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Sermon for 18 March 2018

FIRST READING Jeremiah 31:31-34

31“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: 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. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”


PSALM Psalm 119:9-16

9How shall a young man cleanse his way? By keeping to your words. 10With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments. 11I treasure your promise in my heart, that I may not sin against you. 12Blessed are you, O Lord; instruct me in your statutes. 13With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth. 14I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees than in all manner of riches. 15I will meditate on your commandments and give attention to your ways. 16My delight is in your statutes; I will not forget your word.


SECOND READING Hebrews 5:1-10

1Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.


GOSPEL Mark 10:32-45

32{Jesus and the disciples} were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” 35And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”



At one time or another, either on TV or in a text book, we’ve all seen her–the lady with the blindfold, a balance, and a sword. She’s known as Lady Justice. She’s supposed to represent our judicial system. Since the 15th century the blindfold has represented the idea that justice should be meted out objectively, without fear or favor, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness. At least that’s what the lady with the blindfold is supposed to represent. For some of us, that blindfold may represent the imperfection of some of those who make our laws. After all, there are some crazy laws on the books in some of our states.
For example, did you know that in Connecticut you’re not allowed to walk across a street on your hands? I didn’t realize that this was a problem in Connecticut. In Florida a special law prohibits unmarried women from parachuting on Sunday. I’m not certain why it applies only to unmarried women, but if you’re single and have plans to jump out of a perfectly good airplane this afternoon, then you can forget it in Florida. In Kentucky it’s illegal to transport an ice cream cone in your pocket. There go my plans for ice cream at the next Kentucky Derby. In Nebraska, a parent can be arrested if their child cannot hold back a burp during a church service. In my home state of Arizona, Donkeys not allowed to sleep in bathtubs.
On a civic level, in Zion, Illinois, it’s illegal to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats, and other pets. In Bexley, OH, Ordinance #223 prohibits the installation and usage of slot machines in outhouses. Makes you wonder how that law came about. We might want to enact this one here in North Carolina before the lottery folks get any ideas. In Gary, Indiana, it’s illegal to go to a movie, to the theater, or to ride public transportation within four hours of eating garlic. After having served in South Korea twice, this is a law that makes sense, especially in the winter.
Here in North Carolina, Bingo games may not last over 5 hours unless it’s held at a fair. And here’s one that affects me specifically: did you know that I can be arrested if I ever preach in Nicholas County, WV. In that county it’s illegal for a member of the clergy to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit. Thank goodness that’s not a crime in our community. There’s plenty more out there, just google stupid laws for a particular state and enjoy. Because of our Old Testament reading for today, I do think it would be good to consider God’s law for a few minutes; a law that we know is far from stupid.
Our first reading for today is one of the most beautiful and important prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. Beginning with the 31st verse of Jeremiah 31 we read, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This is a statement that I‘ve always found interesting.
We know how important the Law was to the Jews. The people of Israel for hundreds of years had been the people of the Law. From the time Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai to our current day–these commandments have played a fundamental role in Jewish life. As someone noted, Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about God, man and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life. It’s filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of daily life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and most importantly, how to treat God and other people.
To be an observant Jew is to pledge allegiance to God’s Law as revealed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. And yet here’s God, through His prophet, saying that the days are coming when God will put His “law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” No longer will the people have an external list of commandments, but they will have an internal guide of how to live. How will God do that? We, in the Christian community believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in a little town of Bethlehem 2000 years ago when a babe was born and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1: 14.) No longer were the people of God constricted to a written code.
In Jesus of Nazareth we see in the flesh, first hand, what God desires out of us. God’s desire is for us to live as Jesus lived. The word which had been handed down on Mount Sinai was fulfilled by the Word who came to earth and dwelt among us and whose name is Jesus. When we understand that truth, it changes everything about what we believe about the Law. When we understand this truth–that God has made a new covenant with humankind through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–we become empowered to move beyond being simply rule following, law-abiding folks, to people who are making a real difference in the world.
Now please don’t misunderstand, it’s important that we abide by the law, both the temporal laws and God’s law. We should observe not only the laws of God but the laws of the state as well. Now we do need to be clear here. We are under no obligation to obey any temporal law that is counter to God’s law. Human laws cannot compel us to break God’s commands and statutes. Therefore, disobeying valid laws of the state or the community and we could be fined or land in jail or both. God created the temporal authorities and laws for our general good and protection. Paul reminds us in Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (vs. 1-2.) Additionally, disobeying the laws of God on a regular basis and we will find ourselves estranged from God. Consider this.
It might surprise you to know that writer Ernest Hemingway, was the son of devout Christian parents. Hemingway’s writing, however, exhibited none of the beliefs his parents tried to instill in him. A letter from his mother written in 1920 illustrates how completely he had divorced himself from their beliefs: “Unless you, my son, Ernest, come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking . . . stop trading on your handsome face . . . and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ . . . there is nothing for you but bankruptcy; you have overdrawn.”
Hemingway told a writer for a men’s magazine in 1956 that “what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” By his own standard, then, he was a man of unimpeachable morals–nothing made him feel bad. “People with different ideas about morality would call him a sinner,” the article continued, “and the wages of sin, they say, is death. Hemingway has cheated death time and time again to become a scarred and bearded American legend,” said this writer, “a great white hunter, a husband of four wives, and a winner of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes . . . Sin has paid off for Hemingway,” the article continued.
Ten years later, however, in the same magazine there appeared a review of the book Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner. It gave a different account of Hemingway’s life. What we find there is a chronicle of repeated suicide attempts, paranoia, multiple affairs and marriages, and finally, on his return to his Ketchum, Idaho, hideaway, his final–and successful–suicide attempt. Ernest Hemingway thumbed his nose at the laws of God and he paid the price of doing so. As missionary and theologian of yesteryear, E. Stanley Jones used to say, “We don’t break God’s laws. We break ourselves on God’s laws.” It’s important that we obey the law, whether it’s valid laws made by human beings or the law of God. However, it’s important for us to see that obeying the law isn’t enough. Merely obeying the law is not what Christian faith is about.
Many Christians, even today, settle for being law abiding. It’s all about following the list of rules. They’re nice, moral people, but they don’t have a clue about what God really expects out of them. This was the situation for many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Jesus chastised the religious leaders when in Matthew 23:23 He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” They kept the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Pastor John Ortberg tells about a group known as the “blind and bleeding rabbis.” They were called that because, in order that they could never be accused of violating the commandment against adultery, not only would they never speak to a woman, but they would close their eyes when one came into their peripheral vision. The result of this was they were forever falling off curbs and bumping into buildings.
The reality is, you can be law abiding and still be worthless as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned. For example, you can obey the law and ignore acts of injustice going on all about you. Dr. David Zersen once noted that during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time, specifically in 1933, roughly 2,500 of the Protestant clergy in Germany sided with Adolph Hitler. About 2,500 opposed him. And roughly 15,000 took no stand at all. This was beyond belief to Dr. Zersen–that fifteen thousand pastors could turn their heads away and ignore Hitler’s crimes. After all, Germany was thought to be a Christian country! The same thing happens all the time in this land.
It was a rude awakening for many Americans when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted us with the legacy of racial injustice so rampant in our land. Many saw themselves as Christian people. Yet ironically, some of the most blatant injustices were occurring here in the Bible Belt and were being perpetrated by some of our citizens who would dub themselves as eminently law-abiding. You can be law-abiding and be miles from the heart of Christ.
Christians are called to go beyond simply obeying the law. That’s especially important for us to see during this season of Lent. The people who crucified Jesus were the most law abiding in their society. But obeying the law isn’t enough. Nevertheless, followers of Jesus do seek to keep the law. We are, for the most part, law-abiding citizens. But we understand that there is another law that goes hand in hand with the Ten Commandments and that is the law of love. “A new command I give you,” says Jesus in John 13:34, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” That’s the law that’s written on the Christian’s heart. However, few of us can truly say, if we’re being honest, that we live the law of love out fully.
R. Kent Hughes in his book, The Sermon on the Mount, tells the story about a woman, a friend of his wife, who committed herself to that kind of love. This woman’s family had come home from the mission field “. . . and had rented a rather nice townhouse.” His wife’s friend is a very creative person, Hughes says, and did a wonderful job of decorating the place, and they settled in. “Only one thing was wrong,” says Hughes, “the family who moved in next door.
They turned the front yard into a desert, broke the windows out of their house, were always using foul language, urinated in the front yard, and generally caused havoc in the neighborhood. The final straw was when one of the boys climbed into our friends’ yard and threw a whole can of orange paint all over the patio walls. “My wife’s friend was really angry,” says Hughes, “She did not like her neighbors. She wasn’t happy with the Lord for putting her where He had put her.” However, “realizing that her heart was not right, she got down on her knees and said, ‘Lord, you know that I do not like these people at all. God, help me to love them.’ This didn’t make her feel any different, but she resolved to exercise love.
She baked her neighbors a pie and took it to them, thus beginning a caring relationship.” Here’s what was interesting according to Hughes. “Those neighbors did not change, but she did. She had begun to love them. When those neighbors moved away, she wept.” Kent Hughes concludes this remarkable story with these words, “What an example of intelligent, volitional love that says, ‘I will love by the grace of Christ within me.’” Are we capable of such love? I suspect that none of us are by our own volition, but with God’s help we all can be.
The people we seek to love may never return that love. That’s who they are. We are followers of the man from Galilee who loved so much that He gave His life in our behalf. That’s more than simply being law-abiding. That’s living with the law written on our heart. It’s like a man who moved into a small town and bought a little house across the street from the railroad tracks.
Every morning he noticed an elderly lady walking along the tracks picking up something and putting it into a bag that she carried. The man got curious about this lady and so he went to the corner “Mom & Pop” grocery story that had been there forever and asked the owner about this lady. “Oh, that’s the widow Jacobs,” he said. “Every day she comes half way across town to pick up the coal that is spilled on the tracks when the early morning train runs through town.” “But there hasn’t been a steam locomotive using coal on these tracks for years,” replied the new resident.
“That’s right,” said the store owner. “When the steam train stopped running, old Mr. Simpson who runs the hardware store was concerned that the widow Jacobs would no longer have coal to heat and cook with. He knew she was too proud to take charity, so he decided to get up early every morning, take a bag of coal and drop it along the tracks. The widow Jacobs still thinks the steam train runs by here every morning. I think old Mr. Simpson has been doing that for about 5 years now.
We don’t know for certain that old Mr. Simpson abided by all the laws of his community, but I suspect he did. But we know he didn’t stop there. He followed the example of the Master. He had the most important law of all written on his heart. It’s the law of love. “A new command I give you,” said Jesus, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37.)

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