Right around the middle of our wedding service Melody and I made a bunch of vows about the ways we would act towards each other. Those vows formed a covenant between us that defines our relationship and the conditions in which that relationship will flourish and grow. When we promised to “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, forsaking all others until we are parted by death.” we were establishing the boundaries of our covenant. The vows were not the whole wedding ceremony and certainly are not our whole marriage. The wedding ceremony includes many pieces, and though the vows are central, there is more to a marriage covenant than the promises we make together. The Torah, what we translate as “the Law” included a lot more than rules, consequences and promises. The root word of Torah actually comes from archery and would be literally translated as “the arrow aimed at the mark.” So if you were wondering why sin would be literally translated as missing the mark, you now can explain that the root word for biblical teaching about God’s desire for the redemption of humanity and the world he created and called good comes from archery. The Torah defined the purpose for the covenant outlined in the first five books of our Bibles, explained the motivations for entering the agreement along with the story of how the relationship got started. The purpose of the Torah was to establish the covenant of relationship between Israel and God that would cause that relationship to be healthy. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had to assert just how important that relationship and the story of its ups and downs are to his ministry and the ministry of those who would follow him.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
Jesus could not say it any plainer: God has no intention of breaking the covenant with Israel or any of the promises contained within. This was a big deal to the people of Israel who hadn’t heard from prophets for hundreds of years. There was a fear that maybe they had broken the covenant one time too many and that God was finally going to abandon them to the consequences of their wrongdoing. In some ways you could say that without the constant reminders from the prophets, Israel had begun to lose sight of the story of their relationship with God. The prophet’s job in the bible was not to predict the future, although some of that happened. No, the prophet’s job was to hold up a mirror and say “Israel, here is God’s perspective how you are doing at living up to your covenant with God. By the way, let me also remind you of the consequences that God put in place and which are headed this way.” In speaking of fulfilling the law and prophets Jesus was letting people know that rather than coming to break the covenant he was come to take all the consequences of the covenant on himself for all time so that the covenant could be eternally fulfilled.
Not one piece of the story of God’s love for the people in this world he created is removable. Not one boundary within which God’s people can grow into deeper and more faithful relationships can be shifted. God’s desire was, is, and will be that each of us is enfolded in his love and that each of is so transformed by that love that we can’t help but live within the covenant as the bride of Christ. When the transformation is accomplished we will not need the law for, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 34:31-34
The boundaries that cannot be shifted will instead become a core part of our identity as human beings, and God will forget our sins, even when we don’t. Jesus has come to teach his people himself, and we can hear God’s voice if we listen. We can know the Lord and get his input on life’s many decisions so that we can obey the dictates of his love in their fullness.
The Pharisees of Jesus time argued with him about the best way to accomplish this. They constantly accused Jesus and his followers of discarding the law to fit their convenience. What Jesus and the Pharisees were arguing about was not centered on what the law said. If you sat all of them down and read a passage from the Torah they would all agree that what you read was indeed scripture, was indeed part of the Torah. The disagreement came in the interpretation of the words. Jesus chose to use the principles of Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself as his guiding interpretive principles, and we see that all through his teaching on the scriptures. The Pharisees however had a much more contractual interpretation, God has done all these things, so in order for him to be pleased with us we must respond by doing this set of things in these specific ways so that we do not offend God and God does not punish us. The Pharisees were focused on making the perfect arrow of adherence to the law, while Jesus was focused on the mark or target of right relationship with God. Jesus knew that it didn’t matter how perfect you made the arrow, if you weren’t focused on the target you would never hit it. Jesus wants his disciples and those who listened to his words to know that the instruction, direction, teaching and doctrine of the Torah will help us keep our aim on target but it is not the target itself.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law had lost sight of the purpose for the law and in doing so ended up violating the underlying precepts that gave the Torah its purpose. When we keep our focus on the end goal, we will find ourselves in an obedience that comes because we are aimed in the right direction. The author of the book of Hebrews uses this aiming language to encourage us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin [or missing the mark] that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1b-2 This language shows up in Paul’s writings as well to remind us that our target is Jesus. Our arrow exists, not as an end in itself, but as the necessary vehicle to propel us towards our mark. That is why Jesus is so vehement about the false righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, because the reality is that what you focus on is what you worship.
If you want to know why Jesus was so hated by the Pharisees and teachers of the law it is precisely for this statement. Jesus is accusing them of setting up the Torah and their interpretation as an idol. We can do the same thing sometimes, and I think all of us have. It is so much easier to focus on the bible and forget to pray, so much easier to deal with what is tangible than to pursue the Holy Spirit. We forget that the bible is the arrow that points to God. I know I have done this, and will probably do it again. Someday when having something tangible that I can touch, feel and read is more comforting than the God I cannot see. Jesus wants our righteousness to come from accepting that He is the mark at which we must aim. The scriptures and the Torah are the vehicle propelling us forward, but they are not the goal, relationship with God is. This is why prayer is so important! One of the disciplines I practice is a daily time with God. For me it is in the evening when Melody and my daughters have gone to bed and the house is quiet. I sit with two chairs facing each other and I invite Jesus to have a seat and go over my day with me. We talk about how I did, where I failed, where I listened well to Him, I thank him for guiding me and ask forgiveness, then after that time with Jesus I ask him to open my eyes as I read the scriptures and hear how what I read is pointing me to God. Now for some of you the morning or middle of the day works better, the time of day doesn’t matter, but the time spent deliberately seeking Jesus and his way of being and doing what is right does. When you are setting aside time for God turn off the TV, radio, cell phone, computer, game system, and give him your full attention. I use the chairs because I need a visual cue to help me focus. Experiment, figure out what distracts you and try to remove it from the equation. Your bible can be the vehicle propelling you towards God if you take the time to focus on him and continually redirect your focus to him as you read. Remember that God will guide you if you listen and let nothing pull your aim off the mark. Remember also that you have a community of people in this room that are also trying to keep their aim on the mark to encourage, support, give you ideas to try, and who might benefit from your words of encouragement on what is working to help keep you focused on God. As we enter into our time of open worship, let us begin by surrendering our focus to God, asking him to guide our thoughts and if after the first five minutes of centering silence you feel drawn to a scripture, song, word of encouragement, or testimony to God’s goodness and feel the calling to share then, in obedience, stand and the microphone will be brought to you. Let us seek God together.
(Do any of you other George Fox Evangelical Seminary students see the influence of Dr. Kent Yinger here?)