Thursday, March 25, 2010

Following Jesus

"And God spoke all these words: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me..." Exodus 20:1 - 3

And so began Moses' delivery of the ten commandments to the people of Israel. If God's people had any desire at all to please God, He wanted them to know how to do it. He is holy. People are not. Just as bringing darkness into light destroys the darkness, so sin that enters the presence of the Most Holy God is destroyed by His holiness. Likewise the sin-carrier. So if people just knew what they needed to do, if they just had a list of rules given to them by a God who cares from them, delivered by a great leader equipped and empowered by God to help them, couldn't they just follow the law that was given and please God? Apparently not. Not then, and not now. Even if it was obvious that the law was for their own good, and would provide social security, familial comfort and peace, and personal health and happiness, people would still struggle to obey.

I have two young girls that spend one week-end a month with me, and sometimes they get into skirmishes that involved a bit of pushing and shoving. If one of them has been clobbered by her sister, I often take the offending sister aside and offer to change the rules. Shall we do away with the no hitting rule? That means sister is allowed to hit you as much as you can her. We need to make it fair. Is that a good idea? Not once have they ever agreed to changing the rules. Even young children are able to understand that they benefit from the rules that adults set into place, even as they struggle to obey.

The struggle to obey is rooted in our wills. We want what we want when we want it, and that wanting can compel us to do things that God and others don't want us to do, even if the consequences to us are unwanted by us as well. We have ingenious tools, such as blaming others, making excuses, presenting ourselves as victims (cause victims can get away w/a lot more, can't they), deception, and denial to make it easier for us to see ourselves as good people while we continue to do things that are not good, for us or for others. Every time I yell at my daughter or speak sharply to her, I could justify it by pointing to her offending behavior. But I'd still be wrong. I know that not only am I hurting my child, but yelling will simply not be effective in helping her change her attitude or behavior. Wrong is wrong.

So we struggle to obey. As the Israelites did. The remaining writings of the Old Testament document Israel's efforts to obey God. And God's broken heart over their failure. It's a personal thing to God, when His people disobey Him. It's painful for Him to watch His beloved turn their backs and Him and walk their own way, just as it is painful for Him to watch them suffer the consequences. Sin is a very big deal to God. It destroys us, if not now, then in eternity. It separates us from God, and that puts us into great danger. Why do parents react so strongly to a child who wanders away in a crowded mall? The wandering may not be a big thing, but the danger is. Sin is "running into the middle of a busy highway/wandering into the arms of a molester in the mall" kind of danger, and God reacts appropriately.

The Israelites loved God. They wanted to please Him. They wanted to please Him so much, they took the Law that He gave them and elaborated on it, just to be sure. Honor your mother and Father (Ex. 20:12). What exactly does that mean? How far does it go? Is rolling your eyes when Mom says something foolish(this mom does it all the time!) dishonoring? Is wanting to, dishonoring? What about disagreeing with Dad's political views? Forgetting to do all of the tasks required, is that dishonoring? And how much money should be spent on a Mother's day gift for it to be seen as honoring? If your salvation and relationship with God depends on getting this right, figuring it all out can get pretty overwhelming. And important. God gave them as much info and guidelines as possible to help them follow the Law. Entire books of the Old Testament are set aside to explain the Law and it's practices. They just couldn't do it. And before we get all hoity toity about the Israelites' failure, just remember, we can't do it either.

So God provided a way by which they could be forgiven to some extent. He set up a system of sacrifice rituals and offerings to help them pay their sin debts(see the book of Exodus for more). The rituals were incomplete in that they had to be repeated and couldn't actually erase the sin debt, but God was setting the stage for His ultimate sacrifice. I realize I am doing no justice to the wonderful and elaborate plan of God and His people by skipping through this. My hope is to just touch briefly on it in an effort to help us understand that the Law had a purpose, in it's intricate details and at it's heart. God made provision, temporarily, for the fact that people would never be able to keep the Law. The fact that people couldn't keep it was never a surprise to God. He provided for that. The Law set the boundaries and made clear to us what was important to God and good for us and others. What it didn't do was provide a way for us to follow it. It revealed to us our true natures as people who want our own way. How would we know otherwise, if God did not say, "This is my way, walk in it", resulting in our promptly heading in the other direction?

Then came Christmas. The ultimate solution, planned from the beginning of the age. A new relationship with God, made possible by Jesus' birth, perfect life on earth, sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. He was the sin offering that would open the door for all people, not just the Israelites, to have full access to the Presence of God, because Jesus' death would pay for their sin fully. Once Jesus paid the debt, it was ripped up and thrown away. The blood of the sacrificial lambs on the altar covered the sins of the people. But the Son of God's sacrifice blew them out of the water. We could be clean, now. There were no receipts. No records. When Jesus pays a debt, it is payed in full. There was now nothing to keep us from God.

In John 14:15 - 31, Jesus talks to His disciples about what will happen after His death and resurrection. He promises them that though they will no longer have Him in bodily form with them after He goes away, He would ask the Father and the Father would send someone else, a Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to them. He promises that the Holy Spirit of God will not only live with them, but that He will be in them. Once the people of God were completely cleansed from their sin debt, by some divine and beautiful mystery, the Spirit of God would actually come and live in them. He would be a teacher, a comforter, a strengthener, and would make His will known to people directly. Jesus was promising heart-to-heart contact with the Living God! Being good would not just be connected to a Law outside of ourselves. We would have ultimate Goodness living inside of us!!! He would give us power to obey, if we would let Him be in control. Not only did we have a way to deal with past sins completely, we were being given a way to live free from sin today! And tomorrow! All we had to do was trust Jesus' sacrifice and believe that we were indeed clean, and welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts, trusting Him with our futures. Following Jesus took on a whole new meaning. Galatians 5:1 says "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free..." Freedom!!! Before, sin claimed us, by it's earthly and eternal consequences as well as by it's control over us. We were powerless. Now, if I have given myself to Jesus, He claims me. The Holy Spirit lives in me. I have the power through Him to please God by obeying Him.

For me, it comes down to two things. Do I trust God, and do I want to obey Him? For God, it's all the same question. Do I love Him? What gets in the way of loving God? Pride. Fear. Rebellion. Idolatry (loving something or someone else more than God). Greed. Selfishness. We are complex creatures. Proverbs 20:5 says that the purposes of a man's heart are deep waters. It's almost as if we go from, "I want to obey You, I want to follow You, but I can't!" to "Through Your Spirit, I can obey You, I can follow You...but I don't want to." Not completely. Not with everything I have. That commandment that Jesus said was the most important one is in Mark 12:30, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you mind and with all your strength." This calls for a major commitment, a major heart change. Ezekiel 36:26 prophesies that God will "give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you". God even takes care of that! But we have to let go of the old. And when we don't want to, but still want to walk with God, we do the one thing that makes following God such a imitable chore. We head back to the Old Testament, figuratively at least, and create a new set or rules and laws and try to stick to them. Following Jesus and following a list of rules is not the same thing. At times they may look the same. But they aren't.

More on this tomorrow.

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