“And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” (1 John 3:23)
“Not another commandment! Haven’t we got enough already? It seems like every time we turn around the Bible is giving us another commandment, another requirement, another regulation, another ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not.’ But I guess the commandments tell us how to live right. So we’ve got to obey them if we want to be happy and live securely and enjoy a prosperous life. Because if we aren’t obedient, watch out, God will get us!”
Those are the words of wolves. The words of wolves are the words of a world that sees commandments and obedience as heavy-handed, old-fashioned, and outmoded. The words of wolves at first strike fear within us, but then as we listen there is a tempting and hypnotizing sort of lilt to their words like the way Lena Horne sings ‘Stormy Weather.’ Within that tempting lilt we are invited to leave the shelter of the flock of “organized religion” and head out on our own, join the rest of the modern world in its self-absorbed quest for happiness and self-gratification. We’re invited to leave behind the censure-ridden commandments of the Bible and make up our own rules as we go along. We are told that we’re plenty smart enough to figure out life for ourselves, to figure out right from wrong and what’s best for us. We are told that we don’t need accountability, we don’t need commandments, because we can’t be truly free, we can’t be truly in charge, if we have to be obedient to someone else, even to God. The words of wolves school us in the ways of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and tell us we ourselves are the only “god” we need.
Now believe it or not I think these words of wolves carry a degree of truth. But before you stone me as a heretic, let me tell you what I mean.
I really don’t like sermons filled with a lot of “you ought” and “you must” and “you should” and I try not preach ‘em because if that’s all obedience boils down to then I’m with the wolves, I’m sick and tired of all of that too. And you probably are as well. I have found that I don’t necessarily need more advice, what I need is strength. I don’t necessarily need to be told what’s the right thing to do, as much as I need the strength to do what I already know is right. I don’t need new information as much as I need the courage, freedom, and strength to act on what I already have been given in the Scriptures.
The problem I think most of us run in to is that commandments usually set off our rebellion button, everything from the 10 commandments to Christ’s commandment that we love one another as we have been loved, and all others in-between. That is to say, we don’t like being told what to do and what not to do, even by God. We look at the commandments and know that obedience is required, we even know that the commandments are right, but we lack the strength to move beyond our own prideful self-interest and obey. Why? Because we often think “obedience” is antiquated. Modern people aren’t obedient, dogs are obedient. Obedience has come to mean mindless following, or meek submissiveness acted out because of fear. “How can someone be free-thinking and free-choosing and obedient at the same time?” we ask.
What we may not realize is that the commandments in Scripture are not simply requirements and regulations, but tools for dreaming and hoping and envisioning. The world may think the Scriptures tell us only what is commanded (“Ho hum. Here we go again”). But what the Scriptures actually ask us to do is to envision what is possible.
For example, the gist of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) is not simply a call to obey, but a call to imagine a world where:
1) There are no other gods but God alone.
2) A world where no one serves, worships and bows down before idols like money, power, prestige.
3) A world where no one uses God’s name flippantly or in vain.
4) A world where everyone rests on the Sabbath and keeps it holy by worshiping together.
5) A world where everyone respects their mother and father and mothers and fathers deserve such respect.
6) A world where there is no murder;
7) No adultery;
8) No stealing;
9) No lying;
10) No craving and lusting after what belongs to others.
Do you see what happens? The commandments take on a whole new color. No longer are they simply rules to follow, they are now ways of imagining a brighter and holier future, even a brighter and holier present.
So, the command of Jesus to believe in his name and to love one another gives us cause to imagine a world where everyone has such faith in Jesus Christ and such love for neighbor that someone, maybe even a complete stranger, would lay down her life…for me? Can you imagine such love? Can you envision such a world?
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What the commandments of Scripture present us with is an alternative vision. The gift of the imagination is a gift of creation. We can in our minds and hearts create, if only for an instant, a world where there is no hunger, for example. A writer and theologian by the name of Paul Ricoeur says it quite simply when he writes, “obedience follows imagination.”
The commandments give us the impetus to imagine a new world, a transformed world. If we cannot imagine it, it cannot be. If we cannot imagine it, we will not work for it.
It starts with us. It starts small and then it grows. Can you imagine?
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine —-
Can you imagine — schools without violence, prisons without prisoners?
Can you imagine a world without cancer, without AIDS, without Alzhiemers, without Multiple Sclerosis, without famine, without war, without weapons of mass destruction?
Can you imagine a world where love has triumphed over hate and every knee bows at the name of Jesus, a world where we all love one another even as we are loved?
Can you imagine a world where everyone hears and responds to the voice of the Good Shepherd and even the wolves of the world are brought into the flock?
Can you imagine John Knox Presbyterian Church filled to the rafters with joyous, imaginative, obedient worshipers every Sunday morning?
Can you imagine:
A world where the wolf and the lamb live together in peace?
A world where:
The cow and the bear graze together,
And their young lie down together;
And the lion eats straw like the ox?
A world where:
The nursing child playing over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall putting its hand on the adder’s den?
Can you imagine a world where no one will hurt or destroy;
and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea? (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Can you imagine the Kingdom of God on earth?
Copyright 2003, Jeffrey London. Used by permission.