February 12, 2017
Bishop Brian Maas, in an article in Christianity Today on today's scriptures pointed out that there are several sets of if/then statements. You know how that works, if something happens, then something else happens. I looked more closely and found 2 such if/thens in our Old Testament and 6 in the New Testament readings. This effect of if/then reminded me of when we shingled the manse some years ago. Many people worked that day. But when we finally got to shingling, I noticed Gary would reach into his nail pouch, pull out a nail and either toss it over his shoulder or nail it in. Well, Jim Lundberg was overseeing the operation and hollered up to Gary, “Why in the world are you throwing those nails away?” Gary explained, “IF the nail I pull out is pointing toward me, THEN I throw it away because its obviously defective. IF it is pointed away from me, toward the roof, THEN I nail it in.”
Well, Jim shook his head in disbelief. “Gary, Gary, Gary” he explained, “Those nails facing away aren't defective! IF the nails are pointed toward you, THEN you must use them on the other side of the roof.”
Apologies...but his short article got me interested. Words as you've discovered, are a fascinating study for me. I will try to carry you along in how my mind looked at the if/then statements from today's readings: Note, some of the “thens” are assumed.
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today (Then) you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
Here we see the if/then dichotomy used both as a promise and as a warning. The setting for this is near the end of the Israelites' 40 years of wandering in the desert. They are preparing to enter the promised land. Moses is giving them his final instructions from the Lord. I say final because Moses didn't make it to the promised land. He died and Joshua led the people to occupy the land. But before Moses left them, he had a long discourse giving laws and promises and warnings. He here challenged the people to make wise decisions as they enter the promised land and establish themselves as a nation. The if/then choices are appropriate for both the nation and for individuals. IF you obey the commandments of the Lord, IF you walk in his ways, THEN God promises life, a life blessed by God. IF, however, you make different choices; if your heart turns away, if you do not hear God's word and take it to heart, if you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them; THEN you will lose the blessings of life in the land that God is offering. The Israelites, and we, are given choices, summarized in this statement of Joshua; “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” The choice was set before the Israelites, it is set before us; life and death, blessing and curses...choose life.
The gospel reading today has no less than 6 if/then statements. Context again, this is Jesus speaking in the sermon on the mount. We have shared the earlier parts, the beatitudes, then the call for us to be salt and light in our world. Today we deal with living the Christian faith. How do we deal with anger, with reconciliation with fellow believers, with the sins of adultery and lust.
Gospel: if you are angry with a brother or sister, (then) you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister,(then) you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ (then) you will be liable to the hell of fire.
In our reading last week, Jesus told his listeners that he did not come to abolish the law. These if/thens make clear that the spirit of the law, particularly in relating to our brothers and sisters in Christ, is still in place. We are responsible to love one another; there are limits to our anger, our insults, our name calling. And the next suggests that we need to be careful in how others are perceiving our relationship with them:
If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
I'm not sure I had read this closely enough beforehand. I always read it as if we have a disagreement, settle it. But this is something that is your fault, or at least perceived as your fault. The gift at the alter is a Jewish thing, but the idea is for us today, reconcile now with anyone who has something against you.
Jesus goes on, If your right eye causes you to sin, (then) tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, (then) cut it off and throw it away;
In context, he was talking about adultery and lusting after others. In reality, it is the eye that stimulates the thoughts; it is the hand, the body that carries out the action. But of course, Jesus tells us that it is better to, metaphorically, tear out your eye, cut off your hand rather than allow even lustful thoughts to have a home in your mind. It is a strongly worded warning against allowing the idea of sin to grow in our hearts and minds.
As I said, word plays fascinate me and I got to wondering if there were other if/then statements in scripture that we could look at. Turns out there are a lot. I share just a few more;
Jeremiah 12: 17 Jeremiah prophesying warns, If any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord. In our current political environment, you may note he is speaking to any nation, not just Israel.
Zechariah 3: 6-7 is the telling of Joshua being given charge over the people when Moses had died, “Then the angel of the Lord assured Joshua, saying “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.
The Old Testament is filled with if/then statements from beginning to end... In Genesis, if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then you shall surely die. And in the last book of the Old Testament but not necessarily the latest, Malachi gives this message of warning: Malachi 2: 2 If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings.
And in the gospels, Jesus used this technique as we read today. A couple more. Here He uses it to show the great love of the father, Matthew 7: 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, (then) how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
In John, he argues with the pharisees and tells them John 10: 37” If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me.”
But even the devil knows how to use this technique, a warning that we must be wise. When Satan tempts Jesus, he shows him the kingdoms of the world and says, Luke 4; 7 If you will worship me, then it will all be yours.”
I could do this all day but just one more, a great promise from the epistles, Galatians 4: 7 gives us the assurance of our inclusion in the family of God, but I need to include more so the if/then makes sense: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Maybe there was a verse or two there that really hit home for some of you. I often share with the session and with our worship committee that we always read even extra scriptures in worship because we never know what particular word of God is going to touch someone's heart on any particular day or particular way. The Holy Spirit is working through God's word in the heart of believers to produce practical and spiritual fruit. In our current Bible study, we simply hear John's gospel read with performers suggesting what went on. The words are powerful.
I want to share with you another if/then statement, but one with a blank for you to consider how to complete it. I want us to consider how we might be perceiving God and what he requires of us and what he offers us. Is there a minimum requirement, something we need to do to assure us of God's love? Are there some if/thens that cause God to give up on us? Here my the statement: “If I want God to love me, then I must blank.” I must...what? I must stop cheating on my taxes?(I worked on taxes yesterday, I didn't cheat) I must start giving 10% to the church? I must quit watching movies that cause lustful thoughts? I must start going to church more, serving on more committees, going to more bible studies, spending more time praying...? If I do, then God will love me?
At a certain level of consciousness, we know that God loves us, period. But in our insecurities, in our fears, in our times when God seems far off, we can lose that assurance. But scripture seems clear that God loves us no matter what.
A few years back, Mary Martha circle did a bible study on Hosea, right? The main purpose of that book seems to be to show that there is nothing that can separate us from God's love for us. The prophet Hosea married a harlot, a prostitute. And that woman, name of Gomer, continued to cheat on her husband after their marriage. It was a test of an if/then possibility; if I am unfaithful to you, then will you continue to love me? Gomer was unfaithful, but Hosea remained faithful, continued to love her as a demonstration of God's love for His people. The point was that Israel was being unfaithful; going after idols and false gods. But God continued to love them through it all. God's love is greater than our failures to live or love well. If we sin and fall short, then God continues to love us. And that doesn't make sense and it is foolishness to use Paul's word earlier in Corinthians. Why does God love us? John tells us in 1 John? It is a simple statement, three words, “God is love”. (1 John 4: 8) If that's true, which it is, if God is love, then God loves you. And Paul assures us in Romans 8: 38-39, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God loves you, and that love is sure. But God gives us the choice as to how we will respond to his love. God doesn't force us into relationship, as much as he desires us to respond, he has given us the choice to return that love or not. And our natural, sinful tendency is to avoid the kind of self-giving love that God has demonstrated for us. It can be scary. And we may want to figure out a way to earn it. We aren't always comfortable with free gifts. And we know we are sinners after all. And our sin did cost God a great deal as God's justice was satisfied by Jesus. God's holiness and righteousness is not diminished because he freely gives his love and grace to us. And that grace leading to salvation is shown in my final if/then statement. Romans 10: 9 if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, (then) you will be saved.” The promise of salvation through Jesus.
Take this to heart, God loves you and wants a relationship with you. God so loved us that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. We are promised that God's presence is with those who come to him, who believe. For us, there is no “if” we can do that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen
Hymn: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling 376 PH