THE GUIDELINES OF GOD
Today I am speaking primarily to five wonderful youth who have met with Mary Ann and me almost every week since September for 90 minutes each session. All this year I have had a chance to inform you, encourage you, and direct you. From this day forward I will still be pulling for you. As the old hymns put it: “Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way, Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.” [Adelaide Pollard] To each of you in this year’s class: I hope that Mary Ann and I truly invited Jesus to mold you and make you after His will. In so many ways that has happened: you have been attentive, done your work, and we’ve had some fun along the way. Your Statements of Faith were thoughtful beyond your years, and you have demonstrated your readiness for today. I’ve told you that after today you will go into this world not just as the son or daughter of people who go to church. After today, you will have a new title: Christian. By your profession of faith today, you will carry that title. Many will know you have become Christians by your own choice. And they will be watching. You will also become a full member of this congregation. You will have voting privileges in meetings; you will be asked to volunteer as others volunteer, give financially as you are able, and to keep the promises you will make today. What do I think you, or any of us who claim to be Christian, can hope to gain by doing those things? It’s simple: we hope to change the world.
What a big order. Jesus did not come into this world, following the guidance of his Heavenly Father and dying on a cross just to be seen as some militant or radical Jew. He came so that our world might start to be more like Heaven; that the Kingdom of this world might become more like the Kingdom of God. How did he plan to do that?
One, he knew the Guidelines of God, but he reinterpreted them. Look, for example, at our text today from Mark. The outside world was criticizing Jesus’ followers for not keeping the Sabbath the way they interpreted the Sabbath should be kept. His disciples were plucking heads of grain. You should know that this was not stealing; this was perfectly allowed—and required by Jewish Law—part of every crop was supposed to be left for hungry people to eat. There was no welfare system or social security other than laws like these. Plucking grain was legal according to Deuteronomy 23:25, except it was on a Sabbath. The Law was interpreted to mean that absolutely no work be done on Sabbath days. The Pharisees interpreted what they were doing as reaping, something forbidden on the Sabbath according to Exodus 34: 21. Conversely, Jesus thought that persons who were hungry could pick a few heads of a crop. He saw it as vastly different than plowing a field. He reinterpreted that guideline of God with words these words that were taught for years: “the Sabbath was made for man (people), not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath guidelines were designed to keep us from breaking down or burning out by doing our labor, our professions, or our classwork seven days a week. The Sabbath is a gift; it is a break. But if the break is broken, people often break down! Jesus taught that Sabbath is not a rigid Law, but a gift to be received. There are some people in our world who are rule people: they carry condo guidelines, or community guidelines, or other rulebooks around like umpires or referees, always wanting to throw a flag on your activity. Don’t be like that. Jesus never instructed his followers to focus on rules; focus on people who honor the spirit of a rule.
As you five go into the world, be ready to interpret what you read in the Bible. Two biblical scholars had wise words to share about the Bible. One, Dr. Marcus Borg, said this regarding specific stories in the Bible: “I don’t know if it happened exactly this way; but I know that it’s true.” In the days of the Bible, all stories were part of an oral tradition, told and retold to children and children’s children. The words that were shared were fluid and retold by parents through the years. Told, that is, until print became available and the biblical words then became instructions “carved in stone.” To treat all the stories or commands in the Bible that way does a disservice to the way Jesus taught and shared. He taught with illustrations; he taught by example; and he said, “Follow me.” Use your head and your heart as you read your Bibles, and do not be easily swayed by the teachings found on the Internet or by the voices of friends. Another man I revered, Dr. Bruce Metzger, said, “the Bible doesn’t always mean what it says; it means what it means.” Jesus, I think, believed that; he interpreted the written words differently from others. Go into the world as thinking Christians.
Two, Jesus let love and compassion surround the guidelines of God. Look at what Jesus did in Mark chapter 3. There were other Pharisees—religious rule police of the day—who were baiting him; setting a trap to see if he would fall in. Those Pharisees had lost their focus on anything but laws. Some of those kinds of people are still around today. Some just think “Is something lawful?” But they forget to ask the nuanced question “Is it right?” I hope you will go into the world asking that second question too, not just the first question. Jesus saw the traps, and still he had compassion in his heart for a man who needed to be healed. Jesus healed the man; after he did so, and the trap-setters left with plans to destroy Jesus. But the man who was healed left rejoicing! Jesus chose to do what he believed was right. In our world, as in Jesus’ world, there are consequences for breaking laws. Laws guide society. But use your heart in starting new conversations about what may be right and what may be legal.
Finally, remember that Jesus knew the 10 Commandments and the rest of Torah like the back of his hand. But here is how he handled one final trap: In Matthew 22: 36 another Pharisee, who tried to keep the Law to the letter, asked Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” The Pharisees expected one of the 10 Commandments to be lifted up. But listen how Jesus interpreted the guidelines of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Go into the world like Jesus, seeing people and laws through the eyes of love. I think the world will be a better place with you five in it. I will be pulling for you and praying for you! And to others who are here: the same message applies to us today: consider how you will interpret the guidelines of God for your life, and for our world today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 3, 2018