Event Name Sermon given at the Judges Service, 2016
Start Date 3rd Oct 2016 11:30am
Description

The Reverend Jane Sinclair, Canon of Westminster

‘Why do we have to keep all these laws?’ asks the Israelite child. We hear the question, and wonder just what the parents’ answer might be.

Why do we have to keep these laws?

Because God tells us to.

Because laws make our life together work well.

Because without them there would be chaos and violence.

Because we’ve always done it, we’ve always obeyed laws.

Or perhaps: Stop asking questions, and eat your dinner!

All these answers, except the final one, are put forward by Moses in Deuteronomy. But the first, and the most important, answer to the question is none of these. ‘Why do we have to keep all these laws?’ The most important answer Deuteronomy offers is this: we keep these laws because we were slaves and we were rescued. The laws belong in a story.

We sometimes think of the Old Testament as full of rules and regulations, most of which in our more enlightened times we can safely ignore. Think of all those rules about what you can and can’t eat, for example; and the apparent brutality of ‘an eye for an eye’. It is easy to imagine that we are presented with an image of a despotic and arbitrary God, who burdens his people with impossible commands, and who punishes them when they fail to observe them. But the truth is rather different. As Deuteronomy makes clear, the keeping of laws is not a reluctant duty; rather, it is a response to salvation.

A story is told through the first five books of the Bible. God’s creation of the world is the beginning of a complex relationship between the creator and the creatures. One family is chosen, one people, the descendants of Abraham, to be the channel through whom God communicates with the world. God makes promises to Abraham: he is to have descendants and a land which will be their own. But Abraham’s descendants find themselves enslaved in a foreign land, and at risk of genocide. So God, with Moses, steps in. Our reading this morning remembers the miraculous rescue, the plagues, the crossing of the sea, and the destruction of the Egyptian army. Abraham’s descendants are saved from their fate, removed from the oppressive of slavery, delivered into the desert, and taken to meet their God at his mountain in the desert. It is only then that laws enter the picture. The laws of Israel belong in the people’s story. The laws are part of what forms the people’s true identity. The laws are the consequence of the people’s past, and the blueprint for their future. Keeping God’s law is not a condition of rescue, something that has to be done to earn salvation. Rather it is a grateful response to salvation that has already been freely given. And keeping God’s law is the way to a good life in the future, in the land which God is giving them.

In essence, of course, there is nothing special about the laws we find in the Old Testament. Most of them have parallels elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. Many of them have parallels today. They bear all the hallmarks of having developed as the people changed from a tribe into a nation, and then from a nation into a faith community. Even the idea of the laws as the gift of a benevolent God can be found elsewhere. But the book Deuteronomy offers us a particular way of thinking about law. It suggests that however they originate, laws belong in a people’s story and are a significant element of who the people are. For the authors of Deuteronomy, that story is one of rescue and relationship, of promise and protection.

And the child’s question and the adult’s answer are important. They follow on from an injunction earlier in the same chapter of Deuteronomy. ‘Do not forget,’ insists Moses. If the story is forgotten, the laws become arbitrary bits of legislation that can readily be broken. Their value lies in their place at the heart of the story of the relationship between God and Israel, and of salvation freely given.

In the New Testament continuation of the story of salvation, Jesus seems to have made a habit of breaking laws, especially when they stopped him doing something good, or became a burden to those least able to cope with them. So it comes as something of a surprise in this morning’s reading to find him saying, ‘Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, tended to insist on strict adherence to detailed interpretation of the law. But opposing that did not mean disregarding the law itself. Israel’s laws still belong in their story, a story of salvation. With Jesus that story takes an unexpected and universal twist, as salvation turns out to be even more widely and freely given than had previously been supposed. So the Old Testament’s laws become part of our Christian story too. Not the details, but the ideas: that a grateful response to God is appropriate in the light of all that God has given to us and all that God has done for us.

Thus the first commandment remains what it always was for the people of the Bible: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

You all know far better than I do the extent to which the law you administer is part of a story, whether that story is the history of this nation, or of Europe, or of the international community. Laws reflect the past of the people who create them; laws reflect peoples’ beliefs and values; and they embody a vision for the future. They help to make us who we are. The law is no less a precious gift to us than it was to those Israelites thousands of years ago, as they sought to understand themselves as a people formed by their God.

So it is appropriate in this context to say that all of you who are judges and lawyers are in an important sense God’s gift to the rest of us. For us and for people of every faith, law is bound up with our God’s saving purpose. The law belongs to us, it is part of our story. And you are the ones who help us to understand it, to keep it, and to change it when necessary. We need you. You make our life together possible. Today you can be assured that here at the Abbey we give thanks for all that you do, and that we will continue to pray for you, as your story and our story continues to unfold within the economy of God.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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