The Law


For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?

Deuteronomy 4: 7

 

Moses was speaking about the way that things were in a time and a place long ago and far away. He was reminding everyone about the fact that God was as close to them as was their own breath and that the Lord was involved with His people and with their nation in all matters both great and small. This is the God that Moses had encountered and knew in a deeply personal manner, and this was the God who was truly and in all ways the Lord of and over the land. So much has changed from then until now. It seems that we think that we have become a people who know how to care for ourselves as we now govern our nations and rule over the people of our world with such great skill and success that there is no longer any need for submission and obedience to the ancient God of Moses and to the way of His Word and Law.

 

Actually, as we know from that same word that many of us want to set aside on the dusty shelves of antiquity, it didn’t take long for the people that Moses was addressing here to adopt the same attitude toward God and to attempt to go it on their own in the world. It did not work for them, and it does not work for us, either. We rule over our world with all of our sophistication and knowledge put to full use; yet, people are still starving and homeless, nations continue to settle their differences by waging war, the resources of our earth are squandered and destroyed to serve selfish desires, and life in all forms is treated as a disposable commodity instead of being viewed as God’s gift of Himself in this world. It seems that our attempt at going it on our own in governing and ruling over our world have not been very successful or productive after all.

 

Still, God is patient, and He is faithful to His promise of redemption. The Lord has not given up on us, and people who know the Lord should not give up hope either. I believe that our efforts will not save the world, for that is a work that Christ alone, in His final return, will accomplish. Yet, we are called upon by Him and given the task of bringing His grace, justice, mercy, peace, and their redemption into the world as we encounter and touch it. Our nations and their leaders may not embrace the truth and the counsel of God’s Word as their ongoing rule of law, but that doubt should not stop us or inhibit us from proclaiming its supremacy to them and from demanding that God’s ethical and moral principles be applied to the way that our lands are governed. Most of us have the right and the means to voice our understanding of what is righteous and proper in the way that our leaders guide the course of the nation. All of us have the ability to express these wishes and desires through prayer and as acts of worship to our one true and eternal King. People who know God, we can join with Moses and raise our voices in prayer to the Lord and in expressions of righteousness to the world. So, we should never be silent when it comes to God’s will and truth in our world.

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But I am the LORD your God

from the land of Egypt;

you know no God but me,

and besides me there is no savior.

Hosea 13: 4

 

There is both reminder and warning present here. God is sending them to His people through the words of Hosea, and they are specifically directed toward the people of Israel. However, it would be a very great mistake to simply relegate these words to that shelf labeled History and to an obsolete application. The issues that were troubling the Lord in the days of Hosea are still with us now as we seem to have a remarkably similar capacity to go our own way in life. The Israelites were guilty of worshiping other gods and of behaving in ways that were contrary to God’s will, His Word and Law. There were many times when they were even openly defiant of all that God stood for and entered into behaviors that He expressly forbade or that were significantly divergent from the Lord’s nature and character.

 

If this doesn’t make you think of many of the aspects of our world and of these days, then I think that we are living in on different planets or in alternate realities. This is a world where substitute gods are common. People turn to various forms of idol to pour out their passion in worship and to form up the ethical and moral structures that support their responses to all that comes along in the course of their days. Many of us seem to have little stomach for staying true to the harder aspects of following God. Frankly, we do not trust the Lord enough to enter into the riskier and the less comfortable aspects of loving others in a manner that is truly sacrificial, of serving the needs of the pour and the disadvantaged even when that costs us in terms of real currency, and of pouring out all of ourselves in a life dedicated to worshiping the Lord. It does seem that too many of us desire to be able to shape and to mold our god with our own hands rather than to surrender ourselves to His transformative work upon us.

 

God makes His desires very clear, and He also reminds us of the fact that He has never waivered in what He requires of His people or in the way that He enters into our lives for our benefit. The Lord wants us to commit all of our being to Him. This is true in our public, personal, and most private lives. He wants us to go through our cupboards and closets, our outward and our innermost expressions of our identities, and sweep out all of the idols that we have collected and stored up there. He also tells us to turn to Him as the only source of our salvation, and this is true regarding salvation for our souls and for that saving that is required every day in great and in subtle ways. Then we are to live out our days as an expression of that passionate worship that God so longs to receive from His people. That means that we would be unreservedly loving, compassionate and merciful, caretakers of creation, people who embrace the foreigner and those who are different from us, and actively engaged in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ though our words and our actions. So, in loving and in following God, we will be people who truly surrender our entire beings to the Lord’s transformative work in and upon us.

 

There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.

Joshua 8: 36

 

This event might not look the same in our times as there is little probability that any large gathering of people, much less that any nation of people would gather together in this manner. Here the sum total of the people of Israel had come together across one great valley and its adjoining mountain sides in order to worship God in celebration of the Lord’s redemptive work in their military victory over the city of Ai. The centerpiece of this celebration was the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, and the priests were the ones who were leading the nation in both substance and in the form of this great victory party. Yet, as they transition from focusing on the tactics and the methods of war and return to the task at hand of settling the land, the people are reminded of the true power that was behind their success and of the basis for all that defines their national and individual character.

 

They are a people who have been given their identity by God, and they have gained their understanding of morality and of justice through God’s Law, His Holy Word. There is nothing that stands before this recitation of God’s will in the law of the land or in the ordering of their society. This was a special time and place in the history of the world, and it has really never been duplicated since. Even under Joshua’s strong and Godly leadership, the people were very quick to depart from the Lord’s way and to set out upon their own course of thought and action. Today the best that we can hope for is an off-handed reference to God or a quote from His Word, but our nations seldom express any real interest in following the Lord or in even hearing and utilizing His truth as counsel or as direction to be followed. It is as if God were now an irrelevant part of ancient history and His Word is granted the status of troublesome and obscure literary fiction.

 

None of these modern attitudes can possibly be pleasing to God. He is not amused by our self-reliance and negation of His wisdom and direction. Although a modern day turning to God on the parts of people, our leaders, and nations might not look exactly like that assembly in a natural amphitheater at Shechem. Yet, the location is not really the point. The idea is that the entire collection of people were giving praise and honor to God as their one true King, and as they did this they engaged in group recitation of God’s Word in its entirety. They left out nothing; so, they made no editorial or cultural changes to the message of that word. In sharing it in this highly public manner, they were also affirming its priority as their singular point of guidance for their moral, cultural, and spiritual lives. Thus, they were affirming that the Lord was the singular and final authority over all aspects of life and over its conduct into the future.

It seems to me that this might not be such a bad idea in our world. There is an aimlessness to the way that our nations and our leaders are going that might find focus and valid purpose in God’s Word. The degree to which the people of this earth have become self-reliant and absorbed in actions and enterprises that we think will benefit ourselves primarily and that often work against the well-being of others must be troubling to the God of justice and peace. God’s design for this world works, and our redirection of it has not. Although I am not so naïve as to think that the leaders of nations or the people of those countries would actually do what the people of Israel did on that day, I do wonder what effect such a turning to God would have on us all. So, how might our world be different if each of us began to do the sort of things that Joshua led them into as they centered their day upon worship of God, devoted themselves to reading and to sharing His Word, and gathered openly in a universal fellowship of faith? What might that world look like?

And Nehemiah, who was governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God, do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.

Nehemiah 8:9

 

The concept of separation of our religious practice from our system and processes of governance is an invention of recent times in history. This was certainly not the way that God designed for it to be. In the establishment of His nation of Israel and among God’s chosen people, the Lord set it up so that there was a direct and inseparable connection between the people who were the governmental leaders such as kings, princes, and governors and the church as represented by priests and teachers of God’s Law. Even in these ancient times this was not the way that most of the world operated. Most countries were governed by rulers who used the services of their religious practitioners when it was convenient to consult them and listened only to those ideas and direction that suited their desires and pre-set wishes.

 

This is a picture of the world where Jesus lived, and by His days, even the leadership of Israel had changed so much that Nehemiah and Ezra would not have recognized the secularly oriented institution that was the temple, their church. These changes were not the result of positive evolution as they were caused by humanity’s on-going drive to separate itself from God and to establish our own concepts, ordinances, and practices as supreme on earth. Much of our modern concept of separation of church from state is the result of a contra movement away from the dominance of the secular over the religious in which the church and its leaders were simply substituted for kings and governors while continuing to operate the nation as an unholy and sub-righteous entity wherein the end goal was still personal power and gain. Therefore, people who were being oppressed by these ungodly religious leaders established laws and rules of governance that built up barriers between the influence of church and of state upon each other.

 

My proposition is that none of this is right. The Lord is still sovereign over the entire world, over our nations, and in our practice of faith and of governance. His Word is the final authority for all of the decisions that people need to make in order to operate our nations and to live as citizens of this world. To me this means that any and all national allegiances are subordinate to our loyalty to God and that the primary identity of a follower of Christ is that of disciple of the Living God rather than the one that is framed in by national citizenship. With this in mind, there is a very real and important place for the voices of God’s people in the halls of governance of our nations. The truth of God’s Word and the illuminating presence of His Spirit are essential in these places as decisions that impact the lives of people for good and for evil are made there on a daily basis. As people who know Christ and who follow Him through life, we are to be open and outspoken to our governmental leaders, we are also to be present in our halls of governance through prayer, views and opinions expressed, our votes, and by seeking out election to office. As the gathering on that day in ancient Israel suggests, governance is at its best when followers of Christ and secular leaders are gathered as one in order to lead the people along God’s path of righteousness and faith.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in the flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Ephesians 2: 13-16

 

This passage is about Jews and Gentiles; these are the two groups that he was discussing. In his view of the world, there were no other divisions to be considered as primary. Of course, there were many other ways that people were separated from each other, and these were also the basis for animosity, a sense of superiority, and divisive laws or rules for living. Paul had been a strict follower of these ordinances and commandments himself. However, his encounter with Christ had changed all of this. He no longer knew any superiority to others based upon his birth status, and he now believed that God had called him to work to bring people closer together by leading them to the same place in there hearts and minds; that is, he sought to bring them to the cross of Christ as their common meeting place.

 

As modern day followers of the same Christ that had worked out this miraculous change of heart and of thinking in Paul, our hope should be the same as his was. We live in a world that is filled with the language of difference. There are many overt and subtle ways that this is conveyed to us on a very frequent basis. Most of us, if we honestly assess our thoughts and views of others, hold some specific images of superiority for ourselves and for the institutions, organizations, and nations that we are affiliated with. This is the way that we have been raised up, is the thinking that we instill in our children, and it is a manner in which we filter our world in order to create that sense of comfort and safety that is so important to us. Yet, these self-imposed differences, one from another, also divide us from those who we hold as inferior in some form or manner.

 

This is where I hold that Paul’s discussion of Jews verses Gentiles here is truly about everyone on the earth throughout all of time. The real division is people who know God through knowing Jesus Christ and those who do not. So, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, and gender distinctions do not actually matter to God, and they should make no difference to us either. People who know Christ are to be embraced as family and nurtured, cared for, and supported in their walks through life. People who do not know Christ are to be loved, cared for, nurtured in the faith as well as in body and mind, shown Christ’s grace, and provided with the opportunity to experience Him through the words and deeds of His living body the church. We can desire peace in all forms and hope for it to come to our world, but there is only one effective answer to the divisiveness that creates animosity among the peoples of our times, and that is Christ. He brings us all to a place of meeting that is transformative. For, as we gather at the cross, the only goals that matter are Christ’s as in Him we are all now citizens of God’s Kingdom and brothers and sisters in service to its one eternal King.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8: 20, 21

 

On this date, July 4th, the United States of America, the country where I live and the one that birthed and raised me, celebrates freedom. This day is the singular great holiday on the nation’s calendar, and it is generally the occasion for a massive and hopefully unifying party. I do think that freedom is worth celebrating and also that the freedoms that are considered to be fundamental to the national character of the United States are truly worthy of a vast and universal party. We should gather at the hearts of our communities, play festive music, remember those who have sacrificed in order to secure our world and this nation, and light up the sky with fireworks. Freedom is more than a worthy reason for all of this. Still, I think that there is a freedom that is greater than all that we are celebrating today, and it is something that we certainly should consider as we put on our party clothes and sing out our national hymns.

 

The need for freedom comes about because of its absence, its loss. When God made this world He made it and us free. We had an almost unfettered ability to make choices and to enter into our roles as the rulers of our daily life on earth. God did provide guidance and law, He was directly involved with us on an ongoing basis, and people were granted responsibility and were given freedom that was in balance with it. We know the story. This freedom was taken to extremes and the responsibility to follow God’s will and to reverence Him above all else was set aside with catastrophic results. So, we live in a world where everything is distorted and corrupted and wherein it is hard to find the sort of true freedom that God designed and intended from the beginning of our world’s history.

 

This country does set out concepts and ideas that move in the direction of the form of freedom that God desires for people and for His creation to enjoy. Yet, I do wonder if we don’t get some of it wrong or at least in the wrong order. The greatness in this nation is found in its world-embracing diversity and by virtue of the gift of resources that allow for this soil to enfold people who come with nothing and grant them the opportunity to develop and to become contributors to the well being of others. This is a nation where humanity’s great conversations can take place in an open and protected environment in which understanding is the objective. We can meet and share our faith, our understanding of the nature and the person of God, our views on the makeup and function of family, how we care for this planet, and the best way to establish peace upon its surface and among its people. The ability to enter into these and many other discussions, both large and small, is a part of the freedom that God has granted to us here.

 

The glory of God is seen in our love for others and in our openness to hearing their stories and to caring for them. There is no greater freedom than what is found in the ability to set aside fears and to embrace God’s desire for reconciliation among peoples who have become separated by the human-derived barriers of this broken world. This sort of thing is the foundational greatness that can set the United States apart in our world. This nation has great resources, and I would pray that we would learn to use them to care for people who are in need. This nation grants many freedoms, and I desire to see us tender them to multitudes in order to narrow the gaps of understanding and mistrust that are prevalent in our world today. There is much to celebrate here today, and as we do this, I do sincerely pray that the glory that fills our sky will be that of the Lord as His desire and will for people to enjoy true and eternal freedom becomes the hymn of our nation.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

Deuteronomy 24: 21

 

God made Moses very aware of the way that we humans function. So when Moses was setting out the laws for living in a gathered society, he dealt with issues like this one. It would be great if people would treat everyone with care and concern naturally and without the compulsion of the law. However, that is not how we are. People tend to be selfish and self-centered. We tend to either overlook those who are weak or needy, and we often seek to use and exploit them. Our desire to gain strength and status at the expense of those who are in need of our care is not a condition of modern times; rather, it is something that sin has woven into the fabric of this world.

 

Like all other ways in which sin has damaged, broken, and destroyed God’s created beauty and love, there is a cure for this issue. We are called upon by God to hold our possessions with hands that are very open. In this instance, the Israelites were given instruction about leaving part of the harvest behind in the fields, orchards, and vineyards. Implied in all of this is the fact that the harvest is not really ours. It is a gift from God, and He gives out of a bounty that is unending. This law does not contain a stipulation about the quantity or the quality of the harvest, either. This concept of leaving part of the crop for those who were in need applied to every year and to each person’s crop. God’s approach to helping the people who were in greatest need involved both the provision of food and a means where by those people could get it with dignity by picking it themselves.

 

Most of us don’t tend vineyards, and frankly, our modern culture doesn’t function like the one where Moses lived. But, there are still people who are in need. Our world has its share of individuals who are weak, disadvantaged, and unable to fully care for themselves. God cares for them greatly, and He wants His people to care for others out of Christ’s love. It seems that God wants us to learn to trust Him fully. He promises to provide us with all that we need. As we give away what is truly not ours, God will either replace it so that we don’t starve or He will demonstrate to us the fact that we did not actually need what we gave away. This sort of demonstration of loving others because of Christ’s love for me is a powerful form of witness in this world where self interest is normal and prevalent. As we enter into providing for the real and tangible needs of others, we become living examples of God’s redemptive drive as we speak the peace, grace, hope, and restoration that come only from Christ into the lives of the people we touch.

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