Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2020
Psalm 119:129-136 Commentary
Perhaps this would feel striking at any moment. But during this COVID-19 time and all that we have experienced in recent months, parts of this snippet of the longest psalm feel particularly odd. We have been living in largely unprecedented circumstances for most of 2020 and certainly since early March. Governors and mayors in particular have had to tap emergency powers and issue more executive orders than most of them ever imagined doing when they got elected to their respective offices. Some Governors have issued more Executive Orders in 4 months than they ever imagined doing across the span of their entire political careers!
The mandated shuttering of businesses. Mandates to wear masks in indoor spaces. Closing schools and issuing Stay-at-Home orders. Re-opening things like bars only in some places to have to close them again after new outbreaks of the coronavirus cropped up. Just generally 2020 so far and in most places has seen a major uptick in orders, laws, mandates, rules, and regulations as officials and ordinary citizens alike try to navigate this highly strange and frightening time.
What one has generally NOT seen, however, are people with their mouths open like hungry baby birds, practically panting after the reception of new laws. Indeed, there has been huge agitation in many places—sometimes in the form of heavily armed protestors at state capitol buildings—to resist mandates and new laws, to spit out of their mouths executive orders about masks and the closing of bowling alleys and such. A vast hungering for laws is not something we are seeing very often these days.
Psalm 119 is, of course, one giant ode to the splendor of God’s Law. Just about every Hebrew synonym for “law” in the dictionary crops up repeatedly across this psalm’s 176 verses. The psalmist almost trips all over himself to wax poetic on the beauty, splendor, wisdom, necessity, and what-all-not of God’s Law. And as in verse 136 at the end of this Lectionary selection, whenever the psalmist considers the disrespecting or disobeying (or ignoring) of God’s Laws, it becomes an occasion for genuine sorrow.
Even absent this strange time of pandemic when so many people in so many places have chaffed under laws, rules, statutes, and regulations they don’t like, you don’t generally find quite this much enthusiasm for any form of laws and rules. At best we take them a bit for granted. At worst we regard them as necessary evils (that we would happily disobey if we could even as with things like Speed Limits we push the legal envelope and cheat a bit as it is).
And if and when we see people flouting the law—and for believers when we see people in the world flouting God’s Laws specifically—we might get angry about such a thing, we might get upset or ticked, we might express surprise or outrage. But weeping??? Not so much. Not very often anyway.
This gap between how the author of Psalm 119 felt and the way we often feel either reveals that this poet was a bit of an odd duck who geeked on the Law to an inordinate degree or that quite possibly there is sometimes something rather wrong with our own perspective on these matters. But since most of us would embrace the idea that this psalmist was writing ultimately under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it probably is our perspective that needs some work.
Oh, not in regards to temporary laws like the ones of late mandating the wearing of masks in public places and certainly not about mundane things like Speed Limits or No Trespassing signs or this or that environmental law seeking to curb car emissions. We need to focus here on the big things of God’s Law, on the big and permanent and organically true Laws that reflect the way God set up this cosmos in the first place. This is where we as followers of God through Jesus Christ could properly crank up some Psalm 119-esque enthusiasm.
Because as Psalm 119 knows, the Law is a gift. It reveals to people with eyes to see and ears to hear the blueprint of creation. And as any architect and builder and carpenter knows, blueprints are awfully important. When you remodel your kitchen and want someone to knock out a wall so you can fit in a double-wide refrigerator, the blueprint is what will tell you whether the wall in question is a bearing wall or not. If it is, knocking it out will collapse that entire end of the house onto your head. You’ll have room for that big refrigerator all right . . . right after you spend another $10,000 repairing the damage from the collapse. Blueprints keep you from drilling holes into electrical wires behind the wall and other such mayhem that can hurt you.
The Law, Psalm 119 knows, is a guidebook for delight and flourishing. It was written by the Creator who fashioned this whole world in the first place so he knows where all the bearing walls and electrical wires are and can guide you therefore into safe and happy living. Only a cruel and unkind god would set creatures loose into a world without giving them any hint as to where the dangers and pitfalls were. But a loving God like Yahweh of Israel didn’t want that and so gifted God’s people with the Law. It’s a good thing. We should pant and pine for it. We should want it to guide our steps so we avoid any landmines out there.
And when we see it violated and flouted, we should feel sadness most of all. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we see that a trusted uncle flouted God’s Law and so molested a young niece, raping her, abusing her, scarring her for life. And we weep over such betrayal, over such a violation, over such a corrupting of an innocent life. But if we had eyes to see, we might recognize that dramatic though child sexual abuse is and as offensive as it is to almost anyone (religious or not), the truth is that things nearly as egregious and injurious to the creation and to the people and creatures in this world happen all the time when people ignore the boundary lines God put into place. Most every case that makes it to a court somewhere probably can be traced back to some ignoring of God’s Law or another. The failure to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is behind most crimes big and small and since this is the encapsulation of the whole Law according to Jesus, most bad things that happen stem from a failure to love. And a failure to love is a flouting of God’s Law.
In the abstract we might say we dislike regulations and laws. They clip our wings, stifle our freedom, keep us from doing what we want to do. But in the longest possible run, we should pant after a full understanding of God’s Law—and pine also for the strength to then follow that Law—with all the intensity Psalm 119 can muster. It really is the path to flourishing and delight.
In the 1980s film Witness, a young Amish boy witnesses a brutal murder in a train station bathroom while traveling by train with his mother to visit his Aunt and Uncle after the recent death of the little boy’s father. The boy gets interviewed by the police who then force the boy and his Amish mother to come with them in a detective’s car to see if the boy can identify a possible suspect. The Amish mother protests at one point since this violates their Amish ways. “We want nothing to do with your laws” she says. This causes the two police detectives in the car to chuckle as one of them replies to her, “We meet people who think that way all the time.”
That is surely true of the average police officer. But in essence, how often doesn’t God hear the same thing from the creatures he made in his image: We want nothing to do with your Laws, O God. How this grieves God. How it ought to grieve us as it did the poet of Psalm 119.
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