Monday, September 25, 2017

New Commands, New Covenant

Sept. 23/24   New Commands, New Covenant
Scripture: Exodus and Deuteronomy

Today we continue our sermon series called, “The Story,” where we’ve been exploring God’s plan fix our world gone wrong and make it possible for us to be in relationship with him. Last week recounted the story of the Exodus, where God freed his people from Egypt. Today we look at how God doesn’t settle for rescuing us, but longs to reshape us through the giving of commands.

I heard an interesting hypothetical question this week. What would happen if communities of faith ceased to exist? The question was posed as conversation piece on “Q,” which is a podcast dedicated to helping people stay curious, and was offered partly as a response to the growing idea that religion doesn’t really impact the larger community. And so a research team was sent to collect data around the area of homelessness, which many people (religious and non-religious) agree is an area we should all be doing something about. And what they discovered is that 60% of all efforts dedicated to eradicating homelessness are provided by faith-based organizations.  And what that tells me is this: First, the church saves the government a lot of money! Just imagine what would happen if the church just stopped doing what the church is supposed to do. And secondly, this tells me that when we are on the right path, namely, the path Jesus lays before us, we are on the type of path that changes lives and changes the world. But it’s so easy to forget just how good this path truly is…  

Like most high school students, I needed some extra motivation to stay on the right path, if you know what I mean. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. But one of my quirky attempts to live a good life was a funny little picture I taped to my bedroom door called “Art and His Sin Avoidance Technique.”  Art was this goofy character who looked like he would never gets things right. And whenever Art would think of sinning or committing some act of disobedience, he would light the seat of his pants on fire. It was Art’s simple way of remembering what happens to those who sin. Every morning when I would get out of bed, I would go to open my door and I would see Art, with his butt fully engulfed in flames.  I would see that funny, but poignant little picture, always of Art looking back at his fiery pants, and I would go on my day trying to live a life of obedience because I didn’t want to end up that way. But one morning I noticed something about that picture I had never noticed before:  Art was always looking back. He was always looking back at the flame that drew awfully close to his pants.  Never did the picture portray Art looking ahead…

Obedience is never a fun topic to discuss. When it’s taught appropriately, obedience can be a wonderfully meaningful way to live out our lives as disciples; but unfortunately obedience has been taught with as much grace as the proverbial old schoolmarm who scared her students with the infamous slap of a ruler. I’ve heard horrible stories of students getting lashed by a ruler for simply misspelling a word! Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing many of you grew up in homes, churches and communities where obedience was taught as something you strived for or, at the very least, tolerated, so that you wouldn’t end up in God’s naughty list.  Quite simply, obedience was proclaimed as your primary hell-avoidance technique.

The first time I saw this live was at church camp. When I first attended church camp, I was excited to go and meet new friends and maybe encounter in new ways.  And then I was handed a list of rules to follow. Before I had met anyone, I was told “Here are the ways we do things around here.” And I always thought they were quite strange.  Girls had to wear long dresses.  Boys had to wear long slacks.  Radios and cd players were not permitted.  And you certainly didn’t bring with you the devil’s playground- a deck of playing cards.  I’m sure the rules were once written with the very best of intentions, but those intentions were never spelled out.  I was simply told to follow them because that’s what God would want his people to do. And if we didn’t follow them, we would be scolded or even worse, sent home.

A college professor once had a class of 40 students, many of whom had grown up in churches like mine. And sensing an uncomfortable trend, Burge assigned each of his students to write a one-page reflection on the motivations behind the shaping of their Christian faith.  Over 90% of his students admitted in that assignment that they lived they way they lived because they were afraid of God. They were afraid of what God might do. They were afraid of spending eternity in hell. They were afraid of punishment. And like my little cartoon character named Art, the majority of their faith was spent looking back to see if the fire was growing too close instead of looking ahead and responding with joy to what God had done and was doing for them - all in the name of love.

I don’t know how it happened, but somehow we managed to separate love from obedience. Maybe it’s because following rules is easier than love. “Do this.” “Don’t do that.” Avoid these behaviors and you’ll be good to go. But to love, now that’s a different matter. To love means that we have to communicate and talk with others. To love means that we have to see others for who they are in God’s eyes, and that’s not as simple as simply keeping a bunch of commandments. But I don’t think God ever meant for these two ideas to be pulled apart. In fact, I think God gave us rules to remind us what love actually looks like!

Within God’s commands, we see the same hope for creation that we first saw when God lovingly spoke the world into being: Life to the fullest. One of God’s first acts after rescuing Israel from the hands of Egypt was to give them a law. Before God brought them into a new land and before he built them a new home, God gave them a law that, in essence, showed them how to live again.  There’s something to be said about the wisdom in that decision. God doesn’t just free us. God doesn’t just rescue us. He shows us how to live again! Anybody remember the movie “The Shawshank Redemption?” I think they played that movie over and over again on TNT a few years ago. But in that movie, they depicted just how frightened newly released prisoners were to reenter society. They had grown so accustomed to life in the cell that they had no idea how to live in the real world. In one sense, they were free. But they had no idea what that freedom meant. Thankfully, God doesn’t do this to us!

Jewish scholars have counted 613 commandments in the Old Testament, and most of them were built upon two great hopes:  The hope that people would learn to love God and the hope that people would learn to love one another. In fact, this is exactly what Jesus points to when questioned about the greatest of these. Love God. Love neighbor. For God, this is what freedom means. It doesn’t ONLY mean release from bondage, but also the reframing and the reshaping of life. This is how God desires for his people to live- to experience the joy of friendship with God and the joy of friendship with each other.  Jesus later said that the law would never go away, not even one stroke of a letter, because the law reveals God’s heart for creation.

One of the Old Testament stories that has proven foundational for many Christians is the giving of the Ten Commandments. In those commandments, the first four speak of our relationship to God, and the final six commands speak of our relationship with others. And what we find as we read are not 10 rules that restrict us from joy, but 10 gracious God-given commands that free us to enjoy life as it was always meant to be! Thou shall not kill. Why not? Because it’s good to give life! Thou shall not covet.  Why? Because God wants to be what we crave! When we think, live into and obey these commandments, were not just being good people, we’re not just avoiding the flame, we’re receiving gracious reminders of what life with God looks like! And it’s a very, very good life!

For our wedding, Joanna and I selected as our main Scripture a passage from Philippians 2 known as the “Christ Hymn.”  I want to share this with you because it means so much to me.  Read passage. In this passage, Christ’s obedience is a model for our own. Christ was obedient, says the passage, even to the point of death because Jesus was convinced that God’s love for the world was worth giving up his own life- and he trusted that love. The face of Christ’s obedience, the emptying of himself and taking up the form of a slave and being made in human likeness was not his impending crucifixion, the mocking of the crowds, or the hopelessness of the grave; the face of his obedience, the reason behind it, was love- the love that God had for him, the love he had for God, and the love he has for you.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that God hasn’t set us free to look over our shoulders. He’s set us free to give us new life, to teach us how to live again. And that’s why he gives all these rules and regulations on an old mountain called Sinai. It really is about love. As funny as my little cartoon was, it didn’t teach me about love. It just taught me how not to be bad. And that doesn’t transform anything. Obedience isn’t really about avoiding the flame. Obedience is about saying “Yes’” to God’s way of ordering this world.  Quite simply, obedience is saying Yes to love. Amen. 

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