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Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Law as Teacher (Psalm 1.1-3, Romans 6.15-23)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - January 4, 2015
Text: Psalm 1:1-3; Romans 6:15-23

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: "Every Promise of Your Word" (Getty/Townend)
Song of Praise: "Step by Step" (Rich Mullins)
Song of Sending: "Jesus, All for Jesus" (Robin Mark)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Over the next seven weeks we are going to look at a number of mostly Old Testament teaching on patterns and practices God established for His people. What I think and hope you will find is that these old practices, fulfilled and sometimes re-explained through Jesus Christ, offer us “holy habits” that will cultivate and develop and healthy spiritual life. Just like eating well or exercising benefit the body, these spiritual practices are healthy for your soul. In some cases they are also healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and relationally!

These practices include blessing, Jubilee, waiting, tithing, Sabbath, and worship. And all are taught, even commanded, in the Old Testament scripture and echoed in the New. I need to offer a few cautions first, because it’s easy to get scriptures like these turned around:
  1. Whether practices or outright rules or commandments, these things are not salvific. Keeping the Sabbath does not save you or even forgive your sin. But it is healthy and it is good. It’s a “good rule” from God for your benefit.
  2. Much of the Old Testament Law was preparation for what God was going to do in Christ. Though Christ has come, much of that preparatory teaching and practice can still be instructive and helpful for our understanding and experiencing life in Christ.
  3. God’s laws are like the house rules of a loving parent. Telling a young child not to play in the street is not a condition of loving them, it is an expression of love for them. So it is with God’s Law.
To help with our overview of this topic, we will look at an illustration from Psalm 1 and a more theological explanation in Romans 6.

Psalm 1

We heard the beginning of Psalm 1 for our Call to Worship. It offers a simple and compelling illustration of blessing and how God’s Law and Word nourish our life. How blessed is the one who avoids the way of sin and delights in and meditates upon God’s Word and Law. There is nothing burdensome or tedious there; rather, a love for and a hunger for knowledge of God through His Word.

What’s the illustration? The person who is blessed through this love and hunger for God’s Word will be “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season.” This blessed person is well-rooted and well-nourished. That is the gift of God’s “rules” through His Word.

I think again of my children, who have at times strained against the rules of the house. And to be sure, we are not perfect parents, so neither are our rules. But the best rules, most purely given, root and nourish a child that they might be safe, flourish, and prosper.

What is it like to disregard God’s Word? Well, the “streams of water” still flow from God’s Word… it just means that one has chosen to plant one’s self far from the water. That is our prerogative as free creatures; but it is missing out on God’s best for us.

Romans 6:15-23

In the text from Romans, we pick up in the middle of a very long train of thought from the Apostle Paul. He is explaining the wonderful Good News of God’s grace in Christ for all who believe, even non-Jews. In chapter six, he spends some time talking about the Old Testament Law. He says several important things about it, which were later highlighted by Reformation luminaries like Martin Luther and John Calvin as the “three uses of the Law.”

1.    It provides a witness and restraint against sin and evil

God’s Law did (and does) restrain sin and evil. Whether it was written into the civil law of the nation, as with Israel, or mirrored in the laws of the land, as with many of our laws, or just read or heard, it provides a witness that some actions have dire consequences and are morally wrong. Law regulates society and provides order and structure (as opposed to anarchy or lawlessness). So while keeping God’s Law did not save anyone’s eternal soul, it did save some who heeded it from sickness, harm, conflict, or even death.

The Reformers classified it along with “general revelation” – just as the beauty of creation offers a non-specific witness to a Creator, so God’s Laws offered a general restraint on sin and evil, even for someone with no particular faith or trust in God.

Paul summarizes this use of the Law in v. 23a: it is to tell us that “the wages of sin is death.” And if that were all we had from God, we’d have to hope that fear of death would keep us from the worst evils (though that is not always the case).

2.    It shows us our need for God’s righteousness

Secondly and with its impossibly high standard, God’s Law shows us that we need God’s intervention if we are to know what it is to be “righteous” or right before God. If we read (and try to live) the Law with holiness in view – that is, with faith – we inevitably realize that we fall short. That is a very different thing than being scared of death and restrained from all evil. This is hoping for life and realizing that we can’t do it on our own.

It is response to this realization that the message about Jesus Christ is truly Good News. God doesn’t meet our imperfect faith and obedience with a big ‘x’ mark; he meets it personally through the incarnation, identification, and obedience of Jesus as human being. And God accounts Jesus’ faithfulness to us as a gift of love. THAT is grace.

Paul explains in counterpoint to “the wages of sin is death” that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (v. 23b)

3.    It encourages and teaches godly living

Thirdly and on the other side of faith and grace, the Law remains vital as a teacher and encourager for godly living. It is no longer a death sentence or master over us, but is a “good word” for living according to God’s will. So the Law no is no longer a warning against death, it is an invitation to a fuller, healthier life. It still doesn’t save; God did that in Christ. But it does help us grow, thrive, and experience God’s best.

Paul explains this way: “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification.” (v. 22) Sanctification is “growing up” in Christ, into a mature learner and follower of Jesus. God’s Law and Word helps with that; it benefits us.

One Last Illustration

Let me offer one more illustration. When a child hears the rule of a loving parent, it is nonetheless a rule. “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways.” Disregarding it risks danger – even if the child can’t comprehend speeding cars, he or she can understand direct consequences from the parent. Obeying or not obeying the rule may exasperate a human parent, but it does not factor into the love of the parent for the child. The desire of the loving parent is to deliver the child into adulthood in one piece. And if the child’s life were ever truly at stake, the parent would surely jump in the way to save them. On the other side of childhood, does the now grown adult disregard the old rules? No, a wise adult still looks both ways, because it was and is a good rule, a wise rule. It promotes health and safety and life.

God’s Law on the other side of faith and salvation is kind of like that. We are wise to obey, not because we fear God’s punishment or judgment, but because the Law and God’s Word are good and wise. It promotes health and safety and life, properly understood.

So, in the coming weeks we will look at things like God choosing a chosen people, the Year of Jubilee, the long periods of waiting for God’s timing, the practice of tithing and Sabbath, and the greatest commandment for worship. We’ll see that these are not matters of judgment or condemnation or punishment; rather, they are good and wise teachings that can be appropriated in our lives today for our own health and safety and well-being. What a great gift from God that is! Amen.

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