Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Only be careful, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your children and your childrenís children.
I spent my vacation visiting with family and friends from my past. I spent a few days celebrating the wedding of my best friendís daughter. We have known each other for fifty years, so we had plenty of reminiscing we could do, remembering all our antics, both good and naughty. I spent time catching up with family. I visited a woman who has mentored me in the faith for more than forty years. I stayed with a friend I havenít seen since we both went to college. I had dinner with the pastor who married Bruce and I thirty years ago. It was good to see them all.
It is sometimes hard to be so far from home. Bruce was along for part of the trip and he spent as much time with his mom and dad. They are struggling with health issues and old age has made it difficult for them to take care of the daily necessary tasks for living and comfort. There are family members who check on them daily and weíve hired caregivers to help a few days a week, but that doesnít reduce Bruceís concern that he is not there for them. Sometimes we wonder if we should move ďhome,Ē but we know that our lives are in Texas. We have changed over the years; we enjoy remembering, but we canít live in the past.
There is a lot of law talk in todayís passages. Deuteronomy is, of course, a book 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 stay 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 from the rest of the nations. They were set apart for a purpose, to be Godís people and through which God would send His salvation.
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? We wear mixed blends of fabric. We cross breed animals. People get tattoos (and for some in ministry, it is even considered ďcool.Ē) I donít know many people who refuse to work on the Sabbath. These are just a few examples of ways we no longer live by the laws according to the scriptures. Those non-believers point out the hypocrisy of ignoring these rules but demanding obedience to others.
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 donít reject pork, mixed fabrics, mules or tattoos, but we do respect the rules because we know God had our best interests in mind when He gave them. Pork can be dangerous because pigs are garbage collectors and eat foods that with disease that can ultimately harm our bodies. Modern refrigeration and production 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. Mixing linen and wool is not recommended because the fabrics are so different that the garment would not last. Heavy wool can rip the much more delicate linen. While we have developed good production methods for mixing blends that last, we also know that pure cotton has a much better quality than that which is mixed.
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 Godís people; the Law was given so that Godís people would look to Him.
The writer of Deuteronomy uses two words to describe the Law. It might seem redundant to use two words, but John Wesley wrote, ďThe statutes - The laws which concern the worship and service of God. The judgments - The laws concerning your duties to men. So these two comprehend both tables, and the whole law of God.Ē Wesley saw this repetition as defining the aspects of the rules we are to follow: rules that demonstrate love of God and love of man. We can find a similar division in the Ten Commandments: those laws that concern our relationship with God and those that concern our relationship with one another. These laws were a gift given by God to His people. They were meant to help us to live in community with God and with our neighbor.
Our obedience shows the world that those who follow the Law are wise and discerning. Of course, some of the rules found in the Old Testament scriptures seem irrelevant, and perhaps they are in our day and age. However, they were wise for the people in those days. The question we have to ask, however, is what do we, or have we, added to the statutes and ordinances that God has given? How have we made those valuable commands a burden on Godís people?
We think about law the way we do Santa Claus, as if God is bribing us to be good. If we do something, then weíll get something. We think of the blessing as an earned reward. Thatís why we are so uncomfortable when we talk about obedience. We donít always do what we should, and so we know we donít deserve to get the reward. We fail daily to live up to the expectations of the Law and expect to receive the punishment. But God is not Santa Claus, and Heís not bribing us to be good. The Law is set meant to make our lives better. If we do this, weíll experience the world as it is meant to be. If we donít, we will live in a world that is skewed and broken. God is not demanding obedience, but Heís showing us the right way to live. If we are obedient to the food laws and the hygiene laws, we will find that we are healthier and will live longer.
The story of Daniel is a perfect example of this. Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon as youth to be trained in the way of the court. Nebuchadnezzar wanted there to be men of Judah in positions of authority who could be liaisons between the people. The caretaker of the trainees insisted that Daniel and his friends eat the food offered in the palace, but Daniel wanted to be obedient to God. He asked to be tested. ďIf our diet does not keep us well after ten days, we will eat whatever you give us.Ē They avoided the rich food of the palace, food that was likely used in religious ceremonies, and at the end of ten days they were healthier for having kept Godís laws.
As Christians we know and understand that the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In todayís Gospel we see Jesus teaching the people that they had become so caught up in following the rules that they lost the intent of Godís Word. Following the past few weeks of texts on the Bread of Life, our Gospel lesson today focuses on food. Jesus told the crowds that it isnít 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 of our hearts. When we are questioned about our bacon cheeseburgers, we can point to Jesusí own words. Some manuscripts even include an explanation of what Jesus meant: ďThis he said, making all meats clean.Ē We should still be careful about the foods we eat, but we need not worry that what goes into our mouths will harm our relationship with God.
Does it matter if we eat bacon or wear cotton/polyester blends? Not really; we need not live in the past. What matters to our life in Christ 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 Godís Word into their lives so that they too might hear and believe.
We arenít 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.
The Law is a gift of God to His people. It was never meant to be a burden; God gave the Law for a purpose. God is glorified by the obedience because the world will see how great things can be if we live rightly. The Babylonians saw that Daniel and his friends were healthier than those who ate the food of the palace. Israel would be seen as a great nation not as a reward, but because they would manifest Godís plan. ďKeep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ĎSurely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.í For what great nation is there, that has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him? What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you today?Ē
They knew they would be blessed by the keeping of Godís Law and set apart from the rest of the nations. They would be different because they would live as man was meant to live, in relationship with God their Creator and Redeemer. But they fell short. They forgot to tell their children and their childrenís children about the Lord and all he had done. They forgot His Law and turned to other gods. They sought the help of other nations instead of trusting in the Lord. Rather than understanding that the Law was a gift, they lived as if they were being rewarded for their good behavior. They interpreted the Law and turned it into hundreds of rules. They made Godís gift into a burden, expecting the people to keep the rules according to their understanding. Their righteousness was self imposed, not a manifestation of Godís grace. And they condemned those who did not live up to their expectations.
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 Godís 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 God. We arenít 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 should we be like Daniel and reject the good palace food being offered? 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 astray. 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.
Jesus is always concerned about our hearts. 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 said, ďFor from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.Ē
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.
It might seem redundant to use two works here, but John Wesley writes, ďThe statutes - The laws which concern the worship and service of God. The judgments - The laws concerning your duties to men. So these two comprehend both tables, and the whole law of God.Ē Wesley saw this repetition as defining the aspects of the rules we are to follow: rules that demonstrate love of God and love of man. We can find a similar division in the Ten Commandments: those laws that concern our relationship with God and those that concern our relationship with one another. These laws were a gift given by God to His people. They were meant to help us to live in community with God and with our neighbor.
It is good to look back at our past. Israel was commanded to teach their children and their childrenís children about Godís Word and all He did for His people. It is good for us to look at the rules as defined in the scriptures, to make sure we are living the best life we can live. Unfortunately, the world will continue to cast fiery darts our way, constantly trying to get us to turn from our God. Satan will even use Godís Word to try to convince us of a better way. Heíll give us ways to justify our actions. He will make self-righteousness seem to be godly, but if we arenít careful he will twist Godís word in a way that makes us turn from God.
We who have been saved have a new home in Godís Kingdom. We have been changed and are called to live differently from the world. It will be hard; we will be tempted to return to our old ways. We may forget what God has done and chase after the life that fulfills our desires. The life of obedience is not meant to be a struggle, but to give us the freedom to be who God has created, redeemed and called us to be. And as such, we are a light in the darkness. We are witnesses to Godís grace. And through us, God will make His Word known to the world so that they, too, might be saved.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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