Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Meeting God's Changes: The Life-Giving Word

Preached on Sunday, January 29, 2012
Scripture readings: Nehemiah 8:1-12 & 18; 1 Peter 1:17-2:3

The Book of Nehemiah tells us about a time more than two thousand years ago when God’s people discovered that their old way of being God’s people would not work any more. It seemed as though everything had changed.

The big, outside world had taken them over. The big, outside world wouldn’t leave them alone. God’s people were no longer independent from the rest of the world. They no longer had borders to keep the outside world out. The outside world had laws they had to serve, and taxes they had to pay.

The outside world had a culture that was not shaped by God or by faith in God. That outside culture could reach in and touch each one of their homes and their children. How could they be God’s people in such a world?

We have to find solutions to such questions. The world we live in no longer supports families or makes it easy for parents and children to spend time together. The world we live in gives less and less time for church and faith.

The world we live in isolates us from being God’s creatures together. When I was a young pastor, taking kids back to their homes, in the evening, after a youth group activity, my car would be full of chattering and laughing. Now it’s just full of the silent, shifting lights of cell phone applications.

So the question is how do we, as God’s people, meet the changes of God’s world? Part of the answer is that we meet God’s changes with the help of the gifts of God that do not change.

Living as God’s people in God’s changing world is like living with the seasons and the weather. We have seasons every year. We have weather every year. I have never heard anyone here ever say something like this: “I’m really bored with the weather, this year; because it is just like the weather we had last year.” No one ever says that.

Once in a while we do say, “Now this is the way it should be!” Even the people who believe that there is no purpose, or rhyme, or reason to the universe believe that the climate and seasons and weather of the world ought to be a certain way.

Both of the scriptures we have read today (both Nehemiah and Peter) tell us about certain unchanging things that help God’s people meet God’s changes in the world. What I have in mind are two things in particular that are really the same thing. They are a pattern that is described by two words. The Old Testament word is “law”. The word Peter uses, in the New Testament, is “word”. “For you have been born again…through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)

In Nehemiah a surprising thing happened, all on their own everyone seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time; that what they need most, in order to be God’s people, was to hear God’s law. It had not been read in their hearing for a long time.

And here we have to see what they meant by hearing the law. Nehemiah and the other leaders knew what they wanted and gave it to them. They wanted the whole law. They did not want snippets. They did not want a buffet where they could pick and choose.

And so they got the whole thing read to them. They read it for hours (from sunrise till noon). They read it for days (a week and a day).

What God’s people wanted, what they felt they needed, was to get the whole thing all together. They wanted the whole picture of this thing they called “the law”.

We don’t have a good English word for this. The Hebrew word for what they wanted is “Torah”.

Torah means law, but it also means way. It means God’s way. It also means teaching: God’s teaching. It also means revelation: with God revealing himself through words (written, and spoken, and listened to, and heard): words to be followed, words for life. They wanted the whole thing so that they could have the whole picture; the big picture.

If they want what the rabbis have called “The Law” (meaning “The Torah”) for the past two thousand years or so, then they wanted the first five books of our Old Testament. They wanted Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

This helps us understand the old Hebrew idea of the law, because it really is about the big picture. The law is “revelation”. It is a mirror held up to God, and God’s ways, and all the lessons that God taught his people from the very beginning, from the very creation.

God’s law is not just about what we are to do. It is about who God is and what God does.

God’s law is not just God’s rules for us. They are what we call the owner’s manual for the world and the human race. They tell us exactly who we are, and what our specifications, and tolerances, and maintenance are. God’s law is not arbitrary. It tells us about our design and how we can perform at our best; even when the car of our life has been so abused that its performance days are over.

When I came here I owned a Camaro. I always keep cars longer than I should; so, when I came here, it was past its prime. But when I first got it (used of course) it was still in its prime and it liked to go fast: faster than any of my other cars have liked to go.

When I bought it, a lot of my driving was on arrow-straight roads in the desert on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. That car loved those roads.

I would tell you that the law called “The Torah”, the law that Nehemiah’s people wanted to hear, was like the laws for a car like that driving on roads like those. Nehemiah’s people wanted laws for life, not laws to suffocate life, and this is what God’s laws are for: laws for life.

I have told you that when I first got glasses I cried. I was ten years old. Suddenly, I could see in a way that I had completely forgotten. I realized how little I had been able to see. I realized how much I had been missing.

Nehemiah’s people wept when they heard God’s law for reasons like my weeping. They saw what they had been missing and how far off target they had been. They saw what they had lost. They saw how it was their fault. But, when the big picture was explained to them, they were also told to rejoice because God’s way was about God’s grace.

God’s law revealed God’s ways. It began with creation, because Genesis is the book of the law that begins with creation. It showed that God’s way led from darkness to light, from nothing to fullness. God’s ways are grace.

God’s law showed the way of God calling his people. God called Abraham and Sarah from their sheltered, comfortable city life to a life in the open air and on the edge of adventure. God’s law showed that life at its best was a life of faith and change lived under the guidance and care of God. God’s ways are grace.

God’s law showed the way of God leading his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It showed that God’s way and God’s law was designed to lead them from slavery to freedom. That is about grace.

The story of God’s people was the typical human story, that the human way is to want to find the shelter of some kind of slavery as a refuge from the fear of freedom and faith. The story of God, in setting them free, told of the law of God’s own nature. God is characterized by his way of delivering his people from whatever enslaved them to give them the joy of freedom and faith. God’s ways are grace.

The small picture of God’s law as a rule book is confusing and suffocating until we see the big picture of the law, as given from Genesis through Deuteronomy. In the big picture we find that the law is about freedom, and growth, and faith, and grace.

In the end, toward the end of Deuteronomy, in the words of a song the Lord gave to Moses, the Lord tells his people that they will fail. They will sin. They will be judged, and punished. They will seem to lose everything. And, in the end, the song tells them that God will make atonement for his land and his people. (Deuteronomy 32:43)

Spell the word atonement and you will find that it spells “at-one-ment”, and this is what it means. God promises to make us one with him.

Where human sin seems to build an impassible barrier God breaks the barrier down through grace. Where human sin seems to have caused a spiritual earthquake that opened an impassible canyon between us, and our world, and God, God builds a bridge. God makes atonement. God makes us one with him.

God’s law taught his people to have faith that he had thought of everything. God was prepared to do everything they needed. And so, even the law tells us that God’s way is not just a way of rules, but a way of grace. Grace moves people from tears to joy.

God’s law showed them the big picture of the life that the rules were meant to serve. Peter wrote to God’s people that God’s word was a life-giving thing. It’s true that God’s word has rules that weigh the authenticity of our lives. God’s word weighs how true to God (and how true to each other) we are living. But God’s word also shows how that authentic life comes from God through faith.

God’s word was Jesus, and the story of what God did through Jesus, and in Jesus. “Through Jesus you believe in God who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

Peter writes this: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth, so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22)

Notice that this obeying business makes us feel as though we were talking about the law of God. Notice the direction in which this truth and this word take us. It takes us in the direction of sincerity, and depth of heart.

It is about truth in the sense of becoming true to what we are created for. It is about finding our true selves.

And it comes from the power of a truth, or a law of God, that is about grace. It is about the death and resurrection of Jesus for us.

Peter tells us that this word, this message, is the way God gives us a new life. It is about life. It is about being born again. And this leads us back again to a pattern of moving in a direction from death to life.

This word tells us the way of God for our life. God’s way is for us to die and rise with Christ. This is like the work of creation in which God takes us from darkness to light; from nothing to fullness. This is what it means to be a Christian.

We can see God’s way of changing people so that they can meet his world in a new way. We can see this later in chapter two of Peter’s letter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

According to Peter, we do not make ourselves a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. God makes us chosen by calling us out of darkness into his wonderful light. We have been changed into what we are now because we have received God’s mercy.

Both in Nehemiah and in Peter we find what we might call the law of conversion that takes us from tears to joy, from darkness to light, from death to life. This is the law of God. This is the word of God.

This is an old and unchanging law. It has its center in Christ and what he has done for us through the cross and through the empty tomb.

It was the law of God, the way of God, the way for God to be God, chosen “before the creation of the world”. It was God’s way because he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It shows that God has thought of everything and has always been prepared to do everything that we need.

In Nehemiah we find God’s people experiencing conversion, experiencing a change of heart. They change from weeping to joy because they discover that the real law of God is a law of grace. The way of God is the way of grace, from beginning to end.

We will find that those people of God will not always listen to God’s law and God’s word; not even when Jesus came to fulfill them and flesh them out before their eyes. But the grace they found gave them a new relationship with God that enabled them to meet a changing world. The words written in a scroll came to life and God spoke to them and gave them the message of life.

God’s word is always a living thing; a life-giving thing; and that is one thing that never changes. The old words come to us and they suddenly become the voice we must follow. When that word comes to life for us, we have the joy and the strength we need to meet a changing world.

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