Monday, February 29, 2016

The Story 5. New Commands and a New Covenant

Readings: Exodus 20:2-24, Luke 19:1-6, Matthew 22:35-40, Romans 6:17-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 28th, 2016

Every organization, every community, every society, every family, if they are to survive, needs 3 things.
  • A rule to live by
  • A sense of purpose
  • A way to put things right when things go wrong.
The nation that God was building was no exception to this pattern.

We've come a long way since those early chapters of Genesis where God is pictured as walking with God's children in the paradise of Eden. We have learned about Noah and Abraham and Joseph. Last week we witnessed the call of Moses and the dramatic exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

We have talked about two stories running through the 66 books of the bible. The 'Upper Story', that is the story about God's desire to be with people, and the 'Lower Story', our never ending ingenuity in misinterpreting God's desires as being against our better interests.

From an 'Upper Story' perspective, chapter five of 'The Story' is a milestone. God offers rules to live by. God comes and dwells in the midst of the people. Through a system of sacrifices God's people are reminded that even when they mess up and go their own way, God offers a way home.

From a 'Lower Story' perspective chapter 5 is scary. We really don't like authority. We want to be free to live how we want and do what we like. We like the idea of a cozy, unobtrusive god who will do our bidding.

We left the Hebrews in happy mode. 'Yeh! We are free from Egypt!' They've been headed out towards the mountains. When they get to Mount Sinai it becomes seriously serious. It is as though they realized that God had to be amazing and powerful to do all the stuff God had done for them, but what did that look like?

When we lived in Wales there was a nuclear power plant we could visit about 20 minutes drive away from our home. When you turned into the two mile long driveway the first sign you saw read; 'A safe and secure facility'.

As you drove along the road, you passed through a number of checkpoints, and numerous more signs extolling the safety of nuclear power. It was scary. If the plant was so safe, why did they have to put up so many signs saying it was safe?

The scale of the plant when you went on the tour, the safety procedures to see that no accidents happened were, thankfully, impressive. Because, you know, if things go wrong at a nuclear power plant, you don't want to be on the same continent.

The Hebrews arrive at the mountain. Exodus 20:18-19 'When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."'

The people who work at nuclear power stations are some of the most unflappable, calm and collected folk you will ever meet. They have to be! They are dealing with power on a scale that is mind boggling. Moses has been developing his relationship with God. He knew the power of God. God needs to guide God's people. God keeps it simple. 'Moses, hold your hands up. Let's see. 10 fingers? Here's ten, easy to remember rules.'

On the mountain Moses is given the 10 commandments. The first 4 are about how we relate to God, the next 6 about the way we get along with each other. Ten principles, that have been the basis of law for as long as people can remember. People still write them on posters and hang them in prominent places.

When Jesus came He made it even simpler. A wise guy asked Him “Y'know that big 10? Which should be number 1?” Jesus replied 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:36-40).

In that statement Jesus reveals the 'Upper Story' intention behind the commands. They came from love. They set boundaries in which people could be free to live safely and securely and nobody would get hurt. The 'Lower Story' reaction?

Moses is back on the mountain. The people have accepted the commandments. But Moses is gone for six weeks. Six weeks. That's all it takes for them to start asking 'So, who was that Moses chap? Aaron, any chance, now that you are in charge, we could have a less scary, more controllable deity?'

Holy cow! Or rather 'Holy Golden Cow, let's party!' is the alternative that they come up with. It's not good. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Moses comes down the mountain with the big 10 inscribed on 2 stone tablets and he smashes them on the floor.

Absolute chaos! There's no happy end to this. People die. By the sword. By plague. Moses pleads with God, 'Look, these are stiff-necked people! Go ahead. Make my day. Blot my name out of the history books'. Moses is through.

Yet God is not through with God's people. God never is. God loves us despite our ridiculous attempts to do things any way but God's way. Are you seeing that in the Story? God saying 'Do it my way?' People, like us saying, “No hold on a minute, I think we can do better!” God offers some guidelines for living. They are agreed upon and then ignored. Even this is a preparation for something wonderful.

God says 'I'm not standing by. I'm coming to where you live.' Moses is told to build something called the Tabernacle. It's a dwelling place, a meeting place, a holy place. Tabernacle is where God happens. Through the Tabernacle God declares; 'I need to be happening in the center of your life'.

There's a great story, in Luke 19, about Jesus coming to town one day when a little guy called Zacchaeus is hiding up a tree. Zak is a tax-collector for the hated Romans, and he knew better than to hang out with the local people. But he wants to see Jesus, so he climbs a tree. Jesus comes along the Jericho road, looks straight up at Zak and says 'Get down from that tree, I'm coming to your house today!'

Through the building of the Tabernacle God declares that obeying the rules wasn't enough. There are a lot of rules in the first five books of the Old Testament. People can hide behind rules. They can be totally proper, dot every 'i' and cross every 't' , yet still be without love, and still not have that heart changing relationship with God that God desires for us to experience through Jesus Christ.

God invites us to welcome God's presence as the center of all we are and all that we seek to do. As the center for our families. As the center for our faith communities. As the center for our spirituality and our worship and our service. We all have places we go, let's call them 'tree's, to avoid confrontation with our lesser selves. We all have things we hide away and don't want people to know about us. We are amazingly good at playing 'Let's pretend everything is O.K.' There is such a challenge in these words of Jesus:- "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay (or you could say 'Tabernacle) at your house today."

What a blessing that Tabernacle – the tent of meeting- became for the Hebrews. God guided them with a moving cloud during the day and by a column of fire at night. The Tabernacle was also the place where they could put things right that had gone wrong.

Over time a system of sacrifices and offerings developed, alongside a body of people that became known as the priesthood, who acted as intermediaries between God and the community. From our sophisticated 21st Century viewpoint it seems cruel and unfair that an innocent creature should lose it's life just because a person fails to live up to God's requirements.

What that system demonstrated was that wrongdoing always had negative consequences. That when we do things wrong somebody always gets hurt. Later in Christian history, as he reflected upon the system of sacrifice, the apostle Paul, one of the great architects of later Christian teaching, would write in a letter to the center of power in his day, the city of Rome,For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

That priestly sacrificial system was never meant to be the final word. God's final word would come through Jesus Christ. But we are not there yet! In fact 'Are we there yet?' could be a fitting title for chapter 6 of 'The Story' as we'll see the Hebrews spend a whole lot more time in the wilderness than they had ever expected!

In 'The Story' chapter 5, God gives the Hebrews three essential things to build their community.
  • He gives them rules. The 10 commandments remain one of the great historical law codes by which people seek to be guided. Though often seen as being a prohibitive code, the intention seems to have been protective... to protect peoples relationships with God and with each other. Yet we also saw how, from almost the moment Moses passed them along, they failed to bring peoples behavior in line with God's requirements. Something more was needed.
  • God directs Moses to create the Tabernacle, a physical meeting place with God. Having such a visible sign of God's presence in their midst gave the Hebrews a renewed sense of purpose. The scary God of earthquake and fire was at home in their midst. If we seek to make the love of God a central feature of our lives, it changes everything. Can we hear that call of Jesus to us, today, 'Come down from that tree, from that place you are hiding your true self, because I'm coming to your house today!'
  • Finally, we saw how the tabernacle provided a setting where people could put things right that had gone wrong. It was messy. If they had any doubts that their wrong actions could result in anything but trouble, then as an innocent creature lost it's life, they were visibly reminded, as Paul later wrote; 'The wages of sin are death'.
Underlying all of these actions is love. God loves the people enough to give them guidelines to stop them destroying themselves. In spite of their unfaithful ways, God loves the people so much that God wants to be with them and lead them and guide them. God loves the people with such grace, that God provides a way for their broken lives to be forgiven, restored and renewed

We are the ones God wants to guide and lead. We are the people God wants to fill with the Holy Spirit, that we can be living tabernacles for others. We are the ones whose broken lives God, through Christ, is prepared to forgive, restore and renew. What a mighty God we serve! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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