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Sermon – “The Law and The Prophets” – February 9, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2014    First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

The Law and The Prophets

Isaiah 58: 1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20

Thereʼs an image in the Bible of God working clay into a pot on his potterʼs wheel. This is an unusual metaphor for us, because when do we see people making pots? However, that was commonplace technology then; people knew the scene, the potter working away among his wares. They knew what happened when something went wrong with the shape being given the vessel, how the potter would smash back down the still-wet clay, and start all over.

The message to the people was this: that if they showed themselves to be the approved workmanship of God, they would remain. If they wouldnʼt serve the intended purpose, God would clear the working area and begin again.

The clay being reworked into the originally-intended pot after the first effort has failed is an example of reforming. Reformers trust that the necessary ingredients of a good outcome are already present, but that error has arisen, and the solution is to go back to the beginning and try again. Social reformers believe that society has the proper principles and abilities somewhere in its traditions, but that something has skewed their influence, and undermined their intention. It is the reformerʼs job to identify where things went astray, and this time around, help the most important values prevail.

I want to talk about Isaiah and Jesus and Paul as reformers, because we sometimes, and for good reason, think about them as revolutionaries. They collectively have transformed the world more successfully than some self-consciously revolutionary leaders, and in many ways they are responsible for different approaches to life than those which preceded them.

If we use the pottery image to talk about revolution, what would it be? It might be figuring out how to cast pots from metal. Revolutionists also intend to build– but instead of accepting that they already have the stuff in hand to achieve the right outcome with better application, they decide that part of the bad outcome is in the raw materials, and they look for a new way. They experiment and they invent, persuaded that what has not been tried will lead to a better result.

This distinction always matters, but perhaps especially in a world like ours, in which there are all kinds of problems, and all kinds of persons suggesting solutions. Society itself is conflicted. There are lots of people fearful of change, resistant to anything new, and there are lots of people despairing of the way things have been, eager for something new.

If you want to appeal to more cautious people, those with a conservative temperament, then no matter how thoroughly you hope to remake society, you must tell them that you are a reformer. That will reassure them that your hope is to restore something lost. If you want to appeal to more daring people, those open to new horizons, you must tell them that what you have is revolutionary. That will give them hope that they arenʼt being offered the same old thing.

I want quickly to say two things. One is that I think peopleʼs instincts about this are a matter of temperament. I donʼt think a preference for either approach comes from superior analysis or higher moral reasoning. Some of us are more for reform and some more for revolution, and thatʼs that. It may have something to do with age, and something with circumstances, but there are exceptions to prove every rule.

The other thing I want to say is that people who present themselves as reformers are sometimes revolutionaries, and vice-versa. This can be an unexpected outcome– Jesus and Paul can found a new religion when they start out as reforming Jews– and it can be the result of intractable facts about human nature, as when the Bolsheviks began in earnest as revolutionaries but became responsible for a government, which like the one it replaced, was by a privileged and oppressive autocracy.

What does this mean to us? Each of us has some power as a citizen and as a consumer, and we will be invited by both political factions and salespeople to support changes. Every effort will be made to persuade us that the changes are being planned for our benefit, and it may be so. Still, we have a responsibility to inquire about what it means. If someone is espousing reform, what time-honored principles are involved? Will they be consistent with other things we think equally important? What purposes in addition to these old values will be served by the change suggested? If someone says itʼs time to revolutionize something– by using a new technology, for instance–what are the pluses and minuses? Who will benefit and suffer in the short run and in the long run?

If we donʼt look hard at questions like these, those of us comforted by traditional ways might be too easily convinced that something presented as a reform is what we want. If we tend to be impatient with long-established patterns, we might be too ready to go along with something described as revolutionary. Change will always be a mixed blessing, but when we have a choice about it, we should choose based on clear thinking about whatʼs at stake.

The role of prophecy is to clarify the spiritual meaning of oneʼs times. Throughout scripture God raises up spokespeople who point out that current social or political realities are out of step with what God has revealed to be Godʼs desire for people. In the portion of Isaiah which we have read today the main message is that it is possible for religion to become a series of empty rituals and self-serving notions about Godʼs obligations, as though pew time and prayer time paid a retainer for divine action when people got into trouble. What Isaiah makes clear, by contrast, is that worship and reflection should reinforce the action the faithful take to address othersʼ trouble. Thatʼs the basis of religion–the way one lives among oneʼs fellow mortals.

Jesus, after reminding his followers that they are the light of the world–that their serving God will reveal to others the beauty and blessings of faithfulness–says he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. Though he is in conflict with his fellow religious teachers about how to regard following religiously-sanctioned rules, he isnʼt saying people should take them lightly. His followers should do a better job of living by Godʼs regulations than anyone else.

Passages like this in the gospels surprise us, because we often emphasize Jesusʼ freedom about Sabbath or dietary laws, and his indulgence toward the unclean, and his impatience with the pious. I think what this, and similar sayings, reveal is that Jesusʼ take on his religionʼs expectations remains one of regard for the old ways. It is because he is serious about the law and prophets that he can resolve tensions between them as he does– as when he decides the principle of compassion toward the needy overrules a scruple about associating with someone ritually or morally unclean. Considering which command of God most applies in a given situation is not the same thing as deciding that leftover old laws from some unenlightened time can be ignored.

This is important now, as Christians find themselves addressing the world and their fellow Christians about todayʼs issues. We will have more credibility both with our theological opponents and with non Christians if we show that what may appear departures from Christian tradition result, not from a conflict between tradition and our preferences, but between two competing values within the Bible itself.

Paulʼs letter to the Corinthian church has a specific issue in mind from the beginning, and it affects how Paul composes his communication. There are those in Corinth whose own experience of charismatic gifts–like speaking in tongues–has made them feel superior to their fellow worshipers, and unimpressed by any human authority. Paul will, later in the body of the letter, address what he thinks is wrong with them, but he builds into his arguments from the start.

In the scripture we have read today Paul makes clear that he recognizes and, in his own spiritual experience, realizes the power and place of the Holy Spirit. He characterizes his own evangelistic work among the Corinthians as having been through the Spirit rather than human persuasiveness, and reveals that he is prepared to impart more profound wisdom to those who are spiritually mature.

He doesnʼt discount the Spirit, or say that it can be difficult to integrate into community life, or apply to oneʼs understanding of Christian duty. While aligning himself with the Holy Spirit, making clear that he possesses its gifts to a great degree, he gives it all the credit that he can. This will permit him to engage from a position of strength with those he feels are being misled by their spiritual experiences. Itʼs similar to Jesusʼ affirming the primacy of the law as part of a ministry which often questions other peopleʼs understanding of how to apply the law. Persons hoping to improve religion must begin by demonstrating that they are themselves religious, that they are people of God. Though religionʼs real work may be in human relations and social interrelations, its concern always is to do Godʼs will.

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