“One Step Farther”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
with commentary from David Lose
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
What do you think of when you think of God? What picture comes to mind when you imagine what God is like?
It is a tricky question. The Scriptures regularly describe the impossibility of seeing, let alone, understanding God. For example, Moses asks to see God face to face sometime after the Israelites were liberated from Egypt. God agrees and tells Moses to stand in the cleft of a rock so that when God passes by, Moses will see. But when God passes by, God covers Moses with his hand. And what does Moses see? God’s back. Not exactly what Moses had in mind. This confirms what John says in the prologue of his Gospel: “No one has ever seen God.”
But despite all the stories of God’s shyness in the Bible, all of us have an image that comes to mind when we think about God. If not an image, then you at least have some sense of what God is like. This shapes what you believe about God and expect from God, how you think about your faith, and even how you think about other people. Developmental Psychologist Erik Erikson, writing in the mid-20th century, theorized that our images of God are a direct result of childhood experience. If your parents were strict, immovable, and emotionally unavailable, so too is God; if you parents were free-wheeling, unstructured, anything-goes, then that is your understanding of God. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Erikson found in his research with children an adolescents that almost none had a Biblical image of God—everything they knew, believed, hope for, and thought about God was the result of environment and upbringing.
If you watch any of the late-night talkshows, you’ve seen how they go out on the street and ask people questions—the answers are usually hilarious. If you were to go out on the street—any street in any town in America—and ask a passerby to describe their picture of God, a major part of that picture would be that God makes and enforces rules. How do I know that? Because I’ve asked people that exact question, some church people and some not. To a majority of people, God is a law-giver. God is one sitting in heaven with a perpetual finger raised in warning and accusation. To many people, God is a like a child with a magnifying glass on a sunny day, waiting to burn us little ants if we step out of line. It’s a picture of God that is a lot like a song we sing at Christmas: “He knows when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” This God is a stern Santa Claus, always ready to judge us for breaking God’s laws.
At first glance, today’s readings from Deuteronomy and Matthew seem to reinforce this picture. The God of these passages is a law-giver. Each reading offers a heavy dose of God’s law and each mentions some of the penalties for disobeying the law. Moses makes it very clear that if the Israelites chose to disobey God’s laws and worship other gods, they will perish. Jesus says that it would be better to lose an eye or an arm or a leg than to act in any way contrary to God’s laws. Rock star Alice Cooper once said, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.” Indeed, the call to follow Christ is a tough one—the calling of faith is a tough one. It requires faith and trust in the One who created us, and it also requires us to obey and champion God’s way of life…God’s laws.
I come away from these readings today with a question, and maybe you do too: Is God just in the business of making laws and enforcing punishments when those laws aren’t followed? Is God really the angry child waiting around to destroy something? Is the common image of God as a stern Santa Clause accurate to the Scriptures? And most importantly, is this the image of God that we see in Jesus Christ, the living and breathing image of God? If we dig into these Scriptures a little farther, we’ll find that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “No,” and here’s why.
First, God’s laws are always a gift. Think about the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jesus references several of these commandments in his teaching. We could call them life’s little instruction book. God’s laws are a gift to help us get more from this life. The Ten Commandments, in particular, were given to the people of Israel after God claimed them as God’s people. This means that they are not something you have to agree to in order to get in—they are not a vetting process to get into God’s community. God’s laws are not a means to become God’s people or to earn God’s love. Rather, they are a gift given to people who already are God’s people, because God loves them. God gives us the law because God loves us and has already welcomed us into God’s community. God gives us the law because God loves us and wants us to experience the most that we can while we are alive. They are not in place so that God can judge or punish; they are in place so that when we follow them, we have the best chance of experiencing life as God desires. When Moses calls out to the Israelites, “Choose life!,” it is not a stern command…it is an invitation, an invitation into God’s abundant life. God’s laws are always a gift.
Second, the law is given to strength community. The ‘you’ in both passages today is plural. When Moses says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” he is talking to the community as a whole and not to each individual. Each time Jesus says, “You have heard it said…” he is not talking to the disciples as individuals—he’s not just talking to Matthew and Andrew and John—he is talking to all twelve disciples and all the other people who came out to hear him speak. The law isn’t about meeting our individual needs, but about creating and sustaining a community in God’s name. Communities that exist in God’s name are places where all of God’s people can find nurture, health, safety, and blessing. The logic behind the biblical focus on community is quite simple. When you’re looking out only for yourself, it’s you against the world. When you look out for others in the community, and they in turn look out for you, it’s the community together that faces the challenges, setbacks, and opportunities the world has to offer. The law is given to strengthen community.
Third, and most importantly, the law orients us to the needs of our neighbors. We must be very clear when we read God’s laws, and the Bible as a whole: the neighbor and his or her needs is never removed from our view or concern. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The Bible and God’s laws always draw us closer to our neighbor, whether we know who that neighbor is or not. A book was published in 2015 titled, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” It was written by a very popular Christian minister. Even though it sold millions of copies, it could not be further from the Bible’s vision of life of because it is all about ‘me.’ A book written about the Bible’s vision of life would likely be titled, “Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now,” because my life and your life, and how good or bad that life is, is a direct result of how we are positively or negatively effecting the life of our neighbors. The law orients us to the needs of our neighbors.
All three of these—that the law is a gift, that the law is given to strengthen community, and that the law orients us to our neighbor—take our images of God one step farther, and our obligations as people of faith one step farther, too. Jesus did this all throughout his ministry, particularly in the Sermon on The Mount. In these words, Jesus is helping us to avoid seeing the law as merely moral boundaries between the good and the bad. He does this because God is not in the business of drawing moral boundaries between the good and the bad. Instead, God’s holy work is in bringing together communities of faith that exist to be a blessing to the world—places where all people can experience life abundantly. To experience this abundant life, Jesus points us to our responsibility to care for those around us. It is easy for us to discriminate, injure, neglect, or speak poorly of a neighbor all while saying, “I have kept the commandment because I have not murdered anyone.” It is easy for us to view each other as sexual objects all while saying, “I have not cheated on my spouse.” It is easy for us to tell little white lies, or the occasional harmless fib, all while saying, “I have not sworn falsely.”
Most of us can claim innocence in the eyes of God’s laws, but that’s because we think they are just black and white rules to follow. But that misses the point, and it misses God. The point is life, and that life is most available to us when we orient our living towards to the life of our neighbors, near and far. We might not be thieves, but what about practices of consumption that rob the most vulnerable of a living wage and a decent life? We might not covet our neighbor’s things— lawnmower or car or house or whatever—but what about our insatiable desire for natural resources, most of which come from places already in the death-grip of poverty and despair? We might not literally bow down and worship other gods or idols, but what about all the time we have spent worshipping social ideologies, ideologies that victimize people of God because of their skin color, way of life, or beliefs? Sure, we might be here today obeying God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, but what about the men and women we judge as unworthy because they are working in the restaurant where we each after church? We must recognize that we can keep every one of God’s laws—dot the ‘i’s and cross every ’t’—and never come close to doing what God asks us to do or ever come close to understanding who God is. That is why we need Jesus and that is why he takes it all one step farther.
The image of God in front of us today is quite clear: God is a law-giver, but God is also a giver of life. This places on us a very intense and a very holy calling as people of faith. It calls us to live in obedience to God’s laws, but it also calls us to live in obedience to God’s desire for all to have life, and to have it abundantly. Students of the great reformer Martin Luther once asked him about his picture of God. When he responded, he said, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.” In the cross of Jesus Christ we see God most clearly. And what we see there is not the judge or the accuser, not the destructive child or jealous overlord. What we is love poured out for the whole world. Christ’s death is a reminder that God will go to any and all lengths to communicate just how much we are loved. In turn, God demands that we love each other in the same sacrificial way. That is the greatest law of all: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. With all that we have and with all that we are, we are to exhibit God’s love to the world. In the cross of Christ, God calls out to us, “Choose life!,” and it is not a stern command…it is an invitation. When we chose life, when we accept God’s invitation and take our Christian living one step farther, not only do we lay claim to God’s abundant life and blessings, so too will the whole world.
A preacher told a story recently. When he was about eight years old, he and his sister got into an argument. Before long, arguing turned into pushing and shoving, and, soon enough, he had his younger sister pinned to the ground with one fist raised in the air. Just as he was about to land a blow on his sister’s face, their mother came into the room and pulled the two apart. In response, the young preacher reared up as only an eight-year-old can do and declared, with a fist still in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, their mother swopped in, grabbed him by the collar, and said, “She’s my daughter—-no you can’t.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, this is our God, the God we worship today. This God has claimed us as sons and daughters, and stands against anything that would say otherwise. This God loves you and me and cares for us so deeply, and because God cares so deeply for each one of us, we should care deeply for one another. The laws of God may seem tedious and overbearing, but God says we cannot hoard everything, or discriminate and exclude, or violate and exploit because we are God’s sons and daughters, and so too are our neighbors. The God behind all of it is love, love poured out and abundant and unconditional. Let’s live by that love today and always. Amen.