Sunday, May 16, 2021

Crush the Idols

It was an October day in the year we'd call 539 BC, and the exiled Jews watched with excitement and rejoicing as the Persian invaders swept through the land of their captivity. Daniel in Babylon saw the writing on the wall – literally. Nabonidus – self-proclaimed “great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Babylon..., worshipper of the great gods” – was terrified.1 He'd been terrified all year. Nabonidus – by now in his later seventies or early eighties – came back the other year, having spent a decade away at an Arabian oasis while his oldest son Belshazzar oversaw the empire. Nabonidus' efforts to shove a religious reform down Babylon's throat hadn't gone well. This past winter, though, as his former Persian allies became a threat, he'd dropped all that, returned to Babylonian tradition. And by February, he'd begun taking the idols from the surrounding towns and bringing these gods all into Babylon. He wanted to protect the idols from falling into Persian hands, of course. But in part, perhaps, he also wanted to protect himself. If he could amass the gods in Babylon, then all the powers of heaven would have 'skin in the game': they'd have a common interest with him in Babylon's defense. Manipulating them might turn the tide of the failing war. Nabonidus wanted their defense.

But it didn't work. The gods of Babylon were nothing. Their idols were nothing. For the sake of his exiled people, the one true and living God had already prophesied Babylon's downfall. Soldiers marched into Babylon on October 12 without a fight, and seventeen days later, the Persian king Cyrus arrived in person, proclaiming liberty and relief. From November through the following March, he sent the idols back where they came from, safe and sound. And soon, Cyrus proclaimed an end to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.2

That true story illustrates how, when the Old and New Testament alike talk about idolatry, they're often being quite literal. Ancient pagans often found or crafted images representative of the gods, the powers, that they believed ruled the universe. Some believed the image was possessed by the god; others, that the image made the god present some other way. But after the inauguration ritual, they'd feed it, bow to it, parade it around. The point was to bring the god, bring the power, close enough to care for – and control.

In his words spoken in flame from the mountaintop, the LORD is incredibly insistent that Israelite religion isn't to work that way. He was quite deliberate that, when he appeared on Sinai, the general population of Israel saw no form of him, only his effects, and therefore had no idea what shape to sculpt (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). He demanded that Israel was to make no attempt to capture any powers in something they could control: “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 26:1). The psalmists pointed out that debasing ourselves to lifeless things like idols only functions to suck the life right out of us: “They have mouths but don't speak, eyes but don't see, ears but don't hear, noses but don't smell, hands but don't feel, feet but don't walk, and they don't make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them. So do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:5-8). The prophets went on to ridicule idolatry as insanity: “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman; they decorate it with silver and gold, they fasten it with hammer and nails so it can't move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field … Don't be afraid of them, for they can't do evil, neither is it in them to do good. … The gods who didn't make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens. … They are worthless, a work of delusion. At the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:3-15).

But in spite of all this, Israel again and again kept falling for the doomed gods they could see. Starting from the golden calf, Israel's kings repeatedly provoked God to anger with idols (1 Kings 16:13, 26). After the divide, the northern kingdom “went after false idols and became false,” and that was their end (2 Kings 17:15-18). Yet in the south, the people still didn't learn: King Manasseh of Judah even made an idol and installed it in God's holy temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 33:7). It was a besetting sin, because it was all around them.

But what about today? Ours thinks of itself as a post-Christian culture. There are no statues people praise as gods and try to feed. So what does all this matter now? Isn't ours a post-idolatry age? Alas, no. Ezekiel heard a warning from God about people who don't just bow down to the images they make with their hands, but who “have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3). Famously, the human mind has been termed a “perpetual factory of idols.”3 The LORD God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), but oftentimes, people will do it: they'll pick out some worldly power, some force in the world, and will focus their attention on it, placing it functionally between themselves and the true God. God says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:4), but oftentimes, people will go on to represent that power in some specific and concrete way, to enshrine it in their hearts. God says, “You shall not bow down to them” (Exodus 20:5), but oftentimes, people will lessen their own God-given dignity by lowering themselves in the presence of that power. And God says, “You shall not... serve them” (Exodus 20:5), but oftentimes, people will organize the rhythms of their lives or the patterns of their thinking around their inward image of that worldly power or force. And in that way, idolatry remains a live temptation in the modern Western world no less than the ancient Near Eastern one – because we've taken our idols into our hearts.

This morning, I offer you a few examples. One power we're tempted to focus on is Mammon – money, treated as if it were a god. Now, obviously, we need purchasing power to survive in the course of day-to-day life; and we were made to work, made to act on and in the world. But this work we do was never meant to define who we are, and acquiring goods and resources and power was never supposed to be our primary pursuit. Too often, though, we do define ourselves by what we 'do for a living,' or what we've been able to accumulate. At some points in our lives, we become workaholics – we get uncomfortable if we aren't active, if we aren't producing, if we aren't accomplishing. At some points in our lives, our careers overshadow the lives and families that they're meant to support – the means to the end of sustaining a family becomes an end in itself that overshadows that family and that life. And at some points in our lives, our daydreams become captured by all the things we want to surround ourselves with. Our thoughts and feelings are discipled by the workplace. And when that happens, Mammon is the god whom we incarnate in the idol called Career, or in the idol called Household, or in any of the many little idols proposed to our eyes and ears by a relentless barrage of advertising. The trouble is, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). When career is an idol, when your house is an idol, when the stuff you have or wish you had is an idol, then something contrary to serving and loving God has emerged.

A second example: Another power we're tempted to focus on is Leisure or Pleasure. Now, obviously, we need to enjoy ourselves, need to rest, need to take delight in the world. And yet there's a danger here, too, just as in our work. Our hobbies and our vacations can become all-consuming pursuits, to the point that they interpose themselves between us and God, becoming in effect the idols we've introduced into his presence. Maybe we routinely go away on weekend vacations or hunting trips that tear us from the midst of God's people where God summons us. Maybe cooking a holiday dinner for family takes the place of actually celebrating the holy day for and with the holy God. Maybe sports games and music recitals, our own or our grandchildren's or simply what we see on the TV, begin to crowd out worship and service. Then we have started to bow down and serve these leisures and pleasures and enjoyments as idols; and, like seed falling among thorns, we risk being “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” and our fruit may wither and die on the bud (Luke 8:14). The Bible warns us to never be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4) – but these idols appeal.

A third example: Yet another power we're tempted to focus on is Social Esteem. Now, obviously, we all – to some extent or another – want to be liked, honored, and affirmed by an audience of our peers. And in a healthy society, this is a feature, not a bug: it's designed by God to help reinforce pro-social behavior. And yet it can be blown out of proportion. The power of society to affirm or reject can become tyrannical. When treated like a god, it uses our concern for reputation to manipulate us. We strive to appease it by 'being cool' or 'going with the flow' or simply 'being normal.' We carve an image of social esteem, an image called reputation; we bow to peer pressures explicit and implicit; we serve it by organizing our lives the way everybody around us does. And yet we're warned that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We're blessed if our attachment to Jesus leads neighbors to hate us, mock us, shun us (Luke 6:22). And the reason it's blessed is that it means we've ground the idol of reputation to dust, and left its dust at Jesus' feet.

A fourth example: I'm sure you've heard the slogan somewhere in the news this past year: 'Follow the Science.' You'll note that 'Science' here always comes with a capital 'S,' even if just implicitly. Science is good as a tool for discovering and understanding the world, but in this slogan, it's Science as the image we've carved out to represent the worldly powers of Intellect and Mastery. Many segments of our society in recent years have been revealed as obsessive zealots for this idol and these gods. And in the past year, we've seen that because people have taken to praying for the idol of capital-S 'Science' to intercede for them, propitiating another taller idol. And that taller idol is Safety. Now, caution and prudence are virtues, to say nothing of the higher virtue that is love for our neighbors. But what I'm talking about goes beyond that. It can't be denied that for some people today, the prospect of perceived physical risk is so feared that any lengths, any sacrifices, can be justified to protect ourselves, to preserve ourselves. When that happens, then Safety has become an idol. We bow down to Safety when we're willing to sacrifice anything to keep ourselves safe, when we admit no limits to how far we'll go. We serve Safety when we reorganize our lives according to the one goal of self-preservation. And so, in prolonging our life and health intact, balance falls to zeal, and we insulate ourselves indefinitely. Bowing to and serving this idol stifles the Spirit's whisper into our hearts to risk everything for Jesus – knowing that a glimpse of his face is of greater value than health or even life.

But there is a fifth example. Many of our neighbors – many of us – look also to our nation to give us a sense of identity. A lot of us sing that we're proud to be Americans. We're proud of whatever values we associate with that word. Our hearts stir when we see red, white, and blue all together, or when we hear about a rocket's red glare. And, obviously, God bids us love our neighbors, and that frequently begins with our neighbors in our local civic order. And yet – and yet there's a risk here. I recently witnessed a political gathering where people who spoke consistently identified themselves with three words: “I'm a Christian, I'm a Patriot, and I support such-and-such famous politician.” And it wasn't clear which of those sources of identity really came first. As I listened to them, I couldn't help but remember a story I once read, about a pastor who got a little clumsy during Communion and spilled the cup all over a nearby American flag. That pastor later had a church member storm into his office in a rage to yell at him. Now, what do you think the church member was upset about? Was it that the pastor had mistreated the salvation-giving blood of the Almighty God by whom and in whom and for whom all things in the universe exist? Or was it mistreatment of a colored cloth symbolizing one of the many nations that arises in history and is destined to fall and fade in history? See, it should have been the first. But I think we all know that that church member's anger was stoked by the second. Because in that church – and not only there – America was the god; Jesus was the mascot.

Friends, God and country are not equals, and the cross and the flag are not equals. We may generally admit that truth, if pressed. But we need to examine ourselves to make sure we aren't just giving lip-service. See, it's very easy for us to deify our country, America as a god. And we do the same with our personal political leanings. And then the flag becomes an idol, the Constitution becomes an idol, Liberty becomes an idol, our political philosophy becomes an idol. And that has become one of the great modern American expressions of idolatry.

Maybe we let conservatism or libertarianism or liberalism or progressivism call the shots and dictate our views. Maybe we think that 'un-American' or 'undemocratic' is a word that's in and of itself enough to end all debate. Maybe we obsess over the political news and can't stop fuming about what the fox or the peacock told us about what the donkey and the elephant are up to. Maybe we find ourselves arguing so passionately that it divides us from our neighbors, or even from brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe we let pundits disciple us in how to scorn and how to scoff. Maybe we invest civic symbols with holy power. Maybe we think that God needs America or even loves America more than other nations. Maybe we're quicker to defend the honor of our country or our politics than to defend the sanctity of the sacred. Or maybe we can't even tell the difference any more. But if any of these come true of us, then we've found something to bow down to that isn't God. We've begun to serve our politics, or patriotism, or our mental picture of our rights. We've turned from God to an idol.

These are five examples. There could be many more. These are idols – ways of trying to get the powers within our reach, ways of distracting ourselves from God. None of them bring health. The powers themselves might be neutral or even good things, healthy parts of creation, when kept in their proper place. But in singling them out, the position we put them in is unhealthy. In carving their images and likenesses within our grasp, the idols we take into our hearts are unhealthy. Sacrificing to them, lessening our dignity in their presence, bowing down to them – that's unhealthy. And organizing our patterns of thought and life around them, serving them – that's unhealthy. “As for... idolaters,” the scripture says, “their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). “Idolaters... will not inherit the kingdom of God,” we read (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Why not? It's like Jonah reminds us: “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8). God hates our idols because they're unhealthy for us, and his heart breaks to see us abandon the hope of his love! His love for us is so zealous, so determined, that, while he never let idolatrous dynasties in Israel last more than three or four generations, his “steadfast love” will embrace thousands of generations of “those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

The good news, the great news, is found in the promise of prophets: “You will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images; you will scatter them as unclean things; you will say to them, 'Be gone!'” (Isaiah 30:22). “I will cut off the carved image and the metal image” (Nahum 1:14). “I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more” (Zechariah 13:2). “I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images” (Ezekiel 30:13). “All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces... and all her idols I will lay waste” (Micah 1:7). “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you,” says the Lord (Ezekiel 36:25).

The good news is that our hearts don't have to be a perpetual factory of idols. The assembly line can shut down. For God already has an image. Jesus Christ is “the Image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4): “He is the Image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is himself God made visible, God made audible, God made tangible – God become present in our lives. We have no need to focus our gaze on worldly powers when we can fix our eyes on him as our finish line in the race of life. We have no need to carve idols when we entrust ourselves to his nail-scarred hands. We have no need to bow to idols when to bow the knee to Jesus makes us even taller than to stand on our own two feet. We have no need to serve idols when to love and serve Jesus is joy enough for a lifetime. For his indomitable life is richer than all money, more fruitful than all careers, more delightful than all hobbies, more refreshing than all vacations, more welcoming than all esteem, wiser than all science, more secure than all safety, more lordly than all politics, and more everlasting than all nations.

And while Jesus is the Image of God, each and every human person is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Sometimes we image God well. Sometimes we image God poorly. But our liveliness images God all the same. “Being God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). And together, we are meant to be gathered together into the perfect Image of the Image: the Church. If Christ is like the Sun, the Church is the moon reflecting Christ's light – although for now our surface is still cratered and we do not shine so brightly, yet we come more and more to shine with a radiance not our own. The Church extends the Image of God to all the cosmos. And as the Church does that, the perceived need for idols crumbles to dust. For only we, the Church living the human calling in Christ, can adequately image God's life and dignity, so we must surrender ourselves to no dead thing, to no worldly power, to no carving meant to keep the cosmos under control.

Defile your idols. Give them up. Grind them down, crush them. Hear John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Hear Paul: “My beloved ones, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Jesus is better, now and forever! Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Serving in His Sanctuary

Screams echoed through the camp. It was about to be one of the most terrifying days of the wilderness journey. Forty percent of Israel's priests were charred to a crisp. Nadab, son of Aaron and nephew of Moses, was dead. So was his brother Abihu. Less than a year earlier, Israel had been tasked to be a priest-nation to the world, and within it, some would serve as priests to the priest-nation. Aaron and his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu were among the select few who, standing on the untouchable mountain, glimpsed God with their eyes and feasted with him. After the golden calf, Israel was deprived of having the firstborn head of each family act as its priest. Instead, the immense honor of priesthood was confined to Aaron and his sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, with their entire tribe of Levi dedicated to holy service, trading a share in the land for a share in the Lord. This same Lord had given the Levites and the ordained priests strict regulations about how to approach him. But instead of taking holy fire from the altar, Nadab and Abihu got theirs elsewhere. Was it convenience? Pride? Too much to drink? Whatever the cause, they burned incense with strange fire, claiming the right to do worship their way. To which God shouted no, in flame and fury and fatality (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Time passed – was it months, or was it years? But one day, a grumbling spread through Israel. Some Levites stood up, led by Moses' cousin Korah, and other Israelites, led by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram. And they insisted on the priesthood of all Israelites – wasn't the whole congregation holy? Then how come Aaron and his family got these special privileges? So hundreds challenged the authority of Moses, and they dared to demand the priesthood from Aaron. So Moses set a contest: they were free to approach and burn incense, and see how it turned out. Korah and his cohorts seized a place not their own in Israel's worship. For their crime, those who weren't Levites were swallowed up by the earth, while the rebellious Levites suffered the fate of Nadab and Abihu – fire came out from the Lord's presence and consumed them. For complaining about it the next day, Israel was afflicted with a sudden disease outbreak, which only Aaron's ministry could stop (Numbers 16).

To hear those two stories is to realize that God is not 'laid back' when it comes to our worship. He takes it very, very seriously. If he weren't, Nadab and Abihu and Korah and a whole lot of others would have lived out many more years than they did. No, God considers the sanctity of his worship to be a matter of life and death. And therefore he handed down to Israel a significant number of rules and regulations to guard and guide their life of worship in structured and ordered ways. Much later, ancient Jews saw that the Ten Commandments were like the chiseled bedrock of the entire Law, and so everything the Law said about the way that Israel should worship was filed under this First Commandment.1 What was that to look like?

First, Israel was commanded to make the tabernacle, or tent of meeting – “a sanctuary, that [God] may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). It had to be built to the exact specifications that Moses saw on the mountaintop (Exodus 25:9), because the tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). It was a replica of heaven itself. So exact instructions were given for its curtains and clasps and frames and bars and veil and entry screen, and for its inner furnishings like the ark of the covenant and the table for sacred bread and the golden lampstand, and for its outer furnishings like the perimeter of its court and a bronze altar and a bronze basin and an incense altar (Exodus 25-30).

To serve the needs of that tabernacle, the tribe of Levi was appointed, with some among them – Aaron and his sons – alone chosen to be priests to the priestly nation. And those priests had very definite responsibilities. For one thing, they were responsible for teaching Israel theology and ethics – who God is and how to serve him. “They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law” (Deuteronomy 33:10), “for the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7). Second, in the course of their duties, the priests would hear people's sins, so as to know what kinds of offerings should be given. Third, they were called on to inspect people's bodies and buildings, to act as judges of what things were clean and what things were unclean, with authority to quarantine (Leviticus 13-14). Fourth, priests were called on to sit in judgment of lawsuits: “The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word, every dispute and every assault shall be settled” (Deuteronomy 21:5).

Fifth, maybe most importantly, it was their job to offer Israel's five kinds of sacrifice, which were essential to living in proximity to God. One type of sacrifice was the 'sin-offering,' which was meant to purge away the stain of moral wrong or ritual uncleanness (Leviticus 4:1—5:13; 6:25-30). Another type was the 'guilt-offering,' which was meant to repay God for having trespassed certain boundaries (Leviticus 5:14—6:7; 7:1-10). Still another type, which our Bibles translate as a 'grain offering,' is literally called a 'tribute-offering,' returned to God as a token of blessings and reminder of covenant loyalty (Leviticus 2:1-16; 6:14-18). Another type of sacrifice was the 'peace-offering,' meant to express peace and fellowship with God. It was a response to God's saving grace, and even the everyday people were allowed to have a bite (Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-18). Of that type, there was even a sub-type our Bibles might call a 'thank-offering,' a sacrifice of grateful acknowledgment, but the Greek Old Testament calls it “sacrifice of praise” (Leviticus 7:12-15). And the fifth type of sacrifice, which our Bibles call a 'burnt offering' or a 'whole burnt offering,' is actually an 'ascension-offering,' because it gets turned entirely into delicious-smelling smoke that ascends up to heaven – it signifies complete letting go and giving over to God (Leviticus 1:1-17; 6:9-13).

So the priests were the only ones who could offer these sacrifices. “Every priest stands daily at his service” (Hebrews 10:11), “appointed to act on behalf of humans in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Hebrews 5:1). And beyond that, Israel's priests oversaw other aspects of Israel's worship. They tended the fire of the altar, made sure the lampstand had enough oil to burn, replaced bread laid out on the holy table. They sounded the trumpets on holy days. And just as the story of Korah confirmed that priests were set apart even from other Levites, so the story of Nadab and Abihu confirmed that these priests had to follow a very specific method. But in return for all their work, they and the sanctuary received financial support from the people. Not only did they have exclusive right to eat portions of certain sacrifices, but they were supported by Israel's firstfruits and tithes. “The first of all the firstfruits of all kinds, and every offering of all kinds from all your offerings, shall belong to the priests” (Ezekiel 44:30). “To the Levites have I given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for the service they do” (Numbers 18:21).

So Israel had all these regulations laid out for their worship. But, we might ask, what does that have to do with now? The prophets saw a definite future for all these things. Through Jeremiah, God declared, “The levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer ascension-offerings, to burn tribute-offerings, and to make sacrifices forever” (Jeremiah 33:18). Through Malachi, God said that when the Lord finally came to his temple – in other words, the coming of Christ – “he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD (Malachi 3:3). Through Isaiah, God pledged that when he gathered the Gentile nations in, “some of them also will I take for priests and for Levites” (Isaiah 66:21), and so “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD... to be his servants..., these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their ascension-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar” (Isaiah 56:6-7). But through Malachi, God said: “From the east to the west, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering (Malachi 1:11). Even some Jewish rabbis acknowledged that, when the Messiah came, he'd fulfill all sacrifices, but one would remain: the 'sacrifice of praise' would forever be offered.2 How are these things fulfilled in our worship?

In Jesus Christ, of course! For “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens: Jesus the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14). Jesus was “designated by God a high priest” in a higher order than Aaron could have dreamed of (Hebrews 5:10). Jesus ministers now as “a high priest holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). And in Jesus Christ, the entire Church inherits the promises given to Israel. Israel was called to be “a kingdom of priests” to the world (Exodus 19:6), and so the Church is now the “royal priesthood” to the world (1 Peter 2:9), being also built up as God's new temple, “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We all, together, have a priestly calling toward the world around us, just like Israel was to have.

But the early church also came to believe that, just like Israel's priesthood toward the world foreshadowed the Church's priesthood toward the world, so the priestly order within Israel foreshadowed a priestly order within the Church – those who minister in the Church, through whom Jesus continues to do for the Church all those things that the priests and Levites did for ancient Israel. The priesthood of the Church is no substitute for the priesthood in the Church – otherwise, Korah's only problem was being a visionary ahead of his time. And so, already in the Bible, we see the apostles given authority to do the sorts of things priests used to do. Just so, Paul described himself as Jesus' “minister... in the priestly service of God's gospel” (Romans 15:16). Paul even defends the right of gospel ministers to financial support from the church by identifying them with Israel's priests who had a right to be supported through Israel's firstfruits, tithes, and sacrifices (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

Already in the first-century church, bishops or prophets were labeled “your high priests” and entitled to receive the firstfruits that used to go to the Temple in Jerusalem (Didache 13.3-7). Already in the first-century church, leaders trained by the apostles themselves identified the structured hierarchy of Israel's priesthood with the structures of ministry in the Church: just as Israel had proper orders and places for the high priest, the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites, so Christians were called to “strive to please God with a good conscience and with reverence, not transgressing the fixed rule of each one's own ministry.”3 By the end of the second century, the bishop was explicitly called the “high priest” for the church in any given local place,4 and the Church was explicitly said to have “priesthoods” (sacerdotia).5 (This was the same time the word 'Trinity' was coined.) By just two centuries after the cross, each bishop was ordained with a prayer that he'd “serve before [God] as high priest..., ceaselessly propitiating your countenance and offering the gifts of your holy church; and let him have the power of high priesthood, to forgive sins according to your command, to assign duties according to your command..., to please you in gentleness and with a pure heart, offering you the scent of sweetness.”6

As for Israel's sacrifices, Paul explains that Jesus offered himself as the final sin-offering (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26), offering “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). Isaiah had also prophesied that the death of the Messiah would be a guilt-offering – the final guilt-offering ever needed (Isaiah 53:10). Paul also describes Jesus' death in the language appropriate for an ascension-offering: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God into an aroma of fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2). Christ fulfills it!

But the ancient church also believed that there were sacrifices the Church was called to offer, just as Israel had its sacrifices to offer. Paul compares the table of the Lord's Supper to the altar of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:18-21). The author to the Hebrews insists that “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10) – but we do eat from an altar. Having had “our bodies washed with pure water” in baptism, believing with “full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” we enter holy places through Jesus' flesh and blood (Hebrews 10:19-22). And so, just as ancient Israel celebrated their own 'sacrifice of praise' – an actual sacrifice, surrounded by hymns and blessings – we, when we celebrate at our altar, “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). People trained by the apostles all agreed that the Eucharist – we usually call it 'Communion' – was the sacrifice that fulfills the prophecies of Malachi and must be kept strictly pure (Didache 14.1-3). They described the work of bishops, and later other pastors, as “offering the gifts,” that is, sacrificing.7 Just as Israelites connected to worship at the altar by cooperating with the ministry of the priests, so early Christians said they connected to worship at the altar by cooperating with the ministry of the clergy.8 They explained how a church has “one sacrificial altar” on which is celebrated “one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of unity in his blood.”9

This is the sacrifice of praise, the peace-offering, and the tribute-offering of the Church, which brings us back to the one sin-offering and guilt-offering. Through it were offered up to God the acts of charity and good deeds carried out by each Christian: “Don't neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). Christians lay down their whole lives by presenting their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). And indeed, in the early church, the logical extension of that living sacrifice was a sacrifice that could end in the death of the body: martyrdom. Ignatius of Antioch, who became a martyr, said he hoped that martyrdom would make him “a sacrifice for God,”10 and Polycarp of Smyrna, disciple of John, “was bound like a ram marked for sacrifice out of a great flock, a whole-burnt offering,” praying that Jesus Christ, the “eternal and heavenly high priest,” would receive his life and death “as a rich and acceptable sacrifice.”11

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved receiving and maintaining the sons of Aaron as priests who, with help from the Levites, would teach truth, treat sins, help to govern, judge between clean and unclean, offer sacrifice, lead worship, and maintain and care for holy things and holy places. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we cherish Jesus who does all these things as our heavenly High Priest, and in him we receive and maintain the ministers of the new covenant as priests who serve as Aaron served; whereas rejecting those ministries would not keep the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved the assorted sacrifices that Israel's priests offered, first at the tabernacle and then at the temple. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as the Church offers up the new covenant's sacrifice of praise, the Eucharist, as surrounded by hymns, gathering up our charity and good works to God, bringing us in contact with the sin-offering and guilt-offering of Jesus on the cross, and preparing us to lay down our lives to rise to heaven as ascension-offerings in martyrdom, if God blesses us with it. But if we neglect to offer and eat the Church's sacrifice of praise, or if we carry out no charity or good works to be gathered up with it, or if we neglect to look to Jesus for our sin and our guilt, or if we shy away from presenting our bodies sacrificially to God, then to that extent, we fall short of the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved supporting the ministries of the tabernacle, and the calling of the priests and Levites, with firstfruits, tithes, and offerings. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we support the church with our firstfruits – not just our leftover greenback here or there, but with the best of what we have, before we take our own cut. As uncomfortable as it is to talk about giving and tithing, since we Americans are notoriously sensitive about money, we have to teach the whole counsel of God here. Malachi warns that refusing our firstfruits, our tithes, our offerings, is robbing God (Malachi 3:8). When we refuse or neglect the support of the church and her ministers and ministries, we fall short of the First Commandment.

For Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved honoring the solemnity of its worship and its holy space in the tabernacle and temple. For us today, we fulfill the First Commandment as we honor the solemnity of our worship and the sanctified space in which we carry it out. But too easily, we're tempted to treat our time here in worship casually. We might meander in and out. We might get sidetracked into joking around. We might get caught up in chitchat. We might forget that we stand and sit on holy ground for holy purposes in the presence of a holy God who is still very much a Consuming Fire. And to the extent of our neglect, we fall short of the First Commandment.

And for Israel, keeping the First Commandment involved maintaining the proper order and character of their worship as prescribed by God – and not taking it upon themselves to tune it to their whims. It didn't matter if Abihu didn't like one of the prescribed psalms, or if he thought that a different one would go better. It didn't matter if Nadab thought the sacrificial liturgy was too elaborate. It didn't matter if Korah didn't like the priest's instructions. It wasn't about them. It was about God. And just as the worship life of ancient Israel was no free-for-all up for revision, neither is the worship life of Christ's Church. Because it isn't about us either! It's about the God of Israel revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, guiding the whole Church in its properly ordered worship. Let our whims and wishes all be denied, but let God be glorified. Thanks be to the God of all holiness and all salvation! Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Worshipping the One

I wonder if you've ever heard somebody say something like this: “Well, I don't think you have to believe in God to be a good person.” Have you heard somebody say that? I know I have. Talk with an atheist, an agnostic, or most other stripes of non-believer in God, and you're likely to hear it. Ever since high school, I enjoyed talking about these sorts of things with the few serious-minded non-believers I could find. And it's something that will crop up on a regular basis: they insist that you don't have to believe in God in order to lead a good moral life. Is there anything to what they're saying?

Well, in one sense, sure. Thanks to the impact of Christianity on the development of our moral culture, there live among us atheists and other non-believers who, by secular standards of human morality, do lead lives of decency and charity. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness,” so that sometimes they “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14-15). There are thus non-believers who stand on principle, whose consciences lead them to treat others well, and whose lives, in many ways, may not look that different from yours or mine some of the time. I've had atheist friends I'd trust with my life to do the right thing toward their neighbors in a given situation. In that sense, there are people who don't believe in God and yet are decent people who strive to treat their neighbors with justice and kindness – and that is being good, in at least that one sense.

But yet... it's the “fool” who has “said in his heart, 'There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). And the word the psalmist uses there, 'fool,' has as much the sense of moral bankruptcy as of intellectual bankruptcy. There is, ultimately, a tension between disbelief in God, on the one hand, and moral wellness, on the other. So there is a sense, or maybe more than one sense, in which you do have to believe in God to be a good person. As we begin with a look at the Ten Commandments, we're reminded of something that I don't think many of my atheist friends ever considered. If a major area of morality involves moral duty, moral responsibility – then our first area of duty and responsibility is our duties and responsibilities to God. Our duties to God are part and parcel of morality – in fact, they are the core of morality. A person who treats every creature here on earth with utmost kindness and who yet ignores the Creator – that person is not, in fact, yet 'good.' We cannot be good, fully and really, unless we start a life of justice by doing justice to God. And that means treating God in the way he deserves.

The first commandment declares God in his own words. It expresses his character and his conduct. It demands that, so far as each one of us is concerned, he be the first one to whom we do justice and the first one to whom we do honor. It demands that God be the one we treat as God, because he has a rightful claim on our allegiance and a rightful claim on our devotion. Our responsibility in this commandment begins with a positive obligation: to give the true God his rightful due, everything he has a proper claim to. Those who fail to do this, St. Paul classifies as “the impious” or “the ungodly” (1 Timothy 1:9). And so another first-century Jew, writing for a Gentile audience, explaining the Ten Commandments, sums this one up by saying: “The first commandment teaches us that there is only one God, and that we ought to worship him only.”1

And that's exactly the gist of it. There is just one God, in the full sense of that word. There are no more, there are no fewer. And toward him, we must do justice, must give him his due. And that means we must worship him. God deserves our worship, our different ways of acknowledging and expressing God's worth. We'll say more next Sunday, but there are some things we can say already even now that God deserves from each person.

And the first of these is our faith. For as it's written, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). One way we acknowledge and express the value that, say, our spouse has to us, starts by receiving and believing the truth about who he or she is: a human being of such-and-such a character, a person who loves, who has needs and wants and desires and a will of his or her own, and so on. And equally, one way we acknowledge and express the value or worth that God has in himself, starts by receiving and believing the truth about God and his greatness. God is the Founder and Maker of the universe, and of each thing in it. God is the summit of all life and light, of all wisdom and knowledge. God is the possessor of all power and every perfection. He is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love down through thousands of generations. God is “the giver of every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17), who shines the sunlight and pours forth the rain (cf. Matthew 5:45), who grants us “fruitful seasons, satisfying [our] hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). He is the author of human love and kindness; he is the orchestrator of the rhythms of his creation. In every tiny split-second moment, he is the One who sustains all things in being. And he is the One who plans in wisdom to bring all willing things to an immeasurably beautiful destiny beyond our comprehension. Every heartbeat is his gift, every breath in our lungs is his gift. He nourishes us in sheer kindness as our Creator.

More than that, for ancient Israel, he was the Lord who liberates from slavery. There's a reason the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, open with the declaration, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Once, they were not free. Once, they were not a people. Once, they had their dignity stolen in a land they couldn't truly call their own. And their oppressor, the Pharaoh, treated them so ill because he broke this first commandment: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I don't know the LORD; and moreover, I won't let Israel go!” (Exodus 5:2). And so the LORD, the Power above all powers, intervened for Israel to redeem them and ransom them, pouring down judgments on Egypt and its false gods, setting this people free from the prison that held them fast. They are not in the house of slavery anymore. As they stand and hear these words, they hear their liberty. And after seeing this God's salvation and this God's light, other gods standing anywhere in his presence should be a laughable thought, a ludicrous joke. To Israel, there ought never more be any such thing (Exodus 20:3).

For the New Israel which is the Church, we still confess him as the Lord who liberates – but not merely from a slavery on earth. No, he liberates from the slavery of sin, he liberates from the slavery of a bad character, he liberates even from the slavery of sorrow and of despair and of death. For we have beheld his mightier work in Christ, and the announcement of a greater exodus from darkness to light. And after having seen this far brighter light of salvation, turning our gaze away from this Lord our God would be nothing but madness. And we confess this when we believe, for instance, the things we say in the Apostles' Creed. We've spent so much time this year learning the Apostles' Creed, as the simpler statement of our faith, because – as we seriously believe it and seriously say it – we are committing an action that upholds this commandment.

You see, what we believe – and what we're willing to admit we believe – is, in fact, a moral activity. There are truths of beauty and dignity that it is morally good to believe, or seek to believe. And there are also twisted thoughts of ugliness and debasement that it is morally bad to believe, or seek to believe. The Apostles' Creed reminds us of truths of such beauty and such dignity that it is morally good to believe them (or seek to believe them), and morally not-so-good to refuse assent to them with our minds and our hearts.

And so my atheist and agnostic friends, in breaking this commandment, have sometimes failed their moral duty. Because we have a moral duty to believe that there is a God, or at least to seek to believe that there is a God. But atheists, by definition, do not believe that there is a God, and many are not even seeking. And as we live in God's universe, sustained moment by moment by his care which shines through in all things, even our damaged minds and corrupted hearts are “without excuse,” for God's “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).

But if atheism is one way of breaking this commandment, so are all ways of trying to construct life or society on a God-denying or God-neglecting basis. And so are all ways of holding aloof from Jesus Christ. And so are all ways of misrepresenting Christ in our minds and hearts, crafting a caricature of him that's untrue, distorting his reality. Every denial of some part of the faith, as it's summed up in the Apostles' Creed or the other great creeds, is ultimately, objectively, a morally bad act – a violation of the first commandment we're given.

The first commandment also calls us to a disposition of trust – trust toward God, trust toward Jesus, trust toward their Holy Spirit. Because trust is also an indispensable part of what it means to have faith. The faith that God deserves from us isn't merely admitting that he exists. It isn't just describing him correctly. Both of those are essential, but God deserves our trust. And when we live our lives in ways that hold back that trust, that refuse that trust, we are in fact falling short of giving God his due. We are not adequately expressing his worth when we act as though he isn't trustworthy. Trusting him means, of course, believing the things he's told us in his word of revelation. But it means more than that. It means leaning on him in day-to-day living. It means we'll live consciously in dependence on him – because, as he's the Giver of all good gifts we get, we are dependent. As one second-century Christian named Aristides said, “Christians... know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion...”2

Second, we acknowledge and express God's worth by treating him with reverence. God deserves to be honored as God. God deserves to be held in the highest esteem and value. And that entails respect. It entails careful conduct toward God. We should be as careful with the things of God as if we were handling priceless artwork or radioactive materials. We should exercise appropriate caution. So often, we tend to overstate the themes in the New Testament of friendship with God, and think that it means being chummy, all buddy-buddy, paling around as if God is no more than just 'one of the guys.' But the intimacy with God to which we're invited is a miracle precisely because it's set in a background of God's infinite holiness. God deserves to be regarded by us with a sense of awe, dignity, and solemnity. And that sense of awe, of dignity, of solemnity – the biblical term for that is “the fear of the LORD.” As in, “the LORD commanded us... to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive” (Deuteronomy 6:24): “the fear of the LORD is Zion's treasure” (Isaiah 33:6). When we refuse to treat encounters with God as occasions for awe and dignity and solemnity, when we lack “the fear of the LORD,” we aren't living up to this first commandment. God deserves our reverence.

Third, we acknowledge and express God's worth by coming to him in prayer. For how do we treat God as great, as worthwhile, if we don't consider him worth talking to or worth seeking our good from? God is, we've said, the Giver of every good and every perfect gift. He invites us to engage relationally with him, to speak to him as well as listen. God is worth our time. God is worth our attention. God is worth our words. And so we honor him when we call on him. We honor him when we invoke him. We honor him when we cry out to him. We honor him when we take him up on this open-door policy of his. As Aristides said, “As people who know God, [Christians] ask from him petitions which are fitting for him to grant and for them to receive; and thus they employ their whole lifetime.”3 When we spend our days prayerlessly, when we caricature God as uninterested or else decide that we're too busy for him to have any of our time, we aren't living up to this first commandment – we're not giving God his due, we're not doing justice to God as God. God deserves our prayers.

Fourth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by putting our hope in him. We treat God as great, we treat him as worthwhile, when we listen to his promises and expect him to make good on them, and when we look forward to them, and when we think about them, when we let them shape our vision of our future. Particularly, we treat God as great and as worthwhile when we surrender our imagination to his promises – that is, when his promises so captivate our imaginations more than any other picture of the future, knowing that one day these dreams will be fact. And we treat him as great and as worthwhile when we rely, not on our attempts to control the future, not on our efforts to penetrate the future, but on God as the One in whose hands the future rests. That's why the Church has always considered this first commandment to be broken when people go to fortune-tellers, even if it's meant for fun – because the forbidden act of fortune-telling is at odds with placing our hope in God as the unveiler of the future. This commandment is also broken when we despair of God's promises. Maybe one of my favorite lines from the whole Bible is the declaration that “all the promises of God find their 'Yes!' in [Jesus Christ]” (2 Corinthians 1:20). They already have their yes! “Hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5)! So “if we hope for what we do not [yet] see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Like Aristides said: “Christians know... God..., from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and which they observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come.”4

Fifth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by giving him our praise and adoration. “Praise God... for his mighty deeds, praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (Psalm 150:1-2). “Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, 'How awesome are your deeds! … All the earth worships you and sings praises to you...” (Psalm 66:1-4). God, in and of himself, is deserving of praise, just for being who he is. All things are intrinsically defined in relation to his greatness. He is the peak of the mountain of goodness. He is the standard of all excellence. Any true thing said about him is a praise. He deserves to be the focus of our attention and the celebration of our mind and speech. But too often, we become ungrateful to God. As if he stopped giving us gifts! As if we had received no new favor since our last heartbeat! As if he weren't keeping the very atoms in our body from breaking apart! As if the warmth of the sun weren't from him, as if the flavor of food or the refreshment of water weren't from him, as if the color of each and every flower weren't called forth by him! Yet we're ungrateful sometimes. Or we become indifferent – we spend an hour, we spend a day, we spend even longer, just ignoring God, just acting as if he weren't there, still actively supplying our most basic needs. In those times when we refuse to care, when we refuse to thank, when we refuse to praise and adore – we are not living as this first commandment calls us.

But we fulfill the commandment each time we do proclaim God's worth, each time we celebrate him, each time we proclaim his greatness out loud, both to others and to God, by returning thanks. It's not, as some unbelievers will assume, because God has an ego that just needs scratched, and that's why he tells us to praise. No! No, it's because it is right and just to praise him! Withholding praise from someone or something who deserves it, is an act of injustice, it is negligence and wrongdoing. Refusing to thank someone for a gift or favor – that isn't just a social faux-pas, it's an act of injustice, it's failing to return what the gift or favor deserves. It is right and just to praise God, and particularly, to praise God with higher praises than we give to anyone or anything else, with more excitement and effusiveness to anything else. That's why we sing! That's why we sing with meaning, with feeling, with gusto – because, as best as we can, we know we ought to praise God, and we want to!

Sixth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by obeying him, by serving him. “It is the LORD your God you shall fear: him you shall serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13). “Return to the LORD your God and obey his voice” (Deuteronomy 4:30). “Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). God merits our obedience. God merits our service. God is God, and we are not. In our actions, we should act for the sake of God. We should act in ways where God is centrally relevant in our motives and in our drives. God deserves to be relevant to why we choose what we choose, and why we do what we do. His will should be the beginning and end of our actions. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Seventh, we acknowledge and express God's worth by imitating him. “Be imitators of God, as dear children,” we're told (Ephesians 5:1). We imitate him by learning his wisdom. We imitate him by sharing his mercy. We imitate him by seeking to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45), and to be complete lovers as he is perfect love (Matthew 5:48). When we consider God's character worth imitating in all these ways, we are worshipping him – we are seeking to give him his due by expressing his worth with our lives.

All this is commanded us because worshipping the true God is good for us. Because God is truth, and God is beauty, and God is goodness. God is light, and God is life, and God is love. And what we worship, whatever we think most worthy and most worthwhile, we open ourselves up to, we become more and more conformed to, step by step. In worshipping God, we open ourselves up to a beautiful life that floods ours, and so we allow ourselves to be “transformed... from one degree of glory into another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

And we have a perfect example in Jesus. Jesus, when he descended to earth and took on our human nature, took on also the Law, and he perfectly lived out its commands – including this first commandment. As Jesus himself said, “I honor my Father” (John 8:49). Jesus kept the first commandment perfectly, and he fulfilled it. In every moment, Jesus was about God his Father, Jesus was open to God his Father, Jesus was imitating God his Father, and Jesus served God his Father all the way to the cross. Let us follow Jesus, imitating him as he imitated his Father, worshipping him as God and worshipping God his Father alongside him as he leads us. Let us give God his due, with and like Jesus. And in this way, we will begin the adventure that is truly good human living. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Blessings on the Mountain: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

Have you ever seen a news segment where a reporter goes out and interviews people in the street about things everyone assumes they should know? The footage they get is seldom encouraging. I've seen people flustered about what causes a rainbow; people uncertain who fought in World War II; people unable to point to any country on a map and name it. “Education these days!” Right? Well, sad to say, but this isn't new. In January 1889, reporters spread out through St. Louis, Missouri, to quiz the population of the city as to whether they could recite the Ten Commandments. Most people believed they knew how – after all, this was when the Ten Commandments were learned in school. And some actually could. But most were wrong.

One man they interviewed, a certain M. Klute, refused to try, offering the excuse that, for all he knew, the Ten Commandments had changed since his school days. (I want to know how old that guy was!) The local street commissioner, George Burnett, said the Ten Commandments had been crowded out of his head by learning math. A young doctor named Henry Jacobson, son of German Jewish immigrants, said he didn't know the Ten Commandments but would be happy to recite definitions out of the medical dictionary. Philip Lanham, a popular though elderly judge known as an auctioneer and hunter, would only say that his way of keeping the sabbath meant going fishing. A stockbroker in his early thirties, Joe Davidson, said that there was only one commandment he observed: “Thou shalt not buy wheat unless thou hast it already sold.” Six years later, Joe got drunk, accosted a friend at his house one night, and put a gun to the man's head, demanding payment of a $50 debt. He eventually lost a fortune in the stock market and froze in the street one winter's night in early 1903.

Local lead dealer Richard Everett, when asked, was convinced that one of the Ten Commandments was “Lead me not into temptation.” Another local broker, 45-year-old George Henry Small, said there was only one commandment he cared to remember – and that one was, “Mind your own business.” A month after saying that, he'd be appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, and eventually would become an Assistant United States Treasurer. Still another fellow, 48-year-old Col. Henry W. Chandler – local merchant, Civil War veteran, and a committed believer in his own ability to read minds – was asked to recite the Ten Commandments, and began by saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep...” Col. Chandler later became president of the electric company but was sued by his former friend, president of the silk company, who caught Chandler in bed with his wife. And finally, 34-year-old William Hobbs, the city recorder of deeds and a reporter himself, said that when he wanted to know anything about the Ten Commandments, he just asked his wife, because, he said, “it's easier than keeping all of them continually stored up in my brain.”

On the whole, 90% of residents of St. Louis in 1889 were unable to say what the Ten Commandments were. As the newspaper reported on the results of dozens of street interviews, they ran their findings under the line: “Isn't this awful?”1 A good thing to remember any time we get too despairing about our generation today, or the next – our ancestors weren't exactly the swiftest either, sometimes.

Still, I suspect that what was true in St. Louis 140 years ago would not have been true in Jerusalem or Nazareth 2000 years ago. Jesus would not have been caught off-guard by the question or flubbed it, and neither would Joseph or Mary, or likely any of their neighbors. See, growing up, Jesus would have been taken by Joseph and Mary several times each year to Jerusalem, to attend all the pilgrimage feasts for which Jews were ideally meant to go to the holy city. And during these multiple yearly visits to Jerusalem, the young Jesus would, like so many others, have been exposed first-hand to the liturgies of worship in the temple. Each and every morning and each and every evening, Israel had been commanded to sacrifice: “One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. And with the first lamb, a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering” (Exodus 29:39-40). And so each morning, at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests on duty held four lotteries in the Chamber of Hewn Stone to decide things like who'd clear away the ashes from last night, who'd actually butcher the meat, who'd carry the parts to the altar, who'd burn the incense, and so on. Once the eastern sky had been lit up by the dawn, a priest would unlock the large gate, allowing people access to the temple courts; and a loud voice would call priests to their service, Levites to their platform, and all Israel to their watch. And so the people would gather.2 Every time Joseph and Mary took young Jesus to Jerusalem, each day they were there, they'd listen for that call after dawn and come to see and hear. And then, after the lamb was slain, nine priests would gather into the Chamber of Hewn Stone, which was accessible also to the people. And they would recite the opening prayers of the day, as a blessing. And the first words that these nine priests would recite every day? The Ten Commandments.3  Each and every morning, the people who went to the Temple to attend the morning sacrifice would hear the Ten Commandments spoken over them, all over again.

Of course, most of the time, young Jesus wasn't in Jerusalem. He was at home in Nazareth, as was his family. There, instead of the Temple, there was the synagogue, where everyone in town would come to gather each and every Sabbath. And each and every Sabbath, someone in the synagogue would read first a passage out of the Law, the five books of Moses, and then a passage from one of the prophets (cf. Acts 15:21). Over the course of every three years, Jesus and everybody else would've heard the whole Law read. That meant that, every three years at minimum, the Sabbath reading would have included the Ten Commandments, making them familiar.

But as if that weren't enough, each and every morning, committed believers among the Jews had prayers that they'd pause to recite several times a day, at fixed times: morning, noon, and night. Jesus would later go on to criticize some of the Pharisees for timing their errands so as to make sure that the call to prayer would catch them at an intersection so more people would see how devout they were and be impressed (Matthew 6:5). But Jesus does assume that the people hearing his Sermon on the Mount are already observing these fixed times of prayer. Joseph and Mary would have taught young Jesus the prayers to recite each morning in Nazareth at the same time the priests were reciting their blessings in Jerusalem – and we have evidence that tells us that devout Jews living far from Jerusalem were adopting the same prayers.4 In Nazareth, Jesus would have begun each and every day of his earthly life by reciting the Ten Commandments first of all. So even from a purely human point of view, the Ten Commandments cannot have helped but leave an indelible mark on the way Jesus lived and the way Jesus thought during his time on earth.

But, of course, we do not see Jesus only from a human point of view. Because Jesus is not only human. Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God. He is the Eternal Word made flesh. And when Moses gathered the people at the foot of Mount Sinai that fateful day we heard about last week, and when the storm and flame came down on the mountaintop – Jesus was there. The Old Testament never uses the phrase “Ten Commandments” – what it actually calls them are the “Ten Words,” the Ten Words of God, which he spoke in fire from the summit of the mountain. But every word that God speaks is, at its heart, the Word of God which is indivisible, who can be expressed only partially through the medium of frail human language.

In other words, God has been continually speaking his one unique Word, the Word that became flesh; and all the times we find God speaking, he's speaking Jesus – only expressed, in different partial ways, in human language. In some way, each of these “Ten Words,” these Ten Commandments, is Christ himself, the self-revealing Word of God. When God opens his mouth on the mountain, so to speak, what comes out is Christ. Each of these commandments, each of these declarations, just is Jesus, but seen through a pinhole, heard in slow motion. In being the Word of God made flesh, you could say that Jesus is therefore the Ten Commandments made flesh. And that makes sense of why St. Irenaeus, our friend and mentor from the second century, referred to “the Ten Commandments, which, if anyone does not observe, he has no salvation.”5

So, as the Ten Commandments made flesh, who grew up reciting the Ten Commandments each morning, Jesus clearly values and cherishes the Ten Commandments. Later in his ministry, when a rich young man came to this rabbi and wanted to know how to live well, Jesus told him, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). And when the rich young man asked which ones, Jesus started rattling off many out of the ten (Matthew 19:18-19). But quite some time before that, Jesus sat down on a hilltop in Galilee, turning it into the new Mount Sinai. Those gathered below him, seated in the fields, probably had little idea that they were in the same position as their distant ancestors who'd stood at the foot of the desert mountain and heard the words of God proclaimed in fire and fury. But when Jesus comes to the mountain, with the crowds down at the foot and his disciples approaching him, these apostles are like Moses and Aaron and the elders of Israel, approaching on the mountain the God who is Jesus. Jesus, for his part, is both the Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) and the fresh face of God to the world – all these things rolled into one. And so, in a new way, he's come to teach the Law all over again – which is exactly what he does, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1).

If we understand the posture Jesus is taking here, then we can understand why some people might have thought that Jesus had come to replace the Law with something different – that he was smashing the tablets all over again, so that he could write in their dust. And we can also understand why Jesus makes very clear that that isn't what he's doing. He hasn't come to cancel out the commandments, hasn't come to demolish the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets! I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus says that not even one single letter will fall out of the Law until everything has happened (Matthew 5:18). Jesus says that loosening even one of the minor commandments, or teaching other people to ignore it, will forfeit honor in the kingdom of God; but living out the commandments and teaching others how to do the same – that's the path toward honor and greatness (Matthew 5:19). And in that way, Jesus announces, our righteousness – our faithfulness to these commandments and to their Giver – should go beyond the way they were performed by even the most committed Law-abiding people of the day. It's a mighty tall order: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Because to do that, isn't just about the Ten Commandments. By the time Jesus was speaking, many had come to understand the Ten Commandments as something like a table of contents for the whole Law. Each one was broader than what it literally said, and covered many different kinds of circumstances. And so, as we begin exploring the Ten Commandments for ourselves, we're going to take that into consideration.

Jesus is emphasizing the importance of the Law. He didn't come to do away with it, or to teach anybody not to keep these commandments. Rather, what he wants to do is to crack them each open for us, so that we can see how he's written all over it, and how each commandment can write Jesus on our lives, as we meet him there and hear his loving voice. And by meeting Jesus in the commandments, we can be shaped into a people of blessing. Because we love the commandments, we will refuse to fight our way through life with the tools of sin – and that refusal is a blessing, because the spiritual poor who cry out to God will be citizens of God's kingdom (Matthew 5:3). Because we love the commandments, we'll take more and more notice of the gap between our world and God's vision for the world. And that gap, that gulf between the two, will sadden us. It'll make us lament, and it will make us mourn. And that sorrow is a blessing, because Jesus promises to comfort such mourners who grieve that gap (Matthew 5:4).

Because we love the commandments, we'll learn the value of restraint – having power to do certain things, but gently choosing not to. And that's a blessing, because the meek, those who gently restrain their power, are destined to inherit not just the land from river to river but the whole of the earth (Matthew 5:5). Because we love the commandments, we'll hunger and thirst for justice to be done on that earth – and that's a blessing, since Jesus promises to satisfy that hunger, to quench that thirst (Matthew 5:6). Because we love the commandments, we'll lean into their challenge for us. And as we understand how readily we ourselves fall short, we'll know that we're gravely in need of grace and mercy. We'll understand that the same obstacles we ourselves face are faced also by others. And in that understanding, we'll show mercy to them. That's a blessing, because Jesus promises to show mercy to the merciful (Matthew 5:7).

Because we love the commandments, we'll use them to examine our conscience. And these commandments will become God's scalpel to perform surgery in our hearts, scraping out the roots of sin that stain. And that surgery, that scalpel, is a blessing, because it will make us pure in heart, and Jesus promises that those purified in heart will finally be able to see God (Matthew 5:8). Because we love the commandments, we'll encourage others to love them too, so that they can have great peace – for as the psalmist says, “Great peace have those who love your Law” (Psalm 119:165). And that's a blessing, because Jesus promises that peacemakers will be counted as God's very own children (Matthew 5:9). And finally, because we love the commandments, we'll be dreadfully unpopular by the standards of a rebellious and lawless world. And that's a massive blessing, because Jesus tells us that those who are persecuted for the sake of this justice and this righteousness will have the kingdom of God and that those who are slandered for clinging to Jesus have an unthinkable reward in store (Matthew 5:10-12).

We want all of those things! We want each and every one of those blessings! And that life of blessing begins by learning the commandments, learning Christ in the commandments, and living Christ in the commandments. God's word, God's commandments, are a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). And as we lean into God's commandments and keep them in Christ, then that light will radiate throughout our lives. Our whole lives will shine with that light, which no basket or bushel can be allowed to hide (Matthew 5:14), and no part of the house of this world will be able to hold onto its darkness (Matthew 5:15). As people see our “good works,” our lives that fulfill everything these commandments mean and everything the Law was trying to accomplish, our lives that hew closely to God's will, then observers will “give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

So to do that better, we're going to spend most of the rest of this year on a journey through the Ten Words which God spoke at Sinai – which are really just his one Word, who is Christ. But under the forms then given and the history that followed, we're going to learn the Ten Commandments and apply the Ten Commandments to our lives today, to shine that light on them. We don't want to be like those people in the St. Louis streets who didn't know them. We're going to know them. By the end of this year, I dare say each one of us, if asked the Ten Commandments, will have no problem scoring 10/10.

But even more importantly, we're going to see how to live them – or, rather, how we can yield place for Christ and his Holy Spirit to fulfill them in us by his love. For these commandments were spoken by Jesus no less than any other words you'll find in the Gospels or anywhere in the Bible. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand,” but “everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:26, 24). These tablets of stone – they're a rock worth building our house on – and our hope on. Amen.