Friday, February 24, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 5:38-48, Psalms 140, 142

Preached at TSM Chapel 2/24/2017

Our readings from the Gospel and from the Psalms strike quite a contrast today: in one, we hear that we are to “love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who spitefully use us” (5:44), in the other we cry out, “let the evil of their lips cover them; let burning coals fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again” (140:9-10). It would be easy, I think, to brush off the Psalm reading as “oh, that’s the Old Testament” so we don’t have to hear its witness or instruction. Or we could go the opposite direction and say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that -- it's just Semitic hyperbole.” Both options, I think, are precipices off the same ridge, one on either side. We must, instead, seek the narrow gate and the difficult way.

It would be helpful, at this point, to enlist St Paul as our interpretive guide. When speaking to the Corinthians believers, he interprets the wandering in the wilderness as both a lesson about Christ and, therefore, a lesson of how they should live. “Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). While he here confines his examples to the Pentateuch, elsewhere he draws the Psalms and the Prophets in that orbit, as does our Lord Himself when He says, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk. 24:44). Can we hear the voice of our Lord praying these Psalms? Is there an Enemy He came to overthrow? One perhaps for whom “an everlasting fire” has been prepared? It certainly was not the Romans, nor even His countrymen who would rise up and crucify Him. No, even these He prays for, saying, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Instead, He tells us, the “fire, the deep pit” from which none can arise is“prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).

No man, no matter what they may do to our bodies or even our minds, is the object of the Psalmists’ approbation as we pray the Psalm with and in Christ. Instead, “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-3) and so we lift up “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks for all men” (2:1), or as our Lord put it, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The imprecations, though, are reserved for those angels who have not “kept their proper domain, but left their own abode” (Jude 6), who even Michael the archangel does not “bring against a reviling accusation, but says, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (V. 9). These Psalms give us the words to follow Michael in asking for God’s judgment, which has already been prepared for them, to come against the demons who inspire and instigate the Great War against Christ and His saints (Rev. 12:13-17), the War that has made injustice our world’s default and has made our souls languish in shame and guilt. And what, in the end, shall we cry? “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living...deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your Name” (Ps. 142:5-7).

The Lord Christ, by His Cross, has conquered death and so shattered the power of the devil and his angels, as the author of Hebrews has said, “through death Christ might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Who is it that has been subject? “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34) and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23): all were subject to the cruel bondage of sin and the fear of death, for “the stinger of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56), but, thanks be to God, Christ has destroyed the power of the devil and assured his ultimate destruction -- now we can let go of our hatred, and jealousy, and fear of others, for these are whom Christ has come to save. Let us, with the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, pour that love out on our neighbors and enemies alike by seeking their salvation from sin, death, and the devil. “Therefore, you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Given at First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls


Deut 30:15-20: Love Fulfills the Law

Brothers and sisters, I beg your indulgence. Today’s sermon will be treating on many of the same themes and ideas I brought to you two weeks ago. It seems that we need to hear these things from the Lord; I know I certainly do.

Both our readings from Deuteronomy and Psalm 119 today are tough for us. We know that more often than not, we choose death: we sin, intentionally or not, and so fall again and again from the promised blessedness of these scriptures. For many of us, then, the upcoming season of Lent is met with at least some trepidation. 40 days of guilt! 40 days of being reminded, evenly more keenly than usual, of our failures to do and to be what God has called us to. We live out St Paul’s lament in Romans 7:
“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do...for I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find...O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 15, 18, 24)
It is what St Paul calls “sin producing death” (v. 13) and “sin dwelling in me” (17) and “evil present in me” (21) that causes us to hear the words of the Law and shudder. But just before our passage today in Deuteronomy we read this:
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (vs. 11-14).
We have sin dwelling in us, but we also have the Word in our mouths and in our hearts, where the Holy Spirit Himself is “pouring out the love of God” (Rom. 5:5). This is why there is the war in our members, this is why the Lord calls us to choose “life and good, or death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). Still, we find no power in ourselves to do what the Lord commands. But read verse 14 of this chapter again: “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” We have no power arising out of ourselves, true, but there is a Power in us greater than any other power: the Word of God, who is Jesus the Christ.

As our Lord says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world!” (Jn. 16:33) The Lord Christ, by His incarnation, His death, and His resurrection has defeated sin, death, and the devil. Even more, though, He has taken His seat on the throne of God’s right hand (Acts 1) and, paradoxically, rules from within our hearts. As St Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ is in you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do and be what God has called us to. We can say with Paul, “I thank God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) for there is “now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Sin has, in God’s strange providence, been put to death in the death of Christ (8:3). We can “walk in newness of life” (6:4), “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (6:6). Brothers and sisters, in Christ we are free!

With this in our minds, let us return to Deuteronomy 30.

God has set before the Israelites a sign of what is accomplished in Christ: there is life and good or there is death and evil. This is the point of the whole Law, in one sense: so that sin “might appear to be sin,” that is, so we could see what it is and how it breaks communion with God and with neighbor. The Law is a reminder that the world, including we ourselves, is not right -- there is a parasite on it. Seeing our state, where we were slaves to death and evil, and our inability to do the good even when we choose it, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to condemn sin in that flesh and raise us up free to do what God has commanded. And what has He commanded?

“To love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments” (v. 16).

It is important here to see that the first thing God has commanded is love. He has not first given us a list of dos and don’ts. Rather, He has called us into relationship. He freed the Israelites from their captivity to Pharaoh, showing forth His love of their fathers and His justice in keeping the promises He had made to them. Now He invites the reciprocation: love Me as I have loved you. It is the same for us, only we have been freed from a more dreadful power than any earthly ruler could ever be. Love God as He has loved us: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us...In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 3:16; 4:9-10). St John ends this passage saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Loving God leads to the keeping of His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, which can all be summed up as “love your neighbor as yourself” for “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:10). Loving God, then, which leads to the love of neighbor and enemy alike, is walking in His ways and fulfilling our Lord’s prophecy when He said, “You shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

It may strike us as strange, though, that to not reciprocate God’s love is to court judgment and death. “If your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut. 30:17-18). If such a thing was said in a human relationship, we would immediately recognize it as unhealthy and unloving, if not outright abusive. And there are plenty of conceptions of God that will understand the passage in this way, and we must call them what they are: idols. What these interpretations miss, though, is the proclamation in verse 20: “He is your life.” God is life -- nothing in creation has life in itself -- so to have communion with Him is to have life; to be broken off from Him is to be in death. In the Garden, the Lord says this very thing to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat,” including, we must understand, the Tree of Life, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The tree itself was not poison, for all that God had made was very good (1:31), but to break the communion of trust and love with God would lead to man’s separation from God, which is the definition of death: this is not a threat, but a warning plea to the beloved. It is the same in Deuteronomy: God has brought the Israelites into His life, but they must know they have the freedom of Adam, the freedom to turn away and fall into the same misery as he did. The difference is that Adam had never seen death and so fell ignorantly; Israel knew death and had seen that their deliverance was only accomplished by death, the death of the firstborn. We know that our salvation, our participation in God, was as well only accomplished by the firstborn dying so that death itself might be defeated. God desires to share His Life with all (1 Tim. 2:4) and desires not the death of a sinner (Ezek. 33:11), but issues stern warnings about the abuse of our freedom: do not fall again under the spell and control of sin! Choose life and good!

God is not a pagan deity, looking for us to slip up, to mess up, so that He might condemn us and “satisfy His wrath” [a phrase, curiously, that doesn't appear in the Scriptures].  Rather, He is the God who is love, warning us of all that might “so easily ensnare us” (Heb. 12:1), so that we might partake of that love and so love all that He has made. Then, as that love is “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5), we can say with the Psalmist, “Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!...I will praise You with uprightness of heart, when I learn your righteous judgments” (119:2, 7). It is this Love, which has brought us to Life, that compels us -- not with guilt or shame, but with joy and gratitude -- “to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1), as St Paul says. Why would we want the old ways, the ways that lead to death and misery and pain? Instead, knowing “that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,” we, in hope, purify ourselves, “just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3).

This brings us back to the upcoming season of Lent. This is not a time of self-loathing and crippling guilt; it is a time to bask in the love of God, the love that has freed us from sin through death, and so become new. It is time, as St Paul says in Colossians 3, to “set your mind on things above,” where Christ is, “not things on the earth,” by which he means whatever turns us away from God. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth,” and here he does not mean your God-given bodies, but rather, “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry...anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Instead, he continues, “put on,” as if a garment, a beautiful adornment, a priestly robe, “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another...but above all things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Lent is a time of remembering and living out our crucifixion with Christ, where all our sin, our unruly passions, and “members which are on the earth” were put to death. Christ, our life, has come, so choose life and good and loudly proclaim the praises of the One who has called us from darkness into His marvellous light (1 Pt. 2:9), for “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). Amen.