What Are You Hanging on to?
"All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments," says Jesus. What are you hanging on to in these times that can try the souls of men? Picture that famous cat poster with the kitty hanging on for dear life to the pole. What's your pole? Some of you think that if the Law and the Prophets hang on the commandments to love God and your neighbor, well that's a good enough pole for you to hang on to as well. They certainly are a fine summary of all that God would have us do, think, and say in relation to Himself and our neighbor, and I promise you this. If you follow these 2 commandments, your life will be all that God wants it to be.
That's right. Loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself form a solid, sturdy, life saving pole. Let me show you how that works. When fears of another terror attack on the US, fears of another natural disaster, or fears of bird flu strike you, hang on to the 1st Commandment. If you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, you will cease to be afraid of what He might bring into your life, won't you?
Ah, but maybe fear is too strong a word for what's eating at you. Maybe it's just worries. Worries about your kids, your next medical exam, your next birthday, the cost of gas; maybe you have so many worries that you can't even count them. They don't even stay in focus long enough to say what you're really worried about. Well, you can hang it all on the 1st Commandment. If you love God with everything you have and are, you'll only expect good things from Him. I mean you don't expect your parent or spouse whom you love dearly to hurt you on purpose, do you? So if you really love God that way you will cease to worry that He will.
See what a great pole that 1st Commandment is to hang on to? The 2nd is just as needed because we don't just have problems relating to God; we also have problems relating to our neighbors. You face many situations having to do with coworkers, family members, friends, or neighbors. Do you want to have a peaceful, easy relationship with them? Do you want to know that everything is going to work out fine between you and them? Well, just hang on to the sturdy pole of the 2nd Commandment. Just love you neighbor as yourself and I promise that you'll have no marital, family, job, friend, or neighbor problems. Now don't you feel silly? You came in here fretting over how to handle this or that person, and it's as simple as loving them as you do yourself. Go on; we're done here. Now you know what to do.
Herein lays the problem. The Law certainly does tell you what to do; it even gives you instructions on how to do it, but the Law gives you no power to do what it commands. Commands only instruct; they never empower. Commands only tell you what the commander wants done; they don't give you ability to do it. For example, I can command you to do 100 push-ups, and by threatening I can even make you want to do them, but all my commanding and all your wanting isn't going to make you able to do them.
So, if you're hanging on to the Commandments in these trying, worrisome times, what's really happening is you're being led ever deeper into despair because you can't, don't, and won't follow these simple commandments. God doesn't command that you cut of a limb to serve Him. He doesn't command that you exist on a diet of bread and water. All He commands is love. Likewise with your neighbor, He doesn't command you to solve their problems or give them all your possessions just to love them.
Love, love, love is all that He commands. Yet you don't, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind or your neighbor as yourself, do you? And the more you think of God's command to love Him and others hanging over your head, the more you resent it, defend your lack of love, or promise to do better. You're really not hanging on to God's commandments; no, they're hanging over you like the sword of Damocles. Damocles was a man who constantly praised his king though he was a merciless tyrant. To show Damocles he really was a tyrant, the king gave a great banquet but had a sword hanging by a single thread over Damocles' head.
Once you see the impossible demands of God's Law, you'll despair. Your despair deepens as you conclude that God is as much of a tyrant as Damocles' king. He commands you to do things, He knows you can't. But surprisingly thinking God is a tyrant isn't the worse you can do. No thinking you have loved God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself is far worse. Because then you hang on to God's commands as if they're instructions on how to go to heaven, but in the end you'll find you've been hanging on to a bowling ball. The Commandments take people to heavens that do them perfectly. Everyone else they take to hell as fast as a bowling ball will take you to the bottom of Lake Travis.
These times are fearful, worrisome, threatening, and the Laws of God really could deliver you from them if you could keep them perfectly, but you can't. So, as we sing, "No more attempt to draw thy life and comfort from the law." Let go of the pole of the commandments and fall into the outstretched arms of the God/Man Jesus. This is precisely where Jesus tried to lead the Pharisees in the text. He wanted them to confess the truth of Scriptures they already knew which taught that the Messiah was both David's Son, i.e. True Man, and David's Lord, i.e. True God.
The Law hanging over your head will either drive you to the depths of despair or the depths of hell. Jesus delivers you from both. As a Man who is God, Jesus was able to keep all God's Laws. Remember perfect Adam and Eve couldn't do that in Eden. It took someone who was more than a perfect man to love God with all His heart, soul, and mind and His neighbor as Himself. Jesus had to be a Man so He could be under God's Law in our place, but He had to be God or He couldn't have kept them perfectly.
But what about the millions of times we fail to love either God or our neighbor? What about that filthy, stinking black heart of mine that can't even manage one pure thought, let alone a loving one? Well, as a Man, Jesus has a heart like all people do, but because He is true God; His heart is absolutely pure and always loving. I can't even imagine such a heart as that, but I know that God took that perfectly pure, loving heart and nailed it to the cross rather than doing that to me. God had declared this judgment in the OT: Anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed by Him. Then in the NT He hung His holy, pure Son on the tree of the bloody cross cursing Him instead of me.
The issue before us is not if we are hanging on to something, but what are we? Everyone hangs on to something to get them through the day and the longer nights. The curious thing is that though hanging on to the law to get you through is so wrong it feels so right. If you're trying to get through by hanging on to self, money, drugs, or sex, you probably have a sense that it isn't working. But if you're trying to get through by hanging on to the Law, you think you should keep trying. You think if you just try harder, follow the Law closer, it will get better. You'll stop feeling like the kitty hanging on the pole. No, you won't.
"My soul, no more attempt to draw/ Thy life and comfort from the Law," is the first part. The second is, "Fly to the hope the Gospel gives;/ The man that trusts the promise lives." That's what we sing, but do you know where to fly for the hope of the Gospel? There into the arms of the God/Man stretched out as they are on that cross. Underneath those outstretched arms of His neither the 1st, 2nd, nor any other Commandment hangs over your head. Under the cross, you can stop thinking that unless you do this or that you must be afraid of God or things won't work out with your neighbor. The God/Man Jesus kept all the commandments; not one hangs over your head or heart as something undone. Or perhaps you think Jesus was lying or mistaken when He declared on Good Friday that all were finished?
Underneath the outstretched arms of the God/Man hanging on the cross and dripping His holy precious blood over me in Baptism and into me in Communion, I am to know of no condemnation, no judgment, and no Commandments for me to do. And in this sanctuary I'm not to expect that I will have to pay for my many sins because the God/Man paid already. It is a lie of Satan that punishment hangs over your head like a past due bill turned over to a collection agency. What could any pain, suffering, or torture of me add to the suffering that God in Christ went through on the cross? What could be lacking in such holy, eternal, divine suffering? You be satisfied with the sufferings of Christ to pay for your sins; God surely is.
There is no power in the Law to deliver you from its threats or make you reach its promises. No matter how desperately you hang on to it, it still hangs over you. You can be trained, taught, and instructed on how to be a Christian, how to live a Christian life from now till Judgment Day and still like Damocles' sword hanging by a skinny hair the Law will hang over you. Only the Gospel, only the God/Man Jesus hanging on the cross, can deliver you from the threats of Law and give to you what the Law promises. And dear friend, Jesus gives all of it all the way. In Jesus, under Jesus you aren't hanging on to heaven by the skin of your teeth. No, you're all the way in heaven because Jesus is hanging on to you. He promises you in John 10 that He has you in His hands and nothing can snatch you away not sin, not death, not the devil, and not even the Law.
Hang on to the fact that Jesus is hanging on to you. If neither your sins, the devil, nor even death could make Him drop you on the cross; I don't expect that anything in your life now could make Him let go. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXIII (20051023); Matthew 22: 34-46