Strange wisdom, strange strength (Lent 3, 4 March 2018)

Exodus 20.1–17
1 Corinthians 1.18–25

Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as underway in the present moment; he describes the church not as those who have been saved, but as those who are being saved. The distinction is important, because he will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed character of salvation in Christ. — Hays, Richard B, First Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 28). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


While I was down in Tasmania last winter, I was delighted by the little towns and villages that dot the landscape. One of the best is Ross, which is just a short drive north of Hobart. The wool store in Ross is home to this tapestry by John Coburn called Canticle. It depicts The Tree of Life. Isn’t it striking?

I went there a couple of times last year. I mean, I visit Ross just to stand once more in front of this tapestry for a while.

But there’s a lot more to Ross. Since this is a sermon rather than a travelogue, I’ll tell you about one other thing.

The Uniting Church in Ross is one of those lovely old structures that I at least always associate with ‘church’. It really is a beautiful building. Sadly, it’s no longer used for regular services. I would love to be at a worship service there.

Let me take you inside.

Here you see a typical old Methodist church interior. A high central pulpit overlooking a diminutive altar table, with altar rails along the front. (And were all Methodist carpets red?)

Let me draw your attention to the walls. In the centre, you see a board with two columns of text. On the left as the congregation faces is the Lord’s Prayer, and on the right you’ll find the Apostles’ Creed.

There are two other boards, one on each side. The text on those boards is the Ten Commandments. The first five are on the left, and commandments six to ten are on the right.

The last time I went there I was with my son Ben who had come to visit me in Tassie. I said to him that I wish they hadn’t put up the Ten Commandments. He was puzzled.

I told him that I wish they had put up the Beatitudes instead.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.…

Ben was puzzled at first, but I’d much rather have the Beatitudes on the wall of a church.

You may wonder why I’d rather have the Beatitudes. Let me try to explain: my problem with the Commandments on the front wall is that they are out of context.

Let’s go back to the scriptures.

What is the context for God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses? God has just saved the Israelites and made them his people. It’s there in today’s reading:

God spoke, and these were his words: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves.

In other words, I have saved you from slavery. Once you were no people, but now you are my people. And this is how my people should live.

I care about you, God says, I want you to thrive. This is how to do it.

When the bare Ten Commandments are there on the wall, with no context, they become something else.

They become edicts from on high, decrees from a God who is far from us, rather than Words to live by.

And they are Words to live by. In fact, it’s not really scriptural to call them the Ten Commandments. It’s better use of scripture to call them the Ten Words. Words that show us the limits beyond which we should not go.

Back to the wall on Ross Uniting Church.

There’s another thing that the bare Commandments—without context—say to me.

It says to me that the people who worship in this church have got it all together. They have no idols in their lives. They don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. They never lie or covet anything belonging to their neighbour.

It says to me that I have to measure up if I want to belong. I’ve got to get my act together. They are the Saved Ones, and I am not really good enough for them.

It makes me wonder if they may just be a little self-righteous.

I am pleased, then, to read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:

…the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power.

‘For us who are being saved it is God’s power…’ We are ‘being saved’. Salvation is too big to belong to one verb tense! We were saved; we are being saved; we shall be saved. The New Testament says all three. Billy Graham died the other day at 99; I was saved at a rally in 1968 in Brisbane.

But salvation was too big a thing to happen all at once when I signed a decision slip. Now, I am being saved along with my brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s not something that happens all at once, and it’s not just about me in isolation.

If I am still being saved, I can’t have my act together yet. I can put the Ten Commandments on every wall I know—it doesn’t mean I’ve arrived. I’m on a journey towards salvation, a journey on which I go off the track sometimes.

The Beatitudes of Jesus our Lord invite us to see that journey as steps on a downward way. What? you say—I’m not going down, I want to go up! Relax. I’m not talking about your eternal destination but the journey here on earth.

The downward way Jesus invites us on is a way of service, a way of humility. Jesus chooses the figure of a child to show what he means; he speaks of himself as a servant.

And we are not different to the Master.

So we see the wisdom and power of God in the love that took Jesus to the cross. And we commit ourselves to taking up that same cross ourselves.

So Jesus tells us what it is to be his follower:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The ten Commandments give us the limits beyond which we cannot go: you shall not kill, you shall not lie.

Jesus shows us how to live within those limits: love God with all you are and have, love your neighbour as yourself. Share, and serve. Grow in faith, hope, and love.

So if you ever decide to put some words up on these walls: put the Beatitudes. Amen.

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Filed under Lent, RCL, sermon

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