Controversy About the Law
In places in our denomination there is a controversy about the Law. The truth is, there's always controversy in the hearts of Christians as part of the struggle between the Old Man and the New. Should I feel guilty? Why do I always feel guilty? Have I kept this Law sufficiently not to feel guilty? Can I ignore this Law altogether? Should I? Let's see how the Lord of the Law settles the controversy.
First, it's Law right between the eyes. The Pharisees got it when Jesus pointed out they were accusing His disciples of breaking the Sabbath Law while ignoring what they had read about David's breaking the law in God's holy house. Why were they upset about his disciples eating someone else's grain that was not against the law in general or even against the Sabbath Law in particular, and not upset about David and his men eating what the Law strictly forbade them to?
But these laws don't hit you right between the eyes. They pertain to a Sabbath and a tabernacle you've never known. No, the right between the eyes law for you in this text is Jesus' question, "Have you never read what David did?" The Greek form tells you Jesus expects a yes' answer. Yes, these Pharisees had certainly read the account. Have you? I've preached on this account 4 times over 18 years, and have any of you gone home and read the account Jesus' expects you to have read? The law that hits you between the eye is that you won't go home and set aside 10 minutes to read about David and Abiathar. No, you've set through a 15 minute sermon and 75 minutes' worth of church, you're done doing Bible for this week.
Done? Have you ever even gotten started on the Old Testament? Seventy percent of all of God's Words to mankind are in the Old Testament, and aside from the Psalms and maybe Creation, Flood, and the stories of the big names you know none of the Old Testament. And you're good with that. As if when Jesus commanded, "Search the Scriptures because these are all about Me," He was talking about the New Testament. No, in 30 A.D. He could've only been referring to the Old, the Testament which is a closed book to you, andyou're okay with that?
That's the Law right between the eyes. But it hasn't really hit you like that if you're still on your feet. No, if the Law has hit you the way God means it to, it's Mong punching the horse in Blazing Saddles. You drop like a rock; you don't stagger around. You stagger around with a doable Law. You say to yourself, "I'm going home and reading the Old Testament today. It takes 52 hours and 20 minutes to read it all (www.euton.com). If I read just 3 hours a day, and I certainly waste that much on TV, Facebook, and YouTube, I'll be through it in less than 18 days."
You're in a real pickle with a doable Law. It's either horrible or damnable. C.S. Lewis illustrates this, though not meaning to, this way. In waking life a man knows it's impossible to have a huge pile of wheat, barely, poppy, rye, and millet seeds and sort them into separate piles. The horrible torment of the dream and the doable Law, I add is in the dream it can be done (Till We All Have Faces, 256). And you're doomed to do it. The Pharisees thought by not picking grains on the Sabbath, or perhaps not grinding them in their hands, they were pleasing God. They were doing something for God, and they knew they could do it even as you know that you're able to go home and read just an hour of the Old Testament a day and you'll be through by the end of July. And what's so bad if I do? Just when do you think it will be okay for you to stop reading the Old Testament? And what about those long lists of names you zoned out while reading the first time? And haven't you mixed poppy seeds with barley and wheat with rye? Okay, start over.
You walk out of here with a doable Law and you're faced with a mountain of seeds that need sorting or with the flames of hell licking at your feet. And the real problem is either way, you'll be happy. Damned happy if you catch my past tense. With a doable Law either you see God has given you a pile of seeds which you can sort if you try hard enough or a target you bull's-eye every time. Let me illustrate the latter:
The FBI was called to investigate the work of a mysterious sharpshooter. They found bull's-eyes all around town shot through dead center. They found the shooter and asked him where did he learn to shoot so accurately? The answer was that he shot first and drew the bull's-eye around wherever he had shot (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 165).
That's the doable Law that damns. You lower the Law's absolute standard to your own. My guilt over not paying enough attention to the Old Testament can be assuaged by reading it every other day, then once a week, once a month, and then by watching The Ten Commandments or The Old Testament on my mobile device at stoplights. This is what the Pharisees did. They expanded the 3rd Commandment into 39 categories of works each having anywhere from 2 to 13 prohibited works under them. Now you'd think this expanding of the Law would expand guilt and it does for the person who thinks the seed pile is sortable, but for the bull's-eye drawer it contracts the Law to whatever he is doing or not doing.
The answer to the Law hitting you between the eyes and laying you out is not excuses that you will do better or justifications that you have done good enough. The purpose of the Law is not just to lay you out but kill you. In Romans 7 Paul says, "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law said, Thou shalt not Lust.'" The law "don't lust" only made me lust more and more until I was so filled with lust I dropped dead. But what's the answer to death? Resurrection. What's the answer to being dead in our trespasses and sins according to Ephesians 2? Not setting to work on the seed pile, not drawing your own bull's-eyes, "But God, being rich in mercy even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ."
The answer to an undoable, damning, deadly Law is the Son of Man who is Lord even of the Sabbath. Jesus plainly tells the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. God didn't make man so he could keep the Sabbath Law, so man could do something for God. On the contrary Ezekiel 20:12 says, "I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy." The command to rest from physical labor wasn't for God's sake, but their sake. They could know they didn't have to work 7-days a week; God could and would provide for them. But this rest from physical labor was more importantly a sign that the Lord would give them rest for their souls.
Rest is an important concept in the Old Testament. We sang the Venite today, Psalm 95, but not all of it. Right after the Venite ends Psalm 95 goes on to say don't harden your heart to entering the rest that the Lord promises. Follow this Old Testament concern for entering God's rest from its roots in Exodus, to is being hymned in Psalms to it being all over the Book of Hebrews. God's ultimate concern in giving the Law was that people not miss the rest, the holiness that only He could provide.
Colossians 2:16-17 is crystal clear. The Sabbath Law was "a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." A shadow indicates what's coming. A shadow passes away. You grab on to a shadow of your loved one, and you miss your loved one. The Sabbath Law was a shadow of the approaching Christ. It was to expose the fact that they couldn't keep God's Law enough to satisfy Him. They couldn't find rest by doing enough works sorting enough seeds - or by being satisfied with whatever they could do drawing bull's-eyes. No, the coming Christ was their real rest. He could do, would do, and did do all that God commands and demands of you. He sorted the seed pile and He never missed the mark. He never lusted, never was greedy, never was unbelieving or doubting, and yet He was brutally, eternally, and damnably punished for the fact that I don't even try to sort the seeds or am satisfied with the handful I do.
Christ crucified is the answer to the Law that slays you, damns you, and takes all your excuses away. Underneath His outstretched arms there's shelter from the storm of God's judgement. Underneath the wings of the cross you are safe from the calamity of God's judgment on you for your sins and the judgement that is coming upon the whole world. Plunged into the fountain filled with Christ's blood sinners lose all their guilty stains, even Lady Macbeth can no longer see her damned spot in this fountain.
At this point in the sermon, I would normally point you to where that fountain filled with blood is for you. And it's not that you don't need to be told again that it's there in your Baptism, in my Absolution, and in your communing with Christ's blood. But there is a special lesson here. It goes back to Jesus' query about what David did in the days of Abiathar the high priest. Abiathar was not the high priest as the Pharisees well knew. Ahimelech his father was. It was Ahimelech who fed David, and he paid for doing that with his life. So did all the other priests. Saul commanded his guards to kill them but they wouldn't kill clergymen. Doeg the Edomite would. Abiathar alone escaped, so he is now the high priest. He flees to David who says, "Stay with me; don't be afraid; the man who is seeking your life is seeking mine also. You will be safe with me."
Jesus is both the High Priest and the Son of David and the Pharisees are Saul's seeking His life. But all those with Jesus are safe from Pharisees who misuse the Law by making you always guilty while they never are and by pointing you to your keeping of the law as the answer to guilt. The only answer to your guilt and the accusing Law is Jesus' righteous life and shed blood. About this there is no controversy. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday After Pentecost (20180603); Mark 2: 23-28