Over the Wall

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37

As a kid, the best thing about my summers was Camp Honey Creek, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia’s camp for kids and teenagers located on the coast near Jekyll Island. One of my favorite things about camp each year was the ropes course: a full-fledged tree-top challenge in which young people learn to work together, solve problems, overcome obstacles, and build community.

One perennially tricky element was “the Wall.” The Wall was exactly what it sounds like: a large, flat, sturdy edifice made of wood, standing about 12 feet high. The objective of the Wall was for everyone on your team to make it over using nothing more than brawn, brainpower, and teamwork.

Of course, conquering the Wall was a struggle when we were freshmen, but by the time we were juniors we had it down to a science. The key, we discovered, was to look around and pick the tallest, most athletic person among us. (Yeah, not me.) That person’s job was two-fold. First, he stayed on the ground to help everyone else get over, offering lifts and boosts where necessary. Second, and far more importantly, he went last. Once everyone was safely delivered to the other side of the Wall, our tall hero had the unenviable job of stepping back, sprinting forward, springing up, and grabbing/palming/contorting/muscling his way over the top as only he could do.

I make it sound easy, but the truth is the Wall was hard work. In many ways, the Wall was a lot like the Law. You know: THE Law, the Law of God. It took determination, strength, and teamwork to tackle it, and you were never guaranteed that everyone would make it over. If you weren’t careful, you could spend a lot of time running smack into it, bruising yourself and stepping on others just trying to get over it. Yet in the end, it was about community: building community, bracing community, becoming community. The Wall—much like the Law of God—was about forging and forming a different kind of people. It was tough, but good.

It’s that same tough-but-good-ness that gets reflected in the psalmist’s opening lines today: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of the Lord!”[1] In the ancient Hebrew mindset, keeping the Law of God is the way to happiness. It’s hard work, sure, but it pays off.

It’s also why in today’s reading from Deuteronomy God lays out the Law for the people of Israel before they can enter the Promised Land. There they are, right on the precipice after forty years of wandering, and God presses the pause button and has Moses deliver these words:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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.[2]

You see, the Law is a good thing. Just as it did for the ancient Hebrew people, it gives us standards to live by. It defines who we are. It contains us. It challenges us to be strong. It shows us when we are in error and when we are in Sin. There is something right, good, and holy in the age-old notion that if we but keep the Law of God, God will bless us.

But here’s the problem: the Law is damn near impossible to keep. Like that 12-foot wall on the ropes course, you can waste a lot of time running headlong into it, wearing yourself out trying to attain it, achieve it, surmount it. You can get bruised and battered in the process, especially if you’re on your own.

So thank goodness for Jesus, who comes not a moment too soon. One of the things we Christians have been taught forever and ever—or at least since the Protestant Reformation—is that Jesus came to bring us Grace because, as it turns out, none of us can scale the Wall by ourselves. None of us are good at keeping the Law. In fact, we’re horrible at it, and it has been that way since the beginning. Just recall that tricky business with Adam, Eve, and the one tree in the middle of the garden. They had one job—one law to keep!—and they couldn’t do it. Neither can we.

We believe Jesus has come to free us from all of that, right? After all, as Paul says in Romans, “Sin no longer has dominion over you, because [in Christ Jesus] you are not under the law, you are under grace.”[3] Thus, when we see Jesus coming, we might think that he has come to make things easier . . . that he has come to abolish the Law, to tear the Wall down completely, to say, “It’s free and clear! Y’all come on in, the water’s fine!”

But the crazy thing is, from his very own mouth, we hear that the exact opposite is true.

See, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but for the past few weeks we’ve been listening bit-by-bit to the greatest sermon ever told: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It started three weeks ago with the beatitudes: “Blessed are they who do this, for they will receive that.”[4] Then last week Jesus continued by saying, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world,”[5] which made us feel great. But we also heard him say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[6] And then he went on to say, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”[7]

It turns out, this stuff actually matters to Jesus.

In today’s installment of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ups the ante even more. He says, “Yeah, yeah . . . you know you’re not supposed to murder, but do you also know that any time you even get angry at a person—any time you insult or defame your brother or sister—you’re liable to the fires of hell?”[8] (Y’all, I hate to tell you this, but that doesn’t bode well for any of us who have ever used Facebook or Twitter!)

He then goes on to say, “Yeah, yeah . . . you know you’re not supposed to commit adultery. You know you’re not supposed to get divorced on a whim. You know you’re not supposed to swear by God’s name. But don’t you know that even just the thought of these things is sin enough to rip your eyes from your skull?”[9]

The hard, grizzly truth is that Jesus has not come to take any of this stuff away. Jesus has not come to tear the Wall down. No, Jesus has come to show us how high and hard it truly is. “You thought it was here,” he says. “It’s actually here.”

So what does that mean for us? Do we just give up? Do we just walk away from the Wall and head back to camp, hoping that it’s bonfire-and-smores night?

Heck no.

Here’s what it means.

First, it means that you and I—we Christians—are held to a higher standard. It means that if we are going to follow Jesus, we need to know that the stakes are high, and we are to strive to be above reproach. Our standards matter. Our ethics matter. How we believe and behave matters. The world is cruel. It has no ethics. It objectifies everything, including even the people. It relativizes everything, including even the truth. We cannot be this way. We live by a higher ethic, a higher standard, a higher call. That’s just part of the deal.

But here’s the other part of the deal. Yes, the Wall is high. It’s higher than we ever imagined. But do you remember how I told you we used to do it? How we’d save the tallest, most athletic one ‘til last because he alone could run, jump, and grab his way over without help from below? Well, when it comes to Jesus, yes, he is our athlete—he is the only one who can get over on his own—but Jesus is not going last. No, Jesus has already gone first. Jesus has run, and jumped, and clawed, and slung, and muscled, and sweated, and bled his way over the full height of the Law . . . and now he leans over it with his arms outstretched, calling to us, ready to pull us up and over.

The Law is tough, but Jesus is tougher. The Law is good, but Jesus is better.

Rather than tearing the whole thing down, our Jesus has made a way over. That, my friends, is called Grace, and it’s the best news you’re going to hear all week.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Psalm 119:1

[2] Deuteronomy 30:15-16

[3] Romans 6:14

[4] Matthew 5:3-12

[5] Matthew 5:13,14

[6] Matthew 5:17

[7] Matthew 5:19

[8] Matthew 5:22, paraphrase

[9] Matthew 5:27-37, paraphrase