Monday, October 24, 2011

19th Sunday after Pentecost - October 23, 2011

I saw something kind of funny on the computer recently.  It was a picture of an elderly woman with a caption above and below.  Above her head the caption read, “Let’s eat grandma.”  Not a very nice sentiment.  Underneath the picture, however, the words read, “Let’s eat, grandma.”  The same words meant something very, very different!  The only difference between the two sentences was a little old comma.  The whole picture carried the explanation, “Punctuation saves lives!”

When reading the Bible, similar things can happen to us if we aren’t careful.  That is why I have been teaching the idea of Law and Gospel.  Just to review: The Law is what we are supposed to do; the Law is accusation; the Law is perfect and unforgiving.  The Law is a good thing, but it isn’t a life-giving kind of thing.  The Gospel, on the other hand, is God’s word of promise to us.  The gospel is his choosing us.  It is his mercy towards us.  It does give us life.  Now, if we confuse the two, bad things can happen.  For example, we might embrace the Law as God’s promise to us and his mercy towards us.  That would be like hugging a cactus.  A cactus is a fine plant, very beautiful and all that, but it isn’t made for hugging.  The Law isn’t made to give us life.  That’s not it’s job.  So we need to recognize the difference between the two, then we can know how Bible passages apply to us. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us a good opportunity to listen for these things.  I’m going to read it again, along with the verses that got cut out.  Listen hard for the Law.  And also listen for the gospel.

[read Leviticus 19:1-18]

It isn’t too hard to hear the Law in there, is it?  It starts right at the beginning and it goes the whole we through.  The whole passage is a list of commandments, rules.  When I listen to this passage I hear God telling his people what his expectations are.  “This is the way you are supposed to be!  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  “You shall revere your mother and father; you shall keep my Sabbaths; you shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not defraud; you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.”  The list goes on and on.  Rule after rule after rule.  Command after command. 

What is all of this?  This is the Law.  God has very high expectations of us.  Following all these commands, obeying all of these rules, they are what we must do.  These are the kinds of things that make us moral.  They are important.

Alright.  Now to switch gears.  I asked you to listen for the gospel too, for the promises of God, for his mercy.  Did you hear the gospel in what I read?  I think the gospel is harder for us to hear in this passage.  I think it is harder for us to hear in general.  Whether we are good at following them or not, rules make sense to us.  But God choosing us and making promises to us, that doesn’t make as much sense.

So here’s the promise.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Do you hear that?  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

There are two promises there, actually.  The first one is this, “I am your Lord.  I am your God.”  In this day and age, in our society where there are so many different religious options: Catholic, Methodist, Bible Church, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, etc......, in our day and age we can think that it is we who choose God.  “God, I have decided to follow you.”  But no, here God is saying something that is just the opposite.  He says, “I am the Lord your God. I choose you!”  This is certainly the gospel.

The second promise is this: “You shall be holy.”  What does holy mean?  To be holy means to be set apart.  To be holy means to not be common, but to be chosen for something special.  God is declaring something about you, promising something to you.  You are going to be holy.  What is he choosing you to do?  What is he setting you apart for?  He is setting you apart for two reasons. 

The first reason is to bring himself glory.  God sets you apart and works in you so that others can see what God can do.  It brings God pleasure to see his handiwork. 

The second reason God sets you apart is so that he can work in you for the sake of the world.  God chooses to help people through other people.  When we follow God’s commands with hearts full of faith, we serve our neighbors and help them.  God has chosen us to do that.  Jesus talks about us being salt for the earth.  That means God wants us to make life better tasting for other people.  And Jesus talks about us being light.  That means that God wants us to make life brighter for other people.  God has chosen us, set us apart, for this work.  So to be holy means God working in us to bring himself glory and it means helping our neighbor.

Now I do want to address a question, a question which relates to that picture of grandma that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon.  How do we know that we can say it like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy] and not just like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy]?  How do we know that this is actually a gospel promise and not just us changing the way we are saying the words?  We know this because God trains our ears to hear it.  This is exactly what we are promised over and over again in scripture!  I took a minute or two and looked for some examples of where God promises this.  Here are three examples.

This is what Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

This is what Paul says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God......”

This is what Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses......”

Over and over again in scripture, God makes this promise to us; he promises that we are his chosen.  This is what the gospel is. 

But it can be strange to hear the gospel in the midst of all of those commandments.  And that is why we need to train our ears to hear the difference between the Law and the Gospel.  We need to hear the Law so that we will know what to do.  For we certainly must do what is right, what God teaches us to do.  But even more importantly, we must listen for those words of Gospel.  Perk up your ears to hear the promises of God which are for you.  “You shall be holy.  Because I the Lord your God am holy.” God chooses to make you holy, to set you apart, to be his people.  And that is good news.  Amen.

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