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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Old and New Law of God - 02/12/2017

Earlier this week I was sitting in my office at home, quietly working, minding my own business. I looked up and Larry was in the doorway and he blessed me.

“What?” I asked, feeling a little concern rise up in myself.

“I just read this week's Gospel. Good luck,” he said and walked away.

I appreciated that blessing because this is a hard lesson our trusted teacher and Messiah gives us this week.

Do not murder … and more than that, do not even hold on to your anger.

Do not commit adultery … and more than that, even looking at another with lustful eye and heart breaks that commandment.

Our traditional law says that for almost all things, a man should not divorce his wife … and even more, Jesus says, if you do that, you are accountable for making all relationships the two of you have after that adulterous in nature.

And concerning oaths, Jesus says, traditional law says we should not swear falsely … but Jesus raises the bar on that one too … don't swear to anything in the name of heaven or earth, or any part of God's domain.

So yeah, this is a hard text. Probably one of those texts most experienced preachers see coming and decide it would be a good time to take a vacation and bring in supply pulpit.

But seriously, we shouldn't be surprised at all by this text. Jesus totally telegraphed it last week. “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” (5:18) he said.

We still need to be reminded of this Old Testament law today, I believe. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The reason I think we still need to hear it today is because there are still some of us who say that as contemporary Christians, we don't need the Old Testament anymore … that God is awful. We prefer to hang our hats on the New Testament.

Well the church has for most is its existence, considered that a heresy – the Marcion (Mar-CEE-on) Heresy, which I'm happy to talk with anyone about.

More practically for us, however, I think throwing the Old Testament law and texts out is a lot like throwing the baby out with the bath water. For one thing, the Hebrew Bible, part of what we call the Old Testament, was the scripture our Lord taught from and in order to truly pursue our life-long study of Jesus' teachings, we need to also study the holy texts he used.

And regardless of what one thinks of the writing styles of the Old Testament and its depiction of God, if we throw out the Old Testament, we also throw out our creation stories, our stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Joseph and his technicolor dream coat, the parting of the Red Sea, and the story of God's law – Moses coming down from the mountain cradling God's life-giving law – the 10 Commandments –  in the crooks of his arms.

And it is a life-giving law. We are reminded of that in our reading from Deuteronomy today.

“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” (Deut 30:16)

Let that preposition “by” catch your attention. “ By” loving the Lord your God, by walking in God's ways, observing God's commandments, decrees, and ordinances … by doing those things, you are blessed.

Human law would more likely say “until” or “after” or “upon” abiding by the law, then you will be rewarded … or not punished. 

But with God, it is “by” doing all of this that we receive God's covenantal blessing … we are blessed with community, blessed with a place to live, blessed to be a blessing. God commands these things because God chooses life, our lives, God makes law for our benefit, not God's. I find that to be very convincing evidence that God is always conspiring for our greatest good.

I think it's important to remember the life-giving essence of God's law, because that's what Jesus is referring to here – not one letter, not one stroke of one letter of God's law will change.

But … the law does change – doesn't it? We change it, because we change. Our culture changes, our technology changes, our social norms and knowledge changes.

And we, as people of God, bring God's law with us into that change.

Call me an optimist, but I prefer to live trusting that most of the changes we make to law come from well-meaning intentions and some of the changes even maintain that core essence of God's law. That said, I do also believe some human law is born of evil forces in our world. But overall, I think humankind tries its best.

One commentary I heard this week said it in this helpful way – “The old law of God never changes, but in order to be the same law, it has to change.” (Rolph Jacobson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=844)

A few examples might help unpack this.

God says, “You shall not steal.” Stealing from others – directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly – is an act of getting in between God and neighbor. It goes against God's life-giving law. It is a sin.

When this law was first brought to the Hebrew people by Moses, when Jesus talked about it more than 1,000 years later, when your grandparents talked about it in confirmation classes – we didn't have the Internet or computers or any of the technology we take for granted today. So while the 7th commandment covered possessions of all sorts over those centuries, it did not include data like Social Security numbers, dates of birth, bank account numbers. But the law has shifted and changed to accommodate the way we have changed, the way our possessions have change, the way someone may be able to steal has changed.

So, I suggest to you that one thing we can learn from Jesus in this difficult lesson – and throughout his whole ministry –  is that we have to continually evaluate the ways we change our law – we have to continually hold it up to God's unchanging and life-giving law to see if it meets that standard. And Jesus gives us some excellent examples of why we should do that in our Gospel reading today.

God's old unchanging law says do not commit adultery, but Jesus is saying that also includes the act of reducing people to objects of lust, to participating in or standing by while others are exploited sexually. This would have been emerging issue for communities in Jesus' time as towns and cities of the Jewish people grew and therw was more diversity in the population. And it's still an issue we face today. Most people still try to abide by God's law to not commit adultery, but we as a culture have not done enough to address sexual exploitation.

Just last week a flight attendant realized a child was in danger on a flight. She intervened and police discovered the girl had been kidnapped for the profitable sex trade that exists around the Super Bowl. We have a lot of work to do to truly fulfill this law.

Jesus also brings in the tough issue of divorce, which is at its core a teaching about taking care of vulnerable people.

In Jesus' day, the law around divorce had strayed far from God's law. This was a traditional law found in Deuteronomy. It said a man should not divorce his wife, except where he has found in her a case for scandal, which typically referred to something like being unfaithful. But over time, that law got interpreted so that “a case for scandal” could be found if a meal was burned or if the husband was attracted to someone else.

Because of these changes to the law, many women and children who were dependent on a man for a home, food and protection, were simply disposed of on a whim. The original law from Deuteronomy was designed to carry God's law into a new reality – a need to protect anyone who could not survive without a head of household … to make sure they were not separated from God's love and abundance.

Finally, one more thing to note on this difficult text is that we must acknowledge that Jesus sets the bar impossibly high in his interpretation of God's law. And perhaps that is because this teaching is also a vision, a revelation into the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven that has come near. This is where we are heading with God, with Jesus, where all God's people live in the perfection of God's love, free from the anger, the mistakes and misteps, the sin, the vulnerability of our earthly lives.

We're not there yet. But there is Good News! As we continue to scrutinize and correct our law in accordance with God's law; as we strive to abide by the law as Jesus interprets it and even as we continually fall short; as we peer into that vision of the fully revealed Kingdom of Heaven, we do so in communities like this, where we lift and encourage one another, where we confess our sins and hear our forgiveness through the baptismal waters, where we gather for a meal that nourishes our souls, and where we strive courageously to uphold God's life-giving law in our world.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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