A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances. I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word. Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord, and teach me your ordinances. I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.
As we read these ancient words from Psalm 119 on Tuesday, I was struck once more by their power and beauty. I admit that I sometimes wrestle with the language of the Psalms. That’s why I most often turn to Nan Merrill’s lovely paraphrase when including a Psalm in our liturgy. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a paean to the Torah, the ancient Jewish law. What hit me Tuesday is that this Psalm is in no way a tribute to the letter of the law but rather to its enlivening spirit. “Your word, O God, is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” This is no dry legal brief; this is a love song to the law, to a living word.
But how can that be? How can someone love the law? I suppose there are attorneys who would make such a claim, but I think in our culture we tend most often to think of the law in terms of reward and punishment, with an undue emphasis on punishment. In this country, our legal system is framed more in terms of retributive than restorative justice. There is much more emphasis on punishment than rehabilitation for those who are judged to have broken the law. In many communities, the word law evokes feelings of fear rather than love.
It is unfortunate when we bring this legalistic, punitive mindset to the word law when we read the ancient texts. We cheer when Jesus acts to challenge the law and cringe when he claims that he has come to fulfill it. In fact, following Paul, many Christians have formed their faith around throwing out the law because they believe Jesus’ rhetoric of love and forgiveness supersedes it. Now don’t misunderstand, I am all for love and forgiveness whenever and wherever they are practiced. I just wonder if reading the word law from a contemporary perspective doesn’t do disservice to its original meaning.
After all, Jesus is said to have made it quite clear that he had come to fulfill the law, not do away with it (Matthew 5:17-20). Because he did challenge more than one legal practice throughout his ministry, I have taken this text to mean that he came to fulfill the spirit of the law rather than uphold the many narrow, legalistic interpretations that had come to oppress rather than liberate the people of his time. For him the law was the road to freedom and fulfillment of God’s promises. He would have had no difficulty singing with psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” In truth, we have come to claim that Christ himself is God’s Living Word. “The Word – the law, the logos of the law, its deepest meaning – became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
O Word of God incarnate,
O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging,
O Light of our dark sky:
we praise you for the radiance
that from the hallowed page,
a lantern to our footsteps,
shines on from age to age.
As David Flowers observes in today’s Words of Preparation, “The highest view of the Scriptures is not the one that seeks to make an idol of the Bible (biblicism), but the one that allows the biblical text to exalt Christ as the living Word over all creation. The Word became flesh, not ink.” So, we are concerned today not with the letter of the law but its spirit.
As we read on in Bible study, it seemed to me that there was a connection between the psalmist’s love song and this familiar parable of Jesus’. Is not this seed, so extravagantly strewn by the sower, the law, the living word of God’s ancient covenant with God’s people? As Jesus interprets the parable for his followers, he begins by saying, “When anyone hears the word of the beloved community…” “Let anyone with ears listen!” Yes, listen with the ears attached to the side of your head but, more importantly, listen with the ears of your heart. It is not enough to hear or even memorize the literal words you hear or read. When the living word, the seeds of the beloved community are being offered, you have to listen with your heart and take them in and let them gestate and grow. Remember, the ancient law is summed up in the commandment to love God with your whole being – body, mind, spirit, heart and soul.
In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes:
Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love (Quoted in Carl Gregg, “Jesus’ Seed Parable and Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation”, June 30, 2011, patheos.com).
Is this not another way to look at the spirit of that ancient law, that living word, the good seed – “…germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women”? God continually strews creation with good seed, germs of spiritual vitality, living words. Do we have ears to hear, eyes to see, hands to hold, hearts to germinate? Remember these favorite lines of mine from Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…
Since we started off talking about the law, let’s stop for a moment to reflect on the evidence. What do you see as good seed, as germs of spiritual vitality, as life-giving words in your own lives and in the world around you? With all the good soil you can muster what is it you desire might take root and grow in you? Remember the seeds are all good, it’s the compost of your own creation that will give them the nourishment to grow and flourish.
Luke Timothy Johnson reflects on the importance of listening carefully to these ancient texts for the living word contained within.
When we look around and within us, we [may] find only the closure of idolatry, sin and despair. Left to ourselves, we cannot break out to freedom. Maybe these texts ask us not to look simply at ourselves and at the so-called evidence (of which we are so fond, so long as we get to select it). Maybe they ask us to listen to a voice that provides an opening to freedom by providing a perspective other than our own, enunciated by the voice of the one who creates this world at every moment and knows where it is going, who calls prophets to speak and knows the purpose of their words, who sows the seed of the word with joyful abandon, secure in the knowledge of the harvest.”
He concludes, “These texts, then, deconstruct me more than I deconstruct them. They shatter the ‘structure’ of my unbelief, my idolatrous hold on my own interpretation of the world, my own despair at the lack of the world’s possibilities. They say to me: this is not a closed system but one open to its creator, whose possibilities are endless” (Luke Timothy Johnson, “Shattering the Closure of Unbelief, Christian Century, July 11-18, 1990, p. 668).
As disciples of God’s Living Word, working to bring God’s beloved community to life in our here and now, listening, learning, loving are all key elements to our living – individually and communally. Perhaps we can yet learn to sing with the psalmist, the Christ, and the whole creation, to sing with gusto and deep commitment, “Your living word is a lamp to my feet, O God, and light to my path.” “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” Amen.