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Sunday, October 4, 2015

As a Child

We find no life playing games with God’s law, no loopholes to sneak through; our only hope is to recognize our utter dependence and vulnerability and turn to Christ Jesus for welcome, forgiveness and newness of life.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27, year B
   texts:  Mark 10:2-16; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

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

If you want a fight over God’s law, don’t pick it with the Son of God.

If you want a fight for a loophole to avoid the harshness of God’s law, don’t pick it with the Son of God, either.

But if your fight helps you harm someone who is already vulnerable, and endanger their well-being, well, you really, really do not want to pick such a fight with the Son of God.

Would that these religious leaders had such wisdom. They were testing Jesus, and that meant what it means today, asking a hot topic question hoping to trip him up.

They knew the Torah permitted divorce. Their trap involved a debate between two schools of Jewish thought at the time. One permitted divorce only under extreme circumstances, like adultery. The other argued a man could divorce his wife for almost any perceived fault, including, according to one rabbi, spoiling the evening meal or no longer appealing to him. [1]

Jesus wanted nothing of this debate. Their mistake was picking the fight. Because if you argue the law of God with the Son of God, he will give you God’s law. And you won’t like it.

Jesus takes them to school and leaves them no loopholes, no mercy.

You can’t dodge God’s command, he says. God doesn’t ever want divorce. Read the Scriptures.

But Jesus isn’t done. By Jewish law, only a man could initiate divorce. He could give his wife a letter of dismissal from his rabbi, and she was out. The debate was about what criteria were needed.

Jesus ignores Jewish law, saying, “If a man divorces his wife,” and adding, “and if a woman divorces her husband.” He’s already said God doesn’t want divorce. Now he speaks as if that applies to men and women. This was so far from reality that when Matthew and Luke tell this story, basing their account on Mark’s, they delete the line about a woman divorcing her husband. “Like that could ever happen,” we imagine them thinking.

Jesus still isn’t done. Not only is divorce outside of God’s will, whether a man does it or a woman, he says, if they re-marry, they’re committing adultery.

This is why you don’t pick a fight with Jesus over God’s law. You go in looking for loopholes, hoping to trap him, and you leave with a law so stringent, so airtight, you’re far worse off than when you started.

We can’t return and warn the Pharisees. But we should heed this warning.

If we want to play the law game, Jesus seriously outclasses us. We can argue about interpreting these words on divorce till we’re blue in the face, whether Jesus meant that divorced people must remain single forever, whether there are exceptions. We can correctly claim that Jesus was protecting women who were vulnerable to an unjust system. We can seek a creative way around an absolutely clear statement by the Son of God.

But we will always end with Jesus saying, God’s law is absolute. There’s no way around or through it.

And we knew this all along. No one really believes God wants divorce. No one delights in it when they do it, even if they think it’s the only option. I’ve never married a couple who said, “We can’t wait for our divorce.” If you’ve been divorced, nothing Jesus says here is a surprise.

But that goes for all of God’s law. There are lots of people in this room who every three years get to hear this reading and feel pain and guilt over their lives and their past. If you’ve been divorced, this isn’t a fun Sunday to be in church.

So let’s get everyone in this room feeling pain and guilt. There’s no reason only some of us should squirm. If you think you can somehow trick Jesus into saying the things you’ve done that were contrary to God’s will, against God’s law, are OK, or you’ve found a loophole, or they didn’t harm you or anyone else, or didn’t matter, well. You won’t win that fight, either.

Jesus will tighten our own trap until we can’t breathe. You want to justify hating and being angry with someone? He’ll say it’s murder. You want to pretend you’ve been faithful to your spouse just because you didn’t act on your fantasies? He’ll say if you thought it, you did it. This is the only outcome of playing the God’s law game. We can’t make God’s law fit our way of life. We always get caught.

So if this is a fight we can’t win and don’t want, what can we do? Lord, to whom shall we go?

We could notice Jesus doesn’t want this fight, either.

Jesus only gets harsh about the law of God when people do what these folks did, pick the fight, try to test, look for loopholes, step on others. He’s minding his own business when a woman caught in adultery is dragged in front of him. Instead of condemning her, Jesus condemns the whole crowd for their sins and gives a strong impression he knows what they are. This is the way it always goes.

But when Jesus preaches, he announces God’s reign is coming into this world, and it’s marked by forgiveness and grace. It’s a reign where the least are the greatest, where everyone is willing to serve others, where life is found in letting go of fights over right and wrong. He announces good news to the poor and oppressed, the downhearted and sinful. He goes out of his way to welcome into this reign of God people that the so-called “good” people have written off as lost causes.

If we really want to know what to do, we could notice this is the way the Son of God prefers to work in the world. He shows this by what he does next.

Jesus takes a child into his arms and says, “this is how you come to God.”

If you want to come to God with your arguments and self-righteousness, if you think you can finesse your way past God’s law and God’s standards, you will soon find out how impossible that is.

But if you’re willing to admit you are as vulnerable and dependent as any child, as vulnerable and dependent as those wives they were debating throwing away like so much trash, if you’re willing to be that weak, well. I’ve got good news for you, Jesus says. I came for people just like you.

Do you see? Jesus says to us. You can’t argue your way around what God asks of you. God wants us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves. These will be the hardest things we have ever done. There are no loopholes, no shortcuts. We will fail at both these commandments, and fail often.

But I have come that you will not fail, Jesus says. When you admit your weakness, your dependence on my mercy, your inability to live up to God’s will, I will take you into my arms, always forgive you, and set you down again with the strength and courage to love God and love neighbor with every breath of your being.

That’s the true Good News of God the Son of God wants us to know.

To show us this, Hebrews says today, the Triune God in Christ became the most vulnerable and dependent of all. Instead of supporting those who would crush others by their interpretation of God’s law while seeking loopholes for themselves, Christ Jesus tasted death, Hebrews says, suffered completely, to become the pioneer, the guide, of our salvation.

He showed us that being vulnerable and dependent on God means being vulnerable and dependent on each other. While that opens us up to all sorts of pain and loss and daily death, he shows it’s also the path of life, of resurrection.

When we are willing to become the least, we find the true God has gotten there before us, and we begin to understand: love of God can only happen where God is, and that’s always with the least, the lost, the stepped upon in our midst. Love of neighbor begins there, too, when we see everyone as our neighbor to be served, everyone as worthy of our love and care.

Then we truly begin to understand God’s grace and truly begin to live.

This is the news we’ve desperately needed, the only news worthy of being called “good.”

There is no fight we want over God’s law, and God doesn’t want it, either. The healed, whole world the Triune God is making by taking on our life in the Son and making us new, is found when we become as children again, utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly loved and graced.

The reign of God belongs to such as these, Jesus says. What a relief it is to let go of our need to prove our righteousness, to let go of our fear of failure, to let go of all those things that cause us pain and guilt. We are loved, blessed children of God, and in that reality we are given strength and courage to live like the children of God we are.

God help us on this path, because we need this life. We want it. We long for it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] For more on this, see Donald H. Juel, Mark (The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), copyright © 1990 Augsburg Fortress; pp. 137-138.

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