Scripture: Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
Each week we’ve been asking – and seeking to answer – a particular question with respect to how God is able to “make a way out of no way” in our lives and in our world. Last week considered the Old Testament’s ultimate “way out of no way” story: The Red Sea Crossing. This story was central to Israel’s understanding of its relationship with God, not because the story told of a dramatic event that happened long ago, but because the story spoke to Israel’s ongoing relationship with a God who had proven time and again to be able to liberate them from obstacle after obstacle that they were unable by their own power to overcome.
We joined Israel at the edge of the Red Sea last week just as God was making a “way out of no way” by parting the Red Sea. There on its shores we chose to ask not about what God was doing but about Israel (and by extension, us). We asked, “What is our role (if any) in God’s making a way out of no way?”
The answers we received with respect to Israel and ourselves were surprising. The first answer was: When all else fails, do nothing! Nothing? As Pharaoh’s army was swiftly gaining ground on the escaped slaves whose way ahead was blocked by the sea, Moses commanded, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Okay, that’s not an exact quote. What Moses is actually quoted as saying is, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
Keeping still in a time of high crisis is about the most counterintuitive advice in the entire Bible. Yet how often do we get ourselves into trouble for failing to be still before springing into action? When the pressure is on and we’re faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it is often the Spirit that needs to be doing the heavy lifting, not us. No matter how hard we try to scoop aside the waters of the figurative “sea” before us, we’re just going to end up wet – or drowned – unless we get still, ask for God’s help, and await God’s response. What God does may not be as dramatic as parting the sea, but often an intuition comes that we can only perceive when we’re standing still and being quiet. It comes from an unexpected place, perhaps inviting us to head in an unexpected direction, or to wait a bit longer until an unexpected turn of events clears a path and allows us to move forward.
The Exodus story strongly advises that when we face large and threatening obstacles, our best “action” is to remain absolutely still until we sense what the Spirit is up to and can spring into action at the proper time, in concert with the Spirit’s work.
Once God parted the sea, however, then Israel needed to fulfill its second role in God’s making a way where there was none: to get moving. Fast! Here again, if we don’t play our proper role, at the proper time, there is little God can do to help us. One wonders, for instance, if that sea would have remained open long enough for the Israelites to form subcommittees to study the pros and cons of crossing, assessing the risks and rewards and holding a congregational vote once the reports were made and debated? When the Spirit has cleared the way before us, we often have to get over our fear of the figurative walls of water threatening us on either side and move boldly forward on dry land, trusting that the Spirit wouldn’t have made a way forward only for the waters to come crashing back on us before reaching the opposite shore.
Who Is Lowest In God’s Realm?
This week, we join Israel on the other side of the Red Sea, in the wilderness at the base of Mt. Sinai. Here we will find two more ways we play a role in God making a “way out of no way.” The first is through submission to God and obedience to God’s Law.
Now as Christians living in America, we tend to get antsy when talking about submission and obedience to anyone – even if “anyone” is God. The “Christian” in us wants to object, “But Jesus freed us from the need to obey the Law. Now we live by Grace.” We bolster our case by citing the apostle Paul who, for instance, in 2 Corinthians 3 observes, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Paul refers to the Mosaic Law as “the ministry of death, chiseled on stone tablets.”
If the Christian side of us is skeptical about submission and obedience to God’s Law, the American in us is utterly dismissive. Living as we do in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the history of the world, we tend to assume that we can act any way we want in the world without anyone telling us what to do and what not to do, not even God. “Talk softly and carry a big stick.” (Theodore Roosevelt) This philosophy of Empire quickly becomes a theology of Empire when we add religion to nationalism. “Walk softly, and carry a big Cross! If you don’t let our Christian nation have its way, you can go to hell!”
Yet is this what Jesus would really want – a wealthy, powerful people who believe they are beyond the need for submission and obedience to anyone but themselves? Jesus was definitely concerned for our freedom, but it is this same Jesus who said in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:17-19)
What happened to all this freedom we thought Jesus came for? Apparently, Jesus thought there is a relationship between Law, Freedom, and Grace. In fact, Jesus might observe that it is precisely through this relationship that God is best able to work in our lives. He might further observe that we cannot experience true Freedom and Grace apart from submission to God and striving to follow God’s Law. So we’d best set aside our Christian – and American – skepticism about commandments and Law for a moment, and consider God’s purpose behind giving us such things.
The Grace of the Law
If you were to walk into church one Sunday only to find everything in the bulletin completely out of order, how would you be feeling before worship began? Frustrated, I’m guessing. And what would you be doing before worship? I’m guessing many of you would be mentally trying to set things into the proper arrangement.
This example, though small and insignificant, illustrates one of the key principles of Law – particularly God’s Law. Law establishes Order out of Chaos. The apostle Paul may say the Law kills, but Chaos kills a lot faster!
Have you have ever spent time in one of the world’s developing nations? If so, what has been your feeling about the need for well-established laws, regulations, and norms of behavior? In such places you can hardly have enough of them! Many of these developing countries have been prone to military dictators. And why wouldn’t they be? Amidst the chaos and social unrest that thrives in the absence of strong laws, iron-handed dictatorship doesn’t appear to be such a bad alternative. Of course, ultimately dictators do more to create Chaos than reduce it. This is because dictators stay in power by creating and enforcing laws that serve their own needs and purposes, not those of the people.
The Ten Commandments were meant to bring God’s Order out of human Chaos, keeping us from the dictatorship of human ego and submitting us to standards of behavior that ultimately increase human freedom, not decrease it. One of the most helpful ways that we would help God make a “way out of no way” in our lives and the lives of others would be by actually following the Ten Commandments with heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Skeptical? Let’s just take one of the Ten Commandments and consider it for a moment: “Do not steal.” Imagine how much more freely the Spirit could create order out of chaos in our world – and even bring a good portion of heaven to earth – if human beings actually followed this single commandment.
Church doors would never be locked. Nor would the doors to your houses, your automobiles, your safes. Nobody would take what’s rightfully yours.
Imagine what the cost of goods and services would be if we never had to account for theft or protection from theft. In 2010, there were 367,832 acts of robbery in America, costing an average of $70,641 (including cost of prosecution). There were 2,159,88 burglaries, 737,142 motor vehicle thefts, and 6,185,867 acts of larceny. If you include murder, rape, and aggravated assault – each of which is its own form of theft – the total estimated cost of crime in America in 2010 was $301,337,127,289. If you were to spread that cost equally among the U.S. population, Omaha’s share of the cost was just under $900 million. In a single year. What could we have done to raise the standard of living in Omaha with that kind of money – each year? How many parks and bike paths? How many school improvements and social services for our elders? How many units of transitional housing to eliminate homelessness? How many college scholarships for our city’s youth? How many free concerts, community theatre productions, public lectures, and works of public art could be sponsored?
In our renewed city, imagine how freely you could roam the streets at night with the assurance that no one would ever take anything from you. Or if your car broke down in the middle of the night in an area with no cell service, imagine how much safer you would feel knocking on someone’s door for help, knowing that the person on the other side of the door wasn’t trembling in fear with a gun at their side for “protection” against robbery.
Imagine no computer viruses. No identity theft. Your purse or wallet stays right where you left it. Fences are merely ornamental. If you forget your money at a restaurant, your waiter says, “Just bring the money with you next time.” Safe deposit boxes are kept at home, not at banks, and have no locks.
Imagine courts that are virtually non-existent (and lawyers with them!). Prisons are virtually empty. Police and military personnel (and the money spent on them) are largely repurposed. Congress actually gets stuff done!
Would you even recognize such a world if you walked into it?
The picture we’ve painted so far is just a tiny corner of the whole. So far we’ve just been considering illegal theft. But plenty of stealing takes place legally.
If legalized theft disappeared, the 2008 market crash may have become the market boom. Interest rates on credit cards would already be lower if illegal theft were non-existent; now imagine how low they’d be if legal price-gauging disappeared? Imagine if everyone were paid a living wage? (Do we not engage in theft when we expect someone to do something for us who can’t survive on what we pay them?) What if we stopped stealing from our grandchildren and great grandchildren like we are now? Currently, we’re leaving them an astronomical national debt and a world whose environment will cost many times the national debt to set right, if it can be set right at all. What if we stopped stealing in these ways? And what if countries didn’t take over other countries to get their hands on resources that don’t belong to them – not only because they no longer steal but because they had no need to steal since healthier human relationships lead to greater cooperation and sharing of resources.
Heathier human relationships. What a concept! Imagine the effect all this would have on your quality of life.
The Law of Grace
Really, if we kept any single one of the Ten Commandments, we’d be living in a completely different world. We would live in far greater harmony with God, our neighbor, and the earth. Can you envision what life would be like if we kept all ten?
None of us can.
There’s the rub. We live in such strong disobedience to God’s most basic commands that we can’t even picture what living in a world where the Ten Commandments are obeyed looks like.
This is where we can thank God for Grace. Grace isn’t an abrogation of God’s Law. Grace allows us to continue to exist in relationship with God while we continue to break God’s laws over and over and over again. Grace tells us that God is more interested in relationship with us than our perfection. This does not mean that God is disinterested in perfection! This would be like saying God isn’t interested in creating a world where people don’t pick each other’s pockets, or doesn’t care when your own pocket gets picked.
When we really grasp just how much grace we rely on at any and every moment of each and every day, it’s heartbreaking. Grace breaks our hearts, thus opening our hearts to Gratitude. It’s impossible not to feel profound gratitude toward God when one finally grasps the loving Grace we are given without our even being vaguely aware of it or giving thanks.
The Cross is the ultimate symbol of God’s loving Grace. By God’s Law, we’re all convicted. Yet, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. God chose to make “a way out of no way,” bestowing move love and grace on us when all we deserved was judgment and condemnation. When we really get grateful for all God does for us, we get loving. And when we get loving, we find the strength needed to uphold God’s Law a little more fully than we did yesterday. In so doing, we make ourselves better people and the world a better place.