“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!

Advertisements

“Sell Everything, Follow Me”

Mark 10:17-31

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyc to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it isd to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another,e “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,f 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This morning’s passage immediately follows last week’s passage. Last week we heard Jesus’ instructions that we are to become like children in order to receive the kingdom of God, that the kingdom belongs to those with child-like faith in God as their heavenly Father. In this morning’s text we hear the counter-point: that those who rely on their wealth for their security and status have the most difficult time entering the kingdom of God. The man we meet in this morning’s passage is the chief example of someone whose hope is found in their own resources and abilities, instead of in the gracious, providential hands of God and in his kingdom. The invitation for us this morning is the same invitation we have heard throughout Lent: to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. In light of this morning’s text, denying ourselves looks like putting our absolute trust in God as Father to provide for our every need in every situation; taking up our cross looks like using what resources and abilities we have, not to protect ourselves, but to support our neighbors in need; and following Christ may look like losing everything we have, only to find it again in the life to come.

The Rich Man’s Bold Request

We meet the rich man abruptly, catching up to Jesus as he begins another journey, and falling down at Jesus’ feet. The man asks Jesus the only question that really matters, the question that only Jesus can answer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. This question is for all of us who recognize that our lives on this earth are temporary, fading. How are we to be sure that our deaths are not the end? How can we know that we will be welcomed into heaven’s glory when our time on earth is finished? This is the burning question that drives the man to Jesus, to run to him and fall on his knees at his feet. It is this same question that draws us to Jesus, and inspires us to seek his kingdom first in everything we do.

But if we read this man’s question a little more carefully, we discover that the man is perhaps not seeking the kingdom of God first. The man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. First we notice that this man is busy trying to save himself. He is not looking for salvation as something God does for us; he is asking Jesus what he can do to attain and produce his own salvation. He wants eternal life on his own terms. The second clue that this man is on the wrong track is seen in what he’s ultimately asking for. Other New Testament passages from Jesus or Paul or Peter talk about inheriting the kingdom of God, the whole reign of God as king over all of life. But this man is not asking to inherit the kingdom of God, to become a child and heir of the king. This man is only asking for eternal life, as if he could have reward without the relationship. This man wants all the benefits of salvation without the reality of adoption into the family of God as one of his beloved sons. The rich man in this morning’s text asks to inherit eternal life not out of a desire to love God and enjoy him forever, but as insurance against death.

As we stand in the middle of Lent’s journey, I wonder if we see ourselves at all in this rich young man with his bold question. Are we working for our own salvation, to earn God’s eternal life on our own terms? Are we following Jesus Christ for what he can give us, or because we recognize that this is the purpose for which we were created: to be the children of God he made us to be, to be adopted through Christ to be heirs to the kingdom of heaven. We cannot expect to receive the benefits of salvation without receiving first the one who saves us, Jesus Christ. And Lent’s long road to the cross reminds us that following Christ will not always come with benefits. At times, following Christ may, in fact, take everything from us; this is true for countless of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world today, whose lives are in danger because they have given up everything to follow Christ. Christians in China and Muslim countries and other places hostile to Christianity understand that following Christ and becoming part of the family of God is our ultimate good, and their only comfort in the face of persecution and torture and death is the promise that abundant life with God in Christ does not end in death, but is everlasting.

The Good Teacher’s Hard Answer

We Protestant Christians often look back to Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, and remember his great doctrine that started the whole Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. We are made right with God, not by observing commandments, not be doing anything to achieve our own salvation, but by God’s grace received through faith, which is a gift from God. If we hold this to be true, that only faith in God through Jesus Christ can save us and restore us, then we must ask, “Why does Jesus give this man the commandments?”

When we read Jesus’ answer, we are surprised to discover that Jesus answers the man’s question how the man expects to be answered. Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments.” If we are eager to earn our own eternal life, then we have all the instructions we need: all we need to do is follow the Law perfectly. The Law was not “Plan A” to save God’s people, which turned out not to work because we’re not perfect, so he sent his Son as “Plan B;” Jesus did not come to replace the Law, but to fulfill it. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he fully understood that sinful humanity is incapable of perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments. The Commandments were not a checklist for personal piety in order to earn salvation; God gave the commandments as a blueprint for the community of faith that, when used as the architecture of the community, created a space for life in a world ruled by sin and death. That’s what the commandments do, that’s what they’re for: to make space for life in the land of death. So when Jesus answers the man’s question about eternal life with, “You know the commandments,” he’s not being flippant or dismissive of the man’s question; he’s answering the question he was given very directly, because the commandments are the faith community’s first rule for life.

And if we look at the commandments that Jesus names, we discover that it isn’t even all ten. The Ten Commandments can be divided into two tablets: the first four commandments direct our relationship with God, and the last six commandments direct our relationship with our neighbors. Jesus summarizes the two tablets by commanding us to Love God and Love our Neighbor. In this instance, Jesus only names the second tablet, the commandments concerning our neighbors, without any mention of the first tablet, the commandments concerning God. For some reason, Jesus offers this rich man instructions to love his neighbor if he would inherit eternal life. But this isn’t enough for the man. The man answers – perhaps a bit presumptuously – that he has kept all these commandments since he was a child, and yet there must be more. The Law might help structure the community while it lives in this world, but how can we hope to live beyond this world, beyond the death that inevitably comes? Surely the law cannot save us from death, can it? What are we to do?

We read that Jesus then looked at the man and loved him. Jesus understands the anxiety and dread that death produces in all of us. Jesus in his fully human heart feels the terror of death, because Jesus is on his way nearer and nearer to his own death, and he is beginning to feel the weight of it. And so Jesus has compassion on this man, and invites him to follow him with a unique call to discipleship: “Sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Sell everything, give away what’s left, and follow me. This is not the call he gave to his other disciples, this is a unique call for this man specifically, because this man’s wealth and possessions will need to be dealt with before he can follow Jesus as a disciple. Jesus loves this man, and invites him to follow and learn the only way to eternal life; but before the man can follow, he must deal with what’s in the way. He must deal with the obstacle to faith.

We read next that the man’s face fell, and he went away deeply saddened, because he had great wealth. This rich man has heard the invitation to follow Jesus Christ, who is the only Way to eternal life, but he cannot give away his wealth and possessions first. His wealth and possessions are too important to him; maybe they have even become an idol for the man, one of the ways he has tried to earn or produce eternal life for himself. Jesus tells this man that he lacks only one thing, but what he must gain is not another physical object, another trophy or prize or symbol of his status. What this rich man must gain is the child-like faith we read about last week, the faith that everything we need in this life and the life to come is to be found in the hands of God who loves us as a Father. This man must let go of all his great wealth in order to gain this one thing, this absolute faith, and he cannot do it.

The Confused Disciples’ Difficult Lesson

Jesus uses this brief encounter with the rich man to teach his disciples more about the nature of the kingdom of God. After the man leaves disappointed and saddened, Jesus turns to his disciples to explain to them that wealth is an obstacle to faith, which is how we enter and inherit the kingdom of God. Remember what we heard on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago: that our souls are like mirrors, and whatever we place first before us is what we reflect to the world. When we place our wealth first in our lives, what we have and earn and save and spend, we reflect that to the world. We evaluate ourselves by how many dollars we are worth, and we evaluate ourselves in comparison to how many dollars others are worth. And what is worse, our world works in such a way that if someone gains more wealth, it means I must be losing mine. Placing wealth first in our lives creates in us a spirit of competition and an attitude of scarcity. We can have very little hope of receiving God’s grace when we are preoccupied with who has more than we do, and how little there is to go around. That is not how God’s grace works. That is not how the kingdom of God works. If we place wealth as our number one priority, we are training ourselves to walk away from grace and out of the kingdom. Let’s be careful.

Peter once again interjects, this time to protest that he and the other disciples can’t be who Jesus is talking about, that they have left everything – their nets, their families, their communities, their reputations: everything – to follow Jesus. Jesus responds by reassuring Peter: 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Jesus reassures his disciples that they are on the right path, that it is when we let everything else go in order to follow Christ and inherit his kingdom that we discover everything we released will be restored to us. What is perhaps most surprising is Jesus promises to restore all things to us in this present age. When we place the kingdom first in our lives, we discover that we are surrounded by the family of God – all of those people who have also left everything to follow Christ. And in this family, in the kingdom of God on earth, we also discover that what we have is not for us, but for others; and what we need is not in our own hands, but in the hands of another. This is what happens when the kingdom of grace starts to sink in, that we begin to trust deeply as we start to share generously. The answer that Jesus gave the rich man is not poverty, but trust: child-like trust in our good and loving Father who is willing and able to provide for us, protect us, and preserve us in his care.

And the natural consequences of all of this is that many who are first in this world will fall behind as they fail to understand the growing kingdom of grace, while those in last place, the ones who know they need the help of others to survive, begin to grow and flourish in God’s kingdom of abundance and generosity. As we trust more and more that God really will provide for all of my needs in any and every situation, we sense in us a growing concern for the lowest and last and least among us, that gradually replaces the world’s preoccupation with gaining prestige and privilege and power.

The rich man put his hope in his own resources and abilities; the disciples put their hope in God’s gracious kingdom. God invites us this morning to deny ourselves by completely trusting in God our Father to provide for our every need; God invites us to take up our cross by using what we have to protect and provide for our neighbors in need as agents of God’s kingdom; and God invites us to follow Christ by losing everything we have, only to find it restored to us completely in his kingdom of grace.

Going Deeper

A guide for personal reflection and family/small group discussion

Psalm for prayer: Psalm 23

Questions for reflection and discussion:

Listen: What is God saying to you in Mark 10:17-31? What new life is God calling you to? What old life is God calling you away from?

Reflect: How has God provided for you recently? Do you regularly look for what you need to come from his hands, or from your own?

Study: Discuss this quote from James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Community:

Forbes online magazine quantified how much money a person would need to “live well.”…The bare minimum amount needed to finance this kind of life is $200,000 annually, but in many cities that number goes up. If this is the standard of the good life, then it might make we who live on much less feel as if we are exempt from giving because we are not truly living – at least living well.

Discernment will mean asking, How is God leading me to use my financial resources? In light of the great need in our world, what is God calling me…to in terms of standard of living and material possessions? It will not necessarily mean that we will be asked to sell everything and live among the poor. But it does mean that we will look at our income and assets in a new light – one illuminated by the light of the kingdom of God.

Commit: What has God given you that he is asking you to pass on to someone else? How will you be a conduit for God’s riches to those in need this week?

Exercise for spiritual training: God is My Shepherd

Write out all the ways God is like a shepherd: e.g., a shepherd provides, protects, leads, rescues, etc. Next to all of your descriptions, write out one way that God has been like a shepherd for you. How does God protect you? How does God lead you? How does God care for you? How does God watch over you? For each of God’s shepherdly acts for you, write out a sentence or two of prayer in gratitude for God’s mighty work and love for you for his Fatherly gifts.

Closing prayer: “I must decrease, that he may increase.” (John 3:30)

Read ahead for next week: Mark 10:32-45, “Drink the Cup I Drink”