This sermon was preached on March 4, 2018 by Rev. KJ Norris as part of the Lenten 2018 sermon series on Covenant. The following manuscript is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
Let us turn first today to our reading from the New Testament. We are once again in the little letter in the back of your Bible written by John. It is called 1 John and we are going to chapter 4. If you are already open to Exodus, that is great, just stay there, but we will start today with 1 John and will we get into Exodus in a minute. (READ 1 John 4:16b-5:5).
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Many of you have expressed that you are excited about this sermon series. We are studying the promises of God. The covenants, the commitments God makes to us. The ways in which God brings blessings into our lives. It is an exciting topic.
I was in the book store the other night, just perusing the religion section, and was amazed by the number of books that have the words “Promises of God” in the title. There is The Promises of God, The Bible Promise Book, 199 Promises of God, God’s Promises for Every Day and more! We as a culture are hungry to study what it is that God has for us. What God is doing in the world and specifically in our lives.
This is a good thing. We all should be hungry to know the will of God. To be able to see what God is up to.
But when we stop to actually study the Promises of God, the Covenants God makes with humankind, the ways of God that God has revealed in the Bible, we might be surprised by the promises. We started in the very beginning of Scriptures, in the Book of Genesis, and saw the first promise God formally makes with us. God promises recreation. No matter how bad things get, God says, ‘I promises that I will give an opportunity for repentance, and I will recreate all that is.’ God makes this covenant with Noah and with all creation. God’s promises are not just for us humans but for our animal friends and for the very earth itself. That first promise is beautiful. Recreation–a second chance–God’s Promises are so good.
Then last week, we looked at the second covenant God makes with humanity. This time to a human named Abram. God changes Abram’s name, God recreates him in a sense, and God extends the promise is making with humanity. This time God promises to be God and to be with humanity. Specifically, God promises to bless Abraham by being with him and to bless all the nations of the world through him. Again, this is a beautiful promise. God literally cuts a covenant with Abraham, God promises that if humankind ever gets into trouble, if we are threatened with death and destruction, God will step in and come to our rescue. God symbolically promises death rather than letting us die in despair.
When we are alone and afraid and caught up in sinfulness, God promises to be with us. Beautiful. I am so thankful for this covenant God makes with Abraham and with Noah before him.
But today we get into the third covenant, the Covenant with Moses and with all the people of ancient Israel. Hear the reading of the third covenant from the book of Exodus 20.
The third covenant. The third promise God makes with humanity is this one. It is the covenant of the Law.
What? Pastor, you are kidding us right? The law is a promise. No, no. Promises are like blessings. They are the other earlier ones—God’s going to be with us. God fights for us when we are down. God brings newness into our lives. Those are promises. But law? Rules? That’s not a promises.
I hear you. I do. This promise flies in the face of our expectations. We have become conditioned to believe that God’s promises are about what God can do for us. We expect that they are all about Jesus’ miracles: turning water into wine, making a feast out of a few loaves and fishes, raising people from the dead. Now those are promises.
But in reality, the covenants that God makes with us sometimes surprise us. One of the greatest gifts that God has given humanity is the gift of the law.
A little house keeping detail for the scholars among us before we begin to investigate how the Law is a promise and a gift: Last week we learned that there is a ritual that usually comes alongside covenants. Something about death and cutting animals—remember that? Yeah, so if you are looking for that and wondering about it, you can read that part this week. It is in Exodus 24. The common lectionary that we follow that churches all around the world use wisely decided that we didn’t need to read that part, but if you are curious, it’s there.
And when the rest of Scripture speaks about this Covenant with Moses, it often gives it a name: we call it the Covenant of 10 words. Or the 10 Commandments. Or the Covenant of the Law.
But that probably strikes most of us as odd. How can the Law be a promise? How can a list of 10 rules be a promise? Aren’t rules about punishment not about blessing?
These are good questions.
There is a person who is so much smarter than I am who set out to answer these questions long before I did. I’m very thankful for that. His name is John Calvin, anyone ever heard of him? John Calvin was a scholar who was born in France in the 1500s. He is generally considered the founder of all the Reformed Christian Denominations including ours, the Presbyterian Church.
He lived in a time when the world was in chaos. Martin Luther had already nailed his 95 Thesis to the church door and thousands of people were breaking away from the Catholic church. They no longer trusted the Pope who had been the moral guide for centuries before. People were turning against their own governments, their own families. Their belief systems were destroyed and society was a mess.
John Calvin set out to help people understand that even though the church was changing, God had always been at work and was still at work in the world. And he wanted people to really understand the Scriptures from the beginning to the end so that they could see how God is at work today. I think in our age when the world is rapidly changing again. When sometimes it seems like everything we once knew is now suddenly different. I think his words ring true for us today as well. And so Calvin set out to write what is now considered the first every systemic theology, the first ever comprehensive book about how God is at work in the world.
And one of the topics he address is the Promise of the Law. Why is God’s law a promise? How is it a blessing in our lives?
Calvin gives three purposes, three functions of the law. First, Calvin explains that the law helps us know God’s righteousness and our sinfulness.
Have you ever wondered what is good? Have you ever wondered if God is good. Calvin says, when we look at the Law, when we look at the 10 Commandments, we understand that God is good. God wants the world to be a place where love can thrive. A place where people do not treat one another in harmful ways, but where we respect one another. God teaches us to do no harm. We don’t steal from one another, we protect our families—we don’t cheat on our spouses, we certainly don’t murder one another. We respect the very image of God in one another and see the value in each human life.
This is the God we serve. God is good. God wants good things for our lives. God makes this covenant, this promise with humanity so that we might have abundant, loving lives. We see the goodness of God in the law.
And in seeing that goodness, in knowing that we are called and created and recreated to love, we also see that we are not good. When we look at that list of 10 Commandments, we see areas in our lives that are ugly. We think back and we know that we have not been completely truthful with our loved ones. We know that we have been hungering for what our neighbor has instead of joyfully giving thanks for what we have. We know that we have accepted that murder is a normal part of our daily lives and have done little to stop it.
When we look at the goodness of God, we see our own sin. And then, we repent. We turn back to God. We say: God, your way is better and I want to live according to your promise, according to your law. I want to live in a way of love. And that repentance allows God to do as God has promised elsewhere. God rescues us from our own sinfulness. God recreates within us. God’s blessings come fully.
So, the law is good, it is a blessing and a promise because it helps us to know God’s goodness and to turn to God when we are not walking in the way of God.
Then, Calvin says, there is a second reason why the law is beneficial. Calvin says: the law is good for the protection of the community.
Okay, so the first reason is really all about us as individuals. We are better people and more able to walk with God when we see the goodness of God and see our own sinfulness and thereby turn to God. But the Law is not just about us as individuals, it is about us as a community. We as a community, as a nation, are better because of these laws.
While there are some who do not yet know the blessing of God and the joy of walking with God, and while there are some who do not fear God, who have never read this covenant and seen that in verses 5 & 6 we are told about the blessing and the curse of God. The blessing that God promises to a thousand generations of those who follow him but the curse that comes upon even the third and fourth generation of those who refuse. There are some who do not follow the law because it is a gift. And for them, these laws become societal restraints.
Maybe a person wants to steal and has no regard for the property of others, but they do fear going to prison. And that keeps them from harming others. This is the second promise of the law. We don’t have to fear others. We don’t have to stay awake at night protecting our own houses from intruders. That is not a burden we carry. Why? Because God showed us what is right. And we established laws in the little “l” broad sense to keep us safe. We can give thanks for system of law which isn’t perfect, but which enables us as a whole to live our lives freely. And we can give thanks for those who swear to protect the law, our police and our legislators.
And then there is a third blessing that comes from the Covenant of the Law, according to Calvin. And that blessing is specifically for Christians. For you and me. For people who have pledged our allegiance to Jesus Christ and sworn to walk in God’s way.
The law is a beautiful promise for us in two ways. One, it helps us to know more of God and two it helps us to be recreated every day. We are humans. And by nature that means that we don’t just come out of the womb knowing God. We are different from God. Set apart from God. We lack wisdom.
But when we put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and dedicate our lives to the Lord, the Holy Spirit of God comes into us and transforms us. Renews us. Recreates us. Gives us new hearts and new wills.
And as 1 John tells us, fear is cast out as we grow to know the love of God. We are no longer afraid of the punishment of God. The curse is no longer upon us, we are a part of the family of God who is blessed for thousands of generations. And we no longer fear people either. Many Christians have gone to jail and have even faced the punishment of death for their faith. We who know the Lord don’t live our lives in fear. Fear is cast out by love.
But even though we are set free by God, even though we experience God’s love and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, that doesn’t mean that we suddenly know everything. We are still humans. Bound by human limitation. And the law, when we study it, when we read Scripture, the law gets to work within us. It helps us gain wisdom and grow closer to God.
The Word of God continuously shapes us, helps us to be who we were created to be all along. We will never be perfect this side of heaven. We just won’t be. But God is blessing us through the Law. God is teaching us and growing in us a new creation. That way we can live lives of love.
Our New Testament Scripture today reminds us that God is the very essence of love. God is love, John tells us. So as we grow closer to God, we too become more loving.
And the law, it is not a system of rules or punishments that somehow keep us from living full lives. Instead, it is just the opposite. God’s covenant of law shows us what true love is. It shows us how to be loving. It teaches us the way of God so that we might walk in this way and in love.
The law is a beautiful promise of God. Let us live by the promises of God.