thoughts on the Law

This sermon was originally preached on 3/8/2015, based on Exodus 20:1-17 and Psalm 19.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Have you ever described someone as having a “sweet tooth”?  If so, you were probably saying that they like to eat candy or love cookies or would never turn down an ice cream sundae.  Perhaps you’ve said of yourself, “I have a real sweet tooth right now,” meaning that you were just craving a sugary treat.

We all know what it means to have a “sweet tooth.”  But I can’t say that I’ve ever considered God’s law as something to have a “sweet tooth” for.

As a good, lifelong Lutheran, I have learned that the Word of God can be divided into Law and Gospel, and I learned that the Law, those rules and regulations and restrictions, are there to show me what a sinner I am.  We know the laws: our first reading even lists them out and reminds us of them.

At first glance, it is tempting to say that we do a pretty good job keeping these commandments.  We could treat them like a checklist: no killing, no stealing, come to worship every week, dot your I’s and cross your T’s, and, voila! Law-abiding Christians one and all.

Remember the Sabbath: not just that you come to church, but that you gladly hear and learn God’s word.

You shall have no other gods: not your money or your career or your politics or your family or anything else.

You shall not kill: not just that you avoid hurting others, but that you, through your lifestyle and decision-making, help and support others in all of life’s needs.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor: do not lie about your neighbor, but even more: defend your neighbor when someone speaks poorly of her, and interpret her words and actions as generously as possible.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or his shiny new car or his hair that never seems to get thin or gray or anything else that is his.

Perhaps you, like me, are beginning to shift uncomfortably in your seat.  As I read through this list, I realize that perhaps I am not so good at following all these rules as I would like to be.

Maybe I have not killed, but I have neglected to consider how my overuse of natural resources depletes the earth for future generations and even now pushes the global climate into a precarious imbalance.  How often have you thrown away a plastic tub because it was easier than rinsing it out and recycling it?

Perhaps I don’t tell lies about other people, but it is easier to assume the worst about them than believe the best, especially when we disagree.  How often have you insisted that if the other person just “looked at the facts” they would come to agree with your political perspective?

Maybe as much as we would like to think we keep the commandments, our pride at being better people is simply blinding us to all the ways we fall short of the Law.  It sounds like Martin Luther had it right when he said that the law is always accusing and judging us.

But wait!  The author of the psalm says that God’s law revives our very soul.  How can something accuse and give life?

Perhaps the psalmist means something different by “law.”  Perhaps it isn’t just rules and regulations, but something else entirely.

If seminary has taught me anything, it is that when a passage seems puzzling, a little curiosity will take me far.  So, what exactly is that “law” we see in Psalm 19:7?  Our bulletin printed it as “the teaching of the Lord is perfect.”  The Bible says, “the law of the Lord…”  But, with a few Hebrew classes under my belt, I thought I’d go ahead and look that word up.  The Hebrew word is “Torah.”

Now, to be fair to the translators of our Bible, who admittedly know more than I do about Hebrew, Torah can mean Law.  But, if we just translate “Torah” as “law,” then we miss out on the full meaning.

See, Torah is the word that means the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Now, there are plenty of commandments in those books, but at their most basic, they are the story of God forming a covenant relationship with the people of Israel.  Last week, the Old Testament reading was about Abram being called by God, the beginning of God’s relationship with the people who would become the chosen people.  Torah, in other words, could be translated as something like, “the faithfulness of God to the people” or “God’s covenant promises with Israel.”

Now, that sounds kind of different from “law.”  What if we read that verse something like, “The LORD’s promises and faithfulness revive the soul”?  It sounds a little bit different when we read it that way.

Our souls long for God to be faithful, for God to keep the promises spoken to us.  Indeed, even when we see the many ways we break the commandments, God keeps the promise that begins the list: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  Or, to you and me: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of your slavery to sin and death, so that you might live in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

And, interestingly enough, God gives the commandments after reminding the people that they are no longer slaves, that they are instead God’s people.

The Law, perhaps, sounds different when you hear it as God’s child.  Because you are God’s child, the commands of the LORD are given to you as a gift, to guide you in your life in God’s community.  In the old Lutheran Book of Worship, part of the prayer at confession was to God: help us to “delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name.”  God’s Torah is given to delight God’s people, to teach us to live together in community.  After all, stealing is forbidden not for out sake, but for the sake of those from whom we would steal.

And, even if we fail to live in community according to the commandments of God, (and we will fail), God is still faithful.  The promises of God are true, reviving the soul.

What promises are those?  They were made in Baptism, claiming you as God’s child.  They are made whenever you receive the Lord’s Supper, hearing that this is Christ’s body and blood, given for you.  They will be made in a few minutes when we confess our sins and hear God’s forgiveness.

Now, those promises really do sound sweet.  And, of course, God’s promises ARE true. God has promised to bring you to life out of death, and that is exactly what God is doing.

God’s Torah is perfect, reviving the soul.


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One Response to thoughts on the Law

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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