Monday, September 3, 2012

Forgetting the Exodus

In our Old Testament passage this morning (Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9), we have a great promotion of the law.    Moses commands Israel to heed the law, so that they may LIVE to enter the promised land.  The law is LIFE.  The law also is PERFECT.  In other words, we must not add anything to it or take anything away from it.

In past weeks we've talked about how people outside the covenant observe our behavior, and when they see us keeping the law, they say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”  There may be people outside the covenant with God who belong INSIDE the covenant with God, and our behavior, which is a way of preaching the gospel, is a way of evangelizing them.

This law is JUST, and it must be passed on to our children.  Now, wait a second.  We're Christians, right?  We don't NEED the law anymore.  We now live under God's grace, and we can just throw the law out.  In fact, let's just throw the whole Old Testament out.  Good idea?  Why not?

It has to do with order.  We have drilled into our minds this whole Old Testament/New Testament thing.  We have been told that the law is over with, and the gospel of grace is here to stay.  We know that we don't have to try anymore, because Jesus Christ has come to do away with man-centered religion and bring us all into God-centered religion.  Our minds think of OLD WAY and NEW WAY in that order.

Here is something shocking: It was NEVER this way.  There was never an OLD WAY that has been abrogated and now there is a NEW WAY in its place.  The old way IS the new way.  It's just that Israel was doing it wrong, and so we think from our time and place today, “Well, we had better throw that all out, because it didn't work.”

THERE ARE NO OLD AND NEW WAYS.  There is only God's way, and the way we do not follow God's way, which is man's way.  Look at this line in our Deuteronomy passage that doesn't seem to fit in: Verse 7: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?”  We tend to forget that God is in the midst of Israel all this time.

The problem with OLD and NEW is we think that the old way didn't work, and the new way works.  But God rescued Israel out of the clutches of Egypt FIRST.  He saved them FIRST.  The law was given AFTER.  The law does not save.  We know that from Paul.  God saves first, and our response is to keep the law—naturally.  We naturally keep the law.  Not because we studied the words chiseled in stone, but because we remember that God has saved us already.

Look at verse 9: don't forget the things that your eyes have seen and make them known to your children.  What are the things their eyes had seen?  The laws and statutes?  The ordinances?  No, they saw the glorious works of God in saving them out of Egypt, in preserving them in the wilderness, and before their parents died, they passed on those visions to their children, who are now about to enter the promised land.

The law is not a bunch of rules to follow as it is a list of attributes of someone who KNOWS HE HAS BEEN SAVED.  But what did Israel do?  They forgot their fathers, and they began to follow the law as if it were the BEGINNING of salvation, not the result, not the effect.  Paul says this following of the law as the beginning of salvation leads to death, because we can never achieve an effect.  We forget that God is in the midst of us.  We are trying to keep the law, so that God will enter into the midst of us, when what we should know is that God HAS already entered into the midst of us, has saved us, and that our turning to him gives us the faith to keep the law.  Since we are doing it backwards, we forget that God is already here.  We turn our backs on him as we look for him.

I've talked before about the prison cell.  We stand with our hands gripping the bars, and we are looking out there for God to come to us with a key, so we can get released from the cell.  We do all these things, so he will notice us, and open our cell door.  What we never do is TURN AROUND.  There is no BACK to the prison cell.  God has ALREADY taken the back wall away, and the freedom of everlasting life is right outside.  God whispers in our ear, “turn around,” and when we do, our hearts are filled with such gratitude that he has already feed us from our cells, that we live our lives as law-abiding citizens.

In our gospel reading today (Mark 7:1-23), we see the clashing of the two worldviews that I have just been telling you about.  The Pharisees and scribes are arguing for ceremonial washing, which is the tradition of the elders, but as we have just been understanding, the tradition of the elders is based completely on a false understanding of salvation.  All of the ceremonies of the Pharisees is based on God saving us in response to the law, not the TRUTH, which is that God saved us first, and we respond by keeping the law.  Keeping the law is the fruit of our faith.

Jesus argues: God's salvation changes the heart, and the one with the changed heart is able to keep the law.  The Pharisees are trying to change their hearts by keeping the law.  See the difference?  One is not able to change his heart by keeping the law.  God changes the heart first, through salvation, and then the law is able to be kept.

Jesus said, “It is from within, FROM THE HUMAN HEART, that evil intentions come.”  Keeping the law will not change our heart, but God's salvation will.  The Israelites had a physical salvation to look to, the Exodus from Egypt.  They saw it with their own eyes, they taught it to their children, and the people were able to keep the law.  God showed them what a true changed heart looked like.  But then they forgot the Exodus.  They forgot what God had done for them.  They forgot he was in their midst.  Their hearts changed again.  They could not keep the law.  They were then trying harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to merit their own salvation.

Jesus Christ died on the cross, and like the Exodus, this is an actual, physical salvation for his chosen people, Israel, of which everyone sitting here is a part.  The gospel writers saw it with their own eyes.  They passed it down to their children, to Paul and the church fathers, through saints throughout the centuries, to us today.  The true story of Christ's salvation on the cross: we hear that and our hearts are changed.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts as we hear the gospel message and understand.  The good news is that there is no forgetting this time, like the Exodus.  God will not let us forget this.  We will not forget that he is in our midst.  Our hearts cannot change back.  This is good news.