Martin Luther once said that God preached just two public sermons. For the first, his pulpit was a mountain top, a towering, brooding mountain in the desert called Sinai, and from it God laid down the law, giving the people of Israel a good talking to before they set off to find out about freedom in land they mostly had to themselves under leadership that was mostly theirs. God's second sermon Luther said was preached from a scruffy little hill, from the cross, from where Jesus absorbed the demands of the law and forgave our failure to live up to it saying, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." From that far smaller mountain, a few people who would come to be called the New Israel, the followers of Jesus, were given a good talking to before they ventured off to their freedom, the freedom of forgiveness and the freedom to serve Christ. Luther said that these two sermons could not have been more different. The first predicated on what God expects of us. The second grounded upon what we can expect of him.
One would not expect any preacher to tell you to ignore a sermon of God's, but that is pretty much the message of our lessons from Galatians. In that first sermon those commandments from Sinai, God demands, albeit with loving and protective motives. The Apostle Paul, who loved that sermon a lot when he was young, says in our lesson that such an understanding of God is at the very least unhelpful, and in fact may be of no use. Christian faith is based on the God who gives, not the God who demands. One of my seminary Professors, James Arne Nestingen, before opening a class he was teaching on the Commandments prayed, "We thank you God for the Commandments ... but really not too much! Quite honestly, we thank you that Moses is dead and in his grave ... and that Jesus our Savior is not."
Now as a father I know darn well that laws are needed. After all, the commands of my house are all given with loving, protective motives. My main goal in life is raising three fairly healthy, moral, conscientious, courteous daughters. In other words, I'd like them to become of legal age themselves before they would do something that would require me to need the aid of a lawyer myself! In other words, I want them to obey some laws. And I really hope that the parents of boys are doing the same, if you know what I mean! But if you love laws too much, you will never know, nor will you ever convey to anyone else, for that matter, daughter or son, what the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord is like and for. You are not alone, though.
Rev. Ken Nelson
At first Paul himself could not believe his own ears. He had a massively hard time accepting the grace of God and believing a God that loves sinners, or of imagining and trusting in a storehouse of forgiveness that is so full, or of coming to the realization that God is known best by those in the world who have fared the worst ... or done the worst. But when he finally did accept this truth, Paul was pretty doggone committed to making sure no one he knew turned from it. Galatians almost did. Paul was a man whose sense of safety and success was tied up in God's first sermon. His dilem-ma was believing the second one, and accepting that his success was in God's grace, not his demands.
It's a dilemma, too. Protest as we might, we all tend to prefer God's first sermon, the one with those clear boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable. It's easier to navigate spiritually within borders. God's second sermon sends us out into freedom, to live and love and serve without the comfort of minimums and maximums or classifications like "good, better or best." Odd as it may seem, it's harder to believe and love a God of grace than a God of judgment. In his humorous presentation of Noah's conversation with God, comedian Bill Cosby has Noah say, as the rains begin to fall, "What are you doing this for ... I've been good!" Cosby understands the story of the Bible and the human condition very well. "I've been good, did you see the stuff I did today ... how hard I worked, how fair I was, how restrained I was in my behavior and speech, how open minded I was ... God, did you notice and did you write it down?"
Yet, the premise of the entire book of Galatians is that God's first sermon only served to reveal our flaws and carve out our weaknesses. It is not a formula for religious success. Words like "Thou shall not commit adultery or bear a false witness" really say more about the character of a person who bumps up against this command as it does about what God requires or is hung up about. Why should such a thing have to be said in the first place if there is not an inherent weakness in man? So if you want a really good talking to by God, the only sermon to listen to is his second, the one from Calvary, where the words "Father forgive them" reveal so much more about the character of God than the weakness of you and I. Another Paul, 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, said the only law that is required of a Christian is to "accept the acceptance of God."
You may have heard recently about Pastor Teresa MacBain who made headlines when she publically renounced her faith, declaring she no longer believed in any God, but rather now considered herself an atheist. Her "personal testimony" won her a standing ovation at a recent convention of atheists. When you think about it, it says something about the character of atheists ... but I digress. In an interview with National Public Radio, MacBain was asked a revealing question...did she, after living most of her 44 years as a professing Christian and working much of her adult life as a pastor, miss God? She paused ... and simply said "NO."
She could have said, "What God? I can't miss what doesn't even exist," but she said, "No."
Might Teresa, who unfortunately has been abandoned by many of her Christian friends, have been revealing a crisis of faith more than having no faith? It seems her answer was more the confession of a person who spent too much time listening to God's Sinai sermon and not availing herself of his Calvary sermon, too much time with a God that demands and not with the God that freely gives. It's a dilemma we all face, I suppose, and why we all need a good talking to now and then. Jesus loves you. Jesus accepts you without reservation.
Rev. Ken Nelson is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Minot.