A few summers ago I was reading about the Garden of Eden with a group of kids at Vacation Bible School. Most of them had never heard this story before but were hooked in by the snake, the nakedness, and the blame game.
When God found Adam and Eve, one boy interrupted and said, “I knew this was going to happen. They weren’t going to get away with it.” Another seemed frustrated, “There was only one rule! Why couldn’t they follow one rule?”
We talked about punishments and natural consequences.
Sometimes breaking the rules means a prescribed reprimand: you get a toy taken away, you are sent to your room, or you have to stay after school.
And sometimes breaking the rules has natural consequences. If you’re too pokey putting your shoes on, you miss the bus. If you eat 5 pieces of birthday cake, your stomach feels really gross.
I told them what happened when God caught Adam and Eve eating the wrong fruit and blaming each other for it. They got in trouble for breaking the rule. They couldn’t stay in the garden where everything was perfect anymore. God was mad. And sin was loose, so everything changed.
“Well, that’s the end of that,” said one little girl.
She thought it was all over. Perhaps because she’d already experienced that kind of love lost – one chance to get it right and, when things unravel or trust gets broken, the storyline fizzles and the relationship disappears.
I held the children’s bible up to show her how many pages were left. That wasn’t the end of that – it was only the beginning. The next 1,187 chapters of scripture are more of the same: God creates and loves and tries not to helicopter parent and makes big promises to us and gets mad when we break the rules we said we’d keep. And then loves us back into a safe place where we belong. Again and again and again.
Another boy perked up. “So God is like my grandma. She’s got lots of rules that I mess up and it breaks her heart but she just can’t quit loving me.”
When he was finished preaching that little sermon, I looked around at each face in the group wondering about their relationships. This kind of love is hard to imagine if your relationships are transactional: what’s fair and earning acceptance. It’s hard to believe if you haven’t felt it in the fierce discipline and warm embrace of even one other person who cannot quit loving you – who chooses you over and over again beyond your ability to stay in line or be and do enough.
The Bible is filled with these stories of irrational love, grace beyond the law, and mercy that walks right by your ideal self to meet you where you actually are.
We just heard a story about this. After the rules are broken, idols are worshipped, blame is shifted, and alternative facts are presented, a measly confession finally emerges from the people. God is wounded and hot with anger and righteous about it all. The relationship is changed by punishment and natural consequences alike:
Smashing the tablets.
Melting the golden calf, making the people drink the ashes.
Suffering from war and a plague before moving on toward Canaan.
God is still too angry to stay with them, so visits the Tent of Meeting outside of camp.
New Tablets, Take Two.
Like the Israelites, our short attention spans, our idolatry, our mistrust of what is sacred, our quick draw excuses – we are dripping in sin and God makes no effort to hide how much anger and grief that riles up in heaven. We never have to guess how God feels about this. These punishments and natural consequences make it perfectly clear that God is not okay with this kind of behavior…and yet God would rather be in relationship with real, mortal, fallible human beings than go off alone and get it right.
And so the grammar changes. Suddenly it is not about what we’ve done and what we haven’t done. It’s not about making us feel crummier because shame won’t help us rise to the occasion. There is no locker room pep talk about our big moment or a new hot tip for successful, obedience.
God knows the law wins. But it cannot save. It can hold space for good order, but it cannot restore relationship. It can tell us who we actually are as creatures falling short, but it cannot free us from the rat race.
And so God stops speaking about us: about who we are and what we manage and how much potential we have and how close we are to pulling it off…
And instead God becomes the subject of the sentence, adding to the divine resume by speaking salvation and reconciliation into their midst:
I am gracious and merciful,
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation,
forgiving injustice and evil,
yet by no means letting the guilty get off easy,
but watching the way their injustice and evil echoes
in the lives of their children and grandchildren.
I am the Lord your God. And I renew this covenant, not as an assignment or a dare.
There will always be more to be, do, and achieve. But there is no carrot or stick here.
This law is not built for mastery and, frankly, neither are you.
They are meant as a gift because you don’t come by good order and common sense on your own. You say you hate rules, but you need them to feel safe, to build healthy relationships, to grow into communities that care.
The law wins. And so we are tempted to think that it can do everything. But it cannot make us more or love us well or save us from despair and death. We are living in a social and political moment that dares us to throw up our hands and say, “Well, that’s the end of that.”
But it is not the end! We are not saved because we are comfortable or because we are right or because we have enough or because we have checked all the boxes. As a wise boy once told me, we are saved because we are created and claimed by a God who’s, “got lots of rules that we mess up and it breaks her heart but she just can’t quit loving us”.
The world needs this news, that God has a habit of being right here with fierce discipline and a warm embrace because we are grammatically and willfully subject to the law. It wins every time and so God moves from that tent outside of town into breath and womb and flesh in Christ so that grace is all up in our business.
That grace is known to me in the shift that happens two minutes into our worship service. For two minutes we are the subject of our sentences. I don’t know about you, but I’m the subject of most of my sentences out in the world. In here, in worship, I get two minutes to confess my true self. I come clean about how the law has won this week and I stand before the Creator remembering that I am a creature, not an achiever. (I’ve done this, I haven’t done that, me…)
And then, in absolution, everything changes. God’s resume moves in. Our Creator and Redeemer becomes the subject of every song and petition and exchange. The holy story envelopes us like a pillar of cloud, changing our grammar and folding us into the truth about what has already been done and who has the power to save. For the rest of the service!
An hour is not enough. And keeping this grace to ourselves in this room – in the Christian church – is a crying shame. The covenant is renewed, today and every day in your baptism! So trade in the weighty tablets of stone you lug around all week for this story of salvation. Bring this holy grammar to neighbors and strangers hungry for something beyond the law’s undefeated record and their own value on the line each day. And when you forget that the law wins but it cannot save, come back to practice hearing and praying and singing the truth about a God who cannot quit loving us. Amen.