Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“The Way of the Lord”

Isaiah 5:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11[1]

I don’t know how many of you are now or ever have been into gardening. For a while in Fort Worth, I actually took care of a garden. I had bought a house from a woman who worked for one of the Bass families—they inherited the Sid Richardson fortune. And every year the family she worked for bought a whole new bunch of expensive rose bushes and cleared out the old ones. So my garden in Fort Worth was planted with a variety of rose bushes—approximately 70 to be exact! Well, in Fort Worth rose bushes do pretty well, except when it’s a rainy year. Then you have to fight a disease called “black spot.” And the aphids. And keep them pruned and trimmed. You get the idea. It was a never ending job. I wasn’t sad to leave those rose bushes when I moved away.

If you’ve ever done any serious gardening, you have some insight into our lesson from Isaiah for today. Isaiah laments that God had done everything that could have been done to make his “garden” thrive. But instead of bearing good fruit, it bore only bad fruit. Instead of walking in the way of the Lord, the way of justice and peace that makes life thrive for all, the people of Israel had chosen the way of violence and greed and injustice, a way which would inevitably lead to their destruction.[2] And it broke Isaiah’s heart to think of how much it broke God’s heart. Isaiah lamented the disobedience of his people not because he prized conformity or status quo, but because he knew that the only way they would thrive as a people was to follow the ways of the Lord.

For centuries there has been a great deal of confusion over what interest, if any, Christians should have the issue of obedience to the ways of the Lord. At the end of the middle ages, a young German monk named Martin Luther was struggling with his belief that God was a demanding God, a God of justice but not mercy. He tried every way he knew to make himself live up to the expectations of this severe God—even literally beating himself at times. Finally he studied the book of Romans and discovered that salvation was by grace alone, by faith alone. He viewed the NT in terms of “gospel” that saves and the demands of the OT he called “law”—with the implication that it only has the power to condemn.

This tension between “law” and “gospel” is still with us today. If we have been saved by grace, why all the fuss about obeying the ways of the Lord? In fact, the tension between obedience and grace goes back to the Bible itself. The people who lived in covenant with God promised to obey God’s every word, but time and time again they ignored the commands. And those who call themselves God’s people still wonder why they should bother with trying to live up to a set of rules when we are saved by God’s grace.[3]

I think the way to move from confusion to understanding is to begin at the beginning. If we’re going to gain some clarity about the place of obedience to God’s commandments in the Christian life, we have to understand the reason for them in the first place. Keeping God’s commands was never a means of gaining or achieving salvation apart from God’s grace.[4] Living in relationship with God has always meant loving him, serving him, and obeying him—living the life that is truly life. To enter into this kind of saving relationship with God has always meant “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”[5] The scripture calls this “choosing life” (Deut. 30:19-20).[6] Behind the “law” there has always been “gospel” and “grace.” The point is that a lifestyle of obedience to God is one that promotes life; it is a way of life that makes it possible for all people to thrive. But time and time again, the people who pledged themselves to follow that path instead departed from it at the first opportunity.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is placed in a completely opposite situation. By contrast to God’s “garden” Israel, Jesus was led out into the desolate wastes and placed in a setting where everything that could be done to make him stumble was done to him. And yet, unlike the people of Israel, Jesus chose to hold fast to the life of obedience—to keep walking in the way of the Lord, which leads to life. We can see this in his response to the tempter’s questions. At every turn, the tempter sought to induce Jesus to stray from the path of obedience. And at every turn, Jesus responded by going back to basics—“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”; and “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”[7] Jesus didn’t debate theology or ethics with the tempter; he simply affirmed and re-affirmed the choice to follow the path of obedience.[8] Why did he do this? In one respect, the temptation struck at the heart of his calling as God’s Suffering Servant.[9] But at another more profound level, the temptation hit him in his fundamental relationship with God—would he follow the path of obedient faith and faithful obedience? Or would he seek to advance his own agenda and like Israel of old abandon the way that leads to life? And Jesus remained firmly committed to his relationship with God.[10]

Lent is a season for us to reflect on our own response to the temptations of this world. Have we followed the path of obedient faith and faithful obedience? Or have we abandoned the way of the Lord and followed our own paths? It’s very likely that we have done some of both. That’s why we observe a Lenten discipline—to gain some clarity about the ways in which we have abandoned the way that leads to life. But there is also “gospel” and grace behind this “law.” As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the faithful obedience/ obedient faith of this one man was powerful enough to overturn the whole history of human disobedience and restore us all to life.[11]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/10/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 44-46, 49.

[3] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 140, is right on target when he says, “we know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.”

[4] Cf. Perry Yoder, “Liberated by Law,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 5).

[5] Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213.

[6] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 141-42, says, “to live within [God’s law] is to live the life that is eternal. To be sure, law is not the source of rightness, but it is forever the course of rightness.”

[7] Respectively, Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13. Cf. Patricia Ferris, “Bedrock Truths,” The Christian Century (Jan. 30, 2002); http://www.findarticles.com/p/ articles/mi_m1058/is_3_119/ai_83143840.

[8] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Remaining Human,” The Christian Century (Feb. 7, 1996); http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n5_v113/ai_18023704.

[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus; he described the temptations in terms of being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Cf. also Frederick J. Streets, “Clarification,” The Christian Century (Feb. 3, 1993); http://www.findarticles.com/ p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n4_v110/ai_13509819.

[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:262-64.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:333-35 speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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