Third Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 8, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus gives us the Decalogue (aka, “Ten Commandments”) for today. It’s a familiar reading, if not one that is actually as well-observed as it is well-known. For use during this season of Lent, a good question might be, “How should I actually understand and put into practice the words given by God here?”

Great example here in Psalm 19 by the heavens, which “tell the glory of God” without ever uttering a word! In the days of my youth, the old saying was: remember, your life may be the best Bible some people will ever read. It was a bit corny, now that I think about it, but the point is well taken. Does my life in any way — and in what ways — “tell the glory of God?”

Corinthians reminds us that the “message of the cross” is not necessarily a logically-sound idea that will, in and of itself, impress the world around us. In fact, it sounds pretty crazy when you begin to think about it. Yet, there is a deep power that works when Jesus is proclaimed as the “crucified God.”

Good, observant Jews needed the items for Temple worship that are described here in John‘s gospel. In one way of looking at this story, the poor old livestock handlers and money changers were just providing ease of access so that God’s people could get their Temple tithes paid and offerings offered. But the whole scene had become something of an exercise in missing the point. The motions were there, but going through them had become disconnected from the very presence of God they were designed to invoke. Do we ever need a little stirring up in our own practices of prayer and worship?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I serve two churches: one Episcopal and one Lutheran.  Which means I go to a significant number of clergy gatherings.  I was at an Episcopal lunch recently when a priest who hadn’t met me before shook my hand and said, “Ah yes, Lutherans – all that Law and Gospel business.”  There are worse things to be known for, I suppose.  But, as further conversation with this really very nice man showed, there is also a great deal of misunderstanding about how the idea of “Law and Gospel,” actually works.

Some people think it means the difference between “commands and promises,” with a resulting idea that “commands are bad,” “promises are good.”   This doesn’t work.

Some people think it means Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is Law and New Testament (Christian Scriptures) is Gospel.  While it must be admitted that this is rooted in some things Luther himself said, this really doesn’t work either.

The only way that really works – is the distinction based on how the particular word works in the life of the hearer.  “Understanding the Bible as the Word of God does not have to do so much with what a text is or with its relative position in the canon of scripture as with what it does to its hearers.” (Timothy Wingert, “Reading the Bible with Martin Luther” pp. 30 – 31)

For the early Reformers there were two basic uses of the law: the “civic” use and the “theological” use. The civic use has to do with “maintaining order and restraining evil.”  This is the world of the police and courts and judges. It comes out of God’s love for all humanity and proceeds from God’s desire that we be able to live our lives in peace and harmony.  The “theological” use is law as mirror, or law as penetrating light.  It is this use that reveals to us our sinfulness, so that we may be made aware that we have not measured up.  As Paul said in Romans 3:20 “by the law comes knowledge of sin.”

It is in relation to this second, theological use that one must be careful to distinguish law and gospel.  The law is that which terrifies and convicts; the gospel is that which comforts and relieves our terror.  The law shows us our sin, the gospel forgives it; the law brings death, the gospel brings us back to life.  One and the same scripture can do both, depending upon the hearer. The selfsame Word can both convict of sin and lead to faith.

Luther made a helpful distinction between Word as noun “a word that labels,” and the Word as verb, “an action word.”   God’s Word, both Law and Gospel is a verb, a word that acts.  The word of the law acts to convict and kill, the word of the gospel acts to make us new, to make us alive.

An off-hand remark over coffee while I was teaching a polity class at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta got me to thinking.  A student said, “Think about how the Israelites, as ex-slaves, heard the commandments.”  She went on to talk about how the former slaves of the Egyptians would no longer be compelled to do their masters’ bidding.

All too often, the Ten Commandments are seen as Law only, as being God’s gift of restraint upon our human tendency to sin (civic use), or as a measuring rod against which we are sure to come up short (theological use).  What if the Law, the Torah is not only “Law,” but also “Gospel?”  What if all those “thou shalt not’s” are really Good news, not only to the Children of Israel, but to us? What if “You shall not,” is a word of promise as well as a word of command?  Could “You shall not,” be both Law and Gospel?

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall have no other gods before me.  You will not have to bow down before your master’s gods, you will be free to worship your own god.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall not murder,  you shall not be required to kill whomever the master says kill.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you shall not commit adultery, you will not be compelled to act like breed-stock, producing more slaves for the master.  Instead you will be free to marry and raise families.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (therefore) you  shall not steal, no longer will you be pillage and loot under orders and against your own will.

This way of looking at the Ten Commandments liberates us from the danger of seeing them only as either a way to keep our sinful natures in line or to bring us to our knees so that we will accept our need for the Crucified Christ. This way of seeing and hearing turns what appears to be law into gospel for us and for our lives.

Andrew Wall, a church historian at the University of Edinburgh, says that “Church history has always been a battleground for two opposing tendencies . . . (God in Christ) accepts us as we are, on the ground of Christ’s work alone . . . . . (however) Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: (God) takes them to transform them into what (God) wants them to be.” (Walls, “The Missionary Movement in Christian Faith, p. 7-8)  Or, as my old missionary friend Ellenita Zimmerman often put it, “God loves us just the way we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.”

The Law is a part of God loving us too much to let us stay the way we are; it is a part of God’s efforts to transform us into what God wants, and made us, to be.  The Law is Good News, for it reminds us that God is the God who leads us out from our slavery to sin and leads us forward into the Promised Land of new life in Christ.

Amen and amen.

6 thoughts on “Third Sunday in Lent for Year B (March 8, 2015)

  1. Hi, Delmer,
    Excellent explanation of how Law and Gospel works. As you said, too often we think of Law as bad and Gospel as good. Law comes from a merciful and loving God who protects us in this life on earth. The giving of the Law was grace because “it is good to know the will of God” as one of my mentors, Dr. Walter Harrelson, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, said back in the 1970’s.
    Peace and joy,
    Gary Schimmer, Chattanooga, TN

  2. Thank you so much for helping me to understand and look at the commandments in a whole new way.

    Pat Brown
    St. Joseph Island ON

    • I am Lay Incumbent at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. St. Joseph Island is a beautiful part of Ontario. And we are just across the water from the upper peninsula of Michigan. I read the Lectionary Lab. And listen to your podcasts often. I always pick up something from your conversations with John.

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