A Commandment Close By

First UMC Shelbyville
July 14, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (CEB)
9The LORD your God will help you succeed in everything you do—in your own fertility, your livestock’s offspring, and your land’s produce—everything will be great! Because the LORD will once again enjoy doing good things for you just as he enjoyed doing them for your ancestors, 10and because you will be obeying the LORD your God’s voice, keeping his commandments and his regulations that are written in this Instruction scroll, and because you will have returned to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your being.
11This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. 12It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” 13Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “ Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it? ” 14Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.

This weekend, just across the street on the courthouse lawn, there was a chili cookoff. Actually, there were two of them – a regional event on Friday night and the Tennessee state championship on Saturday. As it turns out, I was a judge at both of them. I enjoyed it – but don’t offer me any more chili for a week or two. The cookoffs were sanctioned by the International Chili Society, and so contestants had to abide by that organization’s rules and regulations.

Here are just some of those rules:

1) “Traditional Red Chili is defined by the International Chili Society as any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of BEANS and PASTA which are strictly forbidden.”
4) “No ingredient may be pre-cooked in any way prior to the commencement of the official cookoff. The only exceptions are canned or bottled tomatoes, tomato sauce, peppers, pepper sauce, beverages, broth and grinding and/or mixing of spices. Meat may be treated, pre-cut or ground. The ICS does not prefer one over the other.
MEAT MAY NOT BE PRE-COOKED, in any manner. All other ingredients must be chopped or prepared during the preparation period.”
9) “Each contestant must cook a minimum of two quarts of competition chili prepared in one pot which will be submitted for judging. Sharing or splitting Chili, Chili Verde or Salsa for judging with another contestant for the purpose of increasing the number of entries in any event will result in suspension of ICS membership for a minimum of one year. Any cookoff chairman, chief judge or scorekeeper knowingly allowing cheating in any way at their event will result in non-sanctioning of their event the following year, no exceptions.”

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain a number of very specific rules for the children of Israel. There were moral laws, governing things like murder and adultery. There were laws governing property, marriage and divorce. There were laws governing what types of food were clean and unclean.
There were various offerings and rituals that had to be performed. There were medical conditions or normal bodily functions that made you unclean and kept you from entering the tabernacle. There were instructions for the tabernacle and the priesthood.
I listen to a podcast called the Daily Audio Bible. It’s excellent; it takes you through the whole Bible in a year. It’s done by a man from Spring Hill named Brian Hardin, and you can listen on your computer or your phone or tablet or MP3 player. Each day he reads an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, a passage from Psalms and a passage from Proverbs. He’s got a wonderful, very casual speaking voice, unlike some of the Bible-on-tape products you used to get that were narrated by dramatic actors who seemed more interested in chewing scenery than in the scripture itself.
I like the idea of going through the whole Bible in a year’s time, and I think every passage in the Bible is there for some reason, even if it challenges us to find that reason.
But I have to admit that it’s kind of heavy slogging during the part of the year when Brian is going through those Mosaic laws. For days on end, it seems, you get rule after rule about how to deal with leprosy, or what types of sacrifices must be offered. Fortunately, there’s always the New Testament passage that follows.
We don’t understand all of the laws that God gave the Israelites through Moses. Some of them seem cruel. Some of them seem just bizarre. In Leviticus, for example, and again in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded not to wear clothing made from more than one type of fiber woven together.
So if any of you are wearing any sort of cotton-polyester blend, you’re in violation of the laws of Moses.
This particular law was probably more about symbolism than anything else. The laws of Moses were intended, in part, to reinforce the notion that the people of Israel were more than just freed slaves – they were a nation, God’s people. And at the time, as they were wandering through the desert and then fighting for and establishing their new nation, it was critical that they be set apart from the corrupting influences of other cultures and religions. Rules about wearing only one type of fabric or planting only one type of seed in a field were probably meant to drive home this point.
Some scholars say that the dietary laws – when applied to that particular time and culture and set of circumstances – actually made a lot of sense. Many of the foods that were prohibited under the laws of Moses were the foods that were most likely to be contaminated or have food-borne illnesses, at least in that day and time and with that level of technology.
Even today, there are Gentiles – people who aren’t even Jewish – who seek out foods that have been certified by Jewish rabbis as kosher, because the laws for kosher foods – which have evolved over the centuries from those Mosaic laws – result in high-quality products prepared in scrupulously-clean conditions.
According to a 2010 story in the New York Times,

“In an era of heightened concern over food contamination, allergies and the provenance of ingredients, the market for kosher food among non-Jews is setting records.

“Only about 15 percent of people who buy kosher do it for religious reasons, according to Mintel, a research group that last year produced a report on the kosher food explosion. The top reasons cited for buying kosher? Quality, followed by general healthfulness.”

So some of the rules God gave the people of Israel may not have been as arbitrary or silly as they seem at first glance.
But now, as we approach the end of Deuteronomy, we are at the end of the various rules and regulations. And Moses tells the people that the LORD will bring them success, “because you will be obeying the LORD your God’s voice, keeping his commandments and his regulations that are written in this Instruction scroll, and because you will have returned to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your being.”
In other words, if you do what God wants you to do, things are going to work out for the best. But listen again to what comes next, in verse 11:

“This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?’ Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?’ Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.”

The laws of Moses are something to be reckoned with, but Moses tells the people that the most important commandment – the principle on which all of the other commandments are based – isn’t on scrolls or on stone tablets. It’s much closer – it’s already written in your heart. You already know what’s right and what’s wrong. You already know what brings you closer to God and what pulls you away from God. You already know how to behave.
In the late 1980s, a Unitarian minister named Robert Fulghum had a huge best-seller with a book entitled “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” The premise of the book was that many of the most important things we learn in life – about fair play, about sharing, about having fun and taking care of ourselves and each other – we learn at a very young age. We may stray from those lessons, we may disregard them, but we can’t claim we didn’t know what was right and what was wrong.
Some people would simply describe this as conscience. And that’s a good word. But I think it’s also God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, speaking to our hearts and nudging us towards what we ought to be doing. I think that’s what Moses is talking about when he speaks of the law being “in our mouth and in our heart, waiting for us to do it.”
The trouble, of course, comes when we have to apply those very simple principles to complicated situations. But even then, God usually provides us with wisdom to feel our way towards the right choice.
One of my favorite movies is “Chariots of Fire,” and because it has to do with British Olympic history, it was referred to a lot during last year’s Olympic games in London.
Many of you have seen the movie, but if you haven’t, it’s about two British runners in the 1924 Olympic games in Paris. One of those runners is a Scotsman named Eric Liddell, raised by missionaries and destined for the mission field himself – but not before he takes the chance to prove himself on the track.
Liddell’s sister is worried that his athletic success will distract him from God’s work, but Eric tells her that he feels God’s pleasure when he runs, and he also uses his fame as an opportunity to share the Gospel with people.
Soon after we meet Eric Liddell, we learn one thing about him – he was raised to believe that Sunday, our Christian Sabbath, is a day of rest, and that it’s sinful even to play games or sports on Sunday. We see Liddell very gently correcting some boys whom he finds playing soccer on Sunday, but he also doesn’t want them to think that Christianity is just about saying “no,” so he promises that if they can wait until Monday, he’ll play with them.
Several years later, as Eric Liddell is preparing to represent his country in the Olympics, he gets a very unpleasant surprise – the qualifying heat for his event has been scheduled for a Sunday. Even with his nation’s highest officials pressuring him to run, he believes it would be a sin – and he must obey God, even at the cost of losing his chance at Olympic glory.
Now, I’m going to say that most Americans in 2013 would not agree with Eric Liddell’s specific interpretation of the Sabbath. Not only NFL football but many other sporting events are held on Sunday, and they’re watched and attended by believers and non-believers alike.
But even if we don’t interpret the rules exactly the same way Eric Liddell did, we admire him for following his conscience – for listening to God’s voice and holding fast to what he’d been taught and what he believed.
Two Christians may agree to disagree about the Sabbath, or how often communion should be served, or what a worship service should look and sound like. Christians in one age may have different ideas about, say, women in the pulpit than Christians of another age.
God does not change. The commandment that God puts in our hearts does not change. But we change. Sometimes, changes mean we’re sliding into disobedience, rationalizing and making excuses for doing what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do. Sometimes, though, changes can be a good thing, as God leads us into a broader or more generous interpretation of his will and his way than a previous generation had.
We don’t ever want to ignore God’s law for the sake of our own interests, but we also don’t want to ignore God’s spirit when it leads us to a different understanding.
When God first wanted Peter to minister to the Gentiles, God showed Peter a vision of some of the animals listed as unclean by the laws of Moses. God tells Peter to eat them, and Peter, a good Jew as well as a good Christian, refuses. But then God tells Peter not to think of something as unclean if God has called it clean. God does not change, but God may change the way God relates to us, and God may call upon us to act differently as situations change.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what’s right. One Christian may interpret something as disobedience, while another sees God’s hand at work.
What’s important is that we listen for the commandment within our hearts, and that, in Christian humility, we give others credit for their own conscience even when we disagree with them.
Jesus, in Matthew 5:17-19, said,

“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Which laws was Jesus talking about? Within just a decade or two, Paul was recruiting Gentile Christians and excusing them from having to be circumcised or follow some of the more arcane laws of Moses. We’ve already heard about Peter and the unclean animals. Jesus came to fulfill the law, but the true law is revealed to us in many ways.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline says, “While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason.
“Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.”
Our Methodist heritage tells us that while the Bible is the primary source of God’s law, church tradition and our own reason may clarify what we believe about any particular part of the Bible.
God’s law is eternal, but God may use the Holy Spirit to teach us new things about the law, to better understand and interpret God’s will and God’s way.
God’s law is written in our mouths and in our heart. We need to listen to God’s voice, and not be afraid to speak up, either when God commands us to stand up for a traditional interpretation or when God calls us to open our eyes to a new interpretation.

One thought on “A Commandment Close By

  1. Really good sermon.

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