Great Reversal

Dec. 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

A.J. Jacobs, has written several best selling books but in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, he described his attempt to do exactly that...he followed literally as many of the rules from the Bible as possible. The subtitle of his book is, "One Man's Humble Attempt to Live as Literally as Possible the Commands of Scripture". He cites Ecclesiastes 12.13 which says, "Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of men (and women)."

Throughout history there have been any number of conflicts about Biblical rules and HOW to apply them to our everyday life. Some obviously demand our attention--the Ten Commandments, the two great Commandments of Jesus, but many others are either unwittingly or intentionally overlooked, like the Levitical direction to avoid contact with pigskin! What would happen to the National Football League? And you couldn't say the name of the Tennessee Titans because that would violate Exodus 23.13, which says, 'do not invoke the names of other gods...' And even more perplexing would be the task of trying to find something to wear that doesn't violate Leviticus 19.19 which says don't wear clothing made of more than one type of raw material--"Poly/cotton"...oh? Violate that one and Leviticus says you could be stoned to death. Today, we'll be checking the labels of your clothing as you leave.

In the Middle Ages a learned rabbi determined that there were at least 613 rules in the Torah that needed to be followed. But should they be taken literally or figuratively? Most of the men in our church today are clean shaven--a brazen violation of the directions not to cut the beard or the women here this morning whose heads are not covered, a flagrant violation of St Paul's directions in 1 Corinthians (11.5). Origen, one of the first great commentators on the Bible was a firm proponent of the literal interpretation of the scriptures. So, when he read Mt. 19.12 which says, if a part of your body leads you into sin, then cut it he castrated himself. This and other experiences lead him later to become a major proponent of the figurative interpretation of the Scriptures. For many of us, religion is followed "cafeteria" style...we pick and choose those things that we like and things we don't, we either avoid or re-interpret. It's a way to slip/slid through the tight places. Genesis 14.20 admonishes us to return one tenth of all God has given us as a tithe. But does that mean on the gross or the net? I had a CPA friend who advised figuring on the basis of the after tax income, because as he said, "You can't tithe on something you don't have." We find ways around the uncomfortable things A.J. Jacobs who loved to watch TV, because wasn't that making a graven image by turning on the TV? So, he reasoned, if his wife turned it on, then he had not personally violating the law and the Scriptures had not been disobeyed. Jewish law prohibits doing anything that could be construed as, in the hotels in Israel, many elevators have a Sabbath mode, so they stop on every floor, and that way, you don't have to push a button and thereby violate Biblical law. But isn't all this just dancing around the truth? The big question is "How shall we live faithfully before our God and each other?"

John the Baptist was one of those who took the rules and directions of God seriously. But I think as the gospel today makes it clear...the tone, the intent, and the content of John's message was not the message! "He came," he said, "as a witness to the light...He himself was not the light...The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." Sometimes we hear the grisly words of the prophets and we think true religion...must be grim, ghastly, and a foreboding thing. But God is about liberation and freedom, not bondage and fear.

It reminds me of the man who went to visit his friend and was amazed to find his friend playing chess with his dog. He watched the game in astonishment and saw how the dog pushed the pieces around the board. Finally, in amazement he said, "I can hardly believe my eyes! That's got to be the smartest dog that ever lived!" His friend pulled him aside so the dog wouldn't hear, "Actually, he's really not that smart." And he added under his breath, "He's only won two out of the last five games." We're like that man. We're blinded to what God has laid out before us. We just can't see it. We don't see that God's rule in Christ brings a new day and a new way. As the prophet Isaiah said this morning--God is bringing about a new thing where sight is brought to the blind, the captives are made free...the last will become the first. I wonder why we have such difficulty seeing and believing and receiving God's grace?

It's like St Paul's message in Thessalonians today. The message is "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances". Jesus had that effect on people--he raised up the lowly and the high and mighty brought low. The spiritually blind live their whole lives thinking only about the limits of life, the rules, the laws, the commandments, rather than the life you can live in the space that God gives you. Life in the first case is about the limits, but living in God is about grace--full living. We can say to each other, "Rejoice in the Lord!" because of our confidence in the salvation that is coming from our God. We can rejoice because we can see that God can and does work even through the most grim of circumstances to bring about good. Rejoicing is a sign of faith. The "light" of the gospel as John puts it, is seeing in prayer that we are joining our hand to the hand of God...being hand in hand with God encourages us to listen to St Paul's admonish to, "Pray constantly." We literally become a people who live and move and stand in the positive power of prayer. Even secular people recognize the effects of negativity on one's hopes and life. Mark Twain said, "Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." The gospel of Christ calls us to walk in God's grace.

When we praise, when we pray, and when we can give thanks in all circumstances, then we become a new people...a people who see, a people who believe, a people who hope and a people who live with one foot in this world of limits and strictures, but the other one resting on God. We don't realize this until we come up to honestly, and literally confront the challenges of the laws and the commandments that Scripture places upon us... and then we realize how woefully inadequate we are to fulfill those demands. Then and only then do we realize our need for God and that God is close at hand. Only then can we know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and ask for mercy and grace. Then, and only then, can we really rejoice in the Lord, give thanks in all circumstances, because then we see that this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. It takes more than a year of living Biblically--it takes God's grace to help us see the light. When we do, we truly want to rejoice in the Lord always!

The Reverend W. A. Ray St Thomas Church Diamondhead, MS