Reading Ramblings – February 9, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2; Matthew 5:13-20

Context: What is the life of faith in Christ like? Is it a settled comfort on the world’s terms? Does it abide by the status quo or popular culture or the latest scientific or philosophical theories? Or is the Christian life grounded elsewhere, in something that does not change, is not subject to revision, does not change in truth even though it appears out of fashion with current thoughts and trends?

Isaiah 58:3-9a – What is the spirit of the Law versus the letter of the Law, and which would we prefer to follow? We opt often for the letter of the Law, presuming that by satisfying the mechanistic instructions we are somehow placating God. Or we opt for the spirit of the Law, ignoring what is actually said in favor of doing things they way we prefer to do them, thinking God will be pleased with our creativity or innovation. But in either case we err. The spirit and the letter of the Law go together, and what we do is no more important than how and why we do it. If we think we can buy God off with obedience in one area while we take liberties in another, we are wrong. God knows our hearts and minds. He sees through our shams of self-righteousness. The Law is unrelenting, pursuing us until we cry out that we are indeed guilty, begging for mercy rather than haughtily presuming to stand on our few laurels. The Law cannot deal otherwise with sinners, but once we acknowledge our sin and inability to fulfill the Law, once we receive the Savior and Redeemer given by God rather than insisting on justifying ourselves on our own terms, the Law becomes a blessing to us, guiding us in obedience and the blessings of God.

Psalm 112 – The assigned reading for today excludes v.10. Perhaps it seems harsh and out of keeping with the overall joyful and positive tones of the first nine verses? But it tracks very well with Paul’s message to the Corinthians in today’s reading – those who are led by the Spirit operate by a different standard that will often be offensive to the one who is not led by the Spirit. Any way that is not God’s way will ultimately perish and come to nothing, whether the intentions of those who create and follow it are good or evil. This psalm articulates a truth we are often inclined to downplay – that the righteous, those who follow the way of God in faith through Jesus Christ – are blessed by God. And this blessing may well involve material blessings. Focusing on exceptions – where the righteous suffer or are persecuted by the world or crushed by the sin rampant around them or in the natural order – does not change the truth presented in this psalm. We should also be careful not to overly spiritualize this psalm. It speaks materially as well as spiritually. To be right with God is to be blessed, and those blessings are not exclusively eternal or spiritual but are realized in what we have here and now, treating whatever material riches we possess not as ours but rather as God’s, and handling them lightly in respect to our quickness to share with others and bless those in need. It may appear as folly to the world, but the one who is led by the Spirit understands the true source and nature of God’s blessings both here and now and in eternity.

1 Corinthians 2 – First century Roman society valued a good speaker. For centuries Greek and Roman scholars had taught the ways of thinking clearly in logic and philosophy and speaking eloquently and persuasively through rhetoric. Oftentimes this would involve elements of flattery soas to render the hearer well disposed to the speaker. Oftentimes this would be towards the benefit of the speaker in patronage or other types of support. Telling people what they want to hear has always been an effective way of making one’s way in the world. But to tell people what they don’t want to hear, what offends them and drives them to despair – that’s a difficult message to speak and oftentimes does not result in great affection on the part of the hearers! Contrary to the wisdom of the world, the cross of Christ stands stark and bare, and Paul crafted his message soas not to soften that starkness. To abandon following false gods and goddesses with their promises of material benefit or health in favor of the God-man who calls us to pick up our crosses and follow him to death – what a very difficult message! How counterintuitive! How unwise – by worldly standards! But God is the sole possessor of wisdom and discloses this wisdom through his Holy Spirit. What you and I could not conclude on our own is revealed to us by God the Holy Spirit, so that we recognize true wisdom from the myriad alternatives the world constantly offers or demands we pay tribute to. Those in Christ, those with the Holy Spirit of God revealing wisdom to them will often disagree with what the world says or how the world says they should live. Such disagreement is not folly though the world will call it such. The wisdom of God will one day be vindicated publicly and completely, just as the wisdom of God in Jesus the Christ was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. We must cling to God’s wisdom even if it means forsaking the approval of the world around us.

Matthew 5:13-20 – The Christian life will look different from all other lives. There will be overlaps and similarities, but there will be places where the injunction to love our God and love our neighbor separates us from all other forms of generic kindness. To think of the Christian life as no different from any other life is to fundamentally understand the Kingdom of God Jesus brings into existence during his work of salvation and in our lives today by extension of the Holy Spirit. However this fundamentally different life is not to be a source of pride, as though we were somehow earning the love of God. Nor do we envision or preach or practice a Christian life apart from or separate from the Law, because only the Law of God is perfectly wise and perfectly in tune with the will of God in creation. Jesus comes to do what you and I cannot – fulfill the Law perfectly. This does not free us now for disobedience, but rather frees us from the fear that must naturally accompany any law we are unwilling or unable to perfectly follow. Christ frees us not from the demands of the Law but from the condemnation our failure would otherwise bring us.

This sets us free to be salt and light in a bland and dark world. It sets us free to act boldly in the confidence of the grace and forgiveness of God, not seeking out sin and disobedience but not allowing Satan to batter us with our sin and failures. Only in Christ is there true and complete and eternal freedom, empowering us to live for him, to love with him even when the world would rather we didn’t or threaten us not to. The world has no power over us, because we have been given the world in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). He has overcome the world for us and set us free from it!

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