Life - Running Out of Fear Or For Joy!
| Exodus 20:1-20
|Sun, October 5, 2008
Dr. Gerald Hobbs
|The two lessons we have just heard – from Exodus and from Paul’s letter to the Philippians - and the Nineteenth Psalm we have recited together, can open splendid windows for us this morning into the very heart of the human relationship with the divine. In all of them the word “Law” has a central place. Now in probing, we may open up enriching insights to take with us this morning. But there are also significant traps, set by age-old misunderstandings of what the word “Law” means in the context of religious faith. Nor are these difficulties merely intellectual games, parlour amusements for the religiously keen, riddles to while away a quiet Sunday afternoon. To misunderstand what Scripture means by the Law of God has set the lives of too many people, across the centuries, into shadow; far too many have found their journey through life passing through a succession of dark valleys, dominated by anxiety, if not fear, of provoking the displeasure of God through the breaking of the divine Law. I believe that this need not be our story. Indeed, over the years I have come to believe, not easily, but with increasing certitude, that this is a tragic perversion of the heart-meaning of the divine-human encounter. I believe, too, that these Scriptures can help us see what I mean by this. And perhaps some one or other of us will find more sunshine in the days ahead.
An image to launch our reflection on this matter, on these texts. Carved in stone over the entrance to a large number of mediaeval churches in Europe, you will find a representation of the Last Judgement. The one I recall best is on an 800-year old church, St. Trophime, in Arles, Vincent Gogh’s beloved city in the south of France. I remember it well because the day Helen and I and our three young children visited Arles, as I tried to photograph this extraordinary sculpture, a woman was pestering me for a contribution to her tin cup. When I made it clear I would not be helpful, that the sculpture was the only thing in the square that interested me, she hurled a curse at me in a language I did not recognize. I did nonetheless get the picture, or so I thought. A week later, when I collected my developed slides at the photographers, the one I had been taking at that moment was scratched and torn. Of course I don’t believe in curses... but as my Irish grandmother would say, you never know, there might be something to it! Anyway, the scene. A severe looking Christ seated on a throne, surrounded by four mythic creatures apparently representing the Four Gospels. Beneath Christ, a great set of balances, and on these the souls of all humanity were being weighed, one by one. If the scale tilted positively, angels on the left conducted the now white-robed saint into the joys of heaven. If the scale tilted negatively, on the other side, gloating demons seized the unfortunates and hurled them down headlong into the flames of hell.
If the graphics of the scenario have faded over the centuries, the image of God as ultimate, cosmic Law-Giver has not, for many people; and along with this image comes as probably inevitable consequence, the sense that in the end, their relationship is that of the accused versus the Judge. Now the Judge is of course of utter probity, being the Creator, but an absolutely just judge, nonetheless. How should one not tremble inwardly, passing into the worship of such a God?
At first glance the story in Exodus chapter 20 seems to fit this scenario to a “T”. Even without Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood theatrics, the word picture is vivid enough. A mountain wreathed in smoke, with claps of thunder and the occasional lightening bolt. The people warned that to set foot upon the mountain could be worth their lives. Moses closeted with God for forty days and nights, and finally, descending with the words of God, the Law, the Torah, engraved by the finger of God for the instruction of the people. “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall not have any other gods before me. You shall not make images...You shall not use the name of God wrongfully..You shall keep the Sabbath day holy...You shall not kill...” All these Ten Words, as the Jews call them still today, are put in the singular. Addressed to each one individually. The Jewish people look to this moment, at mount Sinai, as the establishment of their covenant with God, it is a solemn moment. An obligation undertaken for life. It was also almost instantly broken. Even before Moses arrives at the base of the mountain, he and God are disturbed by the sounds of singing and dancing. Then people have set up a gold image of a bull, and are busily, riotously violating commandment numbers One and Two of the divine Law.
Our relationship with God defined fundamentally as Law, as a series of commands, whose keeping is life, but whose violation means wrath, punishment and even death. The commands are just, they cannot be questioned, even if they might seem arbitrary, for they are the will of God. So one’s relationship with God is governed by these commands, and God is both Law-giver and Judge. A great many people inhabit this strict, I would suggest unhappy space. I’ll come back to this matter of how this is fundamentally wrong-headed in a moment.
But first, how pervasive this is! Most of us are raised this way. Obey Mommy, and good baby will get a loving pat on the head. Refuse to eat your carrots, and there will be no pudding. Jolly old Santa Claus is drafted to these ends> “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout...Santa Claus is coming. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he sees when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake” For goodness sake? Fat chance. Be good so you’ll get rewarded with nice toys! This runs also through much of our religious practice. I think of the little children’s hymn many of us learned: Jesus bids us shine. “He looks down from heaven to see us shine. Well he sees and knows it, if our light grows dim”. I suspect the author did not intend it that way, but for me, the overly conscience-stricken child, the message was clear. “Shine, or else!”. It is not only the province of conservative Christianity, either. One of the most liberal forms of all Cbristianity, 18th C. Deism, eliminated the Bible and any sense of Jesus as Word of God, but kept as its fundamental principles set in every human heart, that life is about doing good, so we will be rewarded, and avoiding doing wrong, for which we will be punished, in the life to come.
There are a number of reasons why this is not a healthy spirituality. To understand the heart of God’s relationship with the human race as forensic, grounded in the universal lawcourt, or to shift the image slightly, as a matter of a divinely recorded balance sheet where life must end in the black, must inevitably undermine all our confidence in the divine relationship. Intimacy is impossible. Trust in a divine Love is difficult, for that Love will condemn our human frailty. When religion becomes morality, the natural human urge to spontaneity that we treasure in our children is suppressed, for we fear the consequences of un-reflective action. That so many adults do sacrifice their spontaneity along the road from innocence to experience, does not make it right. Furthermore, it can be ultimately faith-destroying. For the chaos of darkness that breaks into lives, our own, the lives of others around us, the inexplicable tragedies of human life, must challenge and undermine the assertion that life is a matter of right or wrong behaviour, for which the universe brings appropriate reward or punishment. Make Christianity into simply the finest code of ethical behaviour the universe has ever known, and the storms of life will shake many into skepticism, if not abandoning belief altogether, as have many of our own friends.
But it need not, in fact it ought not to be so. For Law is not the first and final word of the God of the Bible, no matter how many Jewish and Christian teachers have started it off that way. The famous popular summary of religion, you know, I believe in The Ten Commandments, and the Sermon on the Mount, misses the very heart of what it is all about. Of course there is Law. We’ll come back there in a moment. But not first of all. We need to hear more clearly the very message of Exodus 20, for a starter. God does not begin with “Thou shalt do this, thou shalt not do that”. Hear it again, the opening sentence. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. The premise, the foundation upon which the whole relationship rests, is that the Maker of the Universe has come into human life and history, to be known as a life-giver, a liberator, an unconditionally generous God. It is because this God hears the cry of the distressed, sets prisoners free, lifts up the lowly, has compassion on misery, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, that the Israelites are come to this mountain to learn God’s will for life on this planet.
Our Psalm 19 is one of the finest summaries in all the Bible, of the Jewish faith. Its starting point is likewise the life-giving work of God. How does it begin? “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the canopy of the sky shows us God’s handiwork.” The creation all around us, its beauty, its majesty, its dependable order of days, seasons, years, are the gift of the Maker; all this reveals God’s glory, God’s weight, as Ed said last week, the essence of the divine being that is creative Giving. Standing on this foundation, Israel can and does celebrate the further gift of insight into the divine will for the life of this gifted creation.
It’s time to unpack that word Law, which is so central to that sense of God as Law-giver and Judge. You may know from Jewish friends that the word for Law in the Hebrew language of their ancestors and of the Bible, is Torah. If you look into the root meaning of Torah, you find that it can be a verb meaning “to shoot an arrow”. It is a word of pointing, of direction, Far removed from the context of law courts and justice, its origin and root metaphor is giving of direction. “How do I get to downtown Vancouver from this place? Torah is that-away.” Now come back to what is happening at Mount Sinai in Exodus 20. How shall this people live into a new identity, a new dignity, a new society? The God is creates, who listens, who feels compassion, who breaks chains and sets free, who lifts up the lowly, who remembers the outcasts, the famous “widows, orphans and refugees”, gives a series of pointers toward a world where such things are normative, not exceptional. These are the Torah for life in God’s world, as children adopted by God. There were in fact not only 10, the ancient rabbis count 613. 6123 pointers to walking the paths of life, to running one’s course to its finish line.
So where did the notion of God’s Law as demanding right and punishing wrong come from? There is meat here for another sermon, but let me try a short answer. Actions have consequences. That is a gift to us from God our Creator. What we do matters! If in seeking downtown Vancouver I choose to ignore the directions, and set off instead that way, I shall certainly have a much longer journey; I may even never get there, unless I have the good sense to consult again the direction and turn, correct my course. So when God’s directions, the Torah that point our conduct in ways that nurture life in ourselves and in society, are ignored, if our decisions proceed in a different, even contrary sense, we discover that we are not finding the life-giving consequences we had hoped. Ancient Israel knew this well enough, that the civil law courts tried to enforce behaviour that was just to all, respectful of life, faithful to the love of God. Even in our world so far removed from theirs, some of the same principles of life direction guide the articulation and practice of our justice. Only let us not confuse our judicial systems with our faith, our relationship with God. That as we have seen, starts and ends in the generosity and compassion of our Maker.
I want to suggest one more thing for us to take with us from today’s rich cornucopia of Scriptures. In the last lesson, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he spends considerable time and even more effort trying to convince his followers that to understand Jesus as demanding an even greater perfection on the moral scale of the universe, are dead wrong. He’s worth reading closely, but again, that can keep for another day. What I do want us to note is his closing metaphor (verses 12-14). Life is a race, and Paul is a runner, pressing ahead toward the goal of all life, as he has found it in Jesus the Christ. He names the direction as “resurrection life”. This is the life direction, the Torah, that he has come to know in Christ. Now there are different ways to run a race. As a distance cyclist, I know there are differing motivations for the run. Fear of growing old, of losing one’s strength. Duty: I must do so many kilometers today, or I’ll fall behind the standard. One can run life’s race from fear. Fear of failure, fear of disgrace, fear of being found out as less than perfect. Fear of losing. One can also run from simple duty. I am a human being, I must make my way through this world. Now all of us, I think, will run with a mixture of motives; we are after all wonderfully complex human creatures. But the Psalm invites us, with this same image, to bring into the manner of our life journey, our running of life’s course, the emotion of “joy”. To go through life knowing that the gracious Creator gives us Torah, pointers for living well, should be a source of deep inner joy, that from time to time bubbles over in spontaneous moments of sheer pleasure. I shall never forget Eric Liddell’s wonderful lines in the film Chariots of Fire. “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure”.
Or as Charles Wesley put it in one of his many hymns,
To run my course with even joy,
And closely walk with thee to heaven.