STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 19, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER
Call to Worship: Deuteronomy 6: 4 – 9
Attention, Israel! God, our God! God the one and only!
Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!
Write these commandments on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Lord God, you are the one and only. We praise you because you are above all, and in all, and through all.
We admit that, even though we know and trust you, we have any gods and idols in our lives. But when we need power, assurance, guidance, and forgiveness you are the only one that is real.
We praise you that you love us enough to give us a code to live by. When we break this code, you forgive us. The truth is, we break it often and we are constantly seeking your mercy. You love us so much that you sent your Son to forgive us completely. We live in your grace.
Lord, we love you with our whole beings. On one level this is true, but we find it difficult to love our neighbour whom we can see, so we need to ask: how deeply do we really love you?
We are here to day to worship you. May all we do, say, think and feel be pleasing in your sight. May we find our righteousness in Christ alone, through whom we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Romans 5: 20 – 21
All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It is meant to bring us to you without our stumbling or going astray. Guide us now, through scripture and The Word, Jesus, so we will not be lost to you. Amen.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5: 17 – 20 NRSV
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom. The Message
Deuteronomy 30: 11 – 20
Romans 13: 8 – 10
In the book, A Year of Living Biblically, the author A.J. Jacobs sets out to live, for one year, in strict accord to The Laws of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. The Old Testament). When we refer to “The Law”, it can be confusing. While the Holy Bible is the foundation of Western societies, we aren’t talking about secular law. (Having said that, I’d advice you still to obey the speed limit, resist destroying government property and pick a profession other than a drug dealer.) Rather “The Law” refers to the laws given to the Israelites by God. When we think of these, we often think of “The 10 Commandments”. In fact, there are 613 Jewish laws recorded in the first 5 books of The Bible, called The Torah. Not every law is a “Thou shalt not”; in fact, 248 commandments tell us what to do, while 365 tell us what not to do. When we, the prophets, Paul, or Jesus, speak of “The Law”, it is the original 613 laws that are meant, and it is these Laws which A.J. Jacobs attempted to follow. The Law is detailed, complex, rigorous, and hard to follow.
In order to guarantee the demands of The Law were kept “to the letter”, the Rabbi’s believed they should, “… make a safety fence around the Torah…” Just as one was obliged to build a fence around one’s roof (Deuteronomy 22:8) so no one would fall off, the Rabbis made more rules to ensure the people would not break the original 613. These rules were written down in 6 books called The Mishnah. Later still came The Talmud, a commentary on how the Laws apply in certain situations (i.e. Have I broken The Law if the fence on my roof is damaged by natural causes, and my friend, who’s helping me repair it, falls?). The Israelites believed keeping these laws perfectly was the key to salvation, communion with God and eternal life.
God’s purpose in giving The Law was to ensure good relationships within the community of Israel, to create a bond between God and “God’s chosen people”, and to facilitate their practise of Worship. Therefore, the 613 laws are divided between “moral” law and “ritual” law – moral law governs daily behaviour and relationships, while ritual law covers what is done in relationship with God. Since the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. most of the ritual laws, i.e. those pertaining to the temple, sacrifices, ceremonial robes, holy days etc., are no longer relevant, even for the Jews. For Christians, the self-sacrifice of Jesus and the enduring forgiveness it offers, replaces the need for further sacrifice. However, that doesn’t mean we dismiss The Law. Calvin upheld the moral law as a guide for Christian living. As scripture, there is much within The Law that informs our faith.
Yet, as Jacobs discovered, The Law is impossible for mere mortals to keep. Not only is The Law unfeasible, there are many laws that don’t make sense to us today. Laws such as:
- “Don’t let your hair become unkempt” (Leviticus 10:6) – I don’t know about you but CoVid got me on that one.
- “Don’t tear your clothes” (10:6) – I failed that one in my childhood by tripping and falling off my bike.
By the way, both of those are punishable by death! (And you thought your parents were strict).
- “Don’t go to worship within 33 days of giving birth” (12:5) or 66 days if you’re careless enough to have a girl (12:6).
- “Don’t wear 2 different fabrics at once” (19:19).
- “Don’t cut your hair at the sides or trim your beard” (19:27).
- “Don’t sleep with another man’s slave” (19:20) – owning slaves was fine, just don’t touch your buddy’s property.
- “Don’t touch an unclean animal” (5:2), so if Rover hasn’t moved for a day or two, poke him with a stick.
- “Don’t eat the blood or fat of an animal” (3:17) – the fatty bits were saved for sacrificial purposes.
So, not only is The Law hard to keep, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate. Does God really care if I don’t brush my hair or I wear a wool sweater with my jeans?
Because some Laws seem silly to us, (right up there with not dragging your dead horse up Yonge St. or not whistling in Petrolia), when it comes to The Law, people “cherry pick”. We decide which Laws are important and which aren’t. For instance, most Christians eat pork, even though The Law prohibits it. “Cherry picking” creates a hierarchy of Law. At the top are the 10 Commandments and perhaps a couple other favourites which we deem more important than the others. After all, some things are an “abomination” to the Lord, such as: eating sacrificed meat on the 3rd day (19:7) or chowing down a bird of prey (11:13). I admit, dining on buzzard, instead of it dining on me, is an abomination to me also – I think I’ll keep that one. It may come as a surprise to know Proverbs 6: 16 – 19 lists 7 things that are “an abomination to the Lord”; not one of them is sexual and I can guarantee you’ve broken at least one. Granted, there are many commandments which do define the boundaries of sexual behaviours and relationships. My point is, that it’s the practice of most Christians to attempt to observe the “Big10” and to arbitrarily throw out all but a few favorites. In today’s scripture, Jesus refers to “the least of these commandments”. This indicates a hierarchy of The Law existed even in his day. However, Jesus makes it clear that even “the least” are as important as the others. “…until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”. “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself”. If this is the case, why do Christians not keep the letter of the Law today? Jesus also warned his followers, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees (who were rigorous in keeping The Law and therefore more righteous than most), you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. Whoa. Really? 613 of them you say? Excuse me while I find a massive flock of sheep to sacrifice for all the sins I’m going to commit on a daily basis. It’s all rather bleak and hopeless.
Jesus claimed his mission was “not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it”; “not to demolish it but to complete it”. This is a curious statement as Jesus, himself, broke the Law several times. He particularly had trouble keeping the 4th of the 10 commandments – “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work” (Exodus 20: 8). Yet, on the Sabbath, Jesus performed at least 3 healings, and allowed his disciples to pick grain. Jesus also broke commandment # 3 (vs. 3), repeatedly implying he was equal to God and predicting the coming of a divine kingdom. He was arrested for the sin of blasphemy. As well, he ate and drank with ritually and morally “unclean” people – gentiles, tax-collectors, prostitutes. For these reasons, Jesus’ claim about the importance of the Law is baffling to us. How could Jesus “fulfill” The Law when he kept breaking it? It seems like it was the other way around – he came not to fulfill the Law but to abolish it.
When we hear words like “fulfill” and “complete” we take them to mean “obey” or “carry out”. However, they can also be used to mean “bring to it’s fullness” or “to grow to maturity”. When read this way, Jesus is saying he isn’t abolishing or getting rid of The Law, he’s bringing it to it’s fullness; he’s drawing out the richness of God’s will and finding the abundance it’s meant to give. He’s not demolishing or destroying The Law; he’s taking it to it’s ultimate conclusion. He’s bringing it to full bloom. He’s not fulfilling it in the sense of being obedient to every word, he’s uncovering the living word lying behind the Law – the way of being that the Law is meant to create. Jesus hasn’t come to act in a legalistic way, or impose rules, he’s come to embody the essence of God’s nature and will. The underlying purpose of the Law was to ensure that God was cherished, that people lived in unity with God, and his people lived in loving community with one another. That’s what Jesus fulfilled. This is why Jesus can sum up the entire essence of The Law in 2 directives, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them” (Matthew 22: 37 – 40). This is why, just before his death, Jesus offered a new commandment, “ Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another” (John 13: 34).
Although the Pharisees were “righteous” in keeping The Law, they were often “unrighteous” in their lack of love. This came out in their “self-righteousness”. In terms of observing The Law, the Pharisees made great demands on people and passed harsh judgements when they were unable to measure up. It is human nature to do this. Societies are always coming up with a set of rules by which we measure and condemn others. In “fascist” countries, when you break the rule “Thou shalt not criticize the government”, you are considered an enemy of the state. These “righteous” people waste no time inflicting a punishment of imprisonment or death. In “progressive” circles, when you break the rule “Thou shalt not think, act and speak in a manner different from us” you are, what a group of writers recently called, “cancelled” as a human being. These “righteous” people exile others through shunning and public (i.e. “on-line”) humiliation. In the Church, we too can see ourselves as “righteous”. We are the guardians of morality. We’ve told people God will accept them only if they live in certain ways. We’ve given the message they don’t belong in Church until they’re righteous enough (by standards which we ourselves find impossible to keep). We’ve shunned them for failing. Exile of one sort or another, is the fruit of self-righteousness.
One of the loveliest aspects of The Law, is that it offered people a path to temporary forgiveness. When they messed up morally, they could bring a sacrifice to God, have their sin washed away and start again. The Law led to forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to reconciliation, not rejection. How can we ever heal the world, grow and change as human beings, or lift people up as children of God, if we can’t sit in the same room, discuss our ideas and values, listen to one another, forgive each other and accept each other with love? Can we risk be-friending those we consider to be sinners and outcasts? Can we heal on the Sabbath, putting our rules second to the needs of broken wounded people? Can we bring fullness of life to one another? The Law is not summed up by the exile of others but by love.
Paul, who was a Pharisee himself, knew The Law is impossible to keep and therefore it is impossible for us to ever be “righteous” or to save ourselves by our own goodness. None of us is anywhere near perfect. Righteousness and salvation are offered to everyone, just as we are, as a gift from God. Forgiveness is brought to fullness by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where once we had a path to temporary forgiveness, now we have a way to eternal forgiveness. Paul called this gift “grace”. Even if others can’t or won’t, Christians should be able to offer God’s grace through Jesus to everyone. We hold up the ideal of love. By putting the needs of people before The Law, Jesus shows us the evolution of love; the movement from a set of rules which enslave us to an act of grace which sets ourselves and others free. In this way, he “fulfills” the law and calls his disciples to do the same.
When we love others, we bring to bloom what all the rules try and fail to create. Paul writes, “The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13: 8 – 10).
Questions for Reflection
Do you believe some Laws are more important than others? If so, which ones and why?
Do you think you can save yourself by keeping the rules? How’s that working for you?
Have you ever acted “self-righteously” towards others? How might you have behaved differently?
What does the grace of God in Jesus Christ mean to you?
Lord God, we offer our love and devotion to you. We offer our time and our abilities. We offer our resources, financial and otherwise. Receive them and multiply them for the benefit of your kingdom on Earth and the glory of your Son, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed everything for us. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God who is full of kindness and love, accept our gift of thanksgiving and praise
and hear our prayers for the world, for one another, and for ourselves:
We thank you for this congregation and for the church around the world. May we be faithful to Christ, and courageous in the face of whatever challenges arise this coming week.
We thank you for the world you love and for your grace in sending Jesus to save us. We pray for mercy, justice, understanding, and peace between nations and between people. Help us to let go of our need to dominate and to see beyond our differences. In these anxious days, help us to remember the needs of others and to give with generosity.
We thank you for all the people who contribute to our society by using the gifts you have given them. We pray for those who work in fields and forests, in mines and offices, in hospitals, maintenance and shops, help them to know that what they do is important to the well-being of others. As the economy is reorganized, give gratitude to those who do work and hope to those who are seeking employment.
We thank you that we have lived in a time with so many blessings. We have the luxury of vacations, the ability to travel, and the potential to explore your creation. As we recover from the pandemic may we remember to cherish the earth with wisdom and tenderness.
We thank you for the opportunities for education and for those who dedicate themselves to teach other. We pray for teachers and students, for schools, colleges, and universities, as they plan for a new season of learning in challenging times. Give them creativity and flexibility. Lead the to discoveries about the world you love and to the truth rooted in your Son.
We thank you for good health, for safety, for dignity. We pray for all those in danger and need: those who are sick or at risk from CoVid 19, and for those who are sick or dying from other conditions. We name before you those we know and love…
We pray for the poor and the oppressed around the world and in Canada. Give courage and love to those who stand up against injustice and give your transforming mercy to those who perpetuate it.
We thank you for family, for those closest to us, and for friendships that have stood the test of many years and friendships that are new and fresh. We thank you for those who love us enough to tell us the truth about ourselves. May they know our love and appreciation.
In all our prayers we are aware of people throughout the world who need your grace in Jesus Christ. We pray for those who are lost and alone, for those who learned of you as children but need the gift of faith, for those who believe themselves to be “righteous” and are the most lost of all. May your Spirit move in those we know and those we don’t know, to bring them abundant life and salvation.
Hear now the words that Jesus taught us, summing up our spoken and unspoken prayers:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission:
We go into the world in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to love the Lord, our God, with our entire beings and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
May the Triune God bless and keep you. Amen.