If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 3, verses 10 through 14.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed. 11 Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. 12 But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. 14 The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.
It seems very much like the standard job description of a pastor is to find clever ways to downplay the gravity of our condition, right? Like, each week, we stumble into a difficult passage in the Bible and most of the time, it seems like the general expectation for a pastor is that we’ll find some way to talk in circles until the passage no longer means what it seems like it means. You know what I’m talking about?
There’s a whole cottage industry in Christian radio and Christian movies and Christian talk shows and so on and so forth of turning everything as upbeat as possible and flattening out the actual words and phrases and sentences in the Bible to make sure God never says anything we wouldn’t write ourselves, right?
But passage like today’s make that very difficult. Paul says that we are “cursed” by the Law. That’s intense. When Paul says that we are “cursed” under the Law, he’s quoting Deuteronomy 27, in which Moses has preached a series of sermons where he applies the Ten Commandments to all kinds of every-day situations that the Israelites would’ve faced back in the wilderness period, and after he finishes, all of God’s people covenant themselves to obeying the Law as it applies in every situation in their lives. They covenant themselves with the God who has given us this Law, and they say, in verse 26, “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold this Law by carrying it out.”
That’s kind of like a “social contract” – like the “social contracts” we make when we decide to live somewhere, right? When Paul says that we are “cursed” by God’s Law, what he’s describing is like the social contracts we all learned about in our high school Civics classes. Like, if you’re in this room this morning, you and I have an unspoken social contract with each other that I’m not gonna kill you unless you force me, and you’re not gonna kill me unless I force you. No matter how angry we get with each other, nobody’s gonna draw their guns and start shooting. Unless you break into my apartment in the middle of the night with ill intent, nothing’s gonna happen to you as a result of any argument we might have.
That’s an unspoken social contract. You don’t have to go around seeking confirmation from each new person that you meet that they don’t mean you any harm – like, each time you meet somebody at a party you’re not like, “Quick question: Do you have murderous intent?” We can trust that we are not in danger in most situations with most people because we have that basic social contract and that social contract is enforced by a government made up predominately of elected officials.
There are significant limits to the extent to which the government can prevent you from killing me, breaking the social contract, but what they can do is enforce the consequences that come from breaking it.
Like, 2020’s coming up, that’s election season, and in a group of 30 to 50 people, there’s bound to be significant disagreement over the issues that are up for debate this election cycle, but if, say, Eula Smith gets into an argument with James Powell over immigration policy, and she gets so mad about his policy proposals that she pulls out a glock and puts him six feet under, the government is going to hold her accountable for breaking her end of the social contract. She’s gonna go to prison for a long time.
That’s good. The social contract is good. The social contract is a blessing – but it becomes a curse when you’re on the wrong side of it. If you haven’t been murdered in cold blood over a property dispute, you’re the beneficiary of a social contract, it’s been a blessing to you. But if you’re serving a life sentence for strangling seven prostitutes in New York City in the 1980s, then you’re a victim of the social contract. It’s become a curse to you. The social contract is not your friend, it’s a ghost that haunts you.
It has ceased to be a blessing and become a curse instead, but the problem is you. Right? If you’re punished for crimes against humanity, the problem is not the social contract, it’s you. If you get punished for strangling seven prostitutes, you’re not the helpless victim of an unjust law, you are a plague upon the earth and the social contract remains a blessing to the community by becoming a curse upon you. Right? This might seem like a strange direction to take this passage, but it’s important to keep these things in mind as Paul explains how the good Law that God gave us through Moses because a curse instead of a blessing to us.
Because I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard where somebody got up to the pulpit and spent a half hour saying, “The Law is a curse, but God’s grace is a blessing!” You know what I’m talking about? “The Law is your enemy, but Jesus is your friend!” They’ll say, “The Old Testament is all about how God is angry at you, but the New Testament is all about how Jesus loved you so much that he died on a cross to redeem you!” It’s very rare to hear somebody say that the Law is good, and right, and holy but that’s exactly what the Old and New Testaments say about it.
Part of it probably just comes down to the fact that we live in a very anti-authoritarian age, right? People hate rules. People hate the idea that there is a “correct” way of doing things – that there’s a correct way of treating people, that there’s a correct way to engage in your own existence. Like when is the last time you saw a movie where the hero didn’t learn at the end that the answers they were looking for were in their hearts all along? Family movies are the worst about it – some hero goes on a long quest, and at the end they discover that the whole point of the quest was for the universe to show them that they’ve got to create their own meaning. That they’ve got to decide for themselves what they want their lives to be about.
And that affects the way we think about ourselves. Today we think of ourselves as solitary individuals whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment, and when you see yourself as a solitary individual whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment you will value different things than you would’ve otherwise.
You will value your sense of happiness over the commitments you’ve made to the person you’ve married, right? You will value your sense of satisfaction over the safety of your kids. You know what I’m talking about? But more than anything, seeing yourself as a solitary individual whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment will cause you to react differently to what you read in the Bible. Especially when you get Mount Sinai and God starts handing down his good commands to Moses to report back to the people in the wilderness.
We touched on this nearly every week when we were walking through Ruth, but the Law that God gave through Moses was a blessing to everyone except the folks who were determined to gratify themselves at the expense of others. So in the story of Ruth, we see a foreign widow who has lost everything after going through tragedy after tragedy, who comes to Israel, and finds herself wrapped up in God’s loving care, because the Law that God has given to his people through Moses provided for her in every capacity.
The Law required the folks around her to do whatever was necessary to ensure that she was fed generously, housed comfortably, and then invited into the community. God’s Law made Israel her home. It made God’s people a refuge for pagans from the surrounding nations who’d been battered by the darkness of the world, and that’s something we desperately need to be, because it’s something that we all desperately need, right?
Like, Ephesians chapter two, we were once “dead in our trespasses and sins” to such a radical degree that we only really had one hand on the wheel – we were wrapped up in the sins that plagued us and they were in charge, they were running our lives, and running them into the ground because you can’t keep your sin contained. You can’t make your peace with your pet sins and carry on with your life, because sin eats everything. It conquers everything. It’s not content to co-exist with the rest of your qualities, it’s gotta become the deepest parts of you.
So we were all once radically enslaved to our sin, we were co-opted by the brokenness that we were addicted to, and God became our refuge. Ephesians 2 says that he “made us alive together with Christ.” We were “dead in sin” and God made us “alive” with Christ. And in Ruth’s situation, it was God’s Law that created the pathway for her to find her refuge among God’s people. So God’s Law was the blessing, but when we see ourselves as solitary individuals whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment, we will inevitably see that same Law as a curse.
So let me be as clear as possible: God’s Law is not a curse. It’s the opposite of a curse. In a world smashed to bits by the Fall, where every good thing God’s made has been distorted and we’ve been turned cruel like the idols we gravitate towards, God’s Law is just about the only thing that isn’t a curse. But like we said before, the Law becomes a curse when we become a curse. You know what I’m talking about? The Law becomes a curse on us when we perpetuate the brokenness of the world.
When Paul talks about “this present, evil age” in chapter one, he’s not talking about the year of our Lord 2019, and he wasn’t even talking about the first century AD, he’s talking about this age that we’ve all lived in since we rebelled against God in the garden and were rightfully banished. Like, I probably don’t have to convince you that the world is “broken,” but you might be surprised at just how extremely broken it really is, right?
There’s a, kind of, famous set of lines in Isaiah chapter 11, where God looks forward to a day in which the world is restored to his original created design, and Isaiah records what God says:
will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
The calf, the young lion, and the yearling will be together,
and a child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze,
their young ones will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
9 None will harm or destroy another
on My entire holy mountain,
for the land will be as full
of the knowledge of the Lord
as the sea is filled with water.” (11:6-9)
If you go to a coffee shop around eleven in the morning on a weekday, you’re bound to hear a handful of retirees thumbing through newspapers and complaining about how things have “gone to hell in a handbasket,” right? But what they usually mean is that things have gotten worse since their childhood. They remember their youth through rose-tinted glasses, but they can see “right now” pretty clearly so the 1950s seem like the Garden of Eden in comparison and 2019 seems very much like the gates of hell, but no matter how seemingly stable and benign your childhood days were, your toddler couldn’t, just, like, hang out with a wild snake. Right? Wolves and lambs weren’t going to the supermarket together.
But a day is coming when “no one will harm or destroy one another” because that’s God’s created design. Later, in Isaiah 25, God says that he will “remove our disgrace from us,” he will “wipe away every tear.” Literally, every tear from our faces. He will heal everything that broken about us. He will make us complete again. You will no longer be lacking, you will no longer be miserable, you will be every bit as whole as God created you to be, because he loves you even more deeply than you love yourself. God will restore you.
And yet that’s only actually possible if we submit to him. God created everything to embody that vision that he puts forward in Isaiah 11, but every one of us is born into rebellion against it. The world doesn’t look like Isaiah 11 because we are constantly working against it. We’re all locked in, arm in arm, in rebellion against God’s “peaceable kingdom,” against God’s good design. And so long as we continue in our rebellion, God’s created design for the world will never be a reality.
So if God is going to wipe away the tears of the world, he has to do something more than just say, “There, there,” right? Like, when you are suffering immensely, and you’re just miserable, the last thing you want is for somebody to to say, “Hey! Don’t be sad. God is still on his throne!” Right? We do not need God to stand on the sidelines and say “There, there.” If God is going to wipe away the tears of the world, at a certain point that means he’s got to put an end to the thing causing everyone’s tears in the first place. If God is going to make Isaiah 11 a reality, he’s got to purge the world of the darkness that’s preventing it.
And that’s either very good news for us or it’s very bad news, because we are the source. The tears that God will one day wipe away from everyone have their source in the sin we inflict on each other. We are the reason that the “wolf cannot lie down with the lamb,” we are the reason that the “kid cannot play with the cobra,” and so on and so forth. The world is broken, and it’s broken because we’re broken. And that will never end until we’re not broken anymore or we don’t exist anymore, which means that those are God’s two options. He can heal us or he can annihilate us.
And when you bear this in mind, it becomes much clearer how the Law can be a blessing rather than a curse: Each of us is “cursed by the Law,” but the reason that we’re cursed is that we are a curse. The reason that we’re cursed by the law is that we’ve broken it. When the Law curses us, it’s not unfairly condemning us to some terrible fate, it’s pointing at us and sounding the alarm that if we keep up the way we’re going we will continue to be a plague upon the earth and that a loving God would never allow us to continue in the sins we’ve come to love and walk in.
We are under the curse of the Law because we participate in keeping the world broken. So the Law thrusts a mirror in our face and enables us to see ourselves clearly in a way we couldn’t beforehand. We look at our reflection and see how warped we’ve become. God’s Law is a blacklight, and our hearts are an old couch.
So the law curses you – because it should – and that’s bad news for you, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has taken your curse. Romans chapter 8 verse 1 says that “there no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” because Christ has taken on every last drop of his own just fury towards your crookedness. Think about that: The one who wrote the law that curses you also takes the curse of the law onto himself and nails it to the cross with him. The punishment you rightly deserve as a result of your sin has been poured out on Jesus. The righteous wrath of God has been satisfied in Christ so there is absolutely no wrath directed towards you. God has no wrath toward you. God isn’t angry at you.
So, we hear a lot about the “love” of God, but it’s important to be specific. God loves you and he knows you. You ever feel like nobody would love you if they really knew your thoughts, and your feelings, and your desires? Like your kids won’t love you once they’re old enough to understand you? Like your friends won’t love you once they get to know you better. Like your spouse is bound to leave you once you show them what you’re really like? I get that.
But God loves you and he knows you. God knows you better than you know you. God remembers grave sins that you’ve already forgotten about. Like, God is intimately familiar with the things you carry around that make you deeply ashamed – and should – God is every bit as aware of your warts spots as you are and he is painfully aware of the things that your sinful nature has allowed you to forget and move on from; and yet, knowing all of those things, God wants you. God deeply wants you. God will not turn you over to your own brokenness, God wants to be reconciled to you, and he wants so deeply to be reconciled to you that he came to Earth, took on the fullness of our humanity, and gave himself over to us to be crucified for our sin. Those are the depths of God’s love for you.
God gave himself over to be punished for our sin. Jesus Christ came to Earth to take on the curse that comes with our sin so that we would no longer be cursed but instead be blessed and invited into relationship with him. God took on the breadth and width and depth of our curse so that we could be blessed in him.
And so Jesus calls us to be reconciled to God. He calls us, to quote Hebrews chapter 4, to “come before the throne of grace” with “boldness and access,” not to shrink back and hide from God in shame but to throw ourselves before him on the basis of the mercy we’ve been given in Jesus Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good because we are invited to. We are beckoned to come before the Lord by throwing ourselves on the mercy of Jesus. You are invited into relationship with the God who created you through Jesus Christ. So come. Don’t not come. Take hold of the mercy God has held out to you.
We would like to invite you to enter a relationship with the God who knows you and still wants you. As we respond in worship through song in a moment, I’ll be standing at the altar. You are welcome to come to the front, and we can talk through what it would mean to throw yourself on the mercy of the God who loves you so deeply that came to earth and gave himself over to be crucified instead of you. To bring you into relationship with himself, to adopt you into his family.