15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 2, 2018

15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Passage: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

When it comes to reading the Bible, one of the last sections people are drawn to is the Law in the Old Testament – all those rules God gave Moses for the Israelites to obey. And I admit, that reading it can be tough-going. A whole lot “thou shalt nots” and random laws that make no sense to us.

But there are some other parts of the Law that, even now, are quite simply, delightful.

  • Did you know that it was a law that when Israel was going to war, you weren’t allowed to join the army if you’d just been married, or planted a vineyard, or built a house? Why? Because you might die in the battle and never be able to enjoy your new wife, your new vineyard or house. Isn’t that great?
  • And did you know that it was a law that if you saw your neighbor’s ox or sheep wandering lose you had to return the animal to its owner, and that if you couldn’t find the owner, you had to take care of it until the owner came looking for it?

The Law of the Old Testament is filled with these incredible commandments that were designed to create an equitable and harmonious society. And even today, thousands of years later, we can read these laws and see how extraordinary they were, and what a remarkable society they were intended to create.

Now admittedly, some of their laws are just plain baffling. Like,

  • You weren’t allowed to wear clothes that had wool and linen woven together. No sir. That’s not allowed.
  • And if you had leprosy and were going through a ritual of cleansing, part of that ritual included the priest slaughtering a lamb and taking some of the blood and putting it on the lobe of your right ear, on the thumb of your right hand, and on the big toe of your right foot. Honest to God. It’s right there in Leviticus 14.

So when it comes to these bewildering laws, it’s not that God was wildly eccentric. They were simply rooted in a culture that is not our own. But they made perfectly good sense to the Israelites – such good sense in fact, that Moses could claim in our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, that

You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”

For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)?

In the Ancient Near East their law was extraordinary, and – had the Israelites been faithful in keeping it – the other nations would have been stunned. No other nation had laws so just. No other nation had at its center a God like the God of Israel, who was so present and so full of blessing.

And that was the point of the whole thing: God was with them, in their midst, and for their good.

And it makes me wonder, what is the equivalent in the church today? We’re no longer bound by the particularities of the Old Testament law. But the principals are still intact. The objectives are the same. After all, the gospel of Christ is a fulfillment of the Old Testament law. We are still called to be a people whose relationship with God and one another should attract and stun the people who are looking on. Madeline L’Engle wrote,

We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

But how do we do that? How do we show a light like that?

Well, one thing is certain: we can’t fake it. We can’t pretend to have an affection or enthusiasm for God that we don’t actually have.

At the heart of our faith is God and the wild hope that God is real, that God created us in love, that God knows us intimately – is always present and always loving – forgiving us our failures and brokenness, and healing us from our deepest sorrows and fears, that we might live into a future of God’s redeeming and wholeness.

And so it must be that the only authentic way to communicate our faith with others is to have experienced it ourselves.

  • What good does it do to say “God loves you” if we’ve never experienced God loving us?
  • Or what good does it do to affirm that God forgives sins, while in our heart of hearts we are still ashamed of our sins, and convinced that God is equally ashamed?

We want to meet God.

We want the gospel to be true, not as some distant, philosophical concept, but as God in us. We want the gospel to bring healing and hope and meaning to the very real circumstances of our lives. We want to be transformed by the love of God.

 

But the maddening thing about it all is that we’re absolutely powerless to make that happen. We can’t force God’s hand. If we’re going to be transformed by God, then it must be by God.

 

And this is as it should be. For God is the life within all life – each new birth, each breath. Each moment of life emerges like a tree from the acorn, and that acorn is God.

 

But if all is from God, what are we to do? Is there something distinct expected of us? Yes. I think there most certainly is.

So far as I can tell in the scriptures, our first step is always some form of repentance.

Repentance means being truly honest and remorseful before God about anything in our lives that we perceive as a failure on our part. It could be small. It could be enormous. And repenting with any degree of hope is very hard, I know. Our failures are often rooted in a force that seems stronger than we are – a force that is simultaneously within us and outside us, a force that we’ve been unable to control, no matter how much we have tried. And coupled with that is an immense amount of shame – such that we believe that if anyone were to know these things we would be despised and rejected.

But so long as we only reveal a curated version of our idealized self – to God and to the world – then our hearts will never believe that anything other than that veneer is worthy of love. But when we allow our whole self to be seen, without any pretense, only then will the love we receive be truly believed.

But it is hard. Being honest about our sin and our shame can feel a lot like stripping off all our clothes. At Alberton’s. And yet, it can also be incredibly freeing.

I remember hiking by myself once. I was just exploring this trail through the woods, close to the ocean. And all of a sudden I popped out onto a nude beach. At first I was mortified, and felt like some kind of junior pervert. But after a little bit I started to look around and realized that I was the only uncomfortable person on the beach. Everyone else was totally comfortable. All these normal people were simply that: normal. They were overweight, wrinkled, saggy in all the wrong places. And they couldn’t care less. There was no shame. They were totally free.

And that’s what repentance is all about: We strip away all those things that we’ve come to rely on to compensate for our weaknesses and fears: all our coping mechanisms, our anger and self-justification, our denial of guilt and blaming of other people. We finally let it all go, and we’re scared as the dickens, naked before God, and then God meets us and says,

There you are. I love you. I have always loved you and you are forgiven. Welcome home.

Then God wraps a garment around you. And that garment is yourself: your true self. Fully known. Fully forgiven. Fully loved. Fully you.

Does it all become instantly better? Sometimes. But not often. It usually takes a lifetime of learning, of perceiving, of repenting again and again and believing bit by bit, before we can totally settle into the truth of what God had already proclaimed true of us long, long before.

And so, if we want to be transformed by God, the first step is always repentance.

And the second thing we do is simply to pray: to appeal to God to come and transform us. Why is prayer necessary? Why doesn’t God just intervene and take care of it from the beginning?

Well, to start with, God probably does intervene unbidden far more often than we recognize. But beyond that, prayer is a way of partnering with God, of aligning our hearts with God’s heart. And when we’ve prayed for something, then seen God provide it, it does something powerful for our faith. It’s not that we’ve manipulated or coerced God (God will do what God will do!) It’s more that we’ve desired what God desires and in the merging of our two hearts, the Kingdom of God is made manifest, and we discover our true self. And this encourages us all the more to persevere in the life and ways of faith.

And finally, the third step of being transformed is simply to begin doing the work of the Kingdom of God. Most likely, there’s not going to be some glorious day when you wake up and suddenly discover that you’ve got the faith of St. Francis. We’re just kind of slogging along here, folks. But it’s never too soon to start trying it out: to show patience, to choose silence that the other may speak, to be generous, to forgo your own privilege for the other’s good – to start choosing all the many ways that faith is expressed in action. For it is by so doing that we begin to experience, and therefore believe, the wisdom of the way of God. Or as our AA friends would say it, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

This is what the life of faith looks like. We repent. We pray. We love. And then, when we wake up the next day, we do it all over again.

And it is a life so lived that – by and by – will begin to shine. It will begin to be that “life so lovely” that others will want to know the source of it.