The people on the cruise still talk about the time a vacationing surgeon ended up doing an emergency appendectomy on the ship’s steward on a table in the galley. The odd thing was he used the cutlery from the kitchen. Later, the doctor said, “A surgeon can use almost any kind of cutting implement to do surgery. However, it must be clean.”
It must be clean. By “clean,” the surgeon meant germ-free, purged from all kinds of impurities that may cause infection. If you’ve ever seen a doctor scrub up for surgery, you know what this means. After a long time of fiercely brushing the soap and water into his hands, he rinses and then encases those pristine hands in latex gloves. The poor bacteria don’t stand a chance!
There is a wonderful line from Psalm 24 that fits here. Someone asked, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” The answer came back: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not set his mind on what is false, and has not sworn deceitfully.”
I wonder sometimes if modern farm children know just what life was like in the old days, before mechanization and modernization took over. Take baling hay, for instance. Our baler was a long monster pulled behind the tractor. Once it was in place, you unhooked the tractor and turned it around, then connected the belt from the tractor to the baler. Now, using a pitchfork someone feeds hay into the baler from above. But you–being the kid and therefore inheriting the dirtiest jobs–crouch down below the action waiting for the time to “throw the block,” which separates the bales. Then you push strands of wire through the holes in that block, and retrieve them when the person on the other side pushes them back. Now, pull them tight and twist into a knot tight enough to hold the bale together. All the time you were doing this, the noisy baling action went on over your head while the dust and grit of falling hay filtered down all over you. In five minutes of work, you are layered with tiny bits of hay and the dust and grime from the field. You are filthier than you have ever been in your life.
Or did you ever clean out a hog pen? That is positively the worst. The stench, the muck, the sheer filthy is beyond description.
When you finish, all you want is a bath. You’ve never ever wanted to take a bath like you do today. A long, hot, deep bath. You want to be clean again. In fact you feel a lot like King David.
You know the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba, how he committed manslaughter against her husband to camouflage his sin, then stonewalled for a long time hoping against hope that no one knew what he had done. But God knew and so did David. Eventually, the prophet Nathan confronted David with what he had done. You can almost feel the relief in his voice as David admits, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51 is David’s prayer at this time.
The overwhelming sentiment of Psalm 51 is “Lord, I want to be clean.” Listen to David as he prays, “Wash away my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin….Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow….Turn your face away from my sins and blot out all my guilt. God, create a clean heart in me and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
When a man comes into the service of the Almighty God, he begins to handle holy things. He will always feel unworthy, and well he might, for he is that. But he must be clean.
The best I can figure it out, there are only two ways to be clean before the Lord: 1) never sin in the first place, or 2) come to the Lord Jesus Christ and receive the cleansing which only His shed blood provides. And since none of us qualifies in the first category, we have no other recourse except the kind of cleansing which only the blood of Jesus can achieve.
After viewing the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” some of us at church were discussing the lasting effect it would have. One of our worship leaders, Tim Walker, said, “I will never again lightly sing about the blood of Jesus.”
In Revelation 7, a choir of white-robed singers stands Heaven on its ears as they praise Jesus in song. An old-timer turns to the Apostle John and says, “Who are these white-robed singers? Where did they come from?” John says, “You know and I don’t.” Then the elder tells him. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
That’s how Heavenly robes get their gleam. It’s how God’s children develop their shine. The same Apostle John wrote in an epistle that carries his name, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He said, “The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Now, every minister knows these things. We do, in a way. But some of us think they apply generally to everyone and hardly at all to us. I know, friend, because I’ve been there. You know the drill, too, I would surmise. It goes like this…
“My sins are not pretty, but they are in a special category. I know my own heart. I know I mean well. God has blessed me so much, He has given me so much mercy, He is not surprised by my weaknesses. He knows I am but clay. And He chooses to use me in spite of my frailties. Thank you, Lord, for using me even with the struggles I’m having at the moment. I’m not going to insult you by confessing these sins again. You know, Lord. And I promise to do better.”
By just such rationalizing do we in the Lord’s work come to overlook our sins and not confess them, not forsake them, and to go right on sinning while handling holy things.
When we do the Lord’s work with unclean hands, several things happen:
1. The Lord is dishonored.
2. The Lord’s work is diminished.
3. The Lord’s people are discouraged.
4. We are disobedient.
5. The devil is delighted.
I love the little insight from II Timothy 2. “Now in a large house, there are not only gold and silver bowls, but also those of wood and earthenware, some for special use, some for ordinary.” That is, you will find gold goblets, silver trays, clay urns, wooden buckets, and so forth. Some of these vessels are for dining and high purposes, and some are for garbage and excrement. Some are “honorable” and some “dishonorable,” as Paul put it. Then, he says, “So if anyone purifies himself from these thigs, he will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
Whether we consider ourselves a gold container, or more likely, “an earthen vessel,” two things are true: 1) to be useful to the Master, we must be clean, and 2) the content is far more important than the vessel. As Paul puts it in II Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us.”
It’s not about us. Not now, not ever. It has always been about Him, and always shall be.
Don’t miss that. A lot of ministers have and have gotten into big trouble from taking themselves too seriously and thinking themselves indispensable to the Lord’s work.
It’s about Him, friend. It’s all about Him. “That He might have the preeminence” should be our motto. (Colossians 1:18)
Remember that the next time you stand to preach. It’s not about how clever you are or how godly, important these may be. It’s not about how learned or how talented or how gifted or how handsome you are. It is not about your degrees or your mannerisms or your great looking clothes. God can do miracles with people with half your talent and none of the accomplishments. No part of this is about you. It’s all about Him. Your part is faithfulness.
Remember that the next time the congregation praises you as the greatest minister they’ve ever had. And when the denomination awards you its achiever-of-the-decade recognition. And your seminary calls you its most distinguished alumnus. The community gives you a plaque for your wall, the college asks you to speak at commencement, and the city names a park for you. None of these things count. They have little to do with anything. God can use you with none of these honors, and collecting them might actually get in His way. In time you will do what some of the rest of us have done–go through your cabinets and throw out the community awards and plaques and denominational certificates, and save your family the trouble later on.
Eventually, the only thing that matters is doing the Lord’s will. Jesus said, “I do always do the things that please the Father.” (John 8:29) I can’t say that about myself, but that’s the standard. That’s what we aim for.
In the Old Testament days, when a man went into the priesthood, he was given a ceremonial bath. He stood there as the other priests doused him with water and went through the motions of washing him. Thereafter, as an active priest, every time he entered the tabernacle and later the temple to offer sacrifices and prayers, the first order of the day was to walk straight to the laver and wash his own hands.
Clean hands and a pure heart. There is no substitute in the life of a minister.