This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.
This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading. Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty. In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat. No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham. So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother. (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.) Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb. Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy. God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent. After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.
What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live. There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb. If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant. Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another. In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker. God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home. God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.
The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God. Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose? And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?
The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction. The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way. “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth. Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”. The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks. The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him. The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways. The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it. The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat. Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.
In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text. They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”. I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of. More of that in a sec.
The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom. The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead. (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.) And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus. I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved. Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest. The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith. This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying. If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul. According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor. In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin. He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway. The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts. This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.
- It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
- It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7. If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.
If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way? This is not condemnation from Paul or from me: Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like. Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit. Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death. And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear. We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.
So walk in light. Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God. Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.