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Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Gift of Boundaries

There is joy and life and light in following God’s laws, we sing in Psalm 19.  Finding such delight in God’s law is about understanding the loving guidance and care God is showing in living in this covenanted relationship of chosenness and grace.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday in Lent, year B; texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

By the time Moses and the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, he had done a fair amount of talking to the LORD God and reporting to the people what God said.  The people, in turn, had done a fair amount of complaining every time a setback or difficulty faced them in the wilderness, even after they’d witnessed God bringing them out of slavery already, and even though Moses, with God’s help, led them through each difficulty.  At Mount Sinai, then, and perhaps because of their complaining, God invites the whole people of Israel to hear the voice of the LORD themselves and the covenant promise which was coming.  Moses instructs them to clean and purify themselves for three days, and then they all gather outside a boundary surrounding the mountain.  When the LORD God actually speaks, the writers of Exodus record that it was a blast of trumpet so loud the people trembled, thick smoke billowed up like from a furnace, and the whole mountain “shook violently.”  In this setting, the Ten Commandments, the reading we just heard, were given.

Well, the people couldn’t abide it.  They were terrified, and told Moses that from here on out it was perfectly fine if he did all the talking with God, and then could share it with them.  They were so frightened of God, they wanted nothing to do with direct contact with God any more.  Let the intermediary Moses handle it all.

Of course, their fear only lasted so long as the trumpet and earthquake did.  When Moses then went up the mountain and stayed for 40 days, receiving the law of God, the people grew restless and made a golden calf to worship instead of the LORD God.  This covenant we hear this morning was broken in a little over a month.

What seems significant in this story is the question of the quality and extent of relationship.  Clearly by this point in the life of Israel, only a few people like Moses feel a closeness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God is other, frightening, threatening, and if conversation is desired it’s only to request help, often miraculous, in times of difficulty.  This isn’t much of a relationship.  It’s an immature life, one lived blaming a supernatural “other” for all problems, but also treating that “other,” the true God, as the Great School Principal in the Sky who gives laws and not much else, and who is feared, but behind whose back all sorts of shenanigans can be attempted.

This cannot be what the Triune God hoped for after the flood.  This doesn’t sound at all like the psalmist of Psalm 19, whose words we sang today, words describing delight and joy and life in God’s laws.  And this isn’t at all like the relationship God began with Abraham and Sarah.

Last week we heard the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, which was in fact a covenant relationship.

This does make sense after the flood – if God wants to bring back the people of the earth, start small.  Choose a family, and begin a relationship.  It seems that the call of Abraham and Sarah is God’s beginning attempt at another plan for dealing with our lack of love for God and each other, our wickedness.  And it benefits both parties to the covenant.

For God, the benefit seems to be relationship, the point of bringing us back.  God gets people to love and to be loved by in return.  The way the LORD speaks to Abraham, like a friend, is the same conversational shared life that the Bible says existed in the beginning.  We can’t begin to understand why God wants this, but it seems clear that he does.

For us, it’s more obvious: this relationship with God is a huge blessing, given our sinfulness, and leads to our being a blessing to the world.  Rather than living in ignorance and fear, Abraham and Sarah and their family learn an intimate, close relationship with the God who created all.  They are chosen for this reason.

But they’re chosen to spread this good news to the world, to be a blessing to all.  Through their family.  And eventually that means God will need to teach a way of life to this family that is a blessing to them and to the world.  So 400 years later, God speaks to them at Sinai.

This, then is the gift of Sinai: God has a way of life which will lead to life for the people.  And that will in turn bless the other peoples of the world.  That the people of this family of Israel can’t appreciate that, and see this as set of laws imposed which they are free to break, but that they also can criticize the LORD God whenever they suffer, that is a tragedy.  And it’s one which repeats to this day.  We’ll get to that.  But first, let’s look at the gift of these commandments.

What we can understand if we look carefully at God’s intent according to the Scriptures, is that the reiteration of the covenant relationship at Sinai is a deepening of the relationship: here the LORD God helps us to abundant life.

And once again, it begins on God’s side: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  God’s covenant with Noah is absolute promise not to destroy with flood again.  God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah is God’s promise to make them a great nation and bless them, and the world through them.  And now once more, God gives grace and hope first, before any commandments.  “I am the One who brought you out of slavery.”

And if we look at these commandments in that light, they’re not a list of “don’t do this.”  Martin Luther understood this.  They’re a description of what abundant life lived in love of God and love of neighbor looks like.  Why else would Jesus say those two things sum up all God’s commandments?

In the Small Catechism, Luther not only explains what is forbidden by each commandment, but what life-giving action, what abundance will result if we live by them.  He gives positive guidance suggestions based on each commandment.  And he shows us that he understands them as gift.

So look at what that might mean.

“You shall not murder.”  Fine.  We understand.  Jesus ups the ante and says that even hating another breaks this commandment.  Well, that’s much harder to keep.  Luther agrees, but also sees the gift: what if we took care of all the physical and mental and spiritual needs of our neighbor?  What if this isn’t a minimum don’t but a maximum do?  What might our lives together be like if we held this as our standard with each other?

Or, “you shall not commit adultery.”  Fine.  We understand.  And again, Jesus ups the ante and says that even thinking about being unfaithful is being unfaithful.  Again, much harder to keep.  And again, Luther agrees, but also envisions this as gift, that we look at each other’s covenantal relationships, life-long committed lives lived in promise to God and each other, and we honor them, support them, pray for them.  What would our lives together be like if this is how we treated each other’s relationships?

In fact, the way the Hebrew is written, it suggests this approach.  All these commandments are translated, “you shall not.”  But they could just as easily be translated, “you will not.”  In that perspective, these commandments describe a life lived in love with God and each other where we are so shaped and molded by it that we don’t do these things, they’re just not in us.  “If you live with me,” says God, “you won’t do these things.”  The implication is that it just wouldn’t be how we live.

When the Triune God comes in person, as the Son of God living among us, that Son, Jesus, says his purpose is that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  Had we simply lived in the Sinai covenant, we’d have had it already.  This Jesus knows.  And this is far beyond our scope this morning, but we know this as well: that Jesus came to help us live into this ancient covenant, to embody this kind of love of God and neighbor with the help of the Spirit.  And with the grace of forgiveness.  Not because we obey out of fear of punishment.  Rather, because we see these commands for what they are: God’s way of life, rich, abundant, good life.

What we might consider, then, is growing up.  Maturing.  Becoming full partners in this covenantal relationship.

As children, we say, “you’re not the boss of me.”  We hate following rules.  The words of the psalmist are far from us.  It’s all about avoiding rules, getting by.  We’re like the people at Sinai, ready to make a golden calf as soon as God’s back is turned for too long.  We see law, rules, as burden.

But if you’ve ever had to teach children, and guide them, you know the truth: these rules, these laws are all for their benefit, for their abundant life.  What Jesus tells us about God and us we already know with the guiding of children.

And so maturing in faith is living into, growing up into, this covenant relationship with God to the point where with the psalmist we delight in God’s law.  No longer cowering at the foot of the mountain – and perpetuating the idea that God’s a bad guy just out to spoil our fun – we stand confident in the love of God Jesus has made known to us, and we begin to delight in God’s law.  To see it, as the psalmist does, as something that rejoices the heart.  Gives wisdom to the simple.  Gives light to the eyes.  And is sweeter than honey straight from the comb.

Law and gospel become two sides of the same gift, just different ways of looking at it.  The only reason we need the grace of God is that we break God’s law and do incredible damage to each other and to our relationship with God.  We ruin our lives and others’.  Grace heals and restores us back to the point where we can once more take up God’s gracious gift of boundaries and guidance and find abundant life again.  In other words, if you get kicked out of the swimming pool for pushing people in, and then by grace are invited back into the pool, you’ll still want to find the abundant life of not pushing others in (or being pushed yourself), a life where you can, with everyone else, enjoy the fun of the pool.

This covenant of grace and commands is life to us.  It is gift.

Just as we know children need to learn boundaries so that they can have healthy, happy, whole adult lives, we rejoice in these boundaries, these commands, that God gives.  They are the gift of abundant life that happens when we live in relationship with the God who loves us.  With the help of the Spirit of God, we can learn their joys and delights just as well as the psalmist, and find the abundant life God has hoped for the world all along.  And then we can invite others into this joy and light ourselves, for our life with God only gets richer by the sharing.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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