Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Devotional for the Twenty-Eighth Day of Lent, the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The heavens proclaim his righteousness;
 and all the peoples behold his glory. 
All worshippers of images are put to shame,
 those who make their boast in worthless idols;
 all gods bow down before him. (Psalm 97:6-7)

Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 17:21)

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25a)

When I entered boot camp many years ago, my world became undone. From one day to the next I was required to do things I had never done before, and to do them with regularity. I had to shave off my hair, wear special clothes, and learn a new language. All this would reform me from a 19-year-old aimless college student into a member of the US Navy, and I would carry this new identity for the next four years. A lot of times I wasn’t happy about the whole thing, but all I could do was resist something that wasn’t going to go away.

God rescued the ancient Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt, and soon thereafter handed them laws and codes of behavior that would frame their new existence as a people. This was very different from their former life, where they spent their days in forced servitude. They emerged from their captivity with the mindsets of slaves, and Egyptian ones at that. When God required new things from them, it wasn’t sheer legalism, but rather the way they would be reformed as his people, with the one true God at their center rather than the sun god of the Egyptians.

Over time, the people would come to see this life-giving, reforming law of God to be something that was to be obeyed in order to curry God’s favor and to wear the badge of “righteousness.” Keeping the Sabbath became legalistic rather than a joyous time of rest and worship in the presence of God. If you kept the Sabbath, then you were providing evidence of your own righteousness. This was clearly not what God intended.

The Apostle Paul understood this, since he grew up and was nurtured in that same culture. He recognized that to try to do all the right things to please God ended up just showing us how messed up we really were, because we just couldn’t do enough things right to please anyone. His words in Romans 7 are almost humorous: I try to be good with my mind, but my body misbehaves. It’s like having a segmented personality. Everybody, in their hearts, knows how this works, and it causes no end of frustration. Paul winds up by declaring that there is a rescue from this mess, and God himself brings it about in and through Jesus Christ. God is not waiting around for us to make him happy; when we are at our messiest, he saves us from all forms of condemnation, especially the kind that we heap on ourselves.

If you’ve been in one of those places where you keep beating yourself up for wrongs that can’t be undone, for past offenses that cause you no end of regret, don’t waste your time bargaining with God about it; he just doesn’t need it, and neither do you. He already knows the messes we’ve created, and still he comes toward us, with arms of forgiveness opened wide, and with a love that transforms broken human hearts into hearts that beat with his rhythms of grace and love. That’s what believing in Jesus is really about: Believing that all he says and does reveals the true heart of God. It’s a belief that is crafted out of wonder and trust.

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