredith Brooks has a song where she sings “Wash my hands, of crimes; Pour the water over my skin, my spine; Cleanse my soul and ease my mind …”
All over the world, in all kinds of religion, clean hands are seen as a symbol of what we must have if we are to be free of sin, guilt, transgression, crime and made fit to enter God’s presence.
And that was true of no-one more than the Children of Israel, the Jews. What was it the Psalmist had said? “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” Psalm 24:3-4. But, sadly, by the time of Jesus, the Jewish teachers were far more concerned with the clean hands requirement than with the need for a pure heart. Ritual had become everything. And the hand-washing ritual we heard about in our reading was one that had to be followed not just before every meal but even between every course – and for strict Jews it is a ritual that must still be followed even today. It’s called the netilat yadayim. Here’s how it works:
First, the hands are held with the fingertips pointing upwards and an eggshell and a half full of water is poured over them and allowed to run down to the wrist. Then, while still wet, each hand has to be cleansed with the fist of the other. Then the hands are held with the fingertips pointing down and another eggshell and a half full of water is poured over them until it runs off the fingertips. Then the hands are clean.
It’s a ritual that is still echoed today at one point in the ceremonial of the Christian church. Do you know where? Yes, at holy communion, before the celebrant consecrates the bread and the wine. But – to the dismay of the Pharisees – the disciples of Jesus simply didn’t bother with this hand-washing ritual.
Have you ever wondered why? Surely it was because Jesus himself didn’t bother. And why didn’t he bother? Because his only concern was with inward purity, not empty, outward ritual that actually became a substitute for inward purity.
Jesus absolutely agreed that a pure heart was needed for anyone to approach God. Remember Beatitude number six? “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” But no mention of clean hands. Clean hands in the sense of ritually washed hands were not necessary. Indeed, when Jesus himself, with his dying breath, committed his Spirit to the Father on the cross, his hands were dirty and torn and bloody – but his heart was so pure that not only did he see God, his Father, but God raised him from the dead. So never mind our hands. Let’s stick with the pure heart, and ask the £64,000 dollar question. How do we get one? Well, I wonder: will you think I’ve lost the plot and give up on me if I say it’s by having our feet washed? Let me explain …
On the night before he died, Jesus had supper with his disciples in an upper room. And during supper we’re told ‘he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him.”
So what was all that about? Well, clearly it was about humility and servant-hood, but it wasn’t just about that.
As Jesus made clear, it was also about getting clean before God and keeping clean before God. It was about getting a pure heart and keeping a pure heart. But the disciples were slow to grasp that. Peter’s embarrassed reaction was probably the reaction of all the disciples to what appeared to be simply a humiliating act of self-abasement by their Lord and Master, but he alone gave voice to it. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” And this gave Jesus the opportunity to hint at a deeper significance to what he was doing. “Later, you will understand,” he said.
Later … that is, after my death and resurrection. The foot-washing is a foreshadowing of what will happen on the cross. But Peter still refuses … until Jesus warns him that somehow his refusal will bring separation between them – “unless I wash you, you have no part in me” – and then Peter wants every part of him to be washed. But Jesus immediately tells him: that’s unnecessary. A person who bathes before setting out to a feast needs only his feet washing when he gets there. So with you. You, he says, are clean.
How? They are already pure in heart. How is that so? Because they have already, by faith, received Jesus for all that he is, all that he has done and all that he will do. And part of that “will do” is Jesus’ going to Calvary and shedding his life blood for the life of the world. The cross works backwards as well as forwards. It saves Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and David and it saves the disciples too.
The cross may be in the future but already the disciples are enjoying the cleansing benefits of what Jesus will accomplish there. Already they are enjoying his salvation, full and free – the cancellation of sin and freedom from guilt. And the foot washing is an acted out parable showing the disciples their need to let Jesus continually keep them clean. They do not need to be “saved” again – they cannot be “saved” again – but they do need to be kept clean … and it is Jesus who must be allowed to do that work. Let me illustrate.
Here is me, here is you, before we came to faith in Christ. We are what St Paul calls “dead in trespasses and sins”. Our sins are as scarlet. But when that moment comes, consciously or not, when we accept what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we receive his purity; our sins that were as scarlet become white as snow. Our very nature is changed. Yes, you say … but it doesn’t feel like that. I still sin. Of course you do. But now it’s like this … All you need is your feet washing, day by day.
But, you may say: am I at that point? In that state? Or am I still dead in trespasses and sins?
The great symbol of sin throughout the Scriptures is the dreadful disease of leprosy. Leprosy (in the eyes of the Jews) separated a person from God and shut them out from the Temple and all that was holy; and it separated a person from the rest of humanity too. It isolated a person and damned them. They were the living dead. They had to call out “Unclean, unclean” wherever they went so that people could keep their distance. And their disease was thought to be incurable. Miracles could happen, yes. In the past the prophets had performed them – men like Moses and Elijah and Elisha … but the one miracle that only God or the Messiah himself could perform (or so the Jews believed) was to make a leper clean. And Jesus did of course do that, on many occasions. Indeed, his great delight was to say to these filthy, scabrous, wretched creatures: “Be clean”. And his great delight is to say that to us. For we are all lepers to begin with. We are all separated from God and his people by selfishness, sin and the darkness of our hearts.
Yet, just as it was for Naaman – that famous leper in the Old Testament – the answer for us is simple. You remember the story, I’m sure. Naaman comes to Elisha seeking healing for his leprosy. Elisha doesn’t even answer the door but just sends a message out to Naaman: “Go wash in the Jordan seven times and you will be clean.” And to us God simply says, “Go wash in the blood of Christ and you will be clean.”
Oh dear! How Victorian. How unsophisticated. How bewildering. How offensive. Naaman found the instruction given to him all of those things too: “There are other rivers than the Jordan,” he said, “and far better ones. And in any case bathing in the Jordan is irrational. How can that remove leprosy?”
And we say: This is the 21st century. There are other remedies for sin and guilt – psychotherapy, counselling and so on. And in any case washing in the blood of Jesus is irrational – even if we knew what it meant. How can a public execution in AD 33 give me clean hands and a pure heart today?”
God says: Just do it. Just trust yourself to what Jesus did on the cross. His blood is his divine life poured out in death to give life and cleansing and healing to the world. Trust yourself to it. See it touching you. It will work. Trust me.
Do you remember Ben Hur – the great 1959 block-buster that tells the story of how a Jewish nobleman, Prince Judah Ben Hur was wrongly-accused by a friend, sold into slavery on the galleys, and lost his fortune and his family in the process. Later, when Ben Hur regains his freedom and returns to Jerusalem, he finds his mother and sister are lepers in a leper colony. He tries to take them to Jesus, but it seems he is too late. Jesus is already carrying his cross to Calvary. Ben Hur’s mother and sister return to their leper colony and Ben Hur tries to give Jesus a drink as Jesus stumbles and falls. Then, as Ben Hur watches, Jesus is crucified.
Darkness covers the land, a storm breaks, and as the rain begins to pour, the blood of Jesus running down the cross mingles with the rivulets of rain running down the hill and into the leper colony outside the city walls, and as it does Ben Hur’s mother and sister realise that they have been made clean.
It is a powerful piece of symbolism. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow; No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.
On Tuesday, as I was praying about this morning’s talk, I believe the Lord told me that there would be someone here this morning … or maybe more than one person … who has been carrying a burden of guilt around with them for years. I don’t know whether it was someone at 9.30 or it’s someone here at 11.00. But if you are the person, God is saying to you this morning that the blood of Jesus can not only wash away your sin but it can wash away your guilt too.
Do you know what guilt is? It is the power that cancelled sin can still hold over someone – even someone who has sought and received forgiveness. But as Charles Wesley wrote in his famous hymn “O for a thousand tongues to sing” … “He (that is Jesus) breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free. His blood can make the foulest clean. His blood avails for me.”
It can avail for you too this morning. “Would you be free from your burden of sin? There’s power in the blood. Power in the blood. Would you be free from your burden of sin? There is wonder-working power in the blood.” The sin can go. The guilt can go. It can go now. You can be rid of it today.