A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 13, 2014
“It’s the law!” How many times have we heard or read these explanatory words? “But why do I have to? Because it’s the law, the rules, the way we do things” and, worst of all, “because I said so.” How many of us can actually say we love the law? Find it curious, maybe fascinating, something to explore, tolerate, take for granted, perhaps respect, but not love. We have had some lawyers among our number that might have responded differently, but for the most part, the law is not something we love.
So how is it that the Psalmist has actually penned this ancient love song to the law? In the middle of this longest Psalm, longest chapter in the Bible, the Psalmist exclaims, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (Psalm 119:97). Can I get an “Amen?” Yes, I didn’t think so.
As with last week, I started out with something entirely different in mind for this week’s sermon. But in Bible study on Tuesday it became clear that this set of lectionary texts was focused on the ancient law of God. Not just the Psalm but Isaiah, Matthew and Romans all seemed to have something to say about God’s law.
Many Christians, especially Protestant Christians, have turned their backs on the law. Following Luther, Paul and Jesus before, we have emphasized faith and grace over the law, at least in our theologizing and our teaching. The law has come to represent something deadly. It is faith that brings life through God’s grace.
Think of the Jesus’ ongoing debate with some of the Pharisees. Over and over he challenges their allegiance to the law at the expense of their love and care for God’s people. The Pharisee stands on the temple steps, lifts his arms to heaven and proclaims loudly, “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.” “Look at me! I adhere to the letter of the law. Aren’t I something?” (See Luke 18:9-14). The rich young ruler comes to Jesus in search of eternal life. “Keep the law,” Jesus says. The man puffs up and says, “Why, I’ve done that all my life” (See Matthew 19:16-21).
How many of us would want to change places with either of these characters? Again, I didn’t think so. Oh, it would be nice to be a wealthy, prestigious member of the community, a well-respected representative of the law-abiding citizenry. We wouldn’t mind if people looked up to us with a little envy. And, God knows, we don’t want any trouble.
Now it may be that I am being somewhat disingenuous here, making a sort of straw figure of the law. I’m sure it’s crossed your mind that the sermon is not titled “A Word on the Law.” It is true that Psalm 119 is a great hymn of love for the law, but law here has several synonyms – “decrees,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “statutes” and “words” or “word” are all used among its 176 verses. This is not a hymn to legalism. The Psalmist is making a claim for a living law, a word that dwells deep in the heart and shapes all of life:
Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
Incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.
I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.
As Isaiah proclaims, this is a law or word that comes from God and will not return to God unfulfilled, unlived. “…my word…that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In the end, these are songs about a life-giving relationship.
Following Isaiah and the Psalmist, we need to remember Jesus’ claim that he had come to fulfill the law not to do away with it (See Matthew 5:17). Jesus’ dispute with some of the Pharisees was not over the law itself, but with how they interpreted and kept it. It was the legalism at the expense of human need that offended him. God’s law was meant to be life-giving not a stifling burden. Jesus rejoiced that the rich young ruler had kept the law faithfully and was only sorrowed by his failure to follow God’s way to an inevitable end of compassionate sharing.
You see when the law is embraced as a way of life what is found is the living word. In the series of classes that Corinna Guerrero led for us, she helped us to see the Bible as canon – a list of books considered to be authoritative scripture by a particular religious community; scripture – texts that are sacred or central to our religious belief and expression; and word of God – this law that lives in our hearts and shapes our very being in faithfulness to the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.
Indeed the word of God is partly words – thousands of them, gathered together in this volume we call the Bible. For our Jewish forebears, the first five books are called the books of the law, the crucial record and rule of a people called to live in faithfulness and righteousness, that is, in right relationship, to God who guides them in ways of right living with each other and all creation. It is these words that the Psalmist celebrates and Christ fulfills. These words, this sacred text, this holy record shows us what it means to dwell on earth as beloved children of God.
But we also know what it’s like to struggle with these words when they call us to be other than we want to be in a given moment. We know what it’s like to sit in the sanctuary and think, “Dear Lord, I am so grateful that I am not like her. I’ve got it together and she really is kind of pathetic.” Or we know what it’s like to fall on our knees, crying out because we’ve made such a mess of things. We know what the rich young ruler felt like when he couldn’t let go of the thing that most interfered with his relationship to God – money, stuff, prestige, glamour, sex, substance, learning – you name it.
It’s tough to live by the law, to commit to the rules, to obey the statutes, to follow the word. Truth is, we can’t do it alone. That’s one of our hang-ups, we are too often intent on making it on our own. Oh, we have amazing capacity to be law-abiding citizens, obedient children, word-following disciples, but we get out there on our own and we lose our way. Before we know it, we’ve wandered off, chasing some dream or other that will never give us what God’s word promises to the faithful. Or we’ve become so fearful of life’s wonderful diversity and the challenges that come with that that we’ve hidden ourselves behind walls of legalism and sheltered ourselves in bunkers of life-denying security.
Rather than trusting the word of God, too many of us have armed ourselves with guns and weapons of mass destruction. We have constructed barricades at borders and across neighborhoods to keep “them” out. We have turned our backs on the hungry and the homeless, the poor and disoriented, deeming them unworthy. We have given ourselves over to the siren call of consumerism. We have worshipped our “stuff” and proclaimed that the “one with the most toys wins.”
OK, I apologize for the rant. As you know by now, I am upset and angry, sad and disillusioned by the sometimes hate-filled debate over the refugee children at our borders. It brings up for me the many ways that some Christians in the USA have abandoned the word of God. It may be legal, under US law, to return desperate children from our borders to the poverty, chaos and violence which they fled, but it does not square with God’s law. Over and over the Hebrew Scriptures enjoin the people to care for the widows, orphans and strangers in the land. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed for sins of sexuality. Their great crime was inhospitality to strangers who came to them dependent on that hospitality for their survival. On a smaller, but perhaps more significant scale, when the children came to Jesus and the disciples wanted to send them away, Jesus was very clear, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Surely the richest nation on earth can find a way and a place for these refugee children.
In my venting it is not my intention to chastise you personally. I know there are good hearts here, people who long to live in daily communion with God, who have given much in service to God’s in-breaking reign, who follow faithfully the way as disciples of Jesus, who look to the Spirit to move them in the direction of the holy. But good as we may be, there is always room to grow, to understand better God’s way, to walk more closely with Jesus, to open ourselves to the Spirit’s freshening breeze. We rest here for a while but there is work to be done.
I think that is what the Psalmist is about in this love song to the law. He is saying there is a living word to which we may give ourselves that will empower us, enrich us and lead us in paths of righteousness. When people got hung up on the words and began to battle over legalistic interpretations, God said, “Enough” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
John also writes that “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Some have taken this to mean that Christ supersedes the law but I think that is a misreading. This is the way that Christ fulfills the law, he comes to suffuse it with the grace and truth that God intended when God first gave it. This is what the Psalmist saw when he sang his song of love for God’s law.
God flings the seed of God’s holy word with reckless abandon. God is extravagant in giving, eventually giving God’s very self in the person of Jesus Christ. How is the soil of our souls prepared to receive such a gift? What have we done, what are we doing to get ready? One could do much worse than follow the Psalmist’s counsel, “Happy are those who…delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:1-3).
In that fertile soil, we may yet be part of God’s abundant life on this good earth, sharing generously with sisters and brothers of every sort that with which we have been so richly blessed. Let us learn to embrace the living law, God’s enlivening and empowering word, and commit ourselves to Christ’s witness of grace and truth.