Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 119:129-136
Ephesians 6:10-20
Mark 7:14-23

If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Non-believers like to trot out the old rules to prove that Christians are hypocrites and foolish. After all, some of the rules from the Old Testament seem ridiculous to those of us today and we often do not continue to live according to them. Take pork, for instance. We eat pork; most of do, anyway. Bacon makes everything better, doesn't it?

I suspect that if most of us checked the tags on the clothing we are wearing, we would discover that they are some sort of blend with cotton and polyester. Obviously we are lawbreakers, right? My research has shown a number of possible reasons for that particular precept. Some have suggested that it had to do with certain pagan practices of the day which led to the belief that mixing things, like animal, seeds and textiles, honored the gods who would make greater success of their flocks, crops and lives. On a more practical note, mixing linen and wool is not recommended because the fabrics are so different that the garment would not last. The heavy wool will rip the much more delicate linen. While we have developed good production methods for mixing blends that last, we also know that pure cotton clothing has a much better quality than that which is mixed.

There is good reason for the laws which God gave to His people. Pork can be dangerous; this was especially true for the people in ancient Israel. Pig (and seafood) are garbage collectors. They eat junk, which means that they are more likely to ingest things that are harmful for humans. They did not have refrigeration or modern product techniques that make those food stuffs not only delicious, but also safe to eat. We still must be careful because those meats improperly stored and cooked can make us sick, but we have the knowledge to do it well today.

Today we understand that there are certain rules given to us in the scriptures that were culturally important that do not necessarily apply to us today, but we also know that God gave those rules to help us live well. We don't reject pork or mixed fabrics, but we do respect the rules because we know God had our best interests in mind when He gave them.

The problem with the argument that we are hypocrites because we eat bacon and wear cotton/polyester blends is that there is a misunderstanding about the Law and the laws. It is, in a sense, like talking about apples and oranges: both are good for you, but they serve different purposes. The laws were given to protect God's people; the Law was given so that God's people would look to Him.

There is a lot of law talk in today's passages. Deuteronomy is, of course, a books of laws. In it we see how God was calling the Israelites to live in their new land. They were going to face tough times; the world would constantly try to turn them from Him. The rituals and practices were given as a way to keep themselves focused on the life He meant for them to live in the Promised Land, to help them avoid falling into the traps of pagan worship. They were also given to make Israel stand out against the rest. They were set apart for a purpose, to be God's people and through which God would send His salvation.

Most of us cringe a little when we see Psalm 119. The longest book of the bible, it is made up of twenty-two stanzas of law-talk. The same words are repeated over and over again: commandments, precepts, statutes, law, words, mandates, teaching, justice, decrees, testimony, verdict and others. If you compare different translations, they seem to use many of these words interchangeably. Seems to us that perhaps that particular psalmist could have said as much in fewer than one hundred and seventy six verses.

Part of the length has to do with the type of psalm it is; it is an alphabetic acrostic poem that teaches the concept of the law. Each stanza represents a letter of the alphabet, and though we can't see it in English, we know that each line of each stanza begins in Hebrew with the same letter. Therefore, the first stanza is Aleph, and every first word in that eight verse stanza begins with an aleph or letter 'A'. The second stanza is Beth, and so on. This type of teaching tool helps children learn the psalm and it writes God's Word upon their hearts. I've seen it suggested that we should pray Psalm 119 regularly, a stanza a day, so that it would be written on our hearts, too.

But we cringe because there is so much law-talk and it seems too repetitive. Why say the same thing over and over again? We must understand the Hebrew language used in this Psalm to really see the depth of what the psalmist is trying to say. See, there are eight different words that are used throughout these stanzas representing the concept of Law/law, but each one has a distinct meaning. The trouble is that the translators have often used English translations interchangeably, so we don't see those distinctions.

Eight of the stanzas use all eight of the words, and today's psalm just happens to be one of them. Here is a paraphrase of Pey, the seventeenth stanza of Psalm 119. I will use all capitals for the translation of each of the eight words. "The TESTIMONIES (testifying to a fact) of God are wonderful so I treasure them deep in my soul. As your WORD IS SPOKEN (spoken word) it brings light and helps us understand. I anxiously desired ALL OF GOD'S LAW (the entire corpus of God's law.) Have mercy on me according to your JUSTICE (God's divine verdict according to His way.) Guide me according to your PROMISE so that I won't sin. Save me from oppression so I can live according to your AUTHORITY (appointed mandate.) Make your face shine on me; teach me your BOUNDRIES (the limits which protect me from the dangers of the world and myself.) I grieve that they don't know your TEACHING (this is the word Torah.)

See how there is so much more depth to what the psalmist is saying in these verses? It isn't just about obeying some rules, it is about living according God's Word in every sense of the word from the rules to the Promise, all of which establish Him as the authority we are to trust. This particular stanza reminds us of God's faithfulness and reports a longing for obedience that can only be fulfilled with God's help. The psalmist ends with the regret that more people do not know or understand the gift God has given us in His Word and Law.

As Christians we know and understand that the Word and Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In today's Gospel package we see Jesus teaching the people that they had become so caught up in following the rules that they lost the intent of God's Word. In this particular passage, Jesus talks about the food. He tells them that it isn't what goes into the mouth that makes a man unclean, but what comes out of the mouth. Faithfulness is not dependent on the menu, but on the thoughts, ideas and practices. When we are questioned about our bacon cheeseburgers, we can point to Jesus' own words here. Even the text tells us what He meant, "This he said, making all meats clean." We should still be careful about how we store and prepare, but we need not worry that what goes into our mouths will harm our relationship with God.

Jesus is always concerned about the heart. What do we believe? How do we respond to the world around us? What words do we use and how do we act? This is what threatens our relationship with God. Jesus says, "For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man."

Does it matter if we eat bacon or wear cotton/polyester blends? Not really. What matters is that we live according to the Word of God in a way that glorifies Him and shines His light to others. His spoken Word has the power to change lives, to change the world, to save us. We who have heard His Word and believed should grieve, like the psalmist, that too many do not know His teaching. We called to go out into the world to speak God's Word into their lives so that they too might hear and believe.

See, that's how we are saved. We aren't saved by being obedient to the rules that are found in the book of Deuteronomy or elsewhere in the scriptures. We are better when we are obedient because God's laws help us to be the best we can be. However, they will never save us. Only His Word, only His Son the Living Word, can save us. The Law will never save us because none of us are able to keep it perfectly. We will fail often, we will sin. Those who have ears, let them hear.

Once we are saved, God calls us to live the best life we can live. If that means avoiding food that can harm us, then we should avoid those foods. If it means being good stewards of our resources by buying the best quality clothing, then we should do that. If it means avoiding situations that might cause us to sin, then we had best avoid those situations. As children of God, we are meant to be a light in the darkness and the voices that invite people to hear God's Word of salvation.

It is hard. The Israelites entered into the Promised Land with hope, but they were surrounded by others who lived differently. The rules were given to help them keep their eyes on Christ. We aren't much different today. The world surrounds us and offers us happiness in all the wrong places, Satan provides us with opportunities that seem too good to resist. Why not live the life that satisfies our every desire? Why not seek pleasure and laughter and gratification of our flesh? Why not do what is necessary to get what we want and think we deserve? We can justify so many things but in the end they do not glorify God and we risk our relationship with Him when we chase after the wrong things. Even self-righteousness will turn us away from our God.

There are those who think life as a Christian is all peaches and cream, no one with faith could ever be led astay. Unfortunately, that is not true. As a matter of fact, the more deeply committed we are to serving the Lord Jesus, the more likely we will face the attempts by Satan to turn us away. We might fight battles in our flesh but we are fighting an even harder battle in spirit. The closer we get to God, the deeper our faith becomes, the more devious Satan will be. He will even try to convince us that following good rules will be our salvation. We have to be prepared.

Paul gives us help. He lays down a program that will help protect us from Satan and the world, things that will help us keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus. The armor of God will provide us with everything we need to stand against that which aims to turn us against Him. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Word, prayer and perseverance are the gifts God gives us to be the guardians of our relationship with Him. As we dwell in those gifts we will find the joy that truly blesses us not only in this life but in the life God has promised through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And then God's blessings will flow out of our lives into the world, taking the salvation He has promised to all those who hear and granting that they, too, might live the life God intends for them to live.

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