During the season of Lent we speak a lot about that great mystery of our Christian faith—the death of self, dying to ourselves. “He who would save his life shall lose it; he who would lose his life for [Jesus’] sake shall find it.” And we nod piously, and we say “Ooh, that’s deep.” But what’s it mean? Really?
Does it mean selling your car and taking the bus to work, or walking? It might. Can’t eliminate the possibility. Does it mean buying only bargain clothes and being content to sit on peach crates for furniture? It could. Can’t rule out that possibility either. Because unless the words “dying to self” translate into some sort of action…they don’t really mean anything!
Ah…but before we get too far into this whole discussion, we ought to take a good look at our incurable tendency not to actually listen to what God says. Not to listen to Him, and dash off into something we are going to do or what we must do. As though we are going to do God a big favor by living up to what He demands of us. Yeah…like we can impress God!
But when we get smacked by this phrase about dying to self…it’s just too weird and hard to handle. So we are forced either to ignore it—which is what we mostly do—or cut it down to a manageable size—like selling our big car, or going organic. But the trouble with that is that self always seems to get in the way.
And self has a field day with any excursion to Mt. Sinai. All this Law! From the Ten Commandments which begin God’s discourse on the mountain, to page after page after page of laws and rules and decrees and statutes and ordinances through Exodus into Leviticus and on into Numbers and Deuteronomy. Lots and lots of Law. A whole mountain of Law! And what are we supposed to do with it all? Ah…what are we supposed to do?
Some say, “Well, you just have to do what all that Law says!” Others say, “Well, no, that’s just for the Jews. As Christians you can ignore most of that Law. Just keep the 10 Commandments.” Others go all hog wild and say, “No, no, no…since Jesus died for you, you don’t have to keep any of that Law at all!”
All the Law? Some of it? (If so, which parts?) Or none of it? What are we expected to do? Well…to borrow the Goldfinger line from the James Bond movie, we are expected to die!
As chapter 19 of Exodus begins it’s been 3 months since Israel departed from Egypt. All those plagues, the Passover, the Red Sea crossing…all of that is now 3 months in the past. In v2 they have come to the wilderness of Sinai, where Moses was first called to this job by God from the burning bush. They camp at the base of Mt. Sinai.
V3, Moses goes up the mountain to God. “The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the people, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…”’”
God says, “See what I have done for you? Now here is what you shall do for Me. And if you do, life will be splendid!” God leaves the rest of that thought unspoken; “If you do not do it…” Unspoken, because soon enough He makes it very obvious to the Israelites that they don’t even want to think about going down that path.
And, v8, “All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Well…maybe they should have waited to hear what God expected them to do.
What God expects begins in chapter 20. “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me…” And then He goes on with the other commandments in Exodus 20. Ten of them, although Christians disagree on the order. Some divide the First Commandment into two, “No other gods,” v3, and “No idols”, v4. That’s basically because some Christians don’t like art in the church, pictures of Jesus, crucifixes, stained glass windows, and all. It’s idolatry. We Lutherans who do like art, music, and all of God’s creative gifts, we keep the verse about idols with the first commandment, no other gods. But to get 10, we have 2 commandments on coveting: #9 no coveting your neighbor’s stuff, and #10, no coveting your neighbors people. The anti-art crowd has just one, big commandment at the end, “No coveting.” Period.
Otherwise we all agree, that in between comes no messing with God’s name, v7, remember the Sabbath Day, v8, honor mom and dad, v12, no killing, v13, no adultery, v14, no stealing, v15, and no gossip, v16.
10 Commandments. Oh, and we think that’s a lot! But God is just getting started. In our Old Testament Reading from Leviticus we get a slice of some of the rest…which sound very good, this whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing. But other commandments are harder to swallow.
Like over in Exodus 22:18, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” Or v22, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do…I will kill you.” Or over in Leviticus 11, “These are the living things you may eat…” And then God runs down what is on the menu, and what is verboten…so much for grilling brats. Or in Leviticus 13, where, if you discover you have a bad skin condition, you’re gonna find yourself camping alone in the wilderness. Or Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to any of My people…you shall not extract interest from him.” (Kinda like that one!) But over in Deuteronomy 21:18, “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father…then all the men of the city shall stone him to death.” Woof! And on and on it goes…with a vast number of these statutes carrying the death penalty for violation.
So what is written at the end of the 10 Commandments is the people’s reaction to all this Law. Exodus 20:18, “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood afar off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
What have they gotten into? It sounds like they’re all going to end up dead, sooner or later, for one law or another. God just expects too much of them! Even if, as God Himself does do, you boil down all of this law into 2 commandments—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”—but even at just two…how is anyone going to keep up with it?
V21, hints at where all of this carries us. “The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” And isn’t that the perfect picture of Jesus’ Crucifixion? While we people stand far off out of fear for all that God commands, Moses goes into the darkness with God. Moses, symbol of all this ominous Law, Moses is taken into God.
That’s what St. Paul says in Colossians, “You who were dead in trespasses…God made alive together with [Christ]…by canceling the record of debt…nailing it to the cross.” Jesus is crucified. And along with Him, Moses is crucified, the Law is crucified. And we law-breakers (for like Israel, how can we be anything but lawbreakers under God’s oppressive Law) we are crucified with Christ. “For through the Law I died to the Law,” St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”
Into the darkness of God’s presence—His dark, Law-bound, Good Friday presence—goes all the Law, not just the 10 Commandments, not just the Jewish bits, all the Law. And with it, us too. But in God’s dark Good Friday presence the outcome is not death. It’s life…for us. Foreshadowed in Israel’s many sacrifices for sin. Revealed to us in the one, perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
Do you see what this means? The question is no longer, how much Law do we have to keep? All of it? Part of it? None of it? You ask a Law question, you get a Law answer. But we are in Christ. And in Christ the whole Law has been crucified; us with it. At the cross there is nothing for you to do. Jesus has done it…all of it…for you.
And once you see that…then all the thunder rolling through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy drives you again and again into the darkness of that cross…to see…to see again…the power of God’s grace in Christ. For once you have been gotten out of yourself—because all this Law nails self to the cross with Christ—maybe you really can, maybe for the first time, look upon God and your neighbor not in the light of what God expects of us in His Law, but in the freedom of what God gives us in Christ. And who knows what might happen in that freedom of grace?
You might sell your car. You might fly to Africa and endure personal discomfort to bring good health to others. You might swallow your pride and stand with your neighbor, even those neighbors. You might influence the powers that be for good, rather than for politics. The Law only closes. The cross opens, in countless little daily ways, opens the way for us to learn what it means to die to self and to live to God in Christ.
And all of this mountain of Law drives us there….nails us there. Dead…and yet, behold, in Christ we live. Guilty…and yet, behold, in Christ we are free. A new person, in Christ, who may live free in faith and hope and joy!