Meditating on God’s Law
Based on Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1Cor 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
In preparation for today’s sermon on God’s laws I decided to try to find out how many laws govern the United States. Any guesses? The answer is…no one knows. Many laws help us live together peacefully and some, while maybe good intentioned at the time, are no longer necessary. For example, did you know that it is illegal to wash your donkey on the sidewalk in Culpeper? For any women driving on Main Street in Waynesboro – you need to have a man in front of your car waving a red flag! It is also illegal to tickle a woman in Virginia. I want these sermons to be useful in keeping you all on the straight and narrow and out of jail.
We know that rules guiding public behavior have been in place since people first got down from trees and started living together in communities. The first known written laws come from ancient Babylonia and King Hammurapi. The “Code of Hammurapi” contain almost 300 rules and the scaled consequences for breaking them. These laws were inscribed on a 7.5 foot stone stella which was placed where all could see and understand, and thus be enforced. These laws go back to 1754 BCE – more than 3700 years ago! They covered all aspects of Babylonian life and assured that no matter if you were a slave or slave-holder, no one was above the law.
The majority of God’s laws are contained in the Book of Exodus, Chapters 20 through 31. These laws, which appear in the form that we see now, were written down somewhere around 500 BCE – following the Exile to Babylon. The best known of these laws are the Ten Commandments which are found in Exodus 20. There are also more laws or mitzvot in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Like Hammurapi’s laws, they cover most of the major aspects of life and teach us how to be in right relationship with God and with our neighbors.
Our scriptures today have us thinking, meditating if you will, about the benefits of following God’s laws and the consequences (woes) if we do not. While we certainly do not follow all 613 mitzvot contained in the Hebrew Bible, it is good for us to spend some time today reacquainting ourselves with God’s laws, how it is we are to conduct ourselves, and what the consequences might be if we break them. Let us go to God in prayer and thanksgiving for such wise guidance for our lives…
Psalm 1 and the text from Jeremiah echo the stark contrast between being a “scoffer” or skeptic or following the “advice of the wicked”/ trusting “mere mortals” versus putting our trust and delight in the LORD and meditating on God’s law day and night. When we are aligned with the tenets of God, we reap the benefits of living in right relationship with God. We are aware of our God-given gifts and we use them to their fullest extent – thus we become fruitful in God’s plan for us. We are watched over by God and thus can withstand the times of trouble that come into any life.
The text from 1 Corinthians has Paul expounding on the benefits of living into the truth of the resurrection of Christ versus the skeptical view that it was all just some sort of elaborate scam. Obviously, from very early in the days of this renewal movement in Judaism, there were folks who didn’t believe in the resurrection. Two thousand years later, we are still dealing with scoffers and “mere mortals” rhetoric. Paul puts it clearly, “…For if the dead have not been raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….” You always have a choice in this life…which narrative will you choose, eternal and unredeemed sin or eternal life and forgiveness?
The text from Luke is a truncated recitation of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew Chapters 5 through 7. It is displayed as a set of blessings versus woes here in this Gospel. Crowds of people from all over Palestine had come to hear Jesus and to be healed of their afflictions both physical and spiritual. Jesus echoes the texts we have already highlighted in his blessings and woes. We are blessed by our humility, spiritual hunger and public derision by those who scoff at the coming of the Christ. The consequences or “woes” as they are termed are for those who have no room for God in their lives because they are so filled by the world and by its false flattery and many distractions.
There have always been detractors and skeptics of Jesus and his role as the Christ…the Messiah. Some consider him to be a nice guy and gifted prophet, but not divine in any meaningful sort of way. Some believe and teach that he is just a figment of our collective imagination and that we would be much better off coming to grips with the stark reality that is being human. They shout in loud and ever more insistent tones hoping that we will come away from our day dreams and follow the latest self-help guru or fad. As the Psalmist wrote in the opening line of the opening song of the Book, “Happy (or “blessed” according to the OJB translation) are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;…” Thus, we are blessed when we avoid the company of persons who believe in things other than the “law of the LORD”. How is it that this blessing comes to us?
To answer that question we must consider what is meant by our “delight in the law of the LORD” and on our consistent and singular meditation on it. Does this mean that we must spend our time studying the 613 mitzvot contained in the Hebrew Bible? Some of those do not make sense in our world anymore, and some have been supplanted by rabbinic teaching over the centuries. How about the Ten Commandments? This is a good place to start and it certainly orients us to right relationship with God (first 4 Commandments) and with other humans (the remaining 6 Commandments). I think, however, that it is easy to get lost in those and become exclusionary of all the remainder of the biblical wisdom and the witness of Jesus. I submit that the best way to meditate on the whole of the Bible’s teaching is to spend time with Matthew 22:36-40.
Here Jesus is asked by a Pharisaic lawyer “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds that the first and greatest commandment is to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….” Jesus goes on to add that there is a second great commandment, “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself….” He finishes by stating that “…on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets….” Did you get that final and maybe most important teaching point from Jesus? The whole of the Bible’s teaching is contained in the two great commandments about loving God and each other to the exclusion of everything else.
What happens to us when we spend our time immersed in God’s word, marinating in the wisdom and the guidance of a God who loves us without condition or boundary and who wants only to be in right relationship with us? For me, I find myself more accepting of the variety of ways that I am treated by others. I find that I can more quickly put away being slighted or scoffed at and look to what might be causing my neighbor to offend against me. I find that when I disagree with my neighbor over biblical interpretation or point of view, I can be more open to realizing that they are struggling as much as I am on how God might be calling us to live into this confusing time. In other words, when I am fueled by love of God above any other thing and love of neighbor as self, then the myriad minor differences between us become gifts instead of barriers. I am much more able to see the God in another and to open the God within me to them.
I am also able to see the wicked, those that sin, and the skeptical as those who are speaking from a place that is not informed by love of God and neighbor above all else. They are motivated by worldly cares and concerns and seek to confuse things by “cherry picking” scripture to support their rhetoric. Our scripture texts today have an answer for all of those – they will not prosper and they will suffer woe. This is not our doing, as we are called to love these, it is the domain of the LORD to judge at the end of times.
Seems to me, dear people, we have a real choice put before us each and every day on our spiritual journey. Do we invest the time to meditate on the two great commandments and interpret God’s word in light of them, or do we take a lesser path? It seems clear that the former way leads to blessings and fruitfulness while the latter leads only to woe. Moses said it to the Hebrews in more stark terms, “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…” (and the blessings of living in ever increasing love of God and neighbor). Amen and amen!