A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 16, 2016
I probably should have entitled this sermon something like, “Itching Ears and Open Hearts,” because I think each of the lectionary texts this week shows deeper interest in the condition of the human heart than the state of our ears. I rarely try to weave all the texts for a given week into one sermon, but these four texts seem to invite it.
To begin with, Psalm 119, which is a kind of love song or hymn to God’s law is much less concerned with the letter of that law than its spirit. The section chosen for today begins, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” Now I don’t know about you but I don’t generally think of the law as something to love. It will take some time and effort to understand the 17 ballot measures that may or may not become law on November 8, but I don’t plan to spend all of the next 24 days meditating on them, though I may have more to say about them between now and November 8. I’ve already grown so tired and disgusted with the overgrown and misleading advertising for the various measures that I’ve taken to muting all political ads as soon as they appear on my television screen.
Clearly the psalmist is caught up in something deeper and broader than legality and the rhetoric of politicians and lawmakers. What are God’s commandments, decrees, precepts, ordinances, which the psalmist lifts up in song, which are worthy of love and daily meditation? As much as it is a hymn to God’s law, Psalm 119 is also a song of praise and thanksgiving for the wisdom and understanding that come through God’s law. If you stop to consider it, message or word might make the psalmist’s point more clearly than law – “Oh, how I love your word! I meditate on your message all day long.”
In today’s Call to Worship, based on Psalm 119, Ken Sehested writes, “Happy are those who walk in the Way of Beauty, harnessed in the Bridle of Mercy and according to the Weal of Justice…From Creation’s Promise to Redemption’s Assurance, may Your Faithful Word leap from our lips and exclaim with our limbs…To the Reign of Grace, alone, we salute. All others we set aside. In this Law I delight! May it rule soul and soil and society alike.” There is something here to be learned and practiced beyond the bounds of legalism. There is something beautiful, merciful, just, assuring, redeeming, infinitely gracious about God’s law or word.
I listened to part of an NPR broadcast this week on discipline in the public schools. I was very interested to hear about practices of restorative justice in the public schools. Instead of retributive justice, suspending and expelling kids when they get into trouble, teachers and administrators are being trained and encouraged to make challenging but fruitful efforts to work through the problems on the spot and on campus. According to this report the results are very positive, with fewer young people dropping out or getting into further trouble, along with a marked increase in self-respect, respect for others, and respect for education and its institutions. Something truly just, gracious, and merciful, beyond the letter of the law seems to have a transformative effect that criminalization and punishment rarely do. Beauty, mercy, grace, love, and respect etched on the heart may truly lead to redemption rather destruction and despair,
Jeremiah must have been familiar with Psalm 119. Much of his dire and sorrowful prophecy is about the failure of his people to love God’s law and meditate on God’s word. It’s not at all clear that dedicated love and study would have kept Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian forces from conquering Judah and laying waste to Jerusalem, carrying the political and cultural elite off into exile. I suppose one might argue that if the Judeans had truly lived by God’s law, they might have been spared the devastation of their land and their way of life because the Babylonians would have seen and recognized something different and good in these people. But we know the Judeans hardly lived up to God’s expectations of them and my guess is that empire tends to take what it wants when it wants it, regardless of the goodness or righteousness of any people that stand in its way.
Still, in the midst of all this chaos, Jeremiah, the passionate, weeping prophet, takes the time to speak words of consolation, to bring God’s message of grace and forgiveness to those who would listen, “…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Holy One: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Holy One,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
This is justice born of deep relationship. God plants God’s law within God’s people, writing it on their hearts and it becomes more than a legal prescription. It becomes a way of life. Terence Fretheim writes of this passage, “A relational knowledge of [God] and a unilateral, unconditional divine forgiveness are the heart and soul of this new covenant; they enable an ongoing life in relationship with God and provide its ongoing grounding. Israel’s past becomes truly past, never to hang over the people…” (Terence E. Fretheim, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah, pp. 443-444). This new covenant, this deeper understanding of our relationship with the Holy One is rooted and grounded in the most amazing grace. God loves and cares for us. There is no way we can undo that. But we could enhance that relationship in our love for and focus on God’s law, God’s word to us.
Rather than spend time on the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow itself, let’s consider its frame. Jesus tells the tale as a means of encouraging his disciples to “pray always and not lose heart.” This seems akin to me to meditating on God’s law daily. Prayer is a guaranteed way to bring us closer to the heart of God. At the same time, prayer is both meditation and the action that comes from deep reflection on God’s will and God’s ways.
The judge seems something of a lost cause, certainly in the story. He’s not afraid of God or public opinion. Makes you think of some current candidates for public office. It seems as if he only gives in to the woman’s demand for justice to get her out of his hair. He does not care about her or her cause. He just wants to shut her up and leave him alone. In the parable she wins her case. Justice prevails through her faith in the righteousness of her cause and her dogged persistence.
But Richard Vinson reminds us, “We know in real life the powerful are seldom worn down by the powerless. Occasionally, enough interest is mobilized in a society to change the laws to make widows less vulnerable to predatory adversaries or to unjust judges. But in the short run, this widow is going to need a community who will make sure she is not crushed and forgotten…If the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the aliens are going to have their injustices rectified quickly, then it will be by God acting through us,” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth an Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke, p. 566). We may be faithful in lifting others up in prayer but unless we put some legs to our thoughts and words, they lie immobile and helpless.
Paul writes to his protégé, young Timothy, urging him to “…proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” This passage is where those itching ears make their appearance, those appendages so eager for gossip, to hear the latest news, to obsess over some tragedy or another, to give heed to the latest media-made crisis. “…but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Myths here meaning stories that misinform and mislead, that twist the truth to support an agenda, leading to deception and denial. My ears are just itching for the newest thing. But without discerning minds and open hearts, we are likely to get caught up in something shallow and meaningless and miss the message that God is sending.
There really is something to loving God’s law, to meditating on God’s message day and night, to making God’s word our way of life. It’s more than the practice of legalism; its’ the path to redemption. So we pray, “…may Your Faithful Word leap from our lips and exclaim with our limbs…To the Reign of Grace, alone, we salute. All others we set aside. In this Law we delight! May it rule soul and soil and society alike.” Amen.