by Daniel Harrell
Here’s a photo of me that popped up on Facebook this week. It’s from a high school drama production entitled The Braggart Soldier, a third century farce by the ancient Greek playwright, Plautus. I played Palaestrio, the conniving slave; a performance which won me Best Actor in the State of North Carolina in 1978. It was the peak of my dramatic career… at least on stage.
My drama teacher, basking in his directorial success, boldly chose to slot Jesus Christ Superstar for the spring musical. He wanted to cast me as Jesus. I passed. I’d like to say it was because I feared the Lord and didn’t want to risk being a blasphemer (Superstar took a lot of heat from Christians back in the 70s). But in truth, it was my senior year and my head was already off to college just waiting for my body to catch up. Besides, I already had my trophy.
God got me back while I was at college by calling me into ministry. He made me a pastor. It happened at a fraternity party you may remember. I’ve always drawn encouragement from Jesus being labeled a party guy—an associate of outcasts and sinners. He was labeled a lawbreaker and blasphemer too. But how can the Son of God blaspheme when he’s the word of God incarnate? How can the lawmaker be a lawbreaker since he wrote all the rules?
This morning’s good neighbor spotlight falls on Jesus’ forerunner, Moses, the lawgiver. Talk about a performance: Moses dramatically descends down the mountain, the Ten Commandments in tow, with “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain ablaze.” But rather than applause, the people “trembled and stood off at distance.” Thunder and lightning and trumpets and mountains on fire were sure fire signs of God’s presence. The crowd shouted at Moses, “You can speak to us and we’ll listen, but don’t let God talk or we’re doomed.”
So the Lord wrote it all down instead. Two tablets of testimony inscribed by God’s finger on stone, rock hard conditions for relationship, covenant stipulations modeled after ancient treaties. “Do this and not that and we’ll all get along fine.”
Except that we humans don’t like being told what to do. It’s an inherited trait stretching back to our first garden encounters with God. We want what we want: Grace and not rules. Faith and not works. Gospel and not law.
And actually God wants this too. Turn to the apostle Paul, and we learn the law’s main role was to hold humans safely in their seats until Jesus could take center stage. Moses said as much in our passage this morning: “God—who abides in thick darkness—has come only to test you and to put the fear of the Lord upon you so that you do not sin.” Grace and faith and gospel are given for the sake of freedom—not freedom to do as we please—but freedom to love God and our neighbor and do good for Christ’s sake.
Freedom doesn’t always work like it should. This is the rub. Moses barely got down the mountain before, lo and behold, the crowd had gone crazy over a gold cow they crafted out of their own jewelry. Moses went off ballistically, broke the stone tablets, burned the gold cow, ground it to dust and made the Israelites drink it. Then he yelled at his brother, Aaron, who was supposed to be in charge, “What did these people do to you that you led them into such great transgression?” Aaron replied, “Don’t get mad at me, you know how prone these people are to evil!”
So rather than freedom, God wrote more rules. He re-chiseled the Top Ten then tacked on Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy too. Turns out we need laws to guide and regulate our common life. The law come from God; they are for our good by definition. As expressions of divine character, the law maps out what it means to live as humans made in God’s image and modeled after Jesus’ own life. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them.”
The Top Ten are straightforward: don’t worship the wrong God, don’t wrongly worship the right God, watch your mouth, take a break, love your parents, don’t kill, or have an affair, or steal or lie or lust for what’s not yours. If Ten is too much to keep track, then just do the two Jesus said sums them all up: love God and your neighbor. Seriously, what’s really so bad or so hard about any of this?
Yet as people prone to evil, we routinely choose all kinds of other gods, make items into idols, run our mouths, work too much, break with our families, hate, cheat, rip off, deceive and get greedy pretty easily. And we refuse to love too. We’ll confess as much in a minute: we’ll indict ourselves out loud for self-centered living, for failing to walk with humility and gentleness, for misusing human relationships, for refusing to see the image of God in others, for conflict dividing families and nations, for rivalries that create strife and warfare, for reluctance in sharing God’s gifts, for carelessness with the gift of creation, for hurtful words and angry deeds. We’ll then plead for mercy, as the Puritans put it, “from the throne of perfect justice to thy throne of boundless grace.”
And God will again lovingly lavish grace upon grace and then more grace upon that. The word made text in stone is now flesh and bone, and body and blood and breath. The letter of the law makes way for the spirit who resides in our hearts and changes our wants to want what God wants. We can finally love and obey and do right. As new creations in Christ, we can experience true humanity as God designed and redeemed it, our old sinful selves crucified that we might somehow be raised, a resurrection so certain we can start living it now.
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus said. We can do nothing to earn our salvation, we must do something to show we’ve received it. The gospel carries ethical obligations. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said. There is an imperative link between loving the Lord (who for Christians is Jesus) and loving your neighbor. There’s power and capacity too. “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home and live inside you.” This is a remarkable assertion, a fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.
In Deuteronomy, the law spoke of a circumcision of heart, a radical change. Sara preached about it last Sunday. In Ezekiel, the prophets promised a new spirit. The Lord said to his people, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your hard heart of stone and give you a new heart of flesh, so that you may follow my statutes and keep my commands and obey them. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” And so we are. The Holy Sprit of God dwells in us. The body and blood of Christ courses through our veins. We have all we need to be real Christians and not actors. Therefore, if you don’t love the Lord and your neighbor as yourself, it’s certainly not because you can’t.
By way of analogy, those who’ve received new physical hearts know how powerful it can be: clogged arteries bypassed or opened, entire organs transplanted, energy restored, strength regained, a revived determination to live rightly. I’ve never had heart surgery, but I do have two new wrists. I injured the left trying to ice skate back in 2017, and the right trying to play squash last December. Each time I was forced to face my brokenness, so to speak, despising myself for my stupidity. All I had to do was go around that ice mound instead of trying to step over it. Not attempt to make a squash shot off a wall I had no chance of making. My young surgeon each time—proficient and perky and probably 13-years-old—opened me, fixed me and stitched me up in a minute, fitting both wrists with titanium and steel. Salvation happens in a moment. But fast surgery does not mean fast recovery. My latest operation happened last December and I haven’t fully healed yet. I may be bionic, but I’m still no superman. Healing takes time. So does spiritual growth and perfection. We’re as good as resurrected already, just not yet all the way there.
But we will make it. In the time since I was last injured and had surgery, I watched my wife suffer and die full of faith, without fear, the power and promise of resurrection already hers. She claimed it her honor to share in the sufferings of Christ so to attain the resurrection of Christ. Why participate in the sufferings of Jesus? Why hang a cross on the wall and partake Jesus’ body and blood? The way of Christ is the way of the cross. Love is made perfect in weakness and surrender and defeat. Don’t ask me why. Among Dawn’s last words were “Happy Easter.” Like the women who first showed up at the tomb, she met Jesus early Easter morning while it was still dark—the thick darkness, Exodus declares, where God abides.
The Psalmist sings, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” Early Protestant Reformers often recited the Ten Commandments in worship right after communion. It was for them the apex of worship, the closest we get to heaven on earth. You confess your sins, receive your mercy, fill up on Jesus, hear what’s required of a life worthy of your salvation and then you go out and joyfully live it. Not a bad plan.