“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!

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“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!