Keep ‘Er Between the Ditches

(Exodus 19:1-7; 20:1-17)

L3, Sun, March 4, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White

I remember spinning, out of control.

Whenever I drive to Halifax, on the way back home, I usually remember my car spinning out of control in the winter of 1996.  Just past exit 4, near St. Croix, there is a hill.  Twenty years ago it was not a divided highway; and one day, it was snow covered, and the little car that my father was lending me started to lose its grip as I drove up the hill.  I just let it spin… around and around a few times, coming to a stop on the shoulder – the other side, facing down the hill.  A few other cars going my way, and coming the other way did not get in the way, thankfully, and I stayed out of the ditches and guardrails.  I took a breath, took my foot off the break, and set out to finish my journey.  

Life is sometimes like a snowy highway: it is a challenge to keep your life on track. To “keep ‘er between the ditches,” as some people say.  Do y’ever say that to someone as they head out to drive away?  “Keep ‘er between the ditches!”  

The Ten Commandments are here in two places in scripture, and pictured in stained glass, to ‘keep us between the ditches.’  Famously, these Ten Words are just the beginning of many other rules, regulations, guidelines, policies, and procedures for the Jewish people of old.  

Christians still find them at the foundation of how to live today. With this on my mind I found the Bible converged with music, over the past 10 days. I happened to listen to some music, music I know, but it struck me and stuck with me.  Like an ‘earworm,’ I have been humming and playing it every day.  And so I started to put words to the music: the Ten Commandments, of all things!  And then I added the words of Jesus.  

Jesus was asked by a religious law expert: [Matthew 22:36-40] “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [Deut 6:5]  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev 19:18] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So these two ‘commandments’ Jesus quotes are not among the Ten, they are some of the other material.  There are more than ten.  And some are more significant for us today than others.

An exact, unchanging rulebook does not suit every roadway, every era, every journey of your life.  The rules of the road to keep you out of the ditch have changed, right?  How wide the road is, what the speed limits are, these things change, thru the years.  Highway 101 is about to change, near us. So too with the guidelines for God’s people.  Thousands of years bring thousands of changes in how Jews and Christians live with boundaries and freedom.

We look to Jesus, who gets beyond the Old Testament law, goes deeper.  Remember those bits when he says, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”?  That’s from His sermon on the mount, recorded in Matthew.  (chapter 5)

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, [either] by heaven, for it is the throne of God… 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Today, as disciples of the Master, Jesus, we seek again what it means to keep the sabbath, to honour parents, to cease wanting what others have.  We do these things differently than believers 100 years ago.  Oh my, at the Tea yesterday here, a woman was almost dancing to the music, and trying to teach the Pastor basic dance steps!  Your Baptist grandmothers here would not have look favourably on this, years ago.  Our sense of holy and appropriate behaviour has evolved, through the decades.

What is true does not change, but our moment in history does, and what our obedience looks like is sometimes new and fresh.

American lawyer, linguist and poet, James R. Lowell, published some verses in the Boston Courier in 1845, as a protest to the war with Mexico, at the time.  His poem since has been sung as a hymn,  (Once to Every Man and Nation) including these verses: New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.

The Decalogue is not so much legalistic or moralistic.  It is 1. defining the limits of God’s people, to keep them between the ditches, so to speak.  Giving good boundaries.  And it is  2. a response to God’s grace.  We must not forget this.  Obedience to the commands of old and the guidance of Jesus is not a way of earning our way into heaven, into God’s good books, into some sort of salvation.  Following the Way is all because of the grace that we first receive.  

Those Hebrews at Mount Sinai with Moses, they had already been set free and crossed the Red sea.  Afterwords, the Law was given to them.  So too with Christian salvation.  What Jesus does when He dies unites us with God, and we do something because of this.  We do our best, gratefully.  Not to earn grace. We already were given grace in our souls.

So the path of obedience is a way we are guided.  And we must keep on studying, with our hearts, the guidance of God for us.

Frederick Beuchner claimed Jesus did not say that religion was the truth or that his own teachings were the truth or that what people taught about him was the truth or that the Bible was the truth or the Church or any system of ethics or theological doctrine. (Listening to Your Life, 1992, p. 307)  

What did Jesus say about truth?  Apparently: I am the way, the truth, and the life.  

Jesus saves us, and sets us on the road of new life.  Then, then, we are helped to keep it between the ditches, and keep on in a good direction.  

Most Thankful For…

(Exodus 20:1-20; Philippians 3:4b-14) J G White
Sunday, Oct 8, 2017, UBC Digby

We express our gratitude for many things.  Tomorrow’s holiday is about the harvest: thanks for food.  But many other blessings come to our minds…

We continue our readings through the little letter to the Philippians, today. Paul sounds here like he is most thankful for Jesus.  More thankful for Him than for all the benefits of his life already. In Philippians 3, he testifies that Jesus Christ is better than the best things in his life.  

This is not a testimony that goes: I was terrible, Jesus found me, fixed me, and I’m so much better now.  No, Paul speaks of the great spiritual accomplishments of his life… and the best thing is not counting them at all.

Paul exclaims: there is no counting up goodness and badness anymore. No counting up good achievements.  No checking off the Ten Commandments.  No counting up failures and disasters.

So, all are on a level playing field.

The great sinners / the failures / the unfortunate ones.  All this Jesus stuff tells us, again and again: the door is simply open for the soul to be set free.  Call it forgiveness, call it freedom from being a slave or being exiled, call it making peace with God, call it fairness and justice – these are all Biblical pictures of Salvation.  For the sinner, for the failure, for the unfairly oppressed and hurt person.  

We are on a level playing field with the great saints. The best believers.  The serious servants.  The holiest hard-shelled Baptists!  😉  The purest of the pure.

And we are on a level playing field with the good irreligious folks.  The many people who do well, who do good, who are well-adjusted and fine, and seem to have no need of some ‘saviour’ or ‘god’ as a crutch in their lives.

This is the great relief of grace, God’s amazing grace. How well we do, what we accomplish, is not what matters, at the end of the day.  How imperfect we are does not ruin our chances.  

But we keep comparing. I’d give the example of speaking well of the dead at a funeral.  We do this, we feel the need to do this.  Yesterday here, we had the service for our own M______ P____, who was, of course, praised and appreciated yesterday. This, of course, is not the whole story.  Friends and cousins spoke of her in very personal ways; yet could she be too private and secretive?  After the service, a couple of very close friends of hers spoke to me at some length – was M______ a deeply sad person, as they wondered?  With others, I’ve spoken at times – though not much – about the problem of hoarding.  And though a friend and social-work colleague spoke at the service of her career in glowing terms, did everyone she worked with find her excellent?  No, of course not.  

So, part of our personal, inner work at a memorial service, even when we call it a Celebration of Life, is to forgive.  To let go of someone when she or he has died we will have to forgive that person too, for our own sakes, for our own freedom.  It is not for us to create a ledger of good and bad, and decide on how much to esteem a person at the end of his or her life.  Though, we do!  Thanks be to God that this is not how things run in the economy of grace.

For Paul, Christ is greater in his life than any good things Paul had accomplished or become.  His good things are not to be added up.  That’s not what they are for.

Yet, I realize there is the challenge of the scriptures that do speak of us being judged by what we have done, or said, in this life…  These keep having a strong influence on our minds and hearts. They sometimes overshadow grace.

Solomon’s collection: A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart.  Prov 21:2

Jesus: I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37

John’s vision: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.  Revelation 20:12

I guess I don’t have a clear answer for this, really.  At the moment, one thing I’d say is this: perhaps the most important things we’ll be judged by are the things we did to receive and accept the amazing grace of God.  Not the things we did to earn our way into heaven.  The effort we put into relying upon the perfection of Jesus.

In our evangelical tradition our emphasis is upon the grace that saves us.  Our work is to put our faith, our confidence, in this Gospel.  

In my research this week I came across a classic sermon that would not be thought of as coming from the evangelical tradition.  But the message is the same.  Grace.  On his 60th birthday, in 1946, theologian and philosopher, Paul Tillich, preached a sermon called ‘You Are Accepted.’  Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall summarizes it…

The progression of ideas in the sermon runs as follows: (1) You are unacceptable (sin). (2) You are accepted, though unacceptable (grace). (3) Accept the reality that you are accepted, though unacceptable (faith). (Hall, The Cross in our Context, 2003, p. 1-8)

It’s not about becoming acceptable to God.  It is about receiving the gift of being accepted.  To accept the fact that the Ground of Being [God] accepts you, is faith, the work of having faith.  

Some of us would be familiar with George Beverly Shea’s song “The Wonder of it All.”
There’s the wonder of springtime and harvest,
The sky, the stars, the sun;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul
Is a wonder that has only begun.

O, the wonder of it all! The wonder of it all!
Just to think that God loves me.  (X2)

So, someone like the apostle Paul, from his imprisonment, after a tiring missionary career, joyfully writes to the Philippian believers: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (3:13-14)

Grace is needed always.  So Paul presses on.

We are all saved by pure grace, no exceptions. We must never live in such a way that grace is not needed hour by hour. – Richard Rohr, July 18, 2016

This is what Baptist philosopher, Dallas Willard, always claimed.  A Christian uses grace like a jet plane uses fuel, from takeoff until landing.  

Christ is the best.  Better than our best.  Better than our worst.  Paul counted on Him.  So do I.  You may also.  

To be most thankful for Christ… Seems to be the apostle Paul’s way.  Could it somehow be ours?