Sermons That Work

I Will Put My Law…, Lent 5 (B) – 2003

April 06, 2003

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

As we head toward the end of our Lenten season, we see God doing familiar things in new and disturbing ways. The People of God are all familiar with the God who has made deals with them, agreements that laid the ground rules for life under God’s protection. Throughout Lent we’ve been recalling the ways in which those same people went back on those deals, time and time again, but God kept returning to them. In our Old Testament Lesson, God is presenting a new deal, to be sealed in a new way. With the People of God under Moses’ leadership, commandments were carved in stone. Under Abraham, the agreement with God was sealed with the sacrifice of animals cut in half-in fact the language of the Hebrew says that God “cuts a covenant.” But no third party is the “cutting ground” for this new deal that God is proposing. Its terms are to be inscribed directly into the human heart.

Looking at all this from our vantage point, in these days of elective cosmetic surgery, tattoos, piercings, and other body markings, this may not seem like much of a deal. But consider our reaction to the surgical patient recently in the news, now suing because a surgeon marked her insides with the logo of his alma mater without her knowledge. We have difficulty with such a thing being done without our consent. We consider it a violation of our Christian freedom, yet we Christians have our own history of marking the bodies of those we hold captive. In the Thirteen American Colonies, Christian slaveholders had their slaves branded like cattle. In Hitler’s Germany, National Socialists (Nazis), some of them Christian, tattooed captive Jews with ID numbers. Christian soldiers in Bosnia carved crosses into the foreheads of Muslim POWs. These people and their descendants have something to tell us about the pain of the experience — and the dull ache that comes with knowing that one has been marked and scarred for life.

Even those of us who undergo the process of bodily marking voluntarily sometimes find ourselves in another place when we no longer want the marks on our bodies. We pay a high price to remove them. Laser surgery on tattoos is painful and expensive, and removing a brand only creates a new scar in its place. So we are often stuck with these marks and with whatever statement they make about us, whatever identity they assign us, in the eyes of anyone who sees them. We can be marked as a biker, or a New Ager, or a prisoner, or member of a fraternity, or of a family, clan, or gang. Our marks tell the world what we think is beautiful, or who is important in our lives. As one biblical commentator has remarked, “Whatever they signify, these markings are associated with pain, indelibility, and identity.”

So this new covenant with God is actually one tough, difficult proposition. This deal is sealed by the carving of the Law into the human heart, the center of human life. There is no external marking to identify God’s people. The identifying mark is internal — an inward identity, proven in the Godward turning of the heart itself. In this new understanding, belief in God touches and tempers the very heart of human desire, always turning the human creature toward the Creator God, no matter what that person’s life circumstance may be. And just as the believer will be recognized as God’s own by this inward turning, God is revealed in the holiness of the believer’s life. This entails for the believer an awesome responsibility. It means that the world will come to know our God because of what they see in us. If our behavior is considered a reflection of the nature of God, what are we saying about God when we sin, when we use our God-given freedom to choose that which is not God?

Much as we say we love God, we struggle with the notion of submitting to the ministry of this God who wants to touch and shape and reshape our hearts. We like the sound of being “touched by God.” It makes us feel so “special.” But there’s a cost for that touch, and we do not want to pay it. We resist turning to God, because it restricts our choices. It dictates our preferences. It adds to our sphere of responsibility, and in our busy lives, we feel that we have responsibility enough already. We have families and work and school and civic and political and social life. We are on all manner of teams and committees and boards. We have programs and projects to run. Religion for us is a “social option” much like any other, and we have to figure out how we can fit it into our overloaded calendars. The calling of a life centered on God is not an easy choice when the will of God is not the thing closest to our hearts — and we do not like making hard choices.

So we seek the easy road. We figure that as long as things are going our way, we can’t worry terribly much about what might be God’s better Way. We move God to the sidelines and position ourselves in the center, giving Jesus a tip of the hat on the way to doing what we really want to do. On Super Bowl Sunday, many were the good Christian folks who put a token offering in the plate and spent their “real money” on the party they had afterward — if they went to church at all. We will travel miles and sleep in the rain to buy expensive concert tickets but will miss worship because we don’t want to use up our last bit of gasoline during a fuel crunch.

Typical of our times, we put God “on hold” while we take other calls, and this is not a mere figure of speech. In myriad churches throughout the country, and in spite of signs and announcements and the most diplomatic of requests for cooperation, we continually hear the rude interruptions of cell phones ringing in the middle of worship. The hard truth is that we listen for other people’s voices first, hearkening to the voice of God only after we are finished with everyone else. And when the difficulties of life find their way to us, we reach out to God only when we have exhausted our own resources.

But that’s not what we do when the love of God is grafted into our hearts, when we live in Christ and strive to see God’s will for us fulfilled in us. In the darkest of times caused by human sin, whenever our hearts are tempered by God, we will turn to God first. We seek the light of God’s face, follow God’s lead, and make righteous choices that reveal God’s glory. This is what we see Jesus doing in this morning’s Gospel. He was trapped in the consequences of evil, about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies for torture and execution, but what was his prayer? That in whatever was to happen, God’s name would be glorified. “What should I say – Father save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” He surrendered his life back to the Giver of life and was given the strength to endure to eternity.

That is the promise of the Gospel — that the power of sin is never greater than the power of the God within. But the whole point of our Lenten season of repentance is that we have to be willing to let go of something in order to live into the power of God within. We have to be willing to relinquish our hold on “stuff” that we value but that stands between us and God. We let go of life as we define it, in order to experience life as God designs it. To experience the glory of God requires us to die in order to live, to shed our cocoons of safety and take flight in lives empowered by God’s strength. Such a transformation is never easy, but it is truly possible because of the Christ who endured all of human experience, with all its peaks and pits, to show us the way to live.

When the road became rough, Jesus turned to God in his sufferings. The ultimate triumph of his sacrifice stands as his legacy to you and me in the here and now. As we are taught by the Letter to the Hebrews, because of Our Lord’s obedient submission to the will of God, he is now a source of eternal salvation for all of us who now choose to obey him. Following in his footsteps, we can endure, we can triumph, and we can change the world. And that is the Good News of the Gospel.

So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us loose our grip on the things that distract us and hold onto God. Let us pray for growth in the Spirit, that we might open our hearts to the Divine Inscription. Let us arise from our knees and move on in the Gospel journey that keeps us ever turning toward God, “walking in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us,” as we grow from strength to strength. And let all the People of God say, AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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