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Why the Commandments are for our Good
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity XVII - 09/26/10
Deut. 15:1-18; Psalm 107:1-16; Eph. 4:1-6; Lk. 14:1-11
Our age of pseudo-liberalism tells us that the individual is the center of all things (read, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights), that what we want is what we should get. And even in parts of the Christian community, the "prosperity" Gospel tells us that we should expect God to make us financially rich.
I say "pseudo-" liberalism because there is a real liberalism, Jeffersonian liberalism, which says that the way to get at the truth of a matter is to keep open the reasonable discussion of it. Honest truth-seeking really will produce results. That is all the more true in the Christian faith, where our God is a truth-speaker and will not put up with anything less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. How could He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life do otherwise?
The exaltation of the unitary individual disconnects him from the protection of family, Church, and local communities. The individual becomes atomized, all by himself, and in the end becomes subject to the control of centralized government -- massive, impersonal, and distant.
But the commands of God do just the opposite. The commands of God imbed us in the family structure (honor your parents), and put the education of children in the hands of parents, not government. The commands of God limit the control of government over our lives by mandating our fundamental obligations and rights. The commands of God imbed us in local communities (synagogue and church). The commands of God are precisely that which set us up for freedom, by demanding that we grow up intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and by commanding us to love God first then to love our neighbors just like we love ourselves. Life is all about relationship, not all about getting rich.
The commands of God are the discipline which will indeed set us free to be our real selves, and without which we must flounder in a world of self-centeredness and power struggle. That is just one of the fundamental differences between the Biblical worldview and the pagan/secular worldview.
The commands of God are like the discipline for learning to play the piano, or learning to be a chemist, or learning to play a sport. They all require hard work, but they set you free to do things that others cannot do.
Becoming Godly men and women is like that. There is a discipline to it. There are requirements. There are laws and commandments. We do not automatically become free individuals by being left to ourselves, as the romanticists of the 1800's imagined. Left to ourselves without discipline, we become human weeds, rather than beautiful flowers, stately trees, or bountiful crops. We become obsessed with trivialities, irrelevancies, and sidetracks. Then real life goes on without us.
Some of our cultural resentment against the law of God has been caused by us Christians. We have often gotten off the track about the laws of God, assuming that they are essentially juridical, moral, legal, the arbitrary demands of God who keeps a ledger book of our good and bad deeds. We assume that forgiveness for these sins is what salvation is about.
And that is, of course, part of the truth. It is the nature of a command that it is to be obeyed. But, as Jesus explains, they are not arbitrary. When Jesus tells the disciples that "the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath", He is saying that the laws are for our good, not for God to assert His dominance over us, that obeying the laws is like following the instructions for your new car. Put gasoline into the fuel tank, not water, not oil, not sand, just gasoline (or whatever the appropriate fuel might be).
Any law, not just the Sabbath, is given for our good, not for its own sake. God values persons, not laws as such. He values laws which work for the good of His creatures, those laws which lead to their growth and welfare.
The First Great Commandment, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, is not because God needs our worship. He can get along fine with or without us. He will be fully Himself either way. It is we who need the worship of God because only God can supply those two fundamental stabilities -- the stability of our personhood and our moral stability. We cannot do that for ourselves, and no one else can do that for us.
We Christians have often given a very wrong impression of the law of God by making it seem arbitrary and legalistic, as though the law were more important than the persons who were to obey the law. We often failed to show how obedience to the law is fundamental to our personhood and our meaning in life, our purpose in life.
I suspect, because I am guilty myself, that many of us have read God's requirements of obedience to His laws as a prerequisite to having success in the Promised Land in that legalistic and somewhat arbitrary sense.
But we have a specific nature, a nature that can be damaged, just like your new car. We can do damage to ourselves by the choices we make. The seller and manufacturer of your new car give you a warranty based on your doing the right things for your car, the right fuel, oil changes and tuneups at the right times, etc. They do not do that just because they like oil changes and tuneups. They do that because they know that your car will run better if you do that, and that if you do not, it may self-destruct.
We humans are like that. We run better if we obey the laws of God. God set up the cosmos, including our own natures, in such a way that if we follow certain instructions, given in the Owner's Manual, the Bible, we will flourish. We are built to behave a certain way, which leads to the fulness of life. The instructions are contained in the Two Great Commandments. All the other laws are simply descriptions on how to go about loving one another in particular circumstances.
Loving one another means doing good things for others, doing those things which enhance rather than undermine or erode their lives. That is the meaning of love -- doing good for our neighbors.
When the Old Testament made loving one's neighbor an obligation, then later confirmed when Jesus made loving one's neighbor the second highest law in the cosmos, love became an obligation. It was no longer just an "if you like that sort of thing". It became morally obligatory, mandatory. Until God makes something obligatory, it might be a good idea, but that is all it is. Only the law, the command of God, can make love, or anything else, an obligation.
Making it an obligation makes it the reason for our existence. God is telling us that the reason we exist is to form that community of love with Himself and each other. That is the meaning of the whole cosmos. Life is about loving relationships, not about obeying commands for their own sakes. So, when we are not loving our neighbor, we are violating our own reason for existence.
God consistently warns the Hebrews as they approach the Promised Land that they must obey Him, or they will lose the gift of the land. They will be spit out. I grew up interpreting that as though God were threatening them with a kind of arbitrary reprisal if they disobeyed. Again, punishment can be a part of God's word to them. But there is more. He is telling them that they as persons and societies of persons have a nature which can be broken. When we use God's rules for our societies, they work. When we do not, our own societies disintegrate and often become our enemies.
Just as you can choose your way into an addiction from which you cannot choose your way out, so also, you can vote yourself into a tyranny from which you can no longer vote yourself out. You will need outside help. We humans chose our way into a Fall from which we can no longer choose our way out. God has come into our Fall to lead us back out. But we MUST choose to obey Him -- or, remain lost. He knows the way out, and we do not. It is that simple.
God instructs the Hebrews in Deuteronomy 8:18 about how they shall behave when they get into the Promised Land -- "You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day." Our ability to get wealth is part of our nature which can be broken or sidetracked.
God wants to confirm His covenant, to show them that He meant what He said. God is saying that their society is no different from any other in its need to obey certain principles. All human societies are set up to work under the principles given in the Decalogue and in the Torah as a whole.
And then in 10:12-13: "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but... to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?" "For your good..." Not "so that I do not beat up on you...", but rather, "...so that you will not beat up on yourselves! So that you will not self-destruct!" The law is for our good, not for our bondage to a tyrant. God has no interest whatsoever in laws which do not lead us back to freedom, and relationship with Him and one another.
We are as much broken as sinful, and we need to have our brokenness healed as well as our sinfulness forgiven.
Forgiveness corresponds to the fathering side of life, i.e., discipline, and moral order. The healing of brokenness corresponds to the mothering side of life, i.e., nurturing and life-giving. If one side or the other is missing or corrupted, our lives will go out of balance.
In our Deuteronomy lesson this morning, God is instructing the Israelites on their obligations with respect to the Year of Jubilee, during which all Hebrew slaves would be set free, all property bought from another family would be returned to that family, and all debts remaining unpaid, owed to you as a result of loans to a poor person, would be forgiven.
God tells them that "There will be no poor among you... if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment which I command you this day.
The Lord sets the laws, but not arbitrarily. He sets them according to what will produce the most just, mutually helpful, and loving society. When we disobey the laws of God, our relationships begin to erode, our families begin to fracture, and we become disconnected from healthy, supportive accountability. The poor become more poor, and the rich & powerful rise above the rest, and become less and less accountable to anyone. That is neither whole nor holy.
In Psalm 107, there is a refrain: "O that men world therefore praise the Lord for His goodness...." ...praise Him for His "goodness" - His love of them, His willingness to do good things for them even when they had rebelled. Each time God would bless them, they would wander off onto their own paths, and find themselves in deep trouble. Each time God would rescue them and warn them again that if they lived His way, they would succeed. The law was for their good. It charted a true path.
In the Epistle, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to walk worthy of their vocation, their calling with lowliness and meekness, to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Doing that requires a serious dying to selfishness and self-centeredness, because we become convinced that we see things better than God does. The way of God may not seem practical. But if we are willing to accept the discipline of God, and to live by His power in us rather than by our own self-constructed image, our lives will reflect outwardly, right in the middle of the fallen world, that unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. Many of those watching from the sidelines will understand that only God could produce that kind of unity and peace, and want it also. They will be drawn (or not) to the King of kings and Lord of lords by the quality of our witness.
In the city of Nain, Jesus raises the dead son of a mother who had no other children. Having no other children meant that she was in danger when she grew old of having no one to take care of her. He may have raised her child as much for her sake as for the sake of the dead son. It says that, "there came a great fear on all..." One might hope to hear that there might come a great trust and obedience on all, a great repentance and a beseeching for forgiveness.
Jesus healed the most profound brokenness of all, death. The forces of entropy, decay into chaos, were reversed, and life came back into a dead body.
Just like our physical body, we can be broken intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. We can become disabled and weakened by our condition. That condition must be healed as well as our sins forgiven. The commandments and law of God are a part of that healing because they give us a clear direction in which to aim. Our holiness requires also our wholeness. Neither will be complete without the other. They are complementaries, not opposites or competitors.
We live in a sacramental world in which the physical embodies and shines forth the spiritual. We are made physically, male and female, in the Image of God. The commandments of God govern both the physical and the spiritual. Wholeness and holiness are part of the same humanity in that Image of God.
The world sneers at the law of God. But the world has shown over and over that it does not know how consistently to raise good, honest, and capable adults, that it does not know how to create the Good Society. When we do what God asks of us, we move measurably toward goodness, justice, and love. The evidence is clear -- God does know how to do what, on our own, we cannot do.
We Christians need to find our public voices and tell the world about that. The Commandments of God are for our good. And there has never been shown to be a reasonable alternative.
Let's pray --
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