St Andrewís Croydon
23rd March 2003
Signs of the Times III
This Lent weíre considering some well-known road signs. Weíve looked at the Height/Width-Restriction sign and No Through Road; this week itís No Entry Ė a big red circle with a white line.
The first two signs give drivers an advance warning of something which lies ahead; but No Entry is an immediate prohibition. If you drive past it you will break the law. "No further!" it says.
Hereís a joke at least 150 years old.
"Whereís Baby William, Edith?" Maud asks her younger sister.
"Heís in the nursery I think, Maud" answers Edith.
"Well run along and see what heís doing and tell him to stop it!" says Maud in her most self-important tone of voice.
Thatís how many people think of God: Someone who forbids, stops or interferes with us doing what we want. It beautifully summed up by the schoolboy who wrote "God is someone who goes around snooping on people who are enjoying themselves and trying to stop them." In other words God is like a permanent, No-entry sign: the Almighty Thou-Shalt-Not in Heaven.
Of course thatís a caricature about God whose will is to enable us (at whatever cost to Himself) to "enjoy him for ever"; a God whose "service is perfect freedom".
Why do people make this mistake? Letís look at Godís Rulebook: the Ten Commandments is a good starting-point.
First we must understand the difference between Natural Laws (like the Law of Gravity) and a Code of Laws (like the Ten Commandments).
Natural Laws, the Law of Gravity for example simply describe the way thing are. Humans, birds, sticks and stones and the stars in the sky, weíre all subject to such laws whether we like it or not..
But a Code of Law more like a recipe, a prescription or a formula because you and I can choose whether to obey them or not. Of course if you want to succeed in the laboratory, or kitchen or driving a car youíll be well advised to do what they tell us to; but thereís nothing to stop us sprinkling soap-powder rather than sugar over our cereal. The Kitchen Code tells us that it wonít be very nice and will make us sick. Ignoring a No Entry sign will risk having an accident and getting several penalty points into the bargain. But thereís nothing physically impossible about either of them.
But donít imagine that God doesnít mind whether we keep his Rules or not. Thatís an even worse mistake than thinking that "loving God" just a matter of keeping his commandments. Whenever we break Godís Rules we create a barrier called Sin between us and him. Though keeping Godís commandments wonít, by itself, make us love him more, breaking them will certainly make us love him less to the point that we shanít want anything to do with him.
We need, do we not, to be told what not to do and, even more importantly what to do. If God gave us no Code or guidelines about how we should treat him and our fellow-men: if he simply left the question of how to behave to our natural feelings and imagination we might easily think that the First and only Commandment was "Thou shalt look after thyself before anything else".
Very briefly the Ten Commandments tell us the following:
Love God with all your being; donít let anything come between you and Him; set aside one day every week for worship, rest and recreation; think before you speak; respect those to whom it is due; donít murder; keep sexual intercourse within marriage; be honest with your fellow men; donít gossip or scandalmonger; be content with what you have.
Remember these are commandments not just pieces of good advice. There is all the difference between someone in authority who says "Do this" or "Donít do that" and someone saying "Youíd be well advised to do (or not do) such-and-such". In grammar theyíre called different moods, imperative or indicative respectively. Such differences of mood means that they have an entirely different feeling about them.
Canít you imagine what would happen if everyone did keep the commandments? The world be a much better, more orderly place for one thing; for another it would be a much more enjoyable place.
Godís Commandments are the recipe or formula for civilised life, in other words. Whenever people in a particular civilisation start ignoring and breaking any commandment, their society begins to degenerate. Not immediately but little by little: so slowly perhaps that people donít realise whatís gone wrong when they wake up to the fact that Things Ainít What They Used To Be.
Godís Commandments are the Code or formula for successful living, both individual and corporate. But by themselves commandments are not enough.
St Paul puts it neatly. He describes Godís Commandments as "a schoolmaster who brings us to Christ". Jesus fulfils both the Law and the Prophets without actually being either of them. Law and Prophecy point us away from themselves and towards him.
If you want to pass your driving test you have to know what the road signs mean and obey them. No examiner is going to pass you if you drive through a No Entry sign. But "good driving" consists of so much more than keeping inside the law. Itís more like developing a good relationship, not just with our car but with other road users, pedestrians, bicyclists, and fellow-drivers. That relationship doesnít just consist in keeping to the rules, though if you break them it certainly wonít come about at all. Itís more a matter of becoming integrated with something that is not yourself.
Equally, learning to be a good Christian isnít just a matter of keeping Godís commandments, though if we break them we certainly get any better. But, unlike our cars, our fellow drivers, the roads and all who use them Ė who are not God, and can never be Ė Jesus Christ not only is God; he is also the Way, and nobody can come to the Father except by way of him.
Perhaps you sometimes wish that loving God were simply a matter of keeping rules. But as anyone who knows Christians whose discipleship consists solely in keeping the rules will tell you, they turn into Pharisees Ė people who have lost sight of the very purpose those rules are meant to serve.
It was the Pharisees who turned a blind eye to all the shenanigans going on in the Temple. No wonder Jesus saw fit to drive them all out; and no wonder their response was to try and get rid of him!
Is the Temple of our lives a fit place for him to visit? Probably not. Understanding Godís Code of Rules may well be the starting point for bringing us closer to God. It simply must not become an end in itself.
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