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Freedom from law - Romans 7:1-25 - A City of Two Tales

Testwood Baptist Church, Sunday April 22nd 2007

 

Readings
Romans 7:1-12 and 21-25
Psalm 95:1-7

 

 

I think probably most of you know that for a day job I work as a computer programmer – we like to call ourselves software engineers nowadays, perhaps so we sound less like a bunch of anorak-wearing nerds sitting in darkened rooms. But maybe not so many people know that the particular work that I do is in the aircraft industry – I write code that helps monitor the safety of aircraft and helicopters, identifies problems, recommends that components get repaired or replaced, and so on. It’s in that frame of mind I want you to enjoy this demonstration. We’ll be talking a lot about laws tonight, as we unravel some of Paul’s words in Romans 7, and I guess we’re familiar with the law of gravity. I throw this sheet of paper, and it falls to the ground. No surprises there. But there are other laws that govern our world, and if we know how to work with them then surprising things can happen. I can take another sheet of paper - here’s one I prepared earlier – and this time when I throw it, something different happens. It flies. Whenever you see a real aircraft take off, it is not defying the law of gravity, but it is working with some of the other laws of the world – the laws that govern how air moves – to achieve something remarkable. It is so remarkable that despite all the countless human beings that looked up at birds, bees and butterflies through history, it took until the year 1903 for people to achieve sustained flight through the air in an aircraft. Tonight we are not really going to be talking about aeroplanes, but we are going to be talking about how we think about Law – whether we see it as a hindrance that just brings us down to earth all the time, or as something that liberates us to do remarkable things… provided we know and understand how to play by its rules. Before we go further, let’s listen to Barbara reading part of Psalm 95.

Ruthlessly summarising Paul’s words in Romans 7 he gives an illustration of how a specific law can cease to have effect over someone, and then breaks into a long discussion about personal struggle. I’m going to postpone talking about the specific example of marriage until later on, and focus first on his general argument. Now, many Bible commentators see this not merely as reflecting the typical state of mankind, but Paul’s own personal experience. When Paul picked coveting as an example of sin, was this just at random, or because he himself struggled with covetousness? Was it personal, or did he pick it because it was the last of the Ten Commandments, and might be considered least as well as last. Well, we don’t know for sure, but some of his other letters suggest that status was a big issue for Paul, so maybe the urge to acquire the things of others really was his Achilles heel.

Now, this issue of law has come up several times as we’ve rambled through the letter to the Romans, and several of the people who have stood up here – and I’m thinking particularly of Dave and Les – have affirmed that Paul has a high view of Law as a God-given thing, but at the same time can sound very critical of law-keeping. Indeed, at first reading Paul can seem a bit confused about this law business – at the end of chapter 3 he told us “we uphold the law”, but he also told us that the law was powerless to save. He strongly defends the absolute role of God’s grace in our salvation, but very clearly has strongly negative views about law-breakers – his letters are full of lists of people doing wrong, great catalogues of wickedness that sometimes seem to give him a kind of perverse delight as they roll off his pen. In passing, I think we have to handle these lists very carefully when we use them, so that our listeners do not feel rejected out of hand. However, although I don’t find Paul an easy writer, I do not believe that he was confused about whether the law as given by God was a good thing or a bad one. What does he say? Tonight’s verses contain some of Paul’s most elevated words of praise concerning the law – it is, he says, “intended to bring life”, “holy”, “righteous and good”, “spiritual”, “delightful” and so on. It’s our job tonight to get to grips with this and see what is going on.

Part of the problem, as ever, is to do with how we ourselves look at law. We speak of it in so many ways, both positive and negative. We use it of natural processes, like gravity and air, of human regulations, and of divine decrees. Law can be something imposed from outside, like an Act of Parliament, something that is inevitable, like death, or something that is inconvenient or intrusive, like a speed camera… but on the other hand it might be something that protects us from danger, something that protects the weak and vulnerable from oppressors and abusers. This year we are celebrating the passage of laws in England that opened up a vision of freedom for huge numbers of people, people abused and enslaved by human greed. It is we, just as much as Paul, who have this double vision of law.

I guess it won’t surprise you to hear me say that another part of the problem is one of translation. When Paul spoke of Law in its best and highest sense, what he meant was what the Hebrew calls Torah. Most English translations use the word “Law” for this, when describing the huge, intricate body of social and legal material described in the early books of the Old Testament. But “Law”, in its modern sense, is not quite right to describe it, and for the purposes of this sermon I am going to keep using the word Torah so you have no doubt when I mean it in a positive sense. Torah has to do with family guidance, especially the kind of guidance a mother offers her children as they grow up. It has the sense of “this is the way we do things in this household”, not “do this or else…” Now in this sense – and this sense would have been very real to Paul and his Jewish readers, and those who they had instructed in the things of the Hebrew Scriptures – in this sense we can speak of Torah as holy, spiritual and so forth. The problem that Paul faced, that the Christian church faces – and that the Old Testament community of Israel faced – was not Torah, but the spirit of legalism. Legalism is a state of mind that sets up or enforces abusive power relations between people, that enslaves or condemns, that thinks it can reach up into Deep Heaven and compel even the Most High God to promise good treatment on the basis of good behaviour. Legalism breaks down the rich web of community and tradition that Torah tries to build up. Legalism enslaves.

Now, I don’t mean that Torah consists just of vague, pretty sentiments that make us feel good about ourselves. Torah is family culture, Torah is motherly guidance, and although tender it can be stern and specific. Sometimes you hear Christians, or read Christian books, poking mild fun at these quaint Jewish rabbis who took the trouble to make a list of 613 regulations from the Scriptures. But let’s never forget, those of us who believe in the divine origin of Scripture, that those 613 commands were in fact God’s idea, not man’s. We make fun of them only to the cost of our belief in the God-breathed nature of Scripture. Of these 613, there are 365 that prohibit certain actions (one for every day of the year) and 248 that are positive requirements (one for every bone in your body, according to an ancient medical tradition). So this list reminds us to not offend God every day of the year, and to try to please Him with every part of our body, both large and small – sentiments, surely, that we can all agree to. Whether it was Moses who committed Torah to writing, or someone else a little later, we should always bear in mind where the inspiration began.

Now, to be sure the Jewish society of Jesus’ time had added to the list, had made unnecessary weights for the people to bear. To be sure, an attitude of legalism had become rather common, to be sure some people had cultivated wrong feelings of personal pride in this list of instructions and their personal ability to keep them. But let’s be able to say, with Paul, “the commandment is holy, righteous and good”. And although we often criticise 1st century Judaism for this, my feeling is that over the years the Christian church has proved just as adept at the business of making up extra rules for people to follow, or persuading them to feel inferior for not keeping them. This is not just a game that Judaism plays.

It’s quiz time now! Suppose I were to ask you, what gift did God give to His people at Pentecost? What would you answer? I’m guessing that a fair number of people would turn to Acts chapter 2 and read there “when the day of Pentecost came… they were filled with the Holy Spirit”. An easy answer to this quiz question, perhaps. But… as you’ve read the account in Acts 2, have you wondered why so many Jews had come from all over the world to be in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost? Of course it was one of the great pilgrim feasts… but what was this feast? The Hebrew name for Pentecost is shabu‘oth – properly speaking, Chag Shabu‘oth, the Festival of Weeks, and it commemorates for the people of Israel when Torah was given on Mount Sinai. At Pentecost, God gave His people the gift of Torah – the gift of Law. You can check it out back in the book of Exodus (make sure you look carefully at the various day indications in those early chapters) – but for now, I want us every time we get to Whitsun and remember the giving of the Holy Spirit to God’s people, every time we go on our Holy Spirit Saturdays as part of an Alpha course, I want us to reflect that the day also celebrates that God’s people were given Torah – Law. We are working in God’s economy here, and He likes to recycle situations. No wonder that Paul insists that Torah is holy and spiritual!

I don’t believe that God makes mistakes of timing. If He chose to give the Holy Spirit on the same festival day that He gave Torah, then He had a profoundly good reason for doing so. Let’s think a little about that. Pentecost – Shabu‘oth – is basically an early harvest festival. It is when the people brought into the presence of God the first-fruits of their grain harvest – there were other harvest celebrations later in the year for other fruits and vegetables. Modern customs for Shabu‘oth include decorating houses with green things, reading the Book of Ruth, and eating dairy treats like ice-cream or cheesecake. It’s a fun time. If you look up some commentaries on the Holy Spirit, you’ll find that God’s gift of Him is also likened to a first-fruits offering – this is the first portion of the total package you’re going to get when you see and know God to the absolute limit that a created being can. Well, in the same way you can look at Torah as the first-fruit of a godly life of discipline. Torah shows us that God likes His people to live lives that have boundaries, that have focus and structure, that are tied in to the rhythms of life and society. So let’s ask the question the other way round. If God had already given Torah this day, why then the giving of the Spirit?

Henry Ford is reputed to have said once, “If I'd asked the customers what they wanted, they would have said “A faster horse.”” I think something of the same applies here. If God had asked His people what they wanted, they might have said, “a better law” – but He did not do this. He gave them… he gave us… something – someone – radically different.

“This is the covenant that I will make with them…
I will set my Torah inside them
and upon their hearts I will write it.”
(Jeremiah 31:33)

So, not a better law, but a better way of living the life He chooses for us. Go back a minute to our little paper plane, or better yet, a real one. People learned how to make wood and cloth, metal and glass fly not by defying gravity, not by ignoring the laws of the universe, but by learning how to work with them. When my little paper plane took flight, or when a real aircraft leaves the ground and moves in its native element, we have not changed the laws of physics, we haven’t suspended or cancelled a single one of them – but we are using them as they can be used. Where does that place us? Does God’s law, does Torah, make us a slave, or does it make us free?

You may have noticed I sub-titled tonight’s talk “A City of Two Tales”. I’ve done this because I want to tell another story tonight, one that Paul would have known extremely well. The City of my title is the City of God – not the earthly Jerusalem which has suffered so much difficulty and travail over the years, but the true City of God, the heavenly Jerusalem if you like. It is our destination on our pilgrim road, and the earthly Jerusalem provides a kind of handy thumbnail sketch. The Two Tales – well, they are two ways to tell the Exodus story. Exodus and the three books that follow it in the Bible tell us several things. They tell us about some events in history, about the people of Israel coming out of Egypt and, after various difficulties, coming into the land of Canaan. Many of you know that the writings of that time, and especially the poetry of that time, are a source of immense delight and inspiration to me. Now, because the people who wrote the Bible were very skilled in the way they used words, and because their inspiration came from the One whose name is the Word, who invented words and language in the first place, then they don’t just give us one simple story. Tonight I’m going to look at Exodus as telling two stories – it tells us about the journey from slavery to freedom, and it tells us about the journey from infancy to adulthood.

What exactly happened when Israel crossed out of Egypt, over the Sea of Reeds on dry land, leaving the Egyptian army sinking like stone, like lead in the mighty waters? Well, it very obviously marked the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom. That’s clear from your very first reading of the story. That so clearly stands out from the Bible account that we can leave it on one side for a while and concentrate on the other side. You see that passage, that time when the waters were torn open, was also a moment of birth for Israel – like all births, it was a hazardous affair, a very close brush with death. All around the Exodus birth event we hear the voices of women – midwives, mothers, nurses, Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam the prophetess, singing and dancing in celebration with the tambourine in her hand. It’s perhaps the most concentrated collection of women’s participation in the whole Bible, right up there with the assortment of people who first witnessed the resurrected Lord Jesus. That has to be worth looking at in its own right – but for tonight we have to work our way back towards Paul! Anyway, with this national birth we for the first time hear the voice of the nation crying out. Infant Israel draws first breath and makes its presence felt among the nations. Like most babies, what Israel first says is a protest – “where am I, what have you done to me, what will become of me?” Life outside the womb is not always easy. The relationship with God in these early days is pictured as that of parent and child. God offers both fatherly and motherly care and guidance to this new infant, and there are difficulties. We first meet Israel as infant.

But Israel did not stay infant, Israel grew up, and although there’s not time tonight to talk about it, you can see the various stages of childhood being played out here on the desert journey. God as parent provided many things – supplies, guidance, purpose, and so on. As often happens, Israel’s reception of this provision was rather mixed. It wasn’t quite what Israel wanted. In Egypt they had been slaves, but that meant security. They could not choose for themselves what they did with their lives, but that meant things were settled. Egyptian slaves had regular food, Egyptian slaves had houses, Egyptian slaves had work to do and might earn favours if they did their work well. Being in a womb becomes constricting after a while – anyone who saw a spectacular TV documentary exploring the life of multiple babies in the womb a few months ago will have no doubt just how crowded a womb can get – but it does mean free bed and board! You’re completely dependent on another person for provision, security, and so on, and there are no decisions to make. I guess we all have days when that seems very appealing. But God did not let Israel stay in the womb, and He did not let Israel stay an infant. He does the same for us. He insisted Israel grew up as a nation. He gave Israel a goal, a purpose, a destination, and a way of living while on the road and in the land. He brought Israel to the verge of Jordan, the verge of the promised land of Canaan, the verge of adulthood.

But before we step across that threshold, let’s return to the second of our Two Tales – slavery to freedom. What did freedom mean for Israel? Freedom did not mean being without boundaries, without ground-rules for family life, without direction. God went, so to speak, to great trouble to give Israel a pattern for living life in freedom. Slavery means that other people call the shots, other people tell you what is right and wrong, what to do, where to go, how many bricks to make without straw. And freedom means… what exactly? Freedom under God means having the ability and the responsibility to choose. Making that choice might mean that you do serve others, that you choose to make bricks without straw – but because you have chosen to, not because someone has forced or manipulated you. Freedom for Israel meant making a conscious choice to live by Torah, and at those times when Israel best understood what God had done for her, Israel knew that living by Torah was an act of love in response to a magnificent act of grace, not some kind of legalistic way to buy the favour of the Most High God. Of course Israel had other times when this understanding slipped away from the national mind, times when the slavery of legalism clambered on top again – but the Christian church has had times like this too. Les said it a few weeks ago – the need to have some sort of concrete checklist we can tick off so we know we’ve satisfied God – really really know – that need runs incredibly deep in the human soul. But in God’s reality, there is no such checklist.

Now, these two Tales – and also Paul’s letter to the Romans – all flow together at a point in human development where we have to decide what to do with our sexuality. First, infancy to adulthood. Whatever a person’s experience of relationships is like when they are little, there comes a point in life where they have the mental and bodily capacity, and the freedom of time and space, to decide what they are going to do about their own intimate relationships. Who am I going to be with, and when, and what boundaries am I going to agree to? It’s not an easy choice, not in any society. Israel had reached this point at the border between the desert and the Promised Land, that narrow line of division between the pure poverty of life in the wilderness and the wild delights of Canaan. Then there’s slavery to freedom. The sexual life of a slave is, like so much else, under the control of the master. For Israel, there had been threats on the lives of babies and children. Now Israel was free – how were they going to live? What were relationships between adults going to be like? How were they going to bring up children? What would they teach the next generation?

Two things happened at the borders of Canaan that forced Israel to choose how to behave. One was the presence of Moabite women. These were, apparently, fatally attractive to the Israelite men, who, in large droves, were drawn to them, and turned via sexual gratification to religious unfaithfulness. We don’t get the perspective of the Israelite women on this episode, but I find it difficult to imagine that it improved the reputation of their men-folk in their eyes. It is in this historical setting that we should read the book of Ruth – over and over again in its few pages she is referred to as “the Moabite woman” just in case we might forget that her ethnic origins made her both dangerous and desirable to Boaz. Back at the time of the Conquest, the Moabite women were seen as a temptation that drew Israel away from the way of Torah. The temptation led to bloodshed, to judgement, to strife with their neighbours, to broken relationship with God. As happens so often in this world, men tried to reinterpret their own weakness by blaming it on the deception or sin of others. A swift look over Christian commentaries or sermons on this episode will show you a surprising number of people who try to move the blame to the Moabite women – their trickery, perhaps, their society, or even their beauty. It is, I think, a very hard thing for human beings to admit they are weak: it is worth remembering here that some church traditions ensure that their weekly acts of worship always include a general confession of weakness, such as

Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
and there is no health in us.

Of course we don’t do that here at Testwood, or indeed any of the other great collective affirmations of the historic Christian faith, and so it is doubly important that we remember to bring these things to mind as a conscious personal act.

The other risky woman was Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho. Two spies were sent out from the Israelite encampment and went to her house. Now, although our modern translations are usually polite and decorous, the Hebrew is quite blunt – the two men went to the prostitute’s house and lay there, and the language used is exactly the same as if they went there for sex. The Hebrew does not give a simple clear choice – it makes you grapple with the text, to consider possibilities. The Bible has been called “provocatively open-ended”, and the Hebrew narratives are most especially like this when it comes to motives, thoughts, and feelings. So, Rahab was another challenge. What would Israel do in a land where prostitutes plied their trade? Now in this case the end result was rather different. Rahab wanted Israel there: Rahab took some of the phrases that the Israelites had sung as they crossed the Sea out of Egypt and taught Israel that they really were true about the land’s current occupants. She acted as a cultural interpreter or mediator between one nation and the other. She was a go-between. According to Jewish tradition, Rahab married Joshua and so came to represent the new union between the incoming people of Yahweh, and those of the original population who were willing to join them.

So, as Israel hesitated between desert life as nomads, and settled life in the land, we are told about two different situations, and two different ways of responding to them. Sexual challenges were inevitable, and could be met in several ways. Some ways of responding led to broken relationships, and some ways of responding led to harmony and union. And, of course, Israel learned as a nation what we all learn as individuals – that there is a difference between knowing what Torah has to say about something, and the practical challenge of actually choosing what to do.

And so, back to Paul. Indeed, back to the little passage at the start of chapter 7 in which he gives an example of a person’s change of status. The example he chooses is that of a person who is in a sexual relationship. In one set of conditions the behaviour is called adultery, while in another, exactly the same behaviour is seen as legitimate. Paul happens to pick a woman as his example, but the same principle applies to man or woman. Again, we don’t know why he picked a sexual sin as his example – was it a personal weakness or just a typical example, was it perhaps a situation that a family member or friend was facing as he wrote the letter? Tonight I am going to connect it with the sexual encounters that Israel had at the borders of the land. The same series of actions, depending on the circumstances, might lead to broken relationship, or they might lead to harmony and union. You see, all three stories are posing the same question – what will you do with your adulthood, with your freedom, with your knowledge of the vastness of God’s grace? Paul has spent much time setting out the principle that law – Torah – is not what ultimately makes the difference to the relationship between God and man. He has told his readers that this law is good, spiritual, holy and so forth, but he has also told them that observance of the law cannot justify a person before God. He is well aware that this is a dangerous doctrine, that it can lure a person into all kinds of self-deceptive behaviour patterns. Ian explored these verses a little last week.

Now, Paul is writing a letter, while the books of the Hebrew Bible that we talked about are written as narratives and as poetry. This means we have to read them slightly differently. As you read the Bible, this is important to keep in mind. Not just who is writing this, and who are they writing to, and what situation is foremost in their life that they want to talk about, what came before and after… but what kind of writing were they using? What kind of writing did the Eternal Word whisper to them as being best for this passage of Scripture? Now, in everyday life we manage this all the time as we meet information coming to us in different ways. Think about how differently you react to something that you see on the news compared with a cartoon, or in an official letter from the council compared with a friend’s email.

As regards the Bible, it is most important firstly that we recognise what style is being used, and secondly that as we read, individually or as a group, we stay thoroughly faithful to the complete mixture of writings that the Biblical authors used. It seems that Israel of Jesus’ time found it easier to stick to the legal material in the Bible – all these laws might be hard to keep, but they are easy to list, to categorise, and to use for instruction. The story-type material, and the poetry, is harder to work with. It has more shades of grey, you have to grapple and tussle with it while you are trying to see how it applies into your personal situation. You are not just given one person’s view on a matter, as you usually are in a letter, but you are given the words and interactions of several people. Their thoughts and feelings are only partially revealed, leaving, it has been said, “great depths of time, fate and consciousness… fraught with background”. Letters tend to have a more direct, single line of argument. A letter is like a powerful torch, spotlighting a specific issue from one angle, while Biblical narrative is like a whole rainbow turning the light of God into a spectrum of colour. Now, that might well explain why Israel of Jesus’ time had emphasised law-keeping. Easy to summarise, easy to learn, easy to teach. But I do wonder if the Christian church has not from time to time faced exactly the same position regarding Paul’s letters. A letter is easy to read, it tends to be quite systematic, it tends to paint situations and people in simple, black-and-white ways. We must be careful not to unconsciously apply those qualities to all Biblical writing. I am thrilled that in our teaching here at Testwood we move about amongst lots of different kinds of Biblical material: let’s make sure we feast on each one according to its own individually rich style and convention, and not reduce all to a sort of uniform religious soup.

Let’s start to summarise. First, I am not advocating that we Gentiles try to keep Torah in all its intricacy. Right now I am breaking a commandment simply by reason of the clothes I am wearing. I don’t suppose many of us here would be very enthusiastic about keeping the various food regulations. Indeed, the Christian church over its history has tried to sort out which parts of Torah one might consider universally relevant, and which parts had a more limited scope. Limited, that is, in terms of social conditions, or the age in which it was needed, or personal circumstances. The broad principle of Christian tradition is whether any particular law has an ethical, a moral dimension that can be used to steer and shape our relationships with God and with one another. Can this particular law help us to love God, or to love our neighbour? So by and large the parts of Torah that have to do with conduct in relationship – with other people, or with God – have remained, and the parts that have to do with diet, or clothing, and so forth, have gone. But I do want to emphasise that this is a choice made by Christian tradition, not a choice read directly from the pages of Scripture. We can see changes in Christian tradition in attitudes to do with Sunday. Should we make strenuous efforts to keep Sunday special at any cost – as Eric Liddell did for the 1924 Olympics – or should we settle for a general principle of rest days amongst work? Liddell and others of his time referred to Sunday as the Sabbath – strictly speaking of course it is not, but using this word reveals a level of devotion to this particular observance that not many of us here would share. Torah is not something we read in the Bible and then just do – it is something we tussle with as we try to work out how it might be applied into our life situations. Our estimate of how to keep Torah changes with time and circumstance.

So, that is what I am not suggesting. What I am suggesting is that Torah – Law in its best and highest sense – tells us something about God. It tells us that He likes His people to live lives that have boundaries, that have direction and purpose, that are governed by principles that blend service and celebration. Paul has told us that any ability we have to keep these laws counts for nothing if we hope it is going to impress God. It will not impress Him. But living a life of direction and delight is a thing that He would like us to do anyway – not because it gives us Christian credit, not because it guarantees a good or easy life, but because even in the darkest and most difficult times He assures us it is better in the long run. I am very aware, as I’m sure many of us are, that trying to follow God’s pattern for life is rarely easy, is sometimes very painful, and is always challenging.

Freedom is a difficult thing to manage, and the world outside the womb is a very large place. The generation of Israelites who left Egypt – the first generation to feel what freedom was like for ever so many years – died, almost without exception, in the wilderness. They were people who had crossed the gulf between slavery and freedom. And although they had only reluctantly set out from Egypt in the first place, having finally left the domination of Pharaoh they could not then submit gladly to the lordship of Yahweh. To them, Torah was not a liberating force by which they could live, and fly, but a constraint that they thought was going to drag them down to earth.

Does that apply to us? Sometimes, perhaps. Do we resent godly boundaries? Do we find reasons for appealing to His grace to avoid a disciplined life? Do we search for quick and easy answers to the problems faced by ourselves or others? Do we find ourselves using a profession of faith as a way of avoiding challenges to the mind or heart? The frustrating mixture of minute detail and broad principle given in Torah, the seemingly pedantic lists followed by times of exultant celebration, tells us something about both the cost of discipleship and its capacity to bring life. Your Christian journey will take you to places that are costly, and, God willing, will take you to places that mean life for others. When your walk is steered by God’s ancient Torah, and indwelt by God’s ever-new Spirit, it will be both costly and life-giving. As Jesus said, you will deliver things both new and old to the world.

I want to finish with two last thoughts. Because Biblical poetry is important to me, I often think about it while we are singing worship songs written by today’s church. Biblical poetry and song was built around patterns. Patterns that shape single lines, or patterns that shape whole psalms, so that the rhythm and beauty of Torah can be experienced in creative action, and not just heard as dry legal statements. Of course the same is true of the activity of the Spirit of God. The life-shaping of Torah, and the life-shaping of the Spirit, certainly affect individual, specific, day-to-day choices, but they do more than that. They shape the rhythm of a season, and of a year. They shape the growth of a life, and of a family. Of a church. So much of our modern society is in fragments, disintegrated into little sound-bites, and I think the Church is not immune to this. I wonder if something about modern Christian life struggles with the thought that God designs order, structure, pattern: perhaps we like to kick against the boundaries a little too much. We dislike Law. We dislike boundaries.

The second thought takes us back to our little paper plane. An aircraft cannot fly unless it is moving: it needs motion of some sort so that it can appeal to a natural force other than gravity. No movement: no flight. I wonder if that can be seen as a picture of the Christian journey. Our lives need to be going somewhere in order to work with God’s Torah and God’s Spirit. For this we come back to Barbara’s reading of Psalm 95 for us. Truly Yahweh is a great God, above all other gods as Great King, and so it is that we can go into the world. Of course we all have different ways of going – for some it really is geographical movement to other parts of the world, but for others it is more of an inward journey, exploring the inner landscapes of the soul. If your calling is outward, walking the life of Christ across the towns and nations of our world, then go with the truth of Torah and the grace of the Spirit, not offering cheap and easy answers but the sudden surprise of salvation both immeasurably costly and utterly free. And if your calling is inward, to conduct Christian ministry in the great and luminous world of the soul, then go not with cheap and easy answers but, again, with the sudden surprise of utterly free but immeasurably costly salvation.

Moses likened our Lord to an eagle, drawing His nestlings from their eyrie to fly out into mid-heaven. If the world outside the womb seems large to us, I’m sure that the world outside the nest seems truly vast to these eaglets, all those untold acres of lake, mountain and sky that is their birthright. I believe that the same kind of birthright is ours, whether the world we explore is the outer one of the nations of this planet, or the inner one where the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings takes place. So it is that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, as the people of His pasturing, the flock of His hand.

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