Monday, March 13, 2023

We need the Law. . .

Sermon preached for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (A), on Sunday, February 12, 2023.

When Adam and Eve were confronted in Eden, they did not argue that what they did was not wrong.  Sure, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and so put the blame right back on God but neither of them could say that they had not broken God’s command.  What Adam and Eve did not do in Eden, we have learned to do.  When caught in things that are wrong, we not only blame others for our sin but we argue with God that the command either did not apply or it was not a good command.  This we have turned into high art with all kinds of unsavory thoughts, words, and deeds.  We have become the people God lamented – who ignore His law only to do what is right in their own eyes.

Jesus insists over and over again it is not His work or purpose to abolish the Law or to silence the prophets who call sinners to repentance.  Yet we Christians have worked very hard to distance God’s law from grace and to live as if it were all good as long as it is consensual and done in moderation.  We have decided that the problem lies with the law and the voices of those whom God has sent to square our lives according to that law.

The problem does not lie with the law or the voices calling us to repentance.  Yes, the law promised life but because we could not keep it, it was a promised unfulfilled.  The Law was and in not bad but we are constrained already by sin so  deep within our desires and wills.  Sin led us to jump at the chance to fulfill the law with all the vigor and enthusiasm of a people making a New Year’s resolution to lose weight or exercise more.  But as soon as sin saw how hard it was, we lost interest in keeping the law and began work to undermine it and justify ourselves.

Just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not evil in itself – indeed Adam and Eve saw that the fruit was good and pleasing to eat.  It was the aftertaste  that spoiled it all.  So also the law is good and wise because it comes from the holy mouth of the holy Lord and reflects His perfect wisdom and will.  Sin could not change the commandment itself but sin changed the people who living under that law.  And those under that law, worked to change the law so that it was manageable and twisted it until it pointed not to God but to us.

So also those who warn us are not the problem.  The doctor who warns you about the consequences of your unhealthy behavior is not to blame when it happens.  When St. Paul writes in Romans 5 that death reigned from Adam to Moses, he tells us something we often forget.  He could have said death reigned from Adam to Jesus but he did not.  That means that the law given through Moses was not the cause of our death.  Sin was.  What the law was and is remains a sign of God’s grace.  When the law is given through Moses, the prophet begins with a profound statement that is in itself a promise.  “I am the Lord your God.”  It should have been obvious to the Jews whom He had brought through the waters of the Red Sea and on whom He had placed His name through the burning bush.  But it wasn’t.  Chafing under the law, they had forgotten that their God was a God of promise.

The law is not evil but good.  It kills, yes, but it also gives life.  It bestows upon no people a standing as God’s people and gives them a land, a kingdom, and an inheritances.  This law will endure when the grass of the fields are gone; when heaven and earth have passed away, the Word of the Lord shall remain, perfect and holy.  How we see the law changes in Christ but the law does not.  To those who have not been covered with Christ’s righteousness it only accuses.  Nobody wants the pointy finger of the law aimed at them and so God attached the promise of a righteousness that came not from our keeping the law but Christ keeping it for us.

But with the statement of God “I am the Lord your God” we meet mercy for the sinner and grace for those who stand under the law and its accusation.  Whatever Israel did in breaking the law, God provided a path to forgiveness and restoration. The Day of Atonement placed Israel’s sin upon the sacrificial lamb and the scape goat with a view to His Son who would become both for us.  Here is grace to forgive every sin with the blood of Christ, to rescue those who deserve nothing of His kindness, and to welcome the prodigal son home to the father who still claimed the sinner as his own.

So now remains, what shall we do with this law?  Shall we silence its accusation by renaming what is sin?  Shall we simply ignore its voice in the hope that it will finally shut up?  Shall we argue that because we are redeemed we have no need of nor do we want the law anymore?  Shall we try to make evil what God spoke for our good?  Or shall we not simply bask in God’s love and mercy to forgive us and work to become the people the law describes?  The law will always accuse but to those who live in Christ by baptism and faith, it has nothing more to condemn.  All our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west and what was scarlet has been washed whiter than snow.  In this way the law points to Jesus.

Yet the law remains for us because we still need direction through this sinful world.  We need to know what is right and wrong, good and evil, of God and of the devil.  We need to have an objective voice to guide us through this world of darkness and not simply our own feelings or desires.  We need to be protected not only from the evil out there but the evil in our hearts trying to undo what Christ has done in us and for us.  We still need a light for our path and a lamp to shine before every step we take.  And in this way, the law still points us to Jesus.

It is the most glorious thing that God welcomes sinners and forgives them.  It is the power to rescue a people who have no reason for God’s rescue except His great love.  But we cannot and dare not turn this rescue into the cause to remain in the sins that would bind us and the familiar paths of evil that would corrupt what God has made holy and pure.  Our witness to the world is not the freedom to do as we choose but the self-discipline and self-control of those who hearts now belong to the Lord and with them our wills and desires.

The world loves to point at our sin and say we are no better than they are.  The world is correct.  Our righteousness is still rags apart from Christ.  But our witness to the world is that we know a better God, a God of mercy who takes away all our sin and whose mercy insists upon speaking the guiding word of His law to show us what a holy life looks like and the power of the Spirit to keep us on that narrow way.

Of course.  Christians get caught up in sexual temptation and sin, divorce, steal, lie, dishonor, and bring shame upon themselves.  Of course, the blood of Christ still cleanses sinners and the grace of Christ restores those who fall who come in contrition and repentance.  But let it not be that we know the ways of sin better than the ways of God, that we willingly enter into sin rather than fight against it, that we strive for the flesh instead of the Spirit, and that we do not care about sin anymore rather than knowing how evil sin is and working to avoid it at all costs.

The Lord saves you.  He is your God and your Savior.  He is also your Guide and the Light to show the path that leaders to everlasting life.  Stay on that path.  Hear the law of God guiding your way, warning you when veer off the path, accusing you when you sin, and pointing you to Christ your salvation and your righteousness.  That is the shape of your life now.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

1 comment:

gamarquart said...

The matter under discussion in this posting has troubled me for many years. Yes, my dear brother, Kurt, often warned me about Gospel Reductionism.
My problem begins with the fact that I am not quite sure where we can find this “Law.” In most cases, when we read “Law” in English in the Old Testament, the original Hebrew word is Torah. Torah in its narrowest sense means the Pentateuch; in its widest, it means “the mind of God.” It definitely does not mean “Law.” It includes both what we call “Law” and Gospel. The Hebrew word for “the Ten Commandments” translates into “the Words”, or “the Ten Words.”
I know the Confessions define what Law and Gospel are. However, there are some problems with this “Law.” Are we to stone adulterers as required by the Law? David and Bathsheba should have been stoned to death, but the Prophet told David, “You shall not die”; a very obvious breach of the Law.
Another problem is that, not only was the Old Covenant made with the people of Israel, but God also annulled it:
Jeremiah 31:31, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and the house of Judah.”
The author of Hebrews claims that the old Covenant has ceased to exist: Hebrews 8:13, “in speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ He has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.”
This new covenant also provides that God will “write the Law on their hearts.” This makes a clear distinction between the member of God’s Kingdom, and those outside of it. How does this affect the necessity to preach the Law to Christians?
When our Lord insisted that not one syllable of the Law can be changed, He also added that He came to “fulfill the Law.”
When our Lord said to His Disciples, John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” did He mean to add one to the 10, or did He mean that this was the only Commandment that we must follow? Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Ephesians 2:15, “He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in Himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
If, in its widest meaning, “Torah” means “the Mind of God’, what does it mean when St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “But we have the mind of Christ”?
There is no question that various Epistles of the New Testament contain strong words against various sins, but there is little reference to “the Law” in these. I get the impression that most of these assume that it is clear what the nature of these sins is, and what proper behavior is. Reminding us of the fact that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit may seem more appropriate to the New Testament, than threats of the law. The Law indeed drives people to that Repentance that leads to conversion and baptism. This is not the same as the daily repentance of the Christian. That leaves the question of how useful the law is in changing the behavior of those who have become members of our Lord’s Kingdom.
These are disconnected thoughts. I wonder what would be the result if you weave them into a single doctrine of “life in the kingdom”?
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart