Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'I am the LORD your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the LORD your God. So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.'"
You Are a Fish
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The Fish family - the one in which I was a child - was raised to think that we were different. We were not raised to think we were better than others, just that we were distinct individuals, and not part of a herd. You are a Fish! That was my father's admonition. It was his justification for doing things no one else had to do - at least none of our friends, and for not doing the things they were doing. I used to frustrate some people I knew when I would repeat what my father said, "I am a Fish!". I was accused of bragging or saying that I was better than others, or that by being a "Fish" I was protected from the bad things that happened to others. Those ideas were never in my thoughts. The phrase was just the expression of the thought that I was not everyone else.
That principle was part of a story my father wrote once. The story was a humorous, non-fictional account about my older sister. She was always coming home with some plea to be allowed to do what everyone else was doing, or wear what everyone else was wearing, or go where everyone else was going. She would say "But Daddy, just everyone is doing it." And my father would counter with, "Not everyone, . . . you̓re not."
Sometimes the point of his refusal was her safety. Sometimes it was to keep her from giving a bad impression, without realizing she was doing so. But now and then my father would not let us do what it seemed like everyone else was doing just to teach us that we did not need to go along with the crowd. He wanted us to think for ourselves. He taught us that peer pressure is not a good foundation for decision making. Let the crowd follow you, or let the crowd go its own way, but you must choose your own path, he would say. You are responsible to think for yourself - whether you understand your responsibility or not. He would wrap the whole thing up in his pronouncement: you are a Fish!
Our text touches on the issues of following the behavior and attitudes of others, or going your own way, and the issues of personal responsibility and such. In it, God calls on the people of God to be the people of God in their actions and values in the face of the temptation to do otherwise. The admonition of Moses put me in mind of my father's unique admonition. I've borrowed his for our theme, this morning. Our theme is "You are a Fish!"
When we would want to act just like everyone else, my father would tells us that we were not everyone else, we were us -- unique individuals -- "You are a Fish!" That was his emphatic point. "The Johnsons may be doing that. The Petersons may be doing that, The Knudsons may be doing that, but the Fish family is not." We were different from others; not better, not worse, just different. The Fish family simply did not do something or go somewhere just because others were doing it. We were to do what was right, according to our best judgment, or at least what we chose for our own good reasons, because we were the Fishes.
God tells His people, Israel, that they are not to do what others do, but what is right and good in His sight, and His reason is very simple; they are not just any other people, they are His people! Three times in just five verses, God says that the reason they shall not do this or that, but shall do His will, His statutes, and His judgments is because He is the Lord their God. His claim to the right command, and to their need to be different is because He is their God, and they are His people. This is a call to be "holy" -- to be different, to be set aside for God and His purposes.
That is what Peter meant in 1 Peter 2:9 when he called Christians a "peculiar people". Our course that is the King James Version. Our NASB says, "a people for God̓s own possession." We are also called to be unique, to be different from the world, to be holy to God -- just as He is holy: unlike anyone or anything else, in a class of His own, the only true and almighty God, and without sin. We are called to be holy to Him and holy for Him and holy on account of our relationship with Him. This Old Testament text applies directly to us. We are to be holy too. In the light of the New Testament church's use of the symbol of a fish as the symbol for our Lord, we might expand that symbol a little and say that God is saying to us You are a Fish!
The temptation we face is to be just like the world around us, to be profane, which fundamentally means "not religious, not initiated to the mysteries of the religion." The meaning of "profane" runs the gamut from blasphemous to simply not having any reference to God or religion in your life or conduct. That is what "secular" means to many people. But the distinction for Christians properly is not between "sacred" and "secular", as many imagine, but between "holy" and "profane." Secular simply means "belonging to this world and age." Profane means that it - whatever it is - doesn't recognize God as God.
We are called to be holy, set aside for God and His purposes. We are tempted -- that̓s the old-fashioned word for peer pressure in this case -- to be just like our family, or just like our friends, or just like our co-workers, or just like our neighbors, in short, profane. We are expected to act as though God doesn't exist, or that He doesn't matter much to us. That works itself out in our lives like this: We are expected to like to go where our family and friends and acquaintances like to go. We are expected to do the same sorts of things that they do. We are expected to share the majority opinion on politics, religion, morals, and entertainment. The pressure to be just like everyone else is tremendous - and it isn̓t just a teen-age phenomenon, as each one of you knows.
What this text says is that if we are the people of God, we must live His way and not our own. We are to act the part of the people of God if we are, in fact, the people of God. "You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statues. You are to perform My judgments and keep my statues, to live in accord with them." We are not to do like those around us, but as God instructs us. His Word is to shape our lives, not the word of family, friends, or neighbors. You are, in the sense of Jesus Christ as the big Fish, to be a fish, that is, to be like Him.
We are not even to think like the world around us. Our values are to be God's values, not the values of men -- not even when their values seem right to us personally. Our values are to be shaped completely by what God has said. The words in our text about statutes are words about behavior -- but the words about the judgments of the Lord are words about values and attitudes. God expects us to shape our attitudes and values around what He has revealed to us, if we are His people.
There are clear differences in what is considered right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, between our culture and what our Lord has revealed as His "judgments". We disagree with our culture and our world on issues like abortion and homosexuality. God's Word still considers premarital sexual relations to be immoral and sin. God reveals that He considers gossip and grumbling to be major sins, not minor peccadilloes. And we, His faithful people, hold the confession of the truth to be vital to a saving faith, not merely an act of religious stubbornness -- and we underscore that confession by our practice of closed communion while most of the world around us refuses both to understand and to accept either the truth we confess or the Sacrament we celebrate. Let us be clear, these values which we confess as Christians are not merely ours. They are God's. it is for this very reason that these values generally are not popular in our society, and standing firm in them and clearly confessing them is not comfortable at all times for any of us. Nevertheless, they are God's values, clearly taught in His Word, and therefore they are the values of the people of God. And do not be fooled, those who deliberately and rigorously reject these values are not of the number of the people f God, no matter what they say to the contrary.
We also confess these values and conduct ourselves according to His will in the light of our salvation. The forgiveness which God has poured out on us must color our approach to others. We can condemn sin - but we must be careful not to hate the sinner or condemn the person while we speak a clear confession about the values and behaviors which contradict the will and Word of God. The act of condemning any person belongs solely to God, the final judge. Our confession is a confession of the truth, but our hearts must be hearts of compassion and forgiveness, just as His heart is toward us. Our enemies are not the people around us that disagree with us. Our enemies are the "spiritual forces of darkness" that dominate the lives and thoughts of so many in our world today. We want to rescue the people caught in the web of evil just as zealously as we want to confess the truth against error and uphold what is holy against the corruptions of our age.
What our text doesn't say in so many words, but surely intends to imply is that we must live as the Lord's people or we are not His people. The verses following our text say as much explicitly. If we will not live as God's people, and follow God's ways and adopt God's values, then we are - by that act or those decisions - rejecting Him and His relationship to us as our God -- and therefore we are not His people. If we cannot forgive, we are rejecting forgiveness. If we live in fear, we are rejecting the very truth of the providence and protection of our Lord. If we choose to act against the expressed will of God, or refuse to act out what our gospel faith tells us is true, we are rejecting God.
He adopted our troubles, and He took our burdens on Himself in Jesus Christ. He bore our sins and our guilt, and took them to the cross and endured there what we have earned in sin -- extreme suffering and death. He purchased us to be His own, and He has laid claim to us by calling us with the Gospel and forgiving each of us our personal sins, and giving us eternal life. He marked each one of you as His own in Baptism, calling you by name and adopting you as His child and making you a member of His family and a fellow-partaker in His salvation and glory.
God has paid dearly for you and has purchased the right to stand before you and say, I am the Lord your God, and on the basis of that relationship to command you to live according to His statutes and to walk in His judgments. His right to demand it is Jesus Christ - and is written in blood on the cross, and in grace on your forehead in Baptism. He has made us holy, by the forgiveness of sins, and He tells us in our text that we are to live in that truth and reality deliberately. He says it just as my father would remind us, "You are a Fish!"
If we refuse to do the things which we know God commands us to do, and we reject His values and judgments, we are not simply exercising freedom, we are rejecting Him and denying His claim on us and His right to us. It is true that none of us can live perfectly. Not one of us is capable in this sinful world of absolute obedience or perfect forgiveness toward those who sin against us -- but that truth is not a valid reason not to set our minds and hearts on Him and to refuse to seek to do His will.
If we reject His will and refuse His values, we are not His people. That is not to say that if we stumble, or if we err, or if we in weakness do the wrong thing, or in ignorance hold a value that God does not share, that we are not Christians. It means that if we don't care, and we choose to live otherwise, or with better knowledge simply elect to hold a value that is clearly wrong, clearly not His, we are despising Him and denying our relationship to Him and are -- deliberately and by our own choices -- not His people.
When we do that, we are like those who choose to believe something directly contrary to the clear words of Scripture. They admit that the Bible says something, but they deny that it means what the words clearly say, or they admit that the words do mean what we think they mean, but they insist that those words do not hold any application to us today. One example is the so-called Christian who teaches evolution, and calls the Biblical account of creation a myth. Another example might be the woman who admits that the Bible teaches that a woman cannot be a Christian pastor, but pursues the ministry anyhow, saying, "That part doesn't apply any longer."
It was much the same thing for the children of Israel. God had rescued them from slavery, and was bringing them to the promised land. It was on this relationship of grace and blessing that He said I am the Lord Your God. He set before the people life and death and said, You are to perform my judgments and keep my statues, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God. So you shall keep my statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them.
Imagine standing before the Lord one day, and trying to explain your life by saying, "Everyone else was doing that. The whole world held to those values." And God's answer is in our text, I am the Lord your God -- on that day He might appropriately say to some -- or at least I should have been. God is saying pretty much what my father always said in that family admonition - you are a Fish! Bask in His love, rejoice in His forgiveness, be comforted and strengthened in His salvation -- and be His holy people in thought and word and deed, for He is faithfully the Lord your God, and you are a Fish - so to speak.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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