Toorak Uniting Church

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Law & Foolishness with War in the Background

Exodus 20: 1 – 17     1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25
Rev. Ian Brown
23 March 2003

I am convinced that the call of the gospel is to preach the Good News. To be faithful to the vows I have taken, I must look for the Word of God for us, those words that encourage and build up, chasten and correct, give hope and bring new light into darkened lives.
But this last week has not been an easy one.

I, like many, have found it hard to listen to the news, hard to stop listening to the news.
I, like many, have found it a most disturbing and sad time as we find ourselves involved in war - whether we agree with the propositions or not, whether we support the politics or not, whether we hope for a good outcome soon or fear an ultimate armageddon, we all know in the fibre of our being that innocents will suffer and die, that fear, misery and grief for many will be the sure result.

So we pray for a swift peace.

In such a context as this last week it is a more trying challenge to focus on good news. Then when the lectionary lands this concise pronouncement of God’s Law and a discussion of human wisdom and God’s foolishness in our laps today it reminds us that God either has a marvelous sense of irony or a terrific sense of humour.

There are few times I can remember in recent history when there has been such active and heated discussion about what is legal in regard to war and what is the moral and right thing to do. Into our difficult context lands, like a bomb, the commands of God that say: "do not use my name wrongly, do not kill, do not steal, do not accuse anyone falsely, do not covet what your neighbor has." And from Paul, we hear, "For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom."

I believe these are very apt words for us, and rather than offering a half baked analysis of current affairs and applying the commandments straight to them, I want to open up the nature of the principles at work here in these ancient pronouncements so that we can let a little more of their light out into our world of gloom. After all, many wars, regimes and empires have come and gone while these laws have continued to stand firm and true.

Firstly let me go back to the idea of God having a sense of humour, perhaps an odd thing to do in the face of the Ten Commandments, but then humour can be helpful at times like this.
I want to propose that somehow the commandments are part of a rich conversation about life as God intends it, rather than being just a dry set of rules, and begin to illustrate that with a story.

Mr Goldman goes to the rabbi, "Rabbi", he complains, "someone has stolen my umbrella, what makes it worse is not just that it’s a new umbrella, but that it must be someone in my family who took it; my brother in law, my father in law, my mother in law, even perhaps my own brother. It’s intolerable, a thief in one’s own family!"

The Rabbi reflects. Then he says, "Listen carefully Goldman, this is what you must do. Invite the family for supper. When they have drunk your coffee and eaten your biscuits, get out the good book and light the candles. Read the Ten Commandments slowly and when you get to the eighth commandment, "you shall not steal" then look around out of the corner of your eye, your brother in law, your mother in law, your brother; the guilty one will surely show themselves and you will see who the culprit is."

Two days later Goldman returns to the rabbi with a smile on his face and reports. "It was splendid, rabbi, just as you predicted. After supper I lit the candles and read from the good book to my brother in law, my father in law, my mother in law, my brother. And when I got to the seventh commandment, "you shall not commit adultery," I remembered where I had left my umbrella."

We’re all like Goldman, perhaps not in where we leave our umbrellas, but in the fact that it’s a common human trait to like to use the commandments to accuse others and often miss the fact that we are equally accused by our use of them. It is disturbingly easy to, as Jesus pointed out, see the speck in our brother’s eye and fail to notice the log in our own eye.

The commandments are given by God, not for us to use as moral weapons against others, but as a gift to direct and shape our own lives in God’s ways and into wholeness.
There will be many who will argue, perhaps even in sermons preached today, that because a law is written and because we see it being broken we therefore must act to uphold the law, to prosecute on it’s behalf. Now I confess to being no expert in jurisprudence, so I’ll leave that for others to debate, but I am convinced of the truth of scripture, that all of us are sinners, all transgressors of the law, all guilty before God and God’s law.
It was no accident that Jesus said to the crowd who had picked up stones to hurl at the woman caught in adultery - number 7, that he who was without sin could cast the first stone. There was no element of risk, it wasn’t that Jesus was 99% sure that she would be safe, there was no shadow of a doubt, it is simply a given that we all line up with Goldman in some areas of our lives.

These Ten Commandments though, are not some harshly imposed set of divine but unrealistic demands that will make us stumble through our lives. Rather, we could see them as God’s gracious gift to show us the way to live.

In fact what we call the "Law" the Hebrews call "Torah"
Torah means literally "the way", or more literally "the finger, pointing the way."
If we conceive of these commandments as God graciously pointing the way to life for us instead of pointing the finger of accusation at us, we might more easily see how Christ came to fulfill the law not replace it.

Even the context the Commandments were given in will make more sense. You will remember of course that the commandments are given to Moses as he leads this wandering group of refugees who have escaped persecution in Egypt.
Why burden homeless asylum seekers with stone tablets of Law? Precisely as an act of grace to help show them the way.

The wise and loving parent will not leave a child to discover for themselves that playing with knives, power points or snakes can have disastrous consequences. The rules are an act of love showing the way to live.
I don’t know if Goldman had discovered it for himself or not,
but I know from my experience that fidelity makes you happy, and I see in counselling the painful truth that breaking the 7th commandment leads to much anguish and horribly difficult consequences.

Despite this many will see us as foolish because we do not take our spiritual and moral standards from the latest opinion polls.

The world at large will never accept our values as the best way to live.
The world wonders "why bother?"
But there are too many sad, chaotic and miserable lives that result from wandering in the moral desert, ignoring this gracious wisdom of God. They prove not that these rules are outdated or wrong, but that the Ten Commandments have a continuing, even an eternal validity. They prove that God, our creator knows a thing or two about how our lives might work best. They prove that God has a gracious intent in giving us guidance and pointing us in the right direction.

Even more apparently foolish to the world than the Ten Commandments, is the wisdom of God as lived by Jesus!
Here is the foolishness of allowing yourself to be expendable by following God’s way to a bitter end.

The cross could have been avoided. Jesus could have moderated his message a little, been more polite to those in power, and certainly he did not need to walk into the loins den and challenge the priestly pride to do their worst.

He could have stayed in Galilee where he was safe. He could have written a books, made sure his teaching was set down in ink. But no, he did the foolish thing and willingly allowed his enemies to triumph over him. Does it make sense?

The end result of his turning the other cheek and going the second mile was that they nailed him on a cross. Futile? Stupid? absurd?
However, we Christians believe that the terrible Cross was the most wonderful, loving, history_changing event in all history.
And we believe that the resurrection was not a reversal of the cross but God’s seal of approval on it.
From the world’s view, we are fools, for talk of the cross sounds absurd, to be on a path of self destruction.
Perhaps in this context today the foolishness of the cross says to us that it is indeed worth everything to hold fast to the way God points out, even though it may lead through death. And Jesus cross shows us finally that following God’s way leads ultimately to the fullest, or eternal life.

And this way that God points to is characterized by simple things that you and I can do: peacefulness and honesty in our dealing with others, honouring our elders, not taking or pining after what isn’t ours, these are means of happiness. Taking part in the divine rhythm of life and resting for one day in each seven is good for us, we can do this! Worshiping only the true God, not running after idols helps our sanity and our balance in life.
In these Ten Commandments is the divine finger pointing the way that leads to life, abundant and harmonious life.

But we must all accept that things go wrong, even with the best of intentions, we make mistakes, there is opposition, relationships fail, we lose respect, find ourselves idolizing money, movie stars or the stock market and like Goldman, we come to God and complain. We accuse others, we blame circumstances, we lash out in anger.

Perhaps we should do what Goldman did and bring out the good book. In it we can read of a dialogue between God and humanity. A conversation going on in the reality of difficult history, with real people who struggle to live good lives and struggle to do what is right. Read of God’s help and guidance, of the real, disastrous failures of flawed humans, read of God’s forgiveness, of God wooing them back and of their rehabilitation through God’s grace.

These Ten Commandments, this foolishness of the cross is there to speak to us, not to some imaginary people, not just to those in the past - but to us and our troubled world today when God tells us all:

"Mountains shall move and hills fall, but my grace shall not depart from you and the covenant of my peace shall not fail."
May this peace of God, that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2003


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