“God’s Law for God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD. I draw heavily in this sermon from the Heidelberg Catechism‘s treatment of the 10 Commandments, often quoting Questions & Answers 94-115.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 19:1-20:21

God gave His people His Spirit to empower us to righteousness and obedience.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we are set free from our slavery to sin; in the coming of His Spirit, we are empowered and guided toward the Promised Land of righteousness.

The Israelites received this guidance at the mountain of God, where God gathered His people to Himself, and gave them a framework for their new life together as God’s chosen people, His kingdom of priests to the world. In these ten commands, God lays out the full vision of how His people will live in this world so that His name goes forth to all the nations.

And because we are Easter People, who stand in the revelation of Christ’s resurrection life, we see here in these Commandments first: the fullness of our failure to live up to this holy standard in our own strength; second: the depth of our need for Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins and for our righteousness; and third: that “we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.” (HC Q&A 115)

That perfection, to which we have been called and for which we aim and strive, is always just beyond our grasp in this life. That’s why this sermon series doesn’t go all the way to Canaan, but ends here at Sinai. We will not be fully perfect as God is perfect until we stand in His glory at the last Day, made like Him in His glory. Knowing this, some may come to believe that God, in giving us these impossible Commandments, is – at worst – cursing us, and – at best – mocking us. But God did not give His people these commands to curse or mock them. God had a great purpose for His chosen people, and He gave the Law as a gift to protect and equip them for that purpose. But sin warped humanity toward disobedience, making God’s good Law impossible for us.

That’s why the Jews received God’s Law in terror, knowing how fully they were unable to keep these Commandments. They were so afraid of breaking covenant with God that they added 600-some additional human laws to “fence” the Commandments, so that they would never even almost break any of the Commandments.

But in Christ we have been made free from the terror that God may reject us:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

The Holy Spirit has renovated our hearts, replacing our hearts of dead stone with hearts of living flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And as we walk in the new life and the freedom of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ, our whole lives are transformed from the inside out to more and more live the life that God calls us and empowers us to live. Through His Holy Spirit alive in us,

God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant. God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.

The Canons of Dort, Points III/IV, article 11

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love Him with all of who we are.

More than merely not worshipping other created things in place of their Creator, God frees us to “rightly know the only true God, trust Him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently” (HC Q&A 94).

More than merely not depicting a physical appearance for God, “God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of His Word” (HC Q&A 98), that together we all come more and more to reflect the spiritual presence of God to the world.

More than merely not using God’s covenant name casually or flippantly, God brings us to “use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works” (HC Q&A 99).

More than merely not working on Sundays, and anxiously attempting to define what counts as work and what doesn’t, God leads us to receive the Sabbath as a gift that helps us to live into our true calling: “That every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath” (HC Q&A 103).

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love each other creatively, proactively, and selflessly.

More than merely “honoring” our parents, and getting along with those we have to, God through His Spirit empowers us “to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not stealing from others, God is making us “to protect [our neighbors] from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not breaking our marriage covenants, God is compelling us to “live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage” (HC Q&A 108), because “We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy” (HC Q&A 109).

More than merely not killing or even hating others, Christ’s resurrection life frees us and motivates us to “Do whatever [we] can for [our] neighbor’s good,” and to “work faithfully so that [we] may share with those in need” (HC Q&A 111).

More than merely not lying, or speaking poorly of others, God’s Spirit is working in us, bringing us to “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” and to “do what [we] can to guard and advance [our] neighbor’s good name” (HC Q&A 112).

More than merely not envying others’ possessions or relationships, the Spirit has given us new hearts that “take pleasure in whatever is right” (HC Q&A 113), so that our desires become tuned to God’s desires.

Christ’s Spirit brings us to obey, not out of fear, but out of love.

Yes, truly, God’s Holy Spirit alive in us is at work to bring us to full obedience, not in order that we might earn our salvation for ourselves, but so that we might embrace the fullness of new life that we have received in Christ Jesus, and walk in God’s ways for His honor and glory. We obey not out of fear, but out of love.

Brothers and sisters, let us continue this new-life journey together, keeping in step with the Spirit who has written God’s Law on our regenerated hearts (Ezekiel 36:24-28, Jeremiah 31:33-34), and is even now making our lives “a small beginning of this obedience” (HC Q&A 114). And knowing the greatness of our need for Him, let us come again to receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for us, remembering always that this forgiveness and righteousness is never our own doing, but always God working His will in us. And let this holy feast nourish your spirits to persevere in the newness of life that is ours in Christ Jesus, and “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). Amen!

“No Condemnation”

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book on spiritual disciplines and crafting a spiritual rule of life, Sacred Rhythms, lays out one of the most helpful and well-rounded orders for Lectio Divina I’ve encountered.

  1. Read (and Remain)
  2. Reflect
  3. Respond
  4. Rest (and Resolve)

This is the order I try to use whenever I go through Lectio (which is just a fancy way of saying “devotional” or “sacred reading”); very helpfully, Barton says of these four “movements”:

“We might think of them as moves rather than steps because it reminds us of dancing. When we are first learning a new dance, we are very awkward and very concerned about getting it right. We watch our feet, trying to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We wonder what to do with our hands. If we are dancing with a partner, we may be clumsy at first as we try to figure out how to move together gracefully. But in the end, the point is to be able to enter into the dance, flow with it, improvise and enjoy the person we are dancing with. It is the same with lectio divina.”

I feel a little clumsy this morning, unsure of my feet, stepping on my own toes, but eager to pick up the steps again.

Epistle | Romans 8:1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

This is a complicated passage for Lectio. It’s a bit long, and the wording is technical, but the opening is strong and striking. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v.1).

No condemnation.

In remaining with this phrase, I am led to reflect on the undeserved and absolute forgiveness and reconciliation that is mine in Christ. Undeserved, because I didn’t work my way toward Christ through obedience or good works — Paul goes on to lament the insufficiency of “the law” to achieve this reconciliation. Absolute, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, sin is no more. This is a marvel for me, that where the law was a standing condemnation to sinners, Christ made a once-for-all sentence against sin itself.

In response, then, is it enough to be simply grateful? Isn’t this the complicated message of Matthew 18? As those who have been so undeservedly and absolutely forgiven, we must be agents of undeserving and absolute forgiveness. What is more, as one who has been so completely reconciled to God the Father through Christ by the Spirit, I am charged to be an agent of reconciliation, welcoming and accepting and reinstating anyone who claims Christ’s forgiveness. What would it look like, for Christians — for whole churches! — to be recognized for their gracious welcoming and forgiveness and bearing one another’s burdens, rather than for their judgmental moralism and narrow understanding of who’s in and who’s out? What if we abandoned this “Love the sinner, Hate the sin” ethic, which has historically been so harmful to the so-called “sinner” precisely because it fixates on “the sin,” and instead we lived toward others as though God really has freed all sinners, because, in Christ, sin itself has been sentenced to death? What then?

As I read the passage again, concluding the lectio exercise, I am drawn to verse 6: “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Life, because I have been granted a radical gift of grace, and stand, by God’s grace, under “No Condemnation.” Peace, because just as I have been forgiven, so am I called — and resolved — to live toward others in a posture of radical forgiveness, which “is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ” (1 Corinthians 13:5-7). This is the foundation of Christian unity, that we bear with one another in love; this is a costly unity.

Come, Holy Spirit, and lead us into unity and peace.

“Led by the Spirit of God”

In this season of Ordinary Time, and in this season of summer, it is profoundly difficult for me to keep my nose to the grindstone and persevere in work. Kids are running around with balls and bikes and water balloons; friends are spending their afternoons at the beach; the sun begs to be enjoyed. At first glance, “work” would not have surfaced as an obvious theme of Romans 8; however, after reading this and reading Barth, I can’t help but see my work as a profound implication of the Truth.

Romans 8:11-17 | “The Spirit: The Truth” (part 1)

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Barth focuses, after Paul, on the role and reality of the Holy Spirit in this passage. Barth insists that the Spirit is the Truth, and as such, we have a much more complicated relationship with “Truth” than we usually admit. Here are a few of his assertions:

    • “Truth is not what we say about God, but what He does and will do and has done.”
    • “Truth is no objective observation of the Truth; for its objectivity is that by which we are observed before ever we have observed anything at all…Truth cannot therefore depend upon my observation.”
    • “We cannot begin with Truth, for it is our beginning.”
    • “Truth therefore, does not stand and fall with us, does not live and die with us, is not right whe we are right and wrong when we are deceived, does not triumph in our victory and fail when we are defeated. Truth is death poised above the cradle; it is life breathing o’er the grave.”

Because the Spirit (the Truth) is at work within us, was at work before us, and continues to work ahead of us, Barth lays out an interesting image of what it means to respond to the Truth and to follow the Truth.

“There is no warm sunset glow which succeeds the storm of our lives — save by the orientation which is given to men by God Himself and by God alone. This orientation is embarrassment, threatening, promise, the final security of insecurity, which, as the reflection of light uncreated, encompasses every created thing. This orientation is the End which announces the Beginning, is the eternal disturbance and the eternal peace, is the command which banishes us from every quiet or unquiet nook and compels us to faith, because our veritable redemption can only be believed in. — Such is the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”

compassThis image of “orientating,” of discerning “True” cardinal directions in relation to (in spite of?) the surrounding environment and positioning ourselves accordingly, is a fascinating picture of how we respond to the Spirit’s direction, as though the Spirit were the compass by which we understand the cultural and religious landscapes within which we live.

“By the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, by the knowledge of God, we are…orientated from west to east, from death to life; the Holy Spirit exercises His function of judgment and of consolation; the Truth is the Truth — this is the meaning of our being led by the Spirit of God.”

In the Reformed Tradition, the Spirit’s work is most closely linked to the Bible, making the Word of God living, active, and clear to our human understanding. If the Bible is our map for navigating our lives, then, according to Barth, the Spirit is our compass.

May God, our True North,
make His Word clear to us
— both the map-pages of His Written Word
and the living Guide of His Word Incarnate —
and send His Spirit of Truth to swivel and spin within us,
directing our wills and desires and interests
according to His will, His design, His character,
So that we might orient ourselves accordingly,
with careful precision and dynamic obedience,
to be and act in our worlds
— our workplaces, our families, our homes, our leisure — 
perfectly aligned, and continually realigning, to God.

“As a Tumbler Sings”

Okay, I skipped a couple of weeks again. But this morning as I was doing devotions, God met me and encouraged me, and I had to share! I have been struggling over the past week, once again, with my own slothful inability to “self-start” or motivate myself. This morning I opened up Romans and Barth again.

Romans 5:1-5 | “The Coming Day: The New Man” (part 1)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

This was a powerful section of Barth’s commentary on Romans. By far the most lucid part, however, was his treatment of verse 5:

Therefore we glory in hope (v.2), precisely because it is not an achievement of our spirit, but the action of the Holy Spirit, and because the Love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us. The Holy Spirit is the operation of God in faith, the creative and redemptive power of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is nigh at hand. As a tumbler sings when it is touched, so we and our world are touched in faith by the Spirit of God, who is the eternal ‘Yes’. He provides faith with content…He is the miraculous factor in faith, its beginning and its end…He is the subject of faith, which ‘religious experience’ reaches after and longs for, but never finds.

Barth presents a simple image of the relationship between what God does and what I do: the singing crystal tumbler.

water glasses

A wine glass won’t sing on its own. But it has musical potential under the right touch (and ONLY the right touch. I am terrible at this trick!). Barth sees faith like the goblet’s music: not possible without the right (the Holy Spirit’s) touch.

Too often I fall into the larger American culture’s assumptions about the degree to which I can engineer and produce my own success and well-being (and then become frustrated and depressed when I discover that I really can’t). But Barth (and Paul!) is under no such “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” illusions when it comes to faith. This, of course, is where Arminians and Calvinists butt heads. As someone who is persuaded by Calvin and Barth, I am comforted and encouraged that this faith business isn’t up to me. The Triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — is working in, with, and under me to produce faith within me and to bring me to live in response to that faith. I am an empty tumbler; Praise God for sending his Spirit to play me to the tune of Jesus Christ!