Christmas 2C (January 3, 2016)

The Law indeed was given through Moses. It’s an amazing story, and a pivotal scene in the biblical narrative. While Moses was on Sinai the people decided to worship a golden calf. Moses destroys the tablets of the Law. God decides to destroy Israel. Moses, with incredible bravery (and incredible nerve) intercedes, and begs God not to do it (because it would make God look bad). God says, “I like you, Moses!” Moses says, “Show me your glory!” God says, “That’s a tall order, Moses. I’ll be honest with you: if you saw this head on, you’d die. I’ll tell you what: I’ll pass by you, with my divine hand over your eyes, and when I’ve passed I will remove my hand and give you a look at my back as I walk away.” Moses lays down new stone tablets for the law, God marches by shouting God’s name and defining characteristics, Moses sees God’s back, and then Moses rewrites the Ten Commandments.

The Law binds Israel. It defines life—Jews even today would say it gives life. When Israel goes into exile, they will interpret the Law and its Temple regulations as being about all of life. It’s a survival mechanism in some ways. Exile is miserable. You’re removed from power, forced to live in a society that does not expect to cater to you and that moves at its own speed and assigns its own meanings to the holidays you celebrate. It is a society that expects certain behaviors from you—things that look or sound religious—but doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, and demands that you live by its rules when not dispensing religious goods and services. So you turn to what has defined you up to now, and ask how it can still define you. Holiness regulations become regulations about life. There is much to commend, here.

The thing about the Law is that it does not look kindly upon difference. Its internal coherence reveals an understanding of proper order. Consider food. We’ve all likely heard attempts to interpret biblical food laws as ancient health and sanitation laws, but the logic of the laws says otherwise. It’s about the order of things. If it swims and has scales, it’s okay; if it swims and doesn’t have scales, it’s not okay. Cloven-footed cud-chewers (like cattle) are clean, but non-cloven-footed cud-chewers (like rabbits) and cloven-footed non-cud-chewers (like pigs) are not clean. It is all about what is put together in the manner that the Law deems “right.”

The same goes for people. Leviticus 21 tells the priests: “No one who has a blemish shall draw near [God], one who is blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback or dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.” (I always make sure to read that last one, just to make sure you’re paying attention.) During Exile, these laws would wind up extended to all of life. Basically, if you differed from how the Law thought you should be put together, you weren’t quite whole.

When Jeremiah foresees the “blind and the lame” being summoned to return as part of the community, his vision flies in the face of the Law. It seems like maybe Jeremiah expected the exiles to learn something about themselves and the Law. Maybe Jeremiah sees the blind and the lame—excluded by the Law—returning fully incorporated into the community because the Exile should have made something clear: everyone is broken in some way. Exile should break us of our pretentions. Exile should reveal that all fall short of the Law. What neither Exile nor Law can do is open us to embrace what doesn’t meet the Law’s standards. For us Christians, the Law cannot open us to embrace those who fall short of the Law. The Law cannot open us to accept others or even ourselves. It doesn’t matter that the Law came from Moses; it doesn’t reveal God to us Christians. “No one has ever seen God.” (Moses just got a look at God’s back.) “It is the only Son who has made God known.” The Law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Luther was fond of the story from Exodus in which God shows God’s back Moses. To Luther, this was God’s glory. A man really well put together will look great from the back. You can tell it’s a good suit without being distracted by the face. Once he turns around, God only knows what he is going to look like. This, this face to face encounter, was God’s hiddenness, God’s humanity. Anyone can see God’s glory, but seeing God in the broken places requires God having given us the faith to see it. Only by grace and truth, the gifts of Jesus Christ, can we see God’s face, Christ’s face, and be able to say that this is just as much God as was that great suit seen from the back.

Christ opens us to see that God is not only found in that which meets the Law’s standards for the order of things. For many of us, this has had obvious and well-enjoyed culinary benefits: PORK. IS. IN. But Christ opens us to see how much we’ve constructed the world and how little that matters so long as Christ is present. I can’t talk about Leviticus without mentioning those verses: the ones that, based on our recently-ended 16-year study on sexuality, you might think are the only verses in the whole book. In the properly ordered universe of the Law, men were dominant and women were passive. Men were expected to be aggressive, women were expected to be receptive. This applied to all behaviors. Look closely at sex offense rules and you’ll see that the crime is never that the act was committed by a man against a woman, but that the woman’s responsible man had his property harmed. The act was perfectly natural, but a property matter. If a man was being passive, or a woman being aggressive, they were not behaving properly. This could be a consensual act or the result of violence. It didn’t matter; it violated gender rules. It failed to live up to the order of things according to the Law that came through Moses.

But Grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. If Exile teaches us that all are broken according to the Law—and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I am saying that we Christians live in Exile today—Christ opens us to accept one another regardless of how the Law construes our value, how our body is constructed, how our gender is constructed, how our livelihood is constructed. For we have beheld Christ’s glory. We have not received a collective vision of God’s backside, but we most certainly have seen God face-to-face in Christ. We have seen Christ when the bread and wine are offered to us and his words, “for you,” are repeated. We have seen Christ each time we see a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and remember that the angels described the Son of God in this way. We have seen Christ every time we have been helped by another. We have seen Christ, dare I say, every time we have seen another. (That’s how effective Christ is at hiding: Christ is in your bratty brother or your bossy sister or that guy with the annoying cough.)

Christ binds us. Christ defines our life. Christians would say Christ gives us life. And Christ draws near to God with all those who for whatever reason do not live up to the Law’s standards of right order. For in the midst of our Exile, Christ opens us. Our society expects things from us—things that sound and look pious, that uphold a peculiar value system that shuts down dissent and segregates difference, makes obedient little consumers out of us and targets anyone who differs from the good and wholesome norm. And we’re not being honest if we pretend Christ isn’t misused in this way. But in the midst of this Christ opens us. Christ opens us to see how we do not fit the mold, and how no one else around us seems to, either. And then Christ binds us to one another—not because we’re so much alike or because we feel or think similarly, nor because we’re all put together the way the world says we should be, but because Christ wants us to be children of God with him.

Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ. It’s an amazing story, the pivotal scene in our life. While we’re busy trying to figure out how to survive as people of faith in a world that seems intent on using us as one more commodity, the Son of God begotten before time opens us to each other and binds us to one another. While we’re facing a world that defines “Christians” as closed to difference and defenders of a moral order that likely never existed, Christ the Source and Ending of things that are, have been, and that future years shall see, keeps rising up in our midst and declaring that the only moral order God’s ever demanded is that we follow. While we’re facing a world that mocks and bullies and legislates away those who don’t fit the mold, Christ says to us—who do not fit the mold—what God once said to Moses: “I like you.”