Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 31, 2021
Psalm 119:1-8 Commentary
In the world of secular music, I would guess you would be hard pressed to find many songs with titles like “I Just Love Rules!” In fact the website Ranker provided their top list of songs with the word “law” in the title but songs of the variety “I’m Lovin’ the Law” don’t seem to exist. Quite the contrary: the top song had these titles:
I Fought the Law
Breaking the Law
The Day I Broke the Law
Well to state the merely obvious, Thy Word Is a Lamp unto My Feet these songs ain’t! Outside of religious circles where you might actually encounter hymns and songs that celebrate God’s Law, you don’t find a lot of people getting excited about rules or commands or statutes. Most of the time people—and yes, also Christian people I am certain—spend more time rolling their eyes over various rules or regulations than celebrating their goodness.
“It’s ridiculous that the Speed Limit here is 25!” “Oh honestly, I’m sure it would not kill the environment if they let me collect just a few shells on this nature preserve beach!” “Is it really necessary that HIPPA won’t even let this doctor acknowledge what’s going on with my favorite Aunt?” “Boy, the government makes it so hard for food producers to get their products into stores—what’s up with all those food safety regulations anyway?!”
I wrote a version of this sermon commentary in February of 2020, one month before the first COVID lockdowns in the pandemic. So let’s not even talk about how things like mask mandates and related temporary laws have gone over the last 19 or so months since we were last in these first 8 verses of Psalm 119. Mention the word “law” or “mandate” to some folks these days, and you are as likely as not going to hear some version of the old slogan “Don’t Tread on Me!”
How foreign is the landscape of Psalm 119. This longest (by far) of all Hebrew poems in the psalter is one giant celebration of God’s laws, statutes, regulations, rules, and commands. The author of this psalm is all-but delirious, all-but swooning over the beauty of both knowing and following God’s Law. The short 8-verse snippet is just the preview of what will follow across the next 168 verses. The entire psalm is also an acrostic, meaning that each of the 22 sections are assigned to a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet and then each stanza in each of those sections begins with that letter (in the picture below you see the first 8 verses, each line beginning with the first Hebrew letter in the alphabet: Aleph). Why write it this way? To make it easier to memorize.
Yes, this giant exultation of the goodness of God’s Law was something people were to memorize, rehearse, recite over and over again. Celebrating the Law was supposed to be that important to Israel.
But what makes the Law so precious to this poet and, ostensibly, to all of Israel? Because the Torah, the Law, was seen as a gift. Believe it or not, God’s rules and regulations were seen as an extension of God’s love for God’s people. You only give life’s rules to those you love. An uncaring God would not bother. Only a God invested in the flourishing of God’s people would want to help them know what activities make for delight and what ones lead to ruin.
Mostly when we are children, we chafe under Mom and Dad’s rules. Children seem to have an almost intuitive resistance to hearing a parent shout “No!” No, you can’t eat that. No, you can’t walk there. No, you can’t stick that in the electric socket. No, you are not going to stay out past 11:30pm. “Why not?!” is as common a reply as any when children talk back to their parents. Wise parents are able to answer that question, and when the rules in question are themselves actually wise and prudent, then there can be a sensible answer to the question of “Why?”
If children are raised in good and loving households where the rules are grounded in safety and wisdom and are not merely arbitrary or a reflection of some mindless following of a tradition whose rationale has long been forgotten, then as children mature they may come to realize, “Hey, all along Mom and Dad just wanted to keep me safe. They wanted me to have true fun (which might have been different from what I only thought might be fun). They gave me rules because they loved me beyond the telling of it. I am thankful for their rules now. In fact, I will be passing them on to my own children out of my love for them!”
God’s Law is like that. It’s the Owner’s Manual for the creation. You can’t live happily or well without consulting the Manual now and again. (And if you’ve ever forgotten how to program your DVR or how to set the clock on your microwave, then you know what a wonderful thing it is to locate that Owner’s Manual so you can get things set right!)
“Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek God with all their hearts.” Indeed they are. Blessed. Because that is just what God wants for us: Blessing. Helpfully enough, God has given us a map to get us there. It’s called the Law.
Many of us have heard this story (probably as a sermon illustration!). But the tale is told that a young girl often observed her mother preparing a beef roast for Sunday dinners. Just before putting the roast into the oven, the mother would cut off the end of the roast and set it aside. So one day the little girl asked “Why do you cut the end off of the meat?” “Because that’s the recipe,” the mother replied. “That’s how my mother did it?” “OK,” the girl said, “but what’s it do? Why do it?”
Well, the Mom was not sure so she called her mother, who likewise had no idea why you prepared a beef roast in just this fashion. “That’s how my mother always did it” she also said. But happily the little girl’s great-grandmother still lived and so they called her only to hear her burst out in laughter. “I always cut the end off beef roasts because the only pan I had for the oven was too small to hold a whole roast!”
Sometimes things we treat as rules have no real basis in anything sensible after all. But many rules do. In fact, Frederick Buechner once noted that in all of life there are two kinds of laws: arbitrary laws like the setting of a Speed Limit or property owners’ decision to post “No Hunting” signs on their land. There may be some rationale behind those kinds of laws but they could also change: a state government could raise or lower the maximum Speed Limit. The next owners of the parcel that had previously been designated “No Hunting” may allow hunting on that land now that it belongs to them.
But then there is something like the Law of Gravity. It’s not arbitrary. It explains how the world works. The Law exists to tell us not how some random person or government decided how things could be but rather these laws exist to reflect how things very simply are. If you don’t like a Speed Limit of 35, you can push it up to 45 and probably get away with it most of the time. However, f you decide you don’t like the Law of Gravity and so defy it by stepping into thin air on the edge of a cliff . . . well, you won’t get away with it.
God’s Law is very much of the second sort, whether we acknowledge it, whether we like it, whether we follow it or not.
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