Following the Rules
As I often do, I want to start off this morning by asking you a question. But, it’s kind of a long question so let me ask it slowly: Have you ever been in a situation in which you had to deal with someone who was absolutely dead set on doing something they weren’t wise to do such that it became clear the only way they were going to be convinced of their folly was to let them have it and experience the consequences? Maybe you’ve had to do this with you kids or else had this done to you when you were a kid.
This kind of thing is often reported as happening in the Old Testament in God’s dealings with the people of Israel. When they were journeying from Egypt to the Promised Land and came to Moses demanding meat to eat and that they were tired of having nothing but manna all the time God agreed…to give them so much meat it was going to come out their noses. When the people came to Samuel, the last judge of Israel, and demanded a king, God agreed, but not before warning that they would come to regret their rejection of His authority and desire to be like everyone else. Late in the monarchy when the people had looked long enough and often enough at their pagan neighbors, trying out their customs and forging unwise alliances, God finally let them experience in full the awful realities He had been warning them of through the prophets for years and allowed them to be conquered and deported from their land. It would be two full generations before they would return. If they didn’t want to live life His way, then they were going to get to experience it in another way, but they weren’t going to like it.
You know, thinking about living life God’s way, the various invitations to such a lifestyle made by the guys who contributed to the Scriptures often get maligned in our culture as amounting to little more than demands to follow the rules. Christianity in generally in fact has developed the reputation of being almost obsessively concerned with rules. We need to know the rules, follow the rules, live the rules, love the rules. Rules, rules, rules. It’s all about the rules. When people want to attack the Christian faith…well, they have lots of different lines they can take, but one that is frequently chosen is that we are more interested in creating rule-following automatons than in pretty much anything else. As long as people follow the rules we don’t care about much else. These attacks aren’t even limited to critics from outside the faith. Critics of more conservative expressions of the faith from within the church will often gripe and complain that the “fundamentalists” are missing the point of following Jesus by being consumed with just following rules. They’ve hijacked the faith and made it captive to their legalistic tendencies.
The unfortunate truth here is that this is a reputation the church has often deserved. There are churches out there who really won’t accept people until they are willing to sign off to be just like everyone else already there. There are believers who get fixated on following the rules to the exclusion of grace. If you were to go out on the street and find someone willing to admit they are a Christian and asked them what that means there is a good chance they’ll say something about keeping the Ten Commandments as if that were the primary criteria for determining what makes someone a good Christian. The irony here, though, is that God has never been chiefly concerned about the rules and in fact has always subjugated rules to relationships. If we were to take a survey and ask people what lies at the heart of Christianity, there’s a good chance we would find a significant percentage saying something about keeping the rules or doing what God says. But while God doesn’t consider that unimportant, He’s much more concerned with something else entirely: that we follow Him.
This morning we are setting off on a brand new journey together called The Heart of Christianity that will take us from today all the way to Easter Sunday. In this season when more people are reflecting on the worth of the Christian faith than at just about any other time of the year, we are going to spend the next few weeks reflecting on just what is at the heart of the Christian life. What are the core essentials of the Christian faith? What are the things that if we get them right, pretty much everything else will fall into place? What are some of the practices that if we incorporate them into the life of our church we won’t be able to help but to succeed? For the next few weeks we are going to talk about things like our confession of Jesus’ lordship, living with transformed minds and lives, pursuing justice, celebrating discipline, practicing sacrifice, and at the end of the day, making sure we are following Jesus above all else.
To start things off today, though, I want to draw some lines for us that will set Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. One of the clearest and most important lines we could draw is this: in spite of the sometimes well-earned criticism that we are concerned with little else than following rules, the truth is that when we get things right, Christianity stands apart from all the other worlds’ religions in that we are not governed by a life of rules. And while we could certainly find something that Jesus or Paul said to make the point, I want to tackle this issue this morning with you in a different way. We are going to look back to the Old Testament for some perspective here. We are going to look back to a passage out of the prophets—the very guys who are often mischaracterized as caring about little more than gleefully telling the people God is going to get them for breaking the rules. Specifically we are going to examine a couple of different spots from the writings of the prophet Isaiah which show that even back in the days when following the Law of Moses was still considered to be among the most important things someone could do in terms of relating well to God, His first concern was capturing the peoples’ hearts. From these words we are going to see why it is not only mistaken to considered Christianity a rule-obsessed religion (at least when it’s done well), but the opposite is in fact true. It is when we break from God and run out to live life in the world that we find ourselves trapped by one set of rules or another. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, grab it and open it up to Isaiah 28. You’re going to want to see this for yourselves.
After David and Solomon had their rather long reigns over the whole of Israel, Solomon’s son Rehoboam took over. Rehoboam was both spiritually and politically incompetent. During his reign the ten northern tribes rebelled and formed a new kingdom called Israel. Meanwhile the southern kingdom which consisted of the small tribe of Benjamin and the much larger tribe of Judah took the name of the larger tribe. The northern kingdom ran off the spiritual rails from the start and God had to send prophets to warn them to get back on track almost immediately. Elijah and Elisha were two of these and the stories of their exploits make for pretty good reading. God also sent some other guys like Amos and Hosea who didn’t do as much as their forebears, but whose powerful words were intended to call the Israelites of the northern kingdom back to the covenant faithfulness God wanted to share with them.
The southern kingdom of Judah, on the other hand, only strayed a little from the life God had designed them to live so it took a couple hundred years before God had to start sending prophets to warn them to get back on track. Isaiah, who was the first major prophet God sent to Judah, was actually a member of the royal family. He received his powerful call to ministry near the end of the reign of King Uzziah—his cousin. When God called him to prophesy, he was to speak to a culture that was wrapped in a sheen of faithfulness to God, but under this sheen there were a number of unsavory spiritual trends that would ultimately lead to the people’s downfall. Isaiah and many of the prophets who came after him were called by God to remind the people that keeping the rules on the surface wasn’t enough and wasn’t what God wanted most anyway. His greater concern was what was happening underneath the surface in the hearts of the people. There things were not good.
In the record of Isaiah’s prophesies to the people, after some opening words introducing many of the themes that will follow, and a series of prophesies spoken against Judah’s neighbors, Isaiah turns his attention on his own people. He begins in chapter 28 with some words for Judah’s brothers to the north. These words came in the final generation of the nation of Israel before they fell to the terrible Assyrian Empire as a punishment for their refusal to return to living God’s way. Things had gotten so bad in the north that the priests of the people—the ones who still at least pretended to worship God—were mostly a mob of spiritually incompetent drunks. Isaiah wrote to warn them of their coming fall to Assyria and to get back on the path toward righteousness in hopes that God might relent from the destruction He had planned for them.
Listen to how his conversation with them went. He begins by describing in rather colorful detail just how bad things were among the priesthood of Israel. Follow along with me starting at 28:7: “And these also stagger from wine and reel from beer. Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine [another translation puts it, “they are swallowed by wine”]; they reel from beer, they stagger when seeing visions, they stumble when rendering decisions. All the tables are covered with vomit, and there is not a spot without filth.” I know his words are intended to be at least somewhat figurative here, but that’s a pretty grim picture. He envisions the temples with their priests as almost an Animal House-like fraternity after a raucous party. The priests have completely debauched themselves and have become consumed by the moral filth they were consuming. Furthermore, when they hear of Isaiah’s words of judgment on them their response is less than gracious.
Stay with me in the text at v. 9: “Who is it he [Isaiah] is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast?” Maybe you heard something like this on the playground when you were in school. One kid pointed out something obvious to another and the second replied with something like, “Geez, what do you think I am? A baby?” The priests went on: “For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there.” In the original Hebrew, that reads: sav lasav sav lasav/ kav lakav kav lakav. There is debate among scholars whether those words mean something like my translation has or if they are merely nonsense words. Either way, though, the clear sense is that they are mimicking Isaiah in response to his warning. The Message puts it all like this: “Is that so? And who do you think you are to teach us? Who are you to lord it over us? We’re not babies in diapers to be talked down to by such as you—‘Da, da, da, da, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s a good little girl, that’s a good little boy.’” In other words, “Isaiah, don’t waste our time by talking down to us with your little infantile platitudes: Blah, blah, blah, do this, do that. We’re beyond that now.”
Don’t the priests of our culture respond to the church in much the same way today? “You always want to talk down to us from your moral high horse. You spout all this nonsense about keeping the rules. You want us to do this and that. But come on, we’re beyond all that. We as a culture have matured beyond the point that we need a bunch of rules to keep us in line. We’re on a higher plane of our moral evolution. Perhaps that was necessary in the past, but no more. If you want to stay stuck in the past with all your dos and don’ts that’s fine for you, but stop trying to shove them down our throats.”
What do we do with this? I’ll tell you what we do. We have some confidence and we keep reading the text. Look what Isaiah says next in v. 11: “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, ‘This is the resting place, let the weary rest’; and, ‘This is the place of repose’—but they would not listen. So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there—so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured.” In other words, Isaiah warns that God will get this message across. If they won’t receive it from him, they’ll receive it from someone else, namely, Assyria. That won’t be as pleasant. God designed Israel to be a place of rest and refuge for those who sought it. They could come there and receive the rest and repose of life in the arms of a loving God who doesn’t want to see them reduced to just following the rules all the time, but rather see them grow into the freedom of living. But if they won’t have it from Him, He’ll have to start over with them from the beginning. He’ll have to treat them as the very babies like which they accused Isaiah of treating them. And in the process of being reminded what life with God is really like they’ll fall and get hurt and have to get up once again…just like babies do.
You know, there’s a real irony to all of this. Isaiah’s critics in Israel were different only in the details from our critics today. Both are wrong, but both feel totally justified in what they see as correct assessments of us. And in part, they are. When we reduce following God to little more than following rules, their criticisms are exactly right. We can actually see this right here in the text. Isaiah has a few more words for the priests and prophets of Israel, but in chapter 29 he turns his attention back home and starts talking to the people of Judah.
You see, the people of Judah thought they were fine this whole time. They had the Temple where the presence of God dwelt. They brought their sacrifices and offerings. They taught the Law of Moses to their children. Sure, they sometimes had dalliances with idols on the side, but that was nothing. It was just harmless fun. It was just playful experimentation so they could see what else was out there in order to realize just how good they had it. No big deal. But Isaiah saw the truth. The people weren’t fine. Look at v. 13 there: “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips [just like we said: externally they looked fine], but their hearts are far from me.” Ouch. The worship of Judah was all surface and no substance and through Isaiah God calls their bluff. But it’s actually worse than that. Because they contented themselves with the externals, they never got any deeper than the Law.
Stay with me here. The Law of Moses was never a bad thing. It had a definitive role to play in the relationship God was building with the people of Israel. God gave the Law to help people understand where the boundaries of a relationship with Him were. All relationships have boundaries. When you and your spouse said your vows at your wedding ceremony the two of you were setting in place some boundaries for the relationship. We can behave our way out of relationships if we either don’t know or don’t pay any attention to these. But, if all we do is obsess about the boundaries we’re not going to be paying much attention to the person with whom we have the relationship and thus won’t have much of a relationship. In the same way, God gave the Law to help people then understand the contours of a relationship with Him, but the Law was never meant to be the whole relationship. For Judah, though, it had become just that. Look at the rest of v. 13 here: “Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
Israel looked at Isaiah as a representative of what had become a very hollow and legalistic religion. From the outside looking in they could see it was all for show. The people of Judah were doing some of the same things they were. They were behaving in some of the same unsavory ways. They were committing some of the very same sins. The only difference was they were putting a veneer of Law over the top of this unrighteousness that the people of Israel just didn’t care about anymore. By taking off the restraints Israel felt free to run any which way they desired. They made a mockery of the religion of their “childhood.” Judah still gave it at least a lip service. It was enough of a lip service that it kept them from giving fully in to the impulses they felt to run in the same directions as their brothers to the north, but it would not save them forever.
Let’s get right down to the irony here. While Israel was right in their mocking assessment of Judah, they were wrong in thinking they had somehow matured beyond their infantile brothers. They looked down on Judah in much the same way the secular cultural elite in our nation often looks down on the more religious and cultural fabric that still blankets much of the country. But here’s the trick, there are limits on life whether we like it or not. They are the limits that hold back the barbarity of our lower natures. If we desire to live in a state of utter chaos we can ignore these and destroy ourselves. At various times in the past human cultures have; but at least in this country we don’t want that. And so we find ourselves stuck. On the one hand there are the limits of a relationship with God. If we want a relationship with Him we have to stay within those limits. We can try and redefine them outward, but such attempts have always ultimately failed. And that’s not a legalistic thing on God’s part; it’s simply a recognition of His character. He is the way He is and if we want to be near Him we have to behave in a manner that allows for that to happen. On the other hand, if we do not desire or have otherwise rejected a relationship with God there are the limits we just talked about that hold back the chaos to which we will unavoidably turn if left to our own devices. Well, without the restraining limits of God’s character to keep us from the chaos we have to find other ways to keep it at bay. Guess what form these other ways usually take? Rules. And the more we turn from the restraining limits of God’s character, the more rules we have to put in place to act as a substitute for it. Less God always means more rules whether we have rejected Him wholesale as the people of Israel had done, or we have left Him as a surface gloss we largely ignore as the people of Judah had done. God wants a relationship with us. That relationship comes with some limits, it does, but within those limits are righteousness and life. If we walk away from righteousness, rules are all that remain. When we turn from what’s right, the rules are all that’s left.
That’s the irony here. The people of Israel rejected Isaiah’s calls to come back to the fold of a relationship with God because they saw it as nothing but rules. Yet soon they would find themselves entirely beholden to a set of rules foisted upon them by a conquering power. The reason Israel saw a relationship with God as nothing but rules, though, is because Judah treated a relationship with God as nothing but rules. They fixated on the rules so that with their veneer of righteousness in place they could create loopholes within the rules to allow them to do what they wanted to do. In other words, their lives became nothing more than rules. Indeed, when we turn from what’s right, the rules are all that’s left.
But here’s the thing: Just as we intuitively know that’s no way to live (in spite of the fact that we keep putting ourselves in situations where we have to), God doesn’t want that for us. We’re right: that’s no way to live. We know this intuitively because we were designed for a relationship with God not to be enslaved to some set of rules. But when we turn from what’s right, the rules are all that’s left. So here’s what God does: He loves us enough to graciously strip away the pretense of relationship the rules we make for ourselves creates and He exposes us to a bit of the chaos of getting exactly what our hearts desire brings so we’ll understand why sticking with Him is a better way to live. Come back with me to chapter 28 to see this in action.
The people of Israel boasted to Isaiah that they had put the necessary measures in place to avoid the so-called consequences of their choices he kept telling them about. They believed they were invincible. There would be no repercussion for their actions. Does that sound familiar at all? Look with me at God’s response starting in v. 14: “Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem. You boast, ‘We have entered into a covenant with death [the people had made an alliance with Egypt they thought would save them from the Assyrians], with the realm of the dead we have made an agreement. When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by, it cannot touch us, for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.’” So God says in v. 17: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the realm of the dead will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it. As often as it comes it will carry you away; morning after morning, by day and by night, it will sweet through.”
Did you catch all that? The people thought they could hide behind the rules they had made for themselves—rules they refused to call rules. But, when we turn from what’s right, the rules are all that’s left. And rules will not save us. When the piper returned to collect his fee they would pay. They would pay because God wasn’t going to bail them out any longer. If they wanted the rules, they were going to live with them. But God knew as any good father does that when they discovered the folly of what they wanted most, they would return to what He had been telling them all along was the right way to live. Look at this in v. 16: “So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.’” Guess who that stone is. The Rock of Ages. The Chief Cornerstone. Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God who was willing to move heaven and earth and let us have what we wanted even when he knew it wasn’t going to be good for us because he didn’t want to lose us to the very thing we sought. Christianity is not all about the rules. Far from it. Instead, when we leave behind what’s right, the rules are all that’s left. The heart of Christianity is about something else entirely, and over the next few weeks we’ll explore it together. We’ll learn together some of what it means, not to follow the rules, but to be in a relationship with the God who loves us. You won’t want to miss it.