Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Great Story - Commandments, Covenants, and the Indwelling

Preached on Sunday, October 6, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 19:1-25; 20:1-21

Often we think of the life of faith, the life of following the Lord, as a kind of bargain we make with God; as a kind of deal. In the story of the Bible God calls this life with him a “covenant”.
Covenant is a fancy word. In ancient times, in the ancient Hebrew language, covenant sometimes meant contract. That would be a deal. But most of the time the word means a solemn promise.
God’s covenant seems two sided, and that may make us think about a deal: I promise this if you promise that. God said to Moses and the people of Israel, “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
When they heard God’s promise, the people responded to it. They made their own promise in return, and they said, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (Exodus 19:8)
Only they didn’t: they didn’t keep their promise. They saw what God had done to set them free from slavery in Egypt. They saw the Red Sea parted so that they could escape from the Egyptians on dry land. They saw the column of smoke and fire that led them, in their escape, across the desert to the foot of the mountain of the commandments of God. They saw and heard the glory of God. They heard God speak to Moses.
It seemed to make an impression. It terrified them. But it didn’t take long for the effects to wear off. Not so very long after Moses went back up the mountain to receive God’s laws, the people of Israel forgot the meaning of what they had seen and heard. Even when the signs of the presence of God were thundering overhead, they didn’t keep the people from getting restless and untrusting.
They did exactly what they had been told by the God of the terrifying voice not to do. They made a statue, an idol, a portrait of their idea of a god who would lead them on their own terms. While God spoke in the thunder and lightening on the mountain, the people turned away and worshiped their golden calf for comfort.
It was a male calf made out of gold. The calf stood for potential; the potential of power, energy, strength, fertility and success. Turning their backs to the smoke on the mountain, they bowed their faces in the sand in front of a shiny, gold-plated thing of their own making.
The promise was broken, yet the promise went on, and on, and on. The promise still goes on. This is an essential part of the great story of the Bible. God called the promise “my covenant”.
It was made between God and his people, but God marked it as “mine”. He says mine in spite of their misbehavior.
God is the opposite of the two parents of a child having a tantrum; where one parent turns to the other and says, “Will you please make your child stop?” God never stops saying “my covenant, my people.”
God can be uncomfortable old-fashioned. Or is it old-fashioned for parents to teach their children that, if they say they will do that thing. They have to do it, no matter what the others choose to do, no matter how the others let them down. It is called, being true to your word.
This is what God still does. And in God’s great story this happens again and again. God is a determined creator and does not let go and does not stop. When creation went bad as a result of sin, when humans corrupted their hereditary human nature, God’s work as creator took a new direction to make all things new.
God began to make all things new by making a new human nature, and God began that new nature with one family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. God changed them by grace and faith. This is what blessed them and made them a blessing. Grace and faith were the start of God’s process of bringing the world back to himself and making all people his people.
We see this at work in the Exodus. Bringing Israel out of slavery was part of God’s covenant. It was God’s gracious faithfulness to people who would never have freed themselves, even though they resisted him every step of the way.
Giving his people his commandments was also God’s faithfulness. His commandments gave them the direction they needed to shape their lives into a holy shape. God’s commandments showed them the form their life could take under the power of his grace, so that they would be a blessing to the world.
In Eden, the human race grabbed the knowledge of good and evil because they were led to believe that it would that give them the ability to decide for themselves what was good for them. They would have independence from God.
At least because they grabbed this independence on their own terms, without asking, they altered human nature into a thing that instinctively shuts God out, except on our own terms. The golden calf was just another example of that; acknowledging God only on their own terms, in a shape of their own invention. This is human nature, as it comes down to us from Adam and Eve.
God was set on much more than simply giving us new chances and fresh starts. God’s plan was to create a new human race, on his own terms, by breaking into it for himself. First of all, he set a course of continual interference in human lives; and a continual insistence on his covenant, his promise, and his faithfulness; all on his terms. The whole point was to recreate the relationship we were all created for from the ground up. The Lord said, “I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) His aim is to get us to himself at any cost.
The Ten Commandments are a summary of the life that God wants to give to his people. They are a portrait, or a sketch of that life. They are even a portrait of God, himself; or a portrait of his love.
The first four of the Ten Commandments are about the fellowship of heaven and earth. They tell us who God is, and who we are to be for God. They tell us that God is a God who comes to set people free. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) “Have no other gods.” (Exodus 20:3)
All of life is created to have what we might call a “vertical relationship”. Every bit of creation is continually kept in being by the love of God. Every bit of our lives can be taken up into the way of life of being a creation of God; living in trust and thankfulness; seeing God in what God has made; serving God as he gives us his wisdom.
When God would come down and visit Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, he showed this vertical relationship, this vertical love. God showed it again and again with Abraham and Moses. God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them.” (Exodus 3:8)
God showed this vertical relationship most of all, in the good news of the gospel, when he came down to rescue them and us, in Jesus. In Jesus, God has come down to rescue all people, at the cost of a cross, in the power of the resurrection. God has come down to rescue us.
The other set of the Ten Commandments, the other six, show how our life with God reaches out to others. “Honor your father and mother.” So, respect where you have come from and the people who have contributed so much to what you are. “You shall not murder.” So, honor all life. “You shall not commit adultery.” So, see all relationships and commitments as holy. “You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” So, honor what you have and what others have. Be happy and thankful for the blessings of others.
This second set of commandments, within the Big Ten, describes what we could call our “horizontal relationships.” This is about being a blessing. We are blessed to be a blessing. This is the new creation that has its roots way back in God’s calling to Abraham.
It applies to the God of the gospel (the good news of Jesus). God came down, in Jesus, to claim his authority over his own promise and covenant. “I have come down to rescue them.”
God did this for a creation, and for a human race, that seemed to be set on shutting him out. In Jesus, God became our brother. He came to live beside us. In Jesus, God reached out to be a blessing. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He lifted up the downtrodden. He brought in the outsiders. He became a friend of sinners.
Jesus summed up the good life with two commandments that summarize vertical and horizontal love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 12:30) And then, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) God reaches down to us to lift us up to himself. He reaches out through us as he lives with us in Jesus, who is God in human flesh.
In Jesus we see the true face and the heart of God. We see God in action in our world in visible form, in our very skin.
God became human, in Jesus, in our image, to restore his image in us, to make us a new creation. God became human, in Jesus, to be the atoning sacrifice that takes us out of our old sinful nature and plants the beginning of our new nature in Jesus. On a human level, atonement means making people “at one” with each other. Paul says, “For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Just as the story tells us that Moses’ face would shine when he came back to his people from his time with God. The pattern of the life that God gives us, and the power of the life that comes to us from Jesus, are given to us for a purpose. The purpose is that people are supposed to be able to look at us and see that (like Moses) we have been with God. They are supposed to be able to look at our everyday lives and see the very pattern of the life of God’s love (the love of God as we see him in Jesus) in our way of life.
The commandments are not only rules. They are a work of art. Or they are like dots in a child’s puzzle: when you connect the dots by number the hidden picture comes out. The commandments are the dots of the shape of the character of God and his love.
God’s covenant with the people of Israel included a continual pattern of sacrifices for sin to show them that they needed sacrifice in order for God “to bring them to himself.” But God planned something much deeper and stronger. God planned to take authority over his own promise to them by becoming the infinite, atoning sacrifice, made once for all. This would bring all people to him, and make us all “at one”.
The people of Israel needed such a sacrifice right from the start, because they were unable to hold onto the reality of God that they had seen and heard for themselves. We need it too.
Every human being has the same need, for God to be the one who is faithful and who (by himself) will become the infinite, atoning sacrifice that brings us to him.
In Eden, the Lord came to the Garden to be with his people. In the Book of Revelation, the voice from the throne says, “Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3) Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, “Abide in me and I in you.” “Dwell in me and I in you.” (John 15:4)
The purpose of the creation was supposed to have been the fellowship and the enjoyment of the presence of God, dwelling with what he had made. This is the purpose of the new creation: enjoying the dwelling of God with us and in us. It is like the presence of God in the camp of his people, in the tent that was called “The Tabernacle”. God wants to set up a dwelling place for his intimacy with his people.
The cross is necessary for planting this presence in us and making it a part of us, or us a part of his presence. The purpose of the sacrifice of the cross was to enable God to dwell with us by dwelling in us; otherwise we would fall back into our old slavery.
So God wants to live with and in us, the way he lived in the tent with his people, but with an even greater depth and intimacy. In a sense each one of us is designed, by the new creation in Jesus, to be a tent or tabernacle of the presence of God.
But this is not only for our own blessing. When God dwells within us, the goodness and blessing of that intimacy is not enough. Our personal blessing is not everything that God intends by dwelling in us.
Peter tells us that Jesus is building us, together with our brothers and sisters in him, into a spiritual house, or a temple; a dwelling place where he will live with all people. If God only lives in you, as an individual, without your allowing him to build you into a dwelling with others, then you are not letting him do what he wants to do with you. If you are not letting him do what he wants with you, then he won’t do very much living in you. Peter wrote, “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” (1 Peter 2:5)
God did not dwell in that tent in the camp of his people merely to bless that tent. God dwelt there to be a blessing to everyone. Each one of us, as individuals, has a mission to be a blessing to others, just as our fellowship in the Church, the Body of Christ, has the mission to be a blessing to others. In the pattern of our individual life, and in the pattern of our relationships with each other, we are a spiritual house where God must be found; where God must be the only God present. We must be a place where there are no idols, no getting along on our own terms or our own expectations. We must be a place where there is only faith, and hope, and love, as individuals and as a fellowship together.
A Sunday school teacher was telling her class of little kids about the Ten Commandments. She got to “honor your father and mother” and told them how this commandment taught all children how to relate to their parents. Then she asked, “And is there any commandment to tell us how to treat our brothers and sisters. And one child said, “You shall not kill.”

It doesn’t come easily, but the pattern in God, as we see him most clearly in Jesus, and the power of God that comes to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, make this life possible. The failure of our sins is removed through the cross and the life of Jesus in us, the commandments and the covenant of God shape our lives in his image through grace and faith. We become the dwelling place of the Lord where others can meet him and receive the new creation that his love desires us all.

No comments:

Post a Comment