James 1:17-27, & Mark 7:1-23
What is happening to this ball? What happens when I let go of it ? Why does that happen? Does it make any difference who drops it? Will it always fall?
Dropping this ball illustrates the law of Gravity. This morning I’d like us to think about some different kinds of law that crop up in our readings, but also in our lives.
The first question is, “What is a law”. I came across a great definition this week from a Chinese Christian teacher called Watchman Nee:
“A law is a generalization examined until it is proved that there is no exception. We might define it more simply as something that happens over and over again. Each time the thing happens it happens in the same way.”
Does this definition work with my ball? Does it happen over and over again? Does the same thing happen the same way each time? Yes, it does.
The three kinds of law that I would like us to look at this morning are; God’s moral law, Laws made by people and the Perfect Law of Freedom.
We start with God’s moral law. These are the laws that God has given people so that they can know how they should live. If we follow these laws then we can live well with each other and with God. They are referred to in both our readings. Jesus is talking about God’s moral law when he talks about , “evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness in marriage, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness” all being forbidden. Why are they forbidden? They are forbidden because they prevent us from being fit to worship God. If we do these things then we damage each other, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with God.
That is the way that this law works. Every time we do one of these actions we take ourselves away from God and each other. There is no exception, it doesn’t matter who does these things, or why we do them, the outcome is the same each time. The outcome is always damage.
God’s moral law works positively as well. If we keep these laws then we will experience God’s blessing. We will get closer to God and each other. There will be peace and justice, love and grace. That is the outcome of obeying God’s moral law. It always is, no exceptions.
Both Jesus and James use the example of the words that come out of our mouths to help us think about how we measure up to God’s moral law. How can we tell whether our hearts and lives are truly in line with God’s law? We only need to listen to ourselves. How long can we go without saying something unkind, cutting, or unloving about some one else? When did we last say something uplifting, encouraging, or loving to somebody else? As surely as dropping this ball leads to it hitting the floor, so what comes out of our mouths reveals what is in our hearts.
But, I have a problem. I can’t do it. I can’t follow God’s moral law. As much as I might want to, as much as I see that it is a good thing. As much as I desire to, I am not able to keep God’s moral law.
I don’t think that I am the first one to wrestle with this problem. In fact, I know that I’m not. One group of people who tried to get a handle on this problem were the Pharisees. They had a cunning plan. They came up with some new laws, laws made by people.
This week I came across I story on the BBC News website that I think illustrates really well some of the problems of Laws made by people.
“Comedian Tom Wrigglesworth said he did not know why he decided to stand up for an elderly lady who was being harassed by a ticket inspector on a train. But, he is glad he did.
Not only did he get Virgin Trains to change its rules but he also turned the experience into a Fringe show which has been nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
Last October, the comedian was travelling from Manchester to London when a ticket attendant reduced a 75-year-old woman to tears because she was on the wrong train.
Her pre-booked ticket was for a train 30 minutes later but her travel itinerary, printed by station staff, mistakenly gave the wrong time.
She was told to pay £115 for a new ticket, 10 times her original fare, because she was not allowed to buy an off-peak ticket once she had boarded the train.
"Something about this situation made me act at the time," the comedian said.
"I think it was the sheer brutality of it. The sheer heartlessness of what the ticket collector did.
"It would have been so easy for him to walk away. It was absolutely grotesque."
With the woman reduced to tears, Wrigglesworth arranged a whip-round among the other passengers.
He was then accused of begging and questioned by the police when he arrived in London.
After the incident, Wrigglesworth took on Virgin Trains and got it to change its policy on buying off-peak tickets on the train, although other operators maintain the same restrictions.”
You see, is some ways there is nothing wrong with the underlying principle behind the laws made by the train operators. They are there to prevent people from travelling without paying a fair price, which would be unjust and is ultimately, stealing from the company and from other passengers who have paid the correct fare. The problem is that was applied without any mercy. You have broken the law, you must pay. No exceptions. It’s the same every time. It’s a law.
Only it’s not really. It’s not a law, it’s a rule made by people.
This ball belongs to Tabitha, my daughter. We have a rule in our house that she is not allowed to play with it in her room after lights out and she’s meant to be going to sleep. If she does, and I see her, then I confiscate it for a couple of days. And that bit in the middle is really important, “if I see her”. If this were a true law then if she broke the law then the ball would automatically disappear from her ownership for a couple of days, just as it automatically falls if I drop it. A law doesn’t need an outside agent to enforce it. The thing that happens, always happens.
It seems to me that this is the big problem with laws or rules made by people. We tend to get distracted from why the rule is there in the first place and get side tracked into making sure that the rule is kept.
This is why the Pharisees got it in the neck from Jesus. They had come up with a whole load of extra rules and regulations to keep people from breaking God’s laws. But the problem was that they had lost sight of what God was actually concerned about. They were so busy making sure that people kept the rules that they ended up judging people, and burdening them down. So much so that they had lost sight of God.
I wonder if we fall into that trap sometimes? For instance, In our worship services we might have rules, written and unwritten, about what should happen when, sitting or standing, who should be where, noisy or quiet. These rules might have good reasons for them, to help people engage with God and experience God’s presence, but do we get so caught up with enforcing them that we forget the deeper, God given laws of welcome and grace?
So, I still have a problem. I know that God’s moral law is good. I also know that if I don’t obey it then I cannot be blessed by God. I know that I can’t keep it, and that extra rules that people make aren’t going to help, they’re more likely to make things worse. What am I going to do?
It is with this question in mind that we turn to our third kind of law, the law that James talks about, the perfect law that sets us free.
I seems like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it. A law that sets you free? All that we’ve talking about so far about law seems to say that laws are about constraint. If you do this, then this will happen. If you let go of the ball it will fall. It is not free to do anything else. It has to fall. So how can a law bring freedom?
Well, how about this as an example:
I heard of someone, who when he was seven, was condemned to live under a law of shortsightedness. His eyes went bad, and today he is considered legally blind. He is not free; he is in bondage to this law. He hates it. But it doesn’t matter. There is no escape.
One day he discovered there was a greater law that can overcome the law of shortsightedness. It is the law of glasses. When he submitted himself to the law of corrective lenses, the law of shortsightedness was overcome. The law of shortsightedness is still there, but it was overpowered by a greater law that enabled him to see.
Here’s the irony: You would think if he wants to be free, he should throw the glasses away. But that is not freedom. Only by submitting to the law of glasses does he become free.
Or consider this ball. If I put my hand underneath it, then when I let go of it, it does not fall. The law of gravity is still in place, but there is another law that has a greater power.
So it is in life. There is a perfect law that gives us freedom. This law has more power than other laws. This law does two things. Firstly, it frees us from the consequences of breaking God’s moral law. Secondly, it works to free us so that we become more and more able to keep God’s moral law.
What is this perfect law, how can we find it, how can we be free like this?
Paul tells us in his letter to the church in Rome, chapter 8 verse 2. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death”.
This is the law of freedom. When we submit our lives to Jesus, and live in the strength of the Holy Spirit then we are freed from death, free to live forever in ever deeper relationship with God.
How can we be free from the consequences of our failures to keep God’s law? By accepting the death of Jesus on the cross, who died for us, believing in him and turning our backs on the way that we used to live.
How can we be free to live now in line with God’s laws? By the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and lives.
This is the perfect law of freedom. If we believe in Jesus and repent, we are free. No exceptions, it always happens.
If this freedom isn’t your experience, and you want it to be then I invite you to respond to God’s call this morning. If you want to be free from past failures, or if you want to be free to live a better life, then you can.