Sermon – Enough Covenant for Everyone

Exodus 20: 1-17; Mark 14:22-25

Farmville Presbyterian Church

March 3, 2024

– The covenant of the law


One thing that I am not interested in is extra rules.  I may be the weird one here.  Are there people around who actually crave additional rules or additional laws?  I understand that situations may arise that require some kind of rule or law creation to address a need, but so many folk go to positions of political leadership and go hog-wild on the law thing.  That’s one thing that deeply distressed me about my time working in the Elections office in Amelia.  The state election laws changed so much every year depending on which party came into power.  Rules for the sake of rules or laws for the sake of laws just do not interest me.  I am not a libertarian who thinks that government should by and large leave people pretty much alone.  That would invite a level of unaccountability and non-responsibility that is dangerous.  If you remember the housing crash of 2008 that took us to a dark place financially, you will remember that many people lost their retirements in that mad dash pursuing wealth in greed.  I’m more in the camp of those who want barely enough rules to get by, but I suspect that we have gone overboard already.

So it may not surprise you that I also struggle with extra rules even in the Bible.  I do not consider the Bible to be a rule book nearly as much as a love story or a guide for better living.  The 613 rules found in the Jewish Law have their beginning in today’s reading from Exodus, but they are not the beginning or the end of the covenant of God.  Those rules are not to be worshipped, and they do not lead to salvation.  People have tried.  If the law could save, it would have, and we would not have needed Jesus.  As it turns out, I am not the only person who struggles with the Law.  I am very much with Paul on this point.  The law is not BAD, but it is not nearly as helpful as we might like to think.  It helps to point us to our need for grace, and it should make us very thankful to have that kindness from God that frees us from the demands of the law.  The law can show us how much we need Christ, and he is the one who gives us the true Law, so to speak.

Nevertheless, you might be sitting there thinking, “Pastor Pete, these are the Ten Commandments.  These are the biggies so they must be good.  There is even a great Charlton Heston movie that climaxes in this story.  The law must be ok.”

To that I would respond with two points:

  • The number four law (for instance), makes the Sabbath holy, but the law elaborates to the point where if you violate the Sabbath, you were to be executed (see Exodus 31 and 35). This was carried out at least once in Numbers 15.  I’m not sure killing people is the best use of the freedom God has given us, but people do have a tendency to use rules to control others.
  • When asked what the greatest law was in the Jewish panoply of laws, Jesus did not reference these particular laws at all, though undertones are all through the law. All Law should be about loving God and our neighbor.  The big Ten do not state it so succinctly as the ones Jesus quoted, but they do not disagree with them either.  Do understand me –  there is nothing wrong with observing the Ten Commandments.  Goodness gracious, we can truly benefit from their observance, but they cannot stand in the way with the actual practice of loving people or God.  They are not meant to lord over us or to be in the place of God.

Something truly huge is happening here, though, that we need to see in this passage.  We already have the covenant.  We have that God is committing to be our God, and we through Abraham have committed to be God’s people.  This is our theme for all of these weeks in Lent.  There really weren’t strings attached before, though, as we have seen so far.  This is really strange.  God did not lay out specifically what it looked like to follow God.  We did not have the playbook or the manual about what it means to be God’s people.  Abraham was hundreds and hundreds of years earlier.  No one at this point is close to remembering what happened before Egypt.  They did not really have any good knowledge of God, either.  This freedom from Egypt was their introduction to God.  Now, things are different.  There are lots of people now – many more than the 70 that Joseph brought to Egypt as his family 400 years before.  We are thinking many thousands of people, maybe even hundreds of thousands.

This is when God seems to drop the boom on them.  No more free reign or free ride.  The people have already vexed God, and while Moses was getting the very law we just read, the people were making idols and worshiping other gods.  It really seems like they needed rules to keep them more in check and accountable to better ways of living.  They had to be able to treat others and God in the ways that were right.  But did they need 613 laws to do it?  Couldn’t God just have said, “Love me with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?”  I’m not sure it matters so much whether I am wearing clothing with different kinds of fabric in it or whether I eat ham – both of which are outlawed in the laws.

There is an answer.  Some things do not have answers in the present day: is there life on other planets, how can light be particles and a wave, or why do my socks disappear in the wash?  Those questions are beyond our ability to answer, but how the law of God fits into the covenant God has with the people does have an answer.  It is the same answer that enables Jesus to sit around the Passover table with all of his closest disciples.  He did not give them his renewal of the covenant out on a street corner, in the synagogue, or in a private conversation meeting each disciple by themselves.  Perish giving them the renewed covenant by email.  He gave them this new breath of loving promise over a meal, one of the most intimate group things that people could do.  Table fellowship was precious in a way that touches on the best of our fellowship meals.  Also, Jesus wants them all to receive his grace together as one.  He had a gift to share with them all, and he wanted to bless them all together.  When we are all together, it is a great thing.

God is doing the same thing in the Exodus passage.  Our Heavenly Father did not just wake up one day and decide to finally give them marching orders or that they had gotten along too long on their own.  God is not being mean or bossy, either, but trying to protect them from themselves.  There is a promise for new life.  There is a promise for a future with a land and blessing tied to all of this.  And this promise is not just for one person or one couple as with Abraham and Sarah, but it is for all the people of their descendants.  That promise is for everyone.  The law was supposed to spread the promise out equally to everyone.  It didn’t matter who you were or whose daughter or son you were or how wealthy you were.  The law did not distinguish between persons.  It is not like today where if you have enough money, you can find ways to get out of legal trouble.  Even Moses was subject to God’s judgment and was never allowed to enter the Land of Promise.  Yes, I am a little skeptical that all those 613 laws are necessary.  I am not sure they were even necessary back then.  We can read how people got too invested in the Law to the disregard of other people.  We can also see how the Law was used to abuse others.  The Law itself cannot be the answer.  It never was.  You cannot legislate love.  You never could.  Laws cannot fix the world, but they can give us an equal playing field and give everyone a place in a larger community.  They can add to our lives until they begin to take away our freedom in harmful ways.

We have seen some of this in abuses of the justice system and in certain bad policing practices.  We can imagine how laws have been made and continue to be made that hurt lives and relationships, that make one people over another or ostracizes one group or another.  It is unfathomable for us in a land that nearly worships our freedom to appreciate what our sisters and brothers might experience who see the Law as an enemy, but you don’t have to go back too far to see Jim Crow laws or the internment of Japanese Americans.  Any law can be judged on how it reflects greater, divine Law which is the basis for our legal system.  God gave us all a basis in law to work out our living with each other.  We are supposed to find space for everyone and security to love as we honor each other in God’s family.  God’s promise continues for all of us as we give our best efforts to tending to our love for God and each other.

God’s enduring covenant gives us a promise and a responsibility to all of God’s children who are to be treated with equality and justice, how we ourselves want to be treated.  This is our calling, our passion, and our law.  To God be the glory.  Amen.