August 10, 2014 Eighth Sunday After Trinity
Proverbs 1:1-9, Psalm 119:33-48, Romans 8:12-17, St. Matthew 7:15-21
Here’s the thing about a revealed religion: It’s no darned fun.
I think crystals, on the other hand, would be a blast. As I understand it, you peer into one – preferably with the boost of chemically enhanced vision – and think about god and god is whoever you think he – or she, or it – is.
This way, everybody gets a god he or she likes, a user-friendly sort of deity. And ain’t life grand?
But here I am stuck with this revealed religion and the main trouble with it is that it is as it is revealed. It tells me that God used certain men to relate to the body of His people who He is and how He would have them live before Him.
I don’t get to worship a god of my own devising; I must take the God of the Bible on His terms. Now, you may say that this matter is small beer to much of that institution called the church in our place and time. And of course you would be quite correct.
But I get stuck very early on in the biblical narrative, at the point of creation. If God is Creator and I am His creature, it seems to me plain on the face of it that He has authority over me.
And if that is true and He chooses to clue me in on His character and on how He wishes me to relate to Him and to my fellow creatures, I must take Him at His word.
If any part of this revelation is proved false, I cannot trust the rest. And if I accept the truth of it I am bound not only to agree with my Creator but also to obey Him. A simple soul am I. And that’s the way I like it.
I may not have as much fun as the crystal-gazers but I do find myself in good company. The Psalmist sees things my way. But he goes even further. In Psalm 119 he assures us that human happiness is located in humble submission to God’s word. Here is a matter that bears investigation.
This poem is the longest in the Psalter and it comprises the longest chapter in the Bible. Fortunately, Dr. Cranmer has assigned us only two stanzas to chew on today.
The psalm’s form is an acrostic. It has 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each stanza contains eight verses. In the first stanza, each verse begins with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet. In the second stanza, each verse begins with beth, the second letter. And so on.
We have before us today the fifth and sixth stanzas. In the first of those, each verse begins with he, the fifth letter, and in the second each begins with waw, the sixth letter.
This form results in a poem more measured in tone than others in which the Psalmist pours out his emotions in a gush.
C. S. Lewis said it “is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart . . . It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for the love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”
It may not be by happenstance that the Psalmist marshals eight words, as in the number of verses in each stanza, for the word of God.
These words are law, word, sayings, commandments, statutes, ordinances, precepts and testimony. God’s word is law; His law is His word. We will not overstep if we say that he who knows not God’s word knows not God.
Our attitude toward God’s word, our diligence in learning it, tells God what our attitude is toward Him.
We must not read the English word “law” as we use it back into the Hebrew concept. It refers not to a burdensome legal code but to both God’s revelation of Himself to His creatures and His vehicle for their shalom – peace, security, prosperity.
Is there fun in this? It beats crystals.
The Psalmist embroiders those eight words into his poem in a way that indicates, to cite Lewis again, that he “felt about the Law somewhat as he felt about his poetry; both involved exact and loving conformity to an intricate pattern . . . The Order of the Divine mind, embodied in the Divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life?”
It’s only a theory, but an entirely plausible one, that Israel used Psalm 119 as the final poem in a Passover liturgy. From that festival, celebrating the nation’s deliverance from death in Egypt by the blood of the lamb applied to doorposts, the psalm points forward to the next one on the calendar, the Feast of Weeks.
This one commemorated Israel’s arrival at Mount Sinai, where she received the law, the framework for the life of God’s people in the Promised Land. In Old Testament times as in our own, the law could save no one but now, the redeemed Psalmist tells us in vv. 47-48:
“And I will delight in Your commandments, which I love. My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on Your statutes.”
The one God has saved must love his Savior, and to love God is to obey Him.
The first word of this psalm is the same as the first word of the Psalter, “blessed”: “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord!” No one doubts whence blessing descends.
The God who bestows it is not a deity fashioned from wood or stone, but a God who speaks. The helping of blessing each of His own receives depends on how he responds to the word.
The first of those eight words to appear is torah, usually translated, as here, “law.” It can refer to God’s proclamation through Moses at Sinai or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or even to the Old Testament in its entirety. In our passage it most likely looks back to the instruction Israel heard at Sinai as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.
Moses said then: “Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2).
So we find that the ones who are blessed are they who “walk in the law of the Lord.” We must drench ourselves in God’s word to appreciate this association for our minds do not naturally link law and blessing. Indeed, as Michael Wilcock wrote, “Our modern world is one which both relishes lawlessness and strangles itself with legislation. How can law make us happy?”
My question exactly. I can conceive of the law as my shield or my avenger . . . but not as my joy. The law is there to control all of you, not me. Yet the Psalmist is telling me the law should blow my skirt up.
There are Pharisees among us, those who use the law to subvert justice . . . to supplant God’s justice and replace it with man’s. Both our nation and our Lord’s church are teeming with examples.
On the secular front we find Congress passing laws and the executive branch choosing which ones it will enforce and which it will ignore. We see judges disenfranchising the citizenry by overturning bans on same-sex marriage that a majority of the people approved.
And we have members of Congress enacting a health-care law for the nation and in a breath-taking act of arrogance exempting themselves, their families and their staffs from it.
The multiple roads to anarchy radiate from our nation’s capital.
As for the church, we recently found Katherine Jefferts Schiori, presiding bishop of The EpIscopal Church, in Philadelphia to celebrate the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven on its 40th anniversary. In 1974, three retired bishops ordained these 11 women as priests in clear contravention of the canons of their church.
It was an apt setting for the presiding bishop to advance her project of rewriting the Holy Scriptures. Giving Jesus Christ a little help, in her sermon she supplied her own endings to His numerous observations beginning with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” In the gospel according to Katherine:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a vestry meeting filled with passionate debate.
“The kingdom of heaven is like collecting the garbage – particularly when people begin to see the treasure it contains.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a little kid who keeps asking for a pony for his birthday. The day comes, he looks out the window and all he can see is a big manure pile. ‘Whoopee! I know there’s a pony in there somewhere!’
“Maybe more than anything else, the kingdom of heaven is about a willingness to leave the final judgment to the angels, and to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to what God is up to all around us – and within us.”
Call it a recipe for ecclesiastical anarchy.
Healing for both church and nation can only come through an embrace of this word of God that shows us both His character and our scaffolding for a fulfilled life. The stanza immediately preceding our passage for this morning reveals the way of God’s precepts and of truth as well as the depth of the author’s distress.
We arrive at the beginning of our passage in stanza 5 having heard little of petition. The Psalmist knows as well as we that prayer is not a matter of presenting God with a shopping list; still, petition is part of prayer and he now brings out his trumpet to shout his requests to the high heavens.
Having laid out his despondent state and the circumstances that created it, the Psalmist turns to his own failings and shortcomings that ooze up from his sinfulness. Each of the eight verses asks the Lord for something.
Note well the tenor of his requests. We will not hear, “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,” he begins, “and I shall keep it to the end.” A sin-soaked man is blinded to spiritual truth. He must have instruction from above to see and believe. I think of some I have known who have inhabited the margins of our culture.
They needed to be taught much that those of us in the mainstream take for granted: Don’t leave your child alone in the car, the motel room, the laundromat. We sinners likewise need constant instruction in the ways of our Lord.
The renowned Anglican theologian J. I. Packer stresses at every opportunity that the church must not take for granted her members’ knowledge of God’s ways but must instead engage in an ongoing, never-ending process of catechesis, or educating. He was one of the collaborators on the Anglican Church in North America’s new catechism.
“Give me understanding and I shall keep your law; indeed I shall observe it with my whole heart.” If only the Psalmist could grasp its meaning he would comply.
“Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it.” A clanking note? Why must he ask his Lord to coerce him to do those things in which he delights? But when we look to ourselves, must we not concede that we often shun the very things that would bring us peace with God?
We find here a segue, for there are things in the law the Psalmist knows too well but fails to observe. “Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to covetousness. Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way.”
The next stanza, the second of the two the lectionary gives us today, is a tightly woven series of causes and consequences, of inward and outward, for this is the waw stanza. This letter is the Hebrew equivalent of our word “and.”
In the original it begins each of the eight verses, sometimes linking to what has preceded, other times to what follows, implying what is to come as the result of what has been done.
“Let your mercies come also to me, O Lord – Your salvation according to Your word.” The result? “So shall I have an answer for him who reproaches me, for I trust in Your word.” Because God’s word of salvation has proved true, the Psalmist has assurance to answer anything an unbeliever can throw at him.
It follows that as he testifies to others God’s word will govern his life; also that he will “walk at liberty”: God’s law does not bind him but frees him. In this liberty he will find the boldness to witness of his Lord even “before kings” and he “will not be ashamed.”
Having witnessed with conviction he will “delight myself in Your commandments, which I love . . . And I will meditate on Your statutes.”
And so we have the complete picture of the man devoted to the word of God. To round it out, each of the eight words that characterize it appear in this stanza.
Now, I am not blind to the fact that the Psalmist’s ideal is as far from the reality around us east is from west. Is there no hope?
Those mainline denominations that have accommodated the gospel to the culture rather than standing on God’s truth continue their precipitous declines in membership. Some may face extinction. Recent research shows that one imposing reason is that those churchgoers who demand dilution of the divine word, once they get their way, leave the church.
I do not raise the subject here to gloat but to point out again a salient fact of which we must never lose sight: God will not be mocked.
For the Christian, there is always hope. The moral landscape of our day looks remarkably like that of the Greco-Roman world of the first and second centuries. Abortion, promiscuity, homosexuality were simply the way of the world.
In Acts 15 we see the Jerusalem Council issuing a directive to the nascent church: “. . . we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (v. 20).
From sexual immorality? They were Christians. Did they not know that much? The faithful Jews who became the first Christians surely did. They stepped out of a culture drenched in God’s word for well over a millennium.
But the early gentile converts knew no such thing. Their milieu had been a never-ending orgy. They needed to be taught not to leave the baby in the motel room. Yet despite persecutions that involved unimaginable suffering and death by the most gruesome means, they came in droves.
Why? Because they saw the truth of the Psalmist’s words. True liberation resides not in hedonism but in the life of order and purpose that is the blessing of those who drink in God’s word. In this place, of all places, is the fountain of happiness.
We stand, I fear, on the threshold of that dark pit of depravity and degradation that was the Roman Empire in the early days of our Lord’s church. Things may well get worse before they get better. Where is our hope?
For the Christian, there is always hope. But the soulmate of hope is patience. Blessed is the one who waits upon the Lord. Just as . . .
“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” Amen.