Sunday, August 29, 2021

Sermon: “Laying Down the Law”, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9/James 1:19-27 (August 29, 2021)


We in the reformed tradition don’t generally seem to spend a lot of time with the book of James. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for this, the first being that if something isn’t either written by Paul or a gospel, we tend to dismiss it as “less important scripture”. That line of thinking is problematic enough, but the second reason is arguably even more distressing: we tend to ignore James because he, more than any other New Testament writer, places a heavy emphasis on obedience to the Torah, God’s holy Law, within the Christian community.

I mean, we all know that Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill [the Law],”[1] but surely, he must have been speaking mystically or symbolically or something. He can’t possibly expect us to uphold these antiquated rules from thousands of years ago. After all, isn’t that the whole point of “freedom in Christ” that good old Paul talks about so often? That we no longer have to prove our faith through obedience to the Law?

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking betrays a profound misunderstanding of the Torah, one that’s thousands of years old. The Pharisees manipulated a similar interpretation of the Law in their efforts to discredit Jesus: that Torah is a comprehensive list of regulations that allows us to quantify righteousness. According to this understanding, its statutes are ironclad shackles to which we willingly submit in order to “prove” our faithfulness.

But this isn’t really the point of Torah at all. It wasn’t given to the people as a barometer of righteousness, although that seems to be what we’re determined to turn it into. Moses himself tells us that God gave the gift of Torah for a much greater purpose. In our reading from Deuteronomy, he offers the Israelites two reasons: first, he says they must follow the Law “so that you may live, enter, and possess the land that the Lord…is giving to you.” In other words, it’s a tool for their new life. These slaves-turned-nomads are about to attempt settled, community living for the first time. Rather than abandoning them to trial and error, God provides Torah as the guidance they need to succeed in this new endeavor. Secondly, Moses instructs the Israelites to keep Torah “because [it] will show your wisdom and insight to the nations.” Obedience to the Law is actually a form of evangelism! Not because it proves the righteousness of the people who follow it (as we might assume), but because it testifies to the wisdom and insight of the God they follow.

It’s clear from Moses’ explanation that Torah is a means to ensure the genuine well-being of the people—and, ultimately, to draw more and more people into the circle of God’s love. God’s Law isn’t an opportunity for us to achieve prestige through strict adherence or to tear others down for their noncompliance, as the Pharisees seemed to believe. It provides us with a way of life that offers freedom from the human cravings that would otherwise control us (cravings like, for example, a desire to put ourselves above and before others). That’s how Jesus can claim to be fulfilling the Law while simultaneously being accused of breaking it. He knows better than anyone that obedience is less about nitpicking questions of legality than it is about following God’s ultimate intentions for us and our communities.

In order to understand Torah as Jesus does, we not only need to change the way we think about its purpose, but also the way we think about its very nature. Have you ever noticed how scripture usually refers to “THE Torah,” “THE Law,” “THE Word”? Not “some” or “several”, but “THE”. That’s how James describes it: “You must be doers of THE Word [not THESE words] and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” Torah is bigger than a collection of finicky rules; it’s a unified teaching. We mislead ourselves when we treat God’s Law as a “to do” list, when we hear and do without thinking about why. On the other hand, when we’re “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” in our faith—in other words, when we engage God’s instruction with a discerning spirit rather than a reactionary one—we begin to see the cohesive path that God has laid out for us through Torah (and, of course, through Christ as the full realization of the Law).

It’s this unified nature that makes God’s Torah more powerful than any earthly legal code. When laws are given as a list of disparate rules, each one has only as much impact as it can muster in and of itself. With enough of these isolated regulations, it all becomes white noise after a while. People begin to pick and choose which laws they agree with and which to throw out, because acceptance or rejection of one doesn’t impact the authority of the others. That’s how we wind up with a society where laws protecting the sanctity of life coexist with laws protecting the sanctity of unfettered gun ownership. But when each “rule” is in service to a larger, cohesive Law, with a capital “L” (for example: loving God and your neighbor with your whole heart, soul, and mind), their collective strength compounds exponentially, and the greater whole gains the kind of power that doesn’t just order life, but transforms it.

That’s the kind of Law that Torah is.

Think of it this way: a single word only has so much power. Consider these words: “prayer”, “grass”, “kneel”, “idle”, “fields”, and “wild”…as I say each one, they might stir something within you, a vague emotional response, depending on your personal associations with them. But if I were to ask you tomorrow which words I listed, you probably wouldn’t be able to recall them all very easily.

Now consider these same words in the context of the second half of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: 
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?
Those same six words taken together in a particular way, with a particular purpose, can stir thoughts and feelings that affect you much more deeply and linger long after the words have been read or spoken. Even if you can’t recall the exact words tomorrow, you’ll probably be able to remember the impact that all the words together had on you.

Torah works the same way. When James talks about studying “the perfect Law”, he means “perfect” in the sense of “whole” or “complete”. The gift of the Torah is given as God’s one, whole, complete, unbroken Word, which we recognize as being embodied in Jesus. We’re meant to hear each rule always in the context of the others, specific guidelines gathered together to convey the whole poetry of God’s deepest desires for the world.

Those who hear the words individually but don’t understand THE Word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror and immediately forget what they saw. THE Word isn’t able to settle deep inside them; it exists for them in the moment and is gone in the next. They aren’t able to live in a way that demonstrates true devotion as James describes it; they aren’t able to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind and their neighbor as themselves, even though they follow every single rule to a T.

When we embrace the poem, though, its message is impossible to forget. When we welcome the divine Word planted deep inside us, it becomes a part of us, a thread running through our every thought and deed, and we can’t help but live in a way that embodies it. Community comes more naturally, and others are drawn in by the sacred wisdom that guides us. THIS is why James encourages us to honor and obey Torah: not because it makes us superior to others or because it keeps punishment at bay or even just because God tells us to, but because it illuminates the path to well-being and wholeness that God has provided for us—the path to God’s Kindom. And it just so happens that living our lives in this way is the very thing that pleases God the most. It’s a win-win.

Torah may seem like it demands a great deal from us, but in reality, it’s asking us one simple question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Will you read each word separate from the next, or will you hear the exquisite poem that God has written for us? Will you paralyze the community by making it a prisoner to the very regulations meant to offer it freedom, or will you help it to grow by celebrating and sharing the wisdom that lies within God’s poetry? Will you hear the laws, or will you live the Torah? The choice is entirely yours—God’s love doesn’t depend on your compliance. But if we let go of our preoccupation with rules and instead welcome God’s holy, grace-filled Torah into the deepest part of our hearts, we can stop fixating on every wrong step we take and instead focus on the divine path that Christ is leading us down together. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Matthew 5:17.

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