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The Bible at 30,000 Feet: God Speaks through the Law

Matthew 5.17-20

In the next three weeks, we are going to cover the entire Bible.

A little daunting, I know.  But I think that so often, we spend our time in one passage at a time, and we fail to understand some of the themes that extend from one end of Scripture to another.  So, like the view from 30,000 feet, where we can look from above at the big picture, let us take time to see Scripture in its entirety.

Today, we begin in the beginning, with the Law.  The first five books of the Bible, often called the Law, or the Torah, are foundational to the Old Testament, and really to the whole of the Bible.  But, of course, if they are the foundation, then the keystone at the top of the highest wall is for Christians the Gospels.  They are also the Law…of Love.  The Law of Grace.  The lens through which we view all of Scripture, and ideally all of our lives.

So, today, fasten your seat belts, place your tray tables in a full and upright position, and please stow away any belongings.  We are on the way to a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.  Look out your window and enjoy the view.  From here, everything looks different….

Ezekiel straightened his robe, down to the last tassel, and went out to join the throng that had gathered to hear Jesus.  As he made his way toward the front of the crowd, close to where the teacher would begin, he noticed some sideways glances.  He imagined their questions: “What is a Pharisee doing here? Why would such a learned teacher come to hear this Jesus?  Shouldn’t he be teaching instead of coming here to learn?”  Deep down, Ezekiel asked himself the same questions.  And he wasn’t sure what the real answers were.

As he neared the place where the teacher prepared to teach, he noticed two Roman soldiers, and immediately his thoughtful mood turned dark.  The Roman occupation was becoming more and more oppressive, and he struggled to know what to tell the people about it.  How to lead in these changing times.  Was God really with them anymore?  Had he left them because of their unfaithfulness?  What would it take to bring him back, or at least to bring the people back to his good graces? The Romans still showed up in their homes, forcing them to break the Sabbath and carry their armor or feed their men.  They showed up in their synagogues, disrupting the worship of God.  They even showed up in the Temple itself.  Flaunting their idolatry, they would proudly carry the likeness of the Emperor into the house of the Lord itself!  Right there in the courtyard of the Temple – a graven image!  Ezekiel had to admit, it secretly felt pretty good to hear the news that another soldier had been killed during the night.  Or that another military outpost had been burned to the ground.  Ezekiel had not gone as far as to publicly call for violence, or even acknowledge that these violent rebels might be doing something right.  His anger against the Romans burned bright.

But he knew it was not right, not appropriate.  It was not what Torah taught.  Like other Pharisees, Ezekiel publicly taught that the right answer was to focus on right living.  On following the Torah as perfectly as possible.  If God was indeed punishing his people for their sins, then he and his fellow Pharisees would show them how to stop sinning.  How to realize righteousness in their lives.  To pleasing the God who had left them in the hands of the Romans.  Of course, he followed the letter of the law himself.  The Torah, or Law, as well as the complex set of regulations meant to clarify the more ambiguous parts of the law.  But it wasn’t enough for him to stop there.  He had a duty to enlighten others on their sins.  To judge whether their behavior was acceptable or not.  To stop the behavior that was clearly bringing God’s judgment in the form of the Roman occupiers.  When Ezekiel would point out that someone had carried their pail of water too far on the Sabbath, or had eaten something that was deemed ritually unclean, or had failed to offer the correct sacrifice, it wasn’t because he was trying to be mean or embarrass someone.  He was doing it for the good of the nation…of the community.  God was clearly judging them for their sinfulness, and if it was up to Ezekiel to judge them on God’s behalf, then so be it.  They would thank him when God finally became pleased with them and vanquished the Romans from their midst.

Ezekiel realized that during his meanderings, Jesus had already begun to speak to the people.  He was making a point about salt and light, but it was the next part that really interested Ezekiel.  “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill it…”  Immediately, Ezekiel felt a warmth rush through him.  He felt it in his chest, as the teacher spoke of the Torah that he loved so dearly.  “Until heaven and earth pass away…” Ezekiel smiled.  Everyone there knew that heaven and earth would not ever pass away – the teacher was emphasizing his next point.  “…not one letter, not one stroke of a letter would pass away.”  Again, Ezekiel smiled.  He knew those strokes well, copying and re-copying the Torah until he dreamed of it in his sleep.  The teacher went on to extol the virtue of the Law, the commandments of God, and clarified that they who teach the law would indeed be honored in the Kingdom.  Ezekiel wanted to raise his hand up and wave to the crowds.  Clearly he was talking about him, about the Pharisees and scribes and his fellow teachers.  As Jesus went on, Ezekiel started to feel as though he was indeed doing the right thing.

Until Jesus finished his thought.  Ezekiel’s blood ran cold when he heard the next part: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  The words struck like a knife. Now instead of waving to the crowds, he wished he could shrink away from them.  He wanted to run and hide as he felt every eye on the mountainside fixed upon him.  His face felt immediately red hot, while his hands turned cold and clammy.

But as he looked into the eyes of this teacher, Ezekiel realized that what he felt was not anger.  It was not hatred.  It was not even disagreement.  Because, again, deep in his soul in a place that he had never told anyone else about, he knew that Jesus was right.  Ezekiel had often doubted that he was interpreting the Law in the way that God had meant for it to be interpreted, and now that he heard it out loud, he knew it was right.  Torah was designed as a way for God’s people to become holy.  To be made whole.  To be saved.  But he and so many of his colleagues had turned it into a tool for judgment.  For categorizing and dehumanizing the very people that God had yearned to save.  No, Ezekiel’s eventual response was one of pain and hurt, but not anger, because every doubt and second-guessing and question that had plagued him for years had been answered in the span of about 30 seconds.

Torah was indeed righteous.

It was the way that Ezekiel and his colleagues had used Torah that fell short of God’s desire to save.

 

Zeke sat in his study until late into the evening.  He poured over the words of Scripture again and again, hoping that they would make sense this time.  Sunday morning was just a few days away, and he had zilch.  Not even anything resembling a sermon.  Every word that he had written, he had tossed aside. Every attempt to start had gone awry.

He thought it might be helpful to take a walk and a bathroom break, and as he stopped at the mirror, he noticed the sunburn he had received that morning.  He had spent all morning hammering nails at the Habitat for Humanity build.  It was the time when they invited all of the clergy in town to participate to work together on the house.  It was late in the project, and so it was looking pretty close to a house, and so it made for good photo ops for the preachers.  Not only that, but it kept them from doing much real damage since most of them couldn’t drive a nail straight to save their life.

Zeke had spent most of the morning with the Jewish rabbi, as they painted the trim on the windows in the house.  Zeke had met the rabbi a few times on these projects, and they knew each other by sight.  But this time, they had the chance to really get to know each other.  To hear each other’s history of calling.  To swap stories about ministry in the town that they had shared.

But for Zeke, the conversation wasn’t going as expected.  He started to vent about all the people who called everyday at the church office, looking for a handout.  But the rabbi said that he had talked to many of them on the phone and in person, and many of them had some really heartbreaking stories.  So Zeke tried another window and another conversation.  He complained about the peace mongers who stood outside the gate at the military base in town, holding up signs.  The rabbi responded to this as well, explaining that in fact his sister stood on that protest line after her husband was killed in Iraq.  Finally, Zeke went as far as to complain about the Habitat homeowner whose house he was working on, that if he would just get a job, it would be easier on him.  Of course, the rabbi had an answer for this, too.  He had spent a good deal of time with the Habitat homeowner and was impressed that he was working two jobs and probably 60 hours on any given week.

Finally, Pastor Zeke gave up and made an excuse to work with someone else.  The more he opened his mouth, the more Zeke seemed to take aim at someone else that was clearly not living up to the standard that Zeke had set.  Or, he self-righteously offered, the standard that God had set.  And before long, he had laid out precisely what was wrong with the world, who was to blame, and what it would take to bring our country and our world back to a place of greatness.  But each time, it was this rabbi who offered grace instead of judgment.

With the memory of the conversation playing in his mind, he returned to his study on Saturday evening.  He found himself struggling against the words of another rabbi, as he began to talk aloud to Jesus about the passage in Matthew 5.

“The Law would not pass away?  Come on, Jesus!  Why did you have to go and say something like that?  ’t you read Paul?  The Law is what got us into this mess in the first place!  The followers of the law, like the Pharisees and Scribes and the Jews, are the ones tied to the old way of doing things, not the new way.  Not your way.  Of course the law will pass away…it already has!”

 

The more Zeke struggled over these words, something began to dawn on him.  Everything that Jesus taught was there in the Old Testament as well.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love your enemies.  Jesus just took that tradition and lifted it up, and most importantly, lived it out.  Embodied it.  Fulfilled it.

 

But, in spite the way that Zeke had always read Paul, maybe the Law of Love that Jesus preached about in Matthew and Mark and Luke and John was actually what God had been trying to accomplish in the Law of Righteousness of the Torah.  And Jesus wasn’t really rejecting the Law, but instead rejecting an outmoded way of following it.  The way of Torah always was the way of redemption, and covenant, and salvation, and grace.  But so many law-followers by Jesus’ time had turned it from a way of redeeming into holiness the people of a Holy God – pulling people up – into a way to categorize and dehumanize and judge – pushing people down.

 

Zeke’s blood ran cold as his eyes snapped open.

 

The very same way that he had categorized and dehumanized and judged people over and over again, even as he painted their bedroom walls that very morning.

 

“I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

 

Maybe the Law wasn’t the problem, but the way that the Law was used was the problem.  Maybe the dichotomy wasn’t choosing between Law and Gospel, as much as choosing to judge or to save.

 

Zeke’s tired eyes began to well up as he came to a realization that that means that the people of God even now could be just as guilty as following the way of judgment, instead of the way of salvation. That they who categorize and dehumanize and judge their neighbors are really modern-day Pharisees.

 

And a phrase immediately came to his mind from some long-since forgotten Sunday school teacher.  He Googled it to find where it came from and then openly wept when he realized it was from his namesake.  For it was Ezekiel 36 – from the Old Testament – who wrote the words that now were imprinted on his heart: “I will take from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

And that night, Pastor Zeke knew that God had taken his heart of stone and had given him a heart of flesh.  That the God of the law and the prophets, and the God fully revealed in the Christ, was still calling people into lives of redemption.  Still saving people and communities and families and the world.  Still removing hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh.  Of love. Of grace.

 

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