I Don’t Wanna Be a Pharisee?

(2 Cor 3:1-9, 17-18; John 7:37-52) – J G White

11 am, Sun, March 15, 2020 – UBC Digby

This past week I was remembering a song from childhood Sunday School days.

I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa baa

I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa baa

Pray the Lord my soul to keep,

I just wanna be a sheep, baa baa baa

I don’t wanna be a goat, nope

Haven’t got any hope, nope

I don’t wanna be a hypocrite

‘Cause they’re not hip to it

I don’t wanna be a Canaanite

‘Cause they just make cain at night

I don’t wanna be a Sadducee

‘Cause they’re so sad, you see

I don’t wanna be a Pharisee

‘Cause they’re not fair, you see  

Cute song; fun song; biblical song. But what child understands this? Hey, what adult in a pew really could explain what a goat is here, or a Canaanite, a hypocrite (OK, you know!), a Sadducee, or Pharisee?

We read again this Sunday from John’s Gospel, and there we find these Jewish people called Pharisees saying and doing things, as well as temple police, and chief priests. It was during the Jewish Festival of Booths. What’s all this?

I want to look at just the Pharisees, for a moment today, because I am paying attention to Nicodemus, this cameo character in the story. He is mentioned just three times, in John chapters 3, 7 and 19. Last Sunday we looked at the first scene, when he visits Jesus one night, and has an amazing conversation. Which includes the now famous John 3:16. 

Today’s story, from chapter 7, shows a growing controversy about Jesus, back then. The Jewish people in general were divided about Him. Is He the Christ, the Messiah? Is He right, or wrong? The scholars and Bible law enforcers seem mostly against Jesus. A move to have Him arrested, and even killed off, was growing.

Nicodemus stands out, among the others. He calls for just treatment of Jesus, when the rest of the Pharisees think He is a deceiver and should get arrested. They had called in the police to arrest Jesus, but the police were taken aback by His amazing teachings and did not put a hand on Him. “Shouldn’t he get a fair hearing?” asked Nicodemus.

Perhaps you can already tell that this Jewish group – the Pharisees – were law-keepers. They were experts in the Laws of what we call the Old Testament. And they had a big tradition of other teachings that were to be obeyed. In the Jewish Faith, by this time, local meeting houses were in the towns: the synagogues. This is where the Pharisees had their power and influence, teaching the local people and enforcing their ways of obeying God. 

The Pharisee tradition had developed new theologies. Instead of God’s justice being done in this world, according to what God decided, they taught there would be a resurrection in the afterlife, and God’s final justice would come then. They also taught about angels and other spirits, and the predestination of people under God. 

So they paved the way for the Jewish religion to be less about one Temple on earth- in the city of Jerusalem – and more about the home and the local town synagogue as the centre for holiness and learning and obedience.

In contrast, the more traditional Sadducees were aristocratic, focused on the Jerusalem Temple, had more political power, and were closely allied with the Jewish priesthood in the City. They did not teach there was much of an afterlife: no need of resurrection nor justice later. 

You may have noticed, it is to all these law-keepers and law-givers Jesus gives his harshest words, in much of the Gospels. By the time John is telling the seventh chapter of the whole story, reviews of Jesus are mixed, with the Pharisees and Sadducees and priests and scribes opposing Him. 

Mostly. Not all. Not Nicodemus. And, as we read later, a zealous Pharisee named Saul dramatically is transformed into a zealous Christian, and goes by Paul. It is this Paul, as an early Mediterranean missionary, who writes letters to the little Church in Corinth Greece. We read a bit today. And at this point, in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is contrasting the old, legalistic way that he knew so well, with the new Way, in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. 

Paul goes so far as to call his old way “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets”!  He does say it was glorious, yes, but it pales in comparison with the ministry of the Spirit, the ministry of justification. Paul’s new work is the continuing work of Jesus. 

Now, being a stickler for the laws of the Bible is a problem, because it is not the way of salvation. Yet Church people through the centuries can be tempted to make our faith a religion of dos and don’ts. As a theology professor quoted to me the other day: some believers treat the New Testament like a second Old Testament. (S. Boersma) So we don’t want to be Christian Pharisees.

Yet we still need rules. We must trust and obey. Be it for moral and spiritual things, or for the hygiene needed in a panicky pandemic. Seek the Spirit of Christ to guide and teach, as He has been doing for a couple thousand years. 

Remember that, to know the biblical Law is a benefit for Faith in Christ. 

Paul mentions Moses, the lawgiver, to the believers in Corinth. The people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face… Jesus mentioned Moses to Nicodemus on his first visit. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… (Jn 3) These were the stories they were steeped in, of course, which guided them. And guided them right into a ‘new covenant,’ a ‘new testament.’ 

Jesus said, at the last supper, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ We can also translate it, ‘the new testament in my blood.’ (Lk 22:20) Jesus brought something new, built upon but greater than the old.

In Christ, humans are more valuable than the Law, so to speak. Paul used this beautiful imagery with his friends: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts… written… not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor 3:2-3) Jesus gives us news about following Bible rules, over and over. Such as when he spoke of the fourth commandment and said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28) The intense and detailed rules of the Jewish Sabbath are for people, to serve them.

Today is Sunday, a Christian Sabbath Day. Yet attendance in churches is down today in NS, I’m sure. I have given you a break from the big news story so far, but let me now just ask this. We are having a pandemic on the planet! Well, what does this mean for the faithful? Could we treat it like the Sabbath of old? Or like a spiritual retreat for Lent? A time of purposeful rest. A time of fasting from things (giving up certain things) for prayer. A season of preparation.

Here is a poem called ‘Pandemic,’ by Lynn Ungar. 

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath–

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is. 

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life. 

Center down…

http://www.lynnungar.com/poems/pandemic/  

When you must be isolated – take this from God as a time for holy solitude. Jesus took forty days alone in the wilderness – His Spirit is available to be your guide for forty days, or whatever it takes. When your plans for March and April get cancelled – take it from God as a teachable moment about making sacrifices, about our own mortality, about caring for the needy, about noticing Jesus – lifted up for all to see.

Some other good news, that Paul mentions: Our competence is in and from God. For the ministry that we are called upon to do. 

Perhaps we are also competent to handle anything the world can throw at us, thanks to God. What’s the popular prayer about this? Lord help me to remember: nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I together can’t handle. 

Paul also wrote: Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. Freedom from legalism, from phariseeism, from needing to save yourself by being perfectly good and getting everything right. Jesus has accomplished this for us. Now, there’s transformation, from glory to GLORY. So it is a gift to be given a life that is getting better, purer, more beautiful. 

All this was found by some of the Pharisees, such as Nicodemus. They started off by being scripture experts already. That was an advantage, and a challenge. Christ opened their minds up to know new things, and follow His lead.

And this can be known by us also, whether we are law makers or law breakers or law keepers. 

‘I don’t wanna be a Pharisee,’ we sing. But we can start there.  One just doesn’t stay there. A Pharisee can hear the call into the Kingdom of Christ. And be new. Like Paul. 

Every day, remember Jesus words:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 

and let the one who believes in me drink. 

As the scripture has said, 

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:37-38)

PRAYERS of the People Let us be guided by scripture this morning. These phrases can guide our silent praying together.  Let us pray.

(James 5) 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. 

Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 

14 Are any among you sick? 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; 

and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. 

(1 Timothy 2) [First of all, then, I urge that] supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 

3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;

Our Father, who art in heaven…  AMEN.

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