Reading Ramblings – August 30, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2015

Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 119:129-136; Ephesians 6:10-20; Mark 7:14-23

Context: The Christian life is one of repentance and forgiveness. We would rather focus on the rules and laws of living like good people. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to be obedient? Certainly. This is all well and good so long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that our good deeds are not impressing God any – they aren’t earning his good favor or contributing to our salvation. Why not? Because no matter how many good things we do, we continue to seethe with sin on the inside. We are sin. It isn’t a matter of what we do or don’t do, it is our condition, one that we are unable to deliver ourselves or anyone else from. God must do it for us.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 – Moses begins a repetition of the laws by which the Israelites are to abide. If they do these things, then on the other side of the Jordan river is a land that is amazing and which can be theirs through obedience. Obedience will furthermore earn Israel pride of place among the nations, who will look to their shining example, and will see the closeness in which they walk with their God.

It sounds good, except everything up to this point and everything that follows has been disobedience. Moses isn’t lying to God’s people – obedience would indeed make them famous among the nations. Except that they are not obedient. They can’t be, and therefore they must depend fully on their God who forgives and who gives them the good things that they can’t earn through obedience.

Psalm 119:129-136 – Psalm 119 is the acrosstic, with each section representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and also emphasizing the glory and beauty and majesty of the Word of God. The psalmist isn’t lying – we can recognize that God’s Word is glorious and beautiful. We should long for the Word of God in our lives at all times, it should be the object of our love and obedience at all times. These are beautiful words until we realize that this doesn’t describe us (or at least it doesn’t describe me!). I can acknowledge that God’s Word is life and truth and beauty and the source of true joy. But I still am rebellious to that Word. I wish that I could exalt myself against others, shedding tears for those poor people who ignore your Word, but to do so would be hypocritical. I am one of those people as well. Worse, even, because I can acknowledge God’s Word as true and wonderful and exhort others to listen to it, and still find my heart and mind disobedient to it!

Ephesians 6:10-20 – I have said before that I believe this passage is frequently misinterpreted and I stand by that assessment. Yes, we are given armor and weapons – thanks be to God! But what we are called to do with these is stand. We are not to imagine for a minute that we are actually warriors! How foolish and prideful! We are given these tools to protect ourselves, not because God needs or wants us to go into spiritual battle for or with him, but because we are in danger!

Think of the The Lord of the Rings books or movies. Throughout the story, the smallest and most vulnerable characters – the hobbits Pippin, Merry, Samwise, and Frodo – at various times and under diverse circumstances put on armor and take up weapons. But this is always for their protection, because they are in and among a mighty battle fought by creatures far more strong and experienced than they are. Nobody expects that just because they have armor and weapons they are warriors – quite the contrary! They merely offer added protection in the midst of the fray, whether that is wandering in the depths of Mordor or on the fields outside of or the halls and ramparts within Minas Tirith.

Likewise we are given armor and a weapon to protect ourselves. The battle has been won and the enemy is defeated but his deadly darts and arrows fly thick through the air still. We are to stand our ground, not fearing the enemy and what he seeks to do to us, but trusting fully and completely in our Lord’s victory. As such we can stand firm in our faith, regardless of the suffering that may enter our lives or the lives of those around us. Stand firm – the victor has provided you what you need to withstand the enemies’ attacks!

Mark 7:14-23 –  Earlier Jesus showed the hypocrisy of Jewish leadership that pretended to be fulfilling the Law of God when in fact they were often directly contradicting God’s Word for their own contrivances and conveniences. Those not guilty of such specific hypocrisy as manipulating the corban might be tempted to take pride in their observance of ritual purity laws and laws concerning which foods they could and could not eat. After all, this is one of the major ways that God’s people kept themselves separate from other peoples.

Jesus will not allow them this false comfort. He presses his point further, undoubtedly alarming and confusing his disciples. As they press him to explain his proclamation that what comes out of us makes us unclean rather than what goes into us, Jesus dispenses with the Jewish dietary restrictions. This must have been a major shock! He tells them that one of the signature practices of their faith and identity as Jews is irrelevant!  Why is this?

Because, just as with Moses and the Israelites 1500 years earlier, Jesus’ disciples are inclined to think that they can keep God’s Word. Their partial or imperfect obedience to dietary restrictions can be a source of spiritual pride, and they can mistake their obedience as somehow pleasing to God. Jesus wants to make clear however that what they need to beware of is what is already on the inside of them – the rebellious and sinful inclinations and desires, thoughts and words that may lay hidden, never seing the light of day, but which roil around inside them all the same, making them unclean no matter how fastidiously they obey ritual washing before meals or avoiding forbidden foods.

Jesus will not allow us to cling to anything within ourselves as a source of pride before God. Nothing in us is worthy of such a position and falsely believing that our good works are impressive to God leads to dangerous pride. The Christian life is one of repentance and forgiveness. We repent as the Word of God drives us to see how manifestly unable we are to keep it. It points out our sin to us so that we can fall at the foot of the cross, so that we can lay outside Jesus’ empty tomb and plead for forgiveness – forgiveness that is already granted through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the resurrected Son of God. This is the proper Christian posture. To live our lives on our knees in repentance and thanksgiving for God’s sacrifice by which we are declared clean, holy, sons and daughters of the creator of the universe. From this position of supplication and thanksgiving we can better see our duty and privilege to love and serve our neighbor.

We are also better able to appreciate all that God has given us. Not because we are smart or clever, faithful or obedient, but because God is truly a good and righteous God, a God who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are heirs of the promise every bit as much as Israel was on the banks of the Jordan. We are free to seek obedience not out of fear of failure, but out of joy at a victory that is already ours in Christ.

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