Don't Even Think About It
Grace is a dangerous thing.
At first glance, these two lessons this morning seem to be polar opposites of each other. On the one hand, we have the prophet Moses, descending from Mount Sinai, setting in stone the laws of God, the famous Ten Commandments. And then, centuries later, we have the Apostle Paul not only proclaiming his freedom from these laws, but how he has come to consider them garbage, rubbish, trash, or as one translation puts it rather un-poetically, “dog dung.”
So which is it? Should we be putting these on the courthouse lawns? Or should we be tying them up in little baggies?
There is a temptation to say that one story is about the Old Testament God, and the other the New Testament God, but that feels too much like a shortcut, an easy way out.
So let’s start with Moses and the people. Remember what has just happened to them: slaves in Egypt, they cried out for deliverance. God sent Moses and Aaron, visited plagues on the Egyptians, parted the seas, destroyed their enemies, and made food and water appear out of thin air. So far, this relationship seems pretty one-sided.
And so, as they return to Mt. Sinai (or Mt. Horeb as it is also known), Moses has a confab with God and returns to deliver the news we read this morning. Are you tempted to follow other gods? Or have you been contemplating a little murder or adultery or coveting? Don’t even think about it! There are new laws on the books, a new sheriff in town.
But there’s a subtle distinction at work here, one that requires us to go back in time. This wilderness encounter is known as the Sinai Covenant. Apparently, that didn’t test well with audiences, so we remember it as the Ten Commandments. It may not seem like an important point, but it’s a crucial difference. Commandments are one-way; Covenants, two.
In short, God’s message is this: “I will continue to do these things for you, protecting you, providing in the desert, leading you on your way into the land of promise. And these are the things that you will do to keep up your end of the bargain, to show your faithfulness.”
We could call it a contract, but to our ears, contracts are “if-then” clauses: if one party doesn’t keep up their end of the bargain, the other doesn’t have to, either. The covenant of the ancient Near East was more like a treaty. The stronger nation conquers the weaker tribe. And because the weaker party will pay tribute – through money and crops and laborers – then the stronger party will be obliged to protect. In this example, God is the conqueror; the people, the defeated ones.
Feel better now? God has won, and we’ve lost. God is the Harlem Globe Trotters, and we are the Washington Generals. Thanks be to God?
This still seems contrary to the picture Paul painted. Paul talked about casting this covenant into the circular file, because it had become an obstacle to him knowing and embracing Christ. There’s no sense of being defeated at all…is there?
Gene March is the professor emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. For him, the scene from Exodus is all about awe. It’s about having a sense of the divine as “mysterious” and “somewhat threatening.”
March notes that it is particularly hard for us in our culture to connect with this image of God. He writes, “few people today…have a strong sense of what ‘holiness’ means or why being in the presence of God might be considered dangerous. The otherness of God has given way to the notions of God as a buddy or generous grandparent.”
And while some of March’s critique strikes me as though he’s bucking for Andy Rooney’s job, complaining about “kids today with their baggy jeans and comfy God”, I think there’s more than just a kernel of truth in it all. The meaning of the incarnation, the purpose of Christ’s ministry, was to make God’s presence immediate, accessible; but not domesticated.
Jesus, as a friend of mine once wisely said, isn’t Elmo. As we now imagine Jesus, we have wiped the element of danger out of the picture.
But Jesus was dangerous. He healed on the wrong days. He ate supper with the wrong kind of people. He challenged the assumed authority of the religious and political leaders of his day. In fact, he was so dangerous, they knew they had to eliminate him. And he was so dangerous that he didn’t fight; he even had the gall to forgive them as he hung there on the cross!
Grace, it turns out, is a dangerous thing.
And Paul knew this danger first-hand. We first met him as Saul the Pharisee, persecutor of the church. He oversaw the lynching of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, at the hands of an angry mob. From there, he was deputized to go to Damascus and nip this Christianity in the bud. And that’s where the powerful grace of Christ met him face to face.
On the road to Damascus, Saul, as the familiar story goes, was struck blind. The voice of Christ spoke: “Why are you persecuting me?” For three days, he was unable to eat or drink. His companions dutifully led him into the city of Damascus, to the home of a Christian named Ananias. And it is there that the scales fell from his eyes and he was healed.
He responded with zeal, becoming baptized. Saul became Paul, not only an evangelist for Christ, but the apostle to the Gentiles.
Saul, the one who had zealously guarded faith as he understood it, was now Paul, the messenger through whom the doors were blown wide open. The whole world now had access to the powerful grace of God. What Saul once held sacred and knew to be true, Paul now considered utterly worthless. And Paul wanted nothing more now than to be held in Christ’s dangerous embrace.
Moses descends from Mt. Sinai. The scales descend from Saul’s eyes. And in both moments, God’s character becomes clearer. God will be our God. Christ will be our healer. And our place in the covenant is faithful response.
What does this faithfulness mean? Does it look like the rules Moses delivered, written in stone, eternal and irrevocable? Or does it mean risking our lives, as Paul did, for the sake of the gospel?
Well, yes. It means that we have to let go of the things we hold so dear: our nostalgia for the slavery of Egypt, our comfort with a regulated faith.
We have to turn loose our assumptions, our possessions, our identities, our grudges, our loyalties, our criticisms, our hopes, our fears, our self-reliance, our utter dependence, our certainties, our doubts. Let them go. Don’t even think about them.
As in the story of the infant Moses, God invites us to set these things adrift and to trust them to the God we know in Christ. Will they come back? They will, if they’re supposed to. But if they do, they – and we – will be changed, almost unrecognizable.
Our eyes will be opened as if for the first time. We will see the power of God and the mercy of Christ in a brand new way. We will know more fully what a wonderfully dangerous thing grace can be. And we will want, more than anything, to be held in its risky embrace.
What is it that you’re holding onto? What is getting in the way of your relationship with God? What is it that you need to let go of? Are you willing to chance it?