This was the sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church (Walker Valley, NY) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 1999. The Scriptures were Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Philippians 3: 4-14, and Matthew 21: 33 – 46.
I used to be a football official but had to give it up when I suffered a knee injury back in 1986. It was a fun time, working games that ranged from the Saturday morning Pee-Wee and little league games through Friday night high school games. In fact, had it not been for the injury that one Friday night in 1986, I would have even gotten to do some college games that season.
And like any activity that one participates in, there are moments to remember. Such as the time when we called holding on number “00” only to be told that his number was “88”. It was hard for us to tell because half of the jersey was stuck inside his pants. Oh yes, did I mention that it was one of those Saturday morning Pee-Wee games?
Perhaps the greatest moment in my officiating career came one Saturday night in 1983 during two games at Southhaven, MS. It was a routine to give the announcer a card with the officials and their positions listed on it so that it could be read over the PA system. We always felt that if you were going to boo the officials, you should at least use the right names. For the two games that night the game card read: Robert Mitchell, referee; Tim Mitchell, head linesman; Terry Mitchell, field judge for game 1 and clock operator for game 2; and Tony Mitchell, clock operator for game 1 and field judge for game 2. This was the only time in our family history that the four of us worked as a game crew. And, to be honest, we never did find out how the coaches reacted when they found out that the game crew was a father and his three sons.
Though there were little hearted moments, such as that night, the business of officiating was a serious one and it bothered me that many coaches, and for that matter, many parents did not know the rules of the games. Too many times during a Saturday game, a coach or parent would complain about a call we made or one we missed or why we wouldn’t let them do certain things that everyone saw happening on Sunday afternoon. To these complaints, the response was “this is Saturday, coach; not Sunday.”
Rules are the way we live each day in a civilized society. Without rules and laws, life would be chaos. In giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments early in the Exodus, God was giving them the rules of basic morality and relationships.
The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts, our relationship with God and our relationship with others. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God:
- Put God first in everything.
- Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
- Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
- Set aside a day to rest and remember God.
The remaining six commandments deal with our relationship with others:
- Show respect for your parents.
- Do nothing with an intent to harm another person.
- Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
- Respect the rights of others.
- Respect others reputation as well as their lives and property.
- Care about others, not about their possessions.
Robert Schuller wrote “ God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”
It is also important to note that God gave the commandments to the Israelites after, not before He chose them. He did not say to a group of people wandering in the desert to keep these commandments and you would become my people. Rather, people will want to live the kind of life described by the commandments because God saved them.
God also did not force the Israelites to accept his laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and what would happen should they choose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings upon the Israelites if they obeyed the commandments. This was the foundation for what is called the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham, this was an agreement between two parties, God and Israel.
In any society, there is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. When I was growing up in the South, I saw the consequences of laws designed to continue the effects of segregation, even after segregation was illegal. In Alabama, students had to buy their own books rather than have them provided by the school system. If your parents could afford the books, then you had the books. If your parents couldn’t; well, you just suffered the consequences. In Tennessee, all music programs got the same amount of money each year but what was given was barely enough to buy the sheet music for one song. If you wanted more, or if you need instruments for the band, then it was up to the Band Boosters to get the money. So schools where the parents had the resources got the better instruments and the better uniforms. If the parents didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should be made to prevent injustice, not cause it.
In Israel, during Jesus’ time, the laws and the interpretation of laws based on the Ten Commandments had become so restrictive has to make it impossible to live. In that society, salvation was seen only in terms of following the law.
But if the laws of society were so restrictive, salvation was hopeless. When the laws are this way, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing wrong and not doing right. Remember how aghast the Pharisees and scribes were when Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, a direct violation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Somewhere through the passage of time, the Israelites forgot that the covenant with God given to them with the Ten Commandments was a two-party agreement. The parable from Matthew in the Gospel for today is a reminder of that covenant. As it said in verse 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”
The Pharisees and leaders of Israel had created a society that demanded perfection in following the law as the only means of achieving salvation. But God gave the laws to the Israelites after he saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation; believing in God is.
Paul, in the portion of his letter to the Philippians that we read today, makes it clear that he knows the law.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
But he, Paul, points out that righteousness cannot come from the law but rather from Christ and his salvation. In verse 9 we read,
Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Paul pointed out that, though he had everything in terms of the law, he lost it all to Christ on the road to Damascus.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Can we have a life without laws? Of course not. Laws are the rules by which society is able to keep together. The trouble is that we often see laws themselves, be they spiritual ones or political ones, as the means to achieving success. But when that happens, when we see the nature of laws as the means of success, when we believe that our path to heaven is set by how we obey the laws, then success can never be accomplished.
We are called Methodists for a particular reason. When John and Charles Wesley began the movement that would become the church, they felt that they had to do certain things in order to be successful. Among these were daily prayer and regular Bible studies. But the Wesley brothers, raised in the church, quickly found that this model would not work. Only after coming to Christ, only after knowing that Christ was their Savior, that He had died for them, did the structure of their own personal lives take on meaning.
The same is true for us today. If we try to live a life in terms of secular rules, derived though they may be from the Ten Commandments, we will quickly find that life is a difficult task. But when we come to Christ, when we as individuals make Christ the center of our live, it is much easier to live.
Paul wrote to Timothy about living life each day. In 2 Timothy 2: 11 – 16 we read,
If we died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;
If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
A Workman Appointed by God
Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.
The rules that we live each day by are easy ones to understand but we must remember when we got those rules and they were given to us. Paul concluded the portion of the letter to the Philippians by noting that he continued to press on with the goal being the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
That is the same for us today. By which rules will you play the game?
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