Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 18, 2018
Psalm 119:9-16 Commentary
The Revised Common Lectionary has two suggestions from the Psalter for this Fifth Sunday of Lent—Psalm 51:1-12 and Psalm 119:9-16. Psalm 51 is, of course, the quintessential Lenten Psalm, full of guilt and contrition because a terrible sin has been committed by a man who was sinful from birth. Psalm 119 is all about how a young man can stay completely pure by a deep and continual focus on and obedience of the law of God. Which shall we focus on as we journey to the cross?
My automatic, almost default, choice is Psalm 51. It clearly fits the mood and emphasis of Lent better. Besides, it seems more relevant to the life I live and to my Reformed theology which can be a bit heavy on sin and forgiveness and justification. I can identify with the David who wrote Psalm 51. No, I don’t have a Bathsheba, but I know what it is to sin and to crave forgiveness.
But then I read Psalm 119 and I wonder if I have given in too easily to the presence and power of sin. Have I given up on the possibility of living a pure life in which I take delight not only in forgiveness, but also in obedience. A sermon on Psalm 119 would take us in an entirely different direction—not to Good Friday, but to Pentecost.
I mean that a sermon on Psalm 119:9-16 would dwell not on sin and forgiveness, but on the obedience guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit after forgiveness, ala Romans 8:3-4. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
The problem with preaching on the Psalm 119 text is its focus on the beauty and blessing of God’s law. Many of your listeners, indeed, many of you preachers will be negatively disposed toward any mention of law, not only culturally, but also theologically. Our culture is at least ambivalent about laws; we complain about too many rules and regulations and we prize our freedom to do what we want. And theologically, we have been shaped by Paul’s often negative comments about by God’s Law. We’re afraid of a legalism that leads to a works’ righteousness. We want to guard our freedom from the Law as a way of salvation, ala Galatians 5. We are concerned about the repressive force of law in the hands of preachers and politicians who want more law and order.
Psalm 119 reminds us of the other side of the debate over law. On the cultural side, one of the things that makes Western democracies so great is that we are societies of law. And that guarantees our liberties in many ways. As the quasi-hymn, “America the Beautiful,” puts it, we find our “liberty in law.” And theologically, the same Paul, who strongly condemned law-keeping as a way of salvation, completely agreed with Jesus that God’s law is “holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12).”
Psalm 119 is on that positive side of the Bible’s talk about law. Indeed, it is one long, complex, and beautiful paean of praise to God for the Law he gave. God gave that law in order to bring joy to his people by telling them how to live as liberated people. It is interesting that both Psalm 51 and Psalm 119 have that same goal—to bring joy to God’s people. Psalm 51:12 prays, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” while Psalm 119:14 gushes, “I rejoice in following your statutes.” I want to suggest that for this Sunday of Lent, we focus not first of all on recovering the joy of salvation, on the joy of forgiveness, but on living joyful lives by following God’s law, on the joy of obedience. Let’s take people to the cross by a different road.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that a sermon on this reading from Psalm 119 will be almost shockingly counter-cultural in many ways. Look at the opening question. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” Apart from the apparently masculine bias of the question (something not really intended by the text), the emphasis on purity will sound like old-fashioned puritanism to many. We are passionate about many things in our society, but purity is not one of them. Young men (and women), the famed millennials, care about environmental issues, about sexual politics, about materialism, about racism and poverty, about dozens of legitimate social justice issues. Concern about personal purity is not high on anyone’s list.
What does the text mean by purity? Most will think of sex or hygiene, but the scope of purity in Psalm 119 is much wider than drinking clean water and abstaining from extra-marital intercourse. Purity means moral purity in all areas of life, being free from all moral taint. Indeed, the text defines it not in terms of society’s sexual mores or the standards of the Department of Environmental Quality, but in terms of God’s law.
So, the answer to the opening question is precisely this: “By living according to your word.” Talk about being counter-cultural! It is an unquestioned axiom in our culture that we are free to determine our own morality. As Oprah Winfrey famously said at this year’s Golden Globe awards, “The most important thing you can do is speak your truth.” Your truth. We all have our own truth and we must live by that truth and speak it into society. Oprah was, of course, speaking of the sexual abuse of women and the importance of not keeping silent about that. Tell your own story, so that it will stop. That is a very important thing to do, but I wonder if her wording was the tip of the post-modern iceberg of total relativism regarding the true and the good.
Psalm 119 says there is just one way to live a life that is morally pure, and that is to live according to God’s truth. Or as the text says, God’s “word.” The Hebrew there is one of 8 words used interchangeably in this long poem. They all refer to God’s revelation of his will, spoken to his people and recorded in a set of books and taught to his people as the very word of God. It is counter-cultural to claim that there is an objective source of truth, a truth outside of your own beliefs and decisions, a truth that is absolute and must be obeyed by everyone. But that is exactly what Psalm 119 joyfully proclaims.
Verse 10 seems to resonate better with our society when it says, “I seek you with all my heart.” We are a culture of seekers; we’re all on a journey to find something else, something more, something better. My favorite example of this seeking mentality was the wildly popular book by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicled her journey around the world to find happiness and fulfillment (note, not purity). “It’s all about the journey.”
Psalm 119 is remarkable for the way it ties seeking to keeping God’s law. Note the prayer right after his words about seeking. “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.” As I seek the beautiful, the true, and the good, do not let me stray from you. The secret of not getting lost in our spiritual seeking is to stick with God’s revelation of his will in the Scripture. Here is a much needed word for our restless age.
In what follows the Psalmist gives us several strategies for sticking with his revelation. Psalm 119 doesn’t call them strategies, but that is, in effect, what they are. Verse 11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart….” Rather than just reading it, I’ve taken it into myself, into my deepest self. Can the writer be talking about memorizing Scripture, so that it is a permanent part of my heart’s furniture, a fixed way of thinking about life?
Verse 12 adds another, often overlooked strategy for pure living. Ask God to teach you his decrees. When I think about my own prayer life, I must confess that I am much occupied with interceding for loved ones and sometimes even the wider human family. I might spend some time in thanksgiving and even praise. My guilt leads me to the Psalm 51 kind of prayer. But I’m not aware that I pray for God to teach me his will, except when I’m confused about some major life decision. Then I might pray for guidance. But do I/we regularly ask God to teach us his will revealed in Scripture? Perhaps I’m only revealing something about the quality of my own prayer life, but I’m guessing that many of your listeners need to employ this strategy.
Verse 13 suggests another discipline that will help us stay pure. “With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.” The emphasis on lips and mouth is instructive. In order to live by God’s laws, we must remind ourselves that they come from God’s own mouth. If we think of Scripture as being man’s words about God, rather than God’s words to the human race, then we will easily neglect or ignore or disobey them. So, reminding ourselves that these laws come from the very mouth of God and recounting them with our own mouth will help us live by them. Whether we recount those laws in private meditation or in liturgical celebration or in a classroom setting, the mere act of saying them out loud will reinforce our obedience.
And then, finally, and perhaps most importantly, verse 15 says, “I will meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” If we listen to and read and study and memorize Scripture, but don’t really meditate on it, it can slip away and we can wander away. It is crucial that we ponder it, roll it around in our minds, look at it from different angles, and apply it in practical ways. As Joshua 1:8 put it, referring to the habit of murmuring the words as we meditate on them: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
I know that the above seems a bit methodical, so I’m glad that the Psalmist emphasizes how joyful obedience to God’s law can be. “I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices in great riches.” “I delight in your decrees.” “Praise be to you, O Lord.” Rather than being a hard duty, an act of drudgery, or a desperate attempt to keep God happy, obedience to God’s written Word is supposed to be an act of pure joy.
So here’s a Lenten sermon that cuts across the grain. Let’s call people to the kind of steadfast obedience to the Word of God that Jesus demonstrated on his Lenten journey. “My food,” said Jesus to his disciples, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (John 4:34).” So, writes Dr. Luke (9:51), “He set his face like flint to go up to Jerusalem” and the cross. It cost him dearly, and he “learned obedience from what he suffered…,” even though it wrung from him “loud cries and tears….” (Hebrews 5:7 and 8). But he kept going “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Similarly, we are called to a long obedience in the same direction. Fittingly, our text for today ends with a Christ-like resoluteness. “I will not neglect your word.”
Here’s what we should say to our people as we preach on Psalm 119:9-16. Don’t let a fear of legalism or works righteousness keep you from a serious, Spirit filled attempt to live pure lives, in which we find great joy in living by the laws of God. As William Law wrote almost 300 years ago, this Psalm issues A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
You can’t end such a sermon without a call to Christ, but let the Psalm shape that call. This serious and joyful call to obedience will eventually lead us to the cross, because we will fail in our obedience. Psalm 119 reminds us that when we are forgiven because of Christ’s work, we should not take advantage of that grace and simply settle into our sinful lives. Think of how Titus describes the ultimate purpose of God’s grace in Christ. The grace of God that brings salvation “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age… our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what it good.” (Titus 2:11-14)
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page ]
The emphasis on rejoicing as we follow God’s statutes in the same way as people rejoice in great riches reminded me of the national fever over the lottery. Recently both major nation-wide lottery games had reached half a billion dollars, and people were giddy at the prospect of becoming suddenly rich beyond imagination. Eventually someone won those lotteries and I’m sure that brought them incredible joy. The Psalmist says that his joy in being obedient is like that. What a challenge to contemporary Christians.
Most people will not naturally warm to the emphasis of Psalm 119. Many will respond to the idea of obeying God’s law as Walt Whitman did in his famous, “Song of Myself.” He envied, he wrote, the placid animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins/ They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.”
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