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Sermon - 6 Epiphany

In the Name...

Some missionary nuns started a medical clinic which would treat any illness and was open to people of all faiths. To advertise this, they put up a sign in the local language. Unfortunately, their translation skills were not as good as their medical care, so, what the locals read was: “We are sick of everything and don’t care about religion.”

As we read the Gospels, we see that one of the accusations which the Pharisees and Sadducees levied against Jesus was that he was a teacher of novelties. As evidence, they cited the way that he contradicted the rabbinic interpretations of Scripture. They denounced the way he consorted with people who should have been shunned and decried his disregard for traditional authority. He was a revolutionary, a destroyer of all they held sacred.

And, the irony is that many of these same opinions about Jesus have also been held by Christians, but, not as condemnations, rather, as approbations.

Even as far back as the time of Paul and the Apostles, there have been Christians who have liked to think that Jesus came to abolish the religion of the Old Testament and replace it with a less difficult route to heaven. Instead of the Commandments, they say, we now have grace. Instead of judgment, we now have love.

And, certainly, it is true that that Jesus gave new emphasis to aspects which had been misunderstood or ignored by the Jewish leaders, but, the thing is that he said, as we heard in last week’s Gospel, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil." And, in understanding this, we need to consider that the Law of which he spoke consisted of two parts - the ceremonial law, and the moral law.

The ceremonial law was basically cultural guidance for the Hebrew people. It was filled with injunctions and ordinances ranging from the details of offering Temple sacrifices, to what not to eat and even how to remove mildew from your house. Seriously, that's in Leviticus 14. These things, Jesus did indeed abolish for two reasons. First, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, "There is...the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual", "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."

In other words, after Christ, Man no longer needed to offer Temple sacrifice. Christ on Calvary was the one eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. He is both the perfect offering and the great high priest.

And, the other reason for abolishing it was the Jews had become so obsessed with the cultural aspects of the ceremonial law that they were neglecting the moral law. Rabbis argued with each other if opening a window on the Sabbath constituted forbidden work, but, they agreed to ban healing of the sick on the Sabbath because healing was definitely Work. They were blinded to human needs by ritual minutiae. Far from being cultural guidance, that law had become an idol. So, in order to be a Christian, it is not necessary to keep a kosher diet or wear a yarmulke and St. Paul makes this point abundantly clear.

On the other hand, the moral law was something completely different. This law is not temporary. This law represents not the needs of a culture, but the very mind of God. In other words, not even God can abolish the Ten Commandments. That's why it was written on stone tablets to symbolize this permanence. Other ancient peoples carved the decrees of their kings in stone. The Ten Commandments are the only recorded stone-carved writing of Israel. They were the decrees of the King of Kings and what Jesus did was gave positive reinforcement to the moral law and extend it to new areas of life.

I remember the stir that President Jimmy Carter caused back in 1976 when he made a reference to having "lusted in the heart." It caused a stir because, although it made sense to him, being a Bible-reading church-going Christian, it was a strange concept to many who were not familiar with the passage of Scripture we heard this morning. In the same way, and in this same passage, Jesus also said that hating is a form of murder. In other words, the moral law doesn't just cover what you physically do - it's also about what you think.

These are hard concepts for people to accept today and they were just as hard for the Pharisees and Sadducees way back when. They taught that as long as you observed the ceremonial law, morals were an optional extra. And today, we have people who try to say just that, except that they've replaced ceremony with social or community works of charity. A 5k run for cancer research makes up for adultery. Volunteering at the homeless shelter balances out embezzling.

The moral law, however, is not so easily set aside. Yes, we have grace. Yes, we have love. But, love and grace demand that we keep the moral law and learn as much about it as we can to apply it to the ever-changing situations in which we find ourselves every day. It’s not that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments contradicts itself. It’s that Man's understanding, as he has come to know more, as he has matured in faith, has changed.

The story is told of a wise teacher who had three brothers as pupils. He then went away on a long journey and left them to carry on his work. Over time, one brother added to the teaching, another took away from it, while the third repeated it exactly. When the teacher returned, he said to the two who had made changes, "Be thankful to your brother, because without him my teaching would have been lost." But, he then said to the brother who had changed nothing, "Be thankful to your brothers, because without them my teaching would not have been understood."

The relationship between God and Man never changes but, the relationships amongst people do. That's why it's harder, not easier, to be a Christian than a Pharisee. Pharisees had all the answers. Christians have to figure them out. And, we have as our guide the life of Jesus.

Sometimes, that's not very helpful because figuring things out is too much like hard work. But, that's really the difference between the Old and New Testaments. It's not that Jesus abolished the Law; it's that he made all of us into law students and the Gospels are the advanced class textbooks.

So, let's study up. And fulfil the Law of Love and Grace in all we say, think, and do.

In the Name...

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