Theologian and author Marcus Borg suggests that on Palm Sunday there were
two parades of very different types. The first parade we know about, it is
Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. And the people were so excited that
they cut branches from the fields, took off their cloaks and coats and spread
all of this stuff on the road. The idea is kind of like rolling out the red
carpet, they were giving Jesus something special to ride into town on. They
were making the road beautiful, welcoming him. And as he rode by they shouted,
“Hosanna (or save us) Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”
They were welcoming him as the one who would save them, who would make
everything good and right, who would be king – like David – and restore their
country and themselves in the eyes of God. Of course, your heard all of that
earlier in the story. So we have heard about that parade already.
But although we know about Jesus’ parade, there was very likely a second
parade on that same day that was better known by the people of Jesus’ time. You
see, the Passover was coming. The largest religious observance during the year.
Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city. And because of this it
was a time of the year when the Romans were afraid.
Remember, Rome ruled over Israel. The people were ruled by outsiders. And
during this festival, when there were lots of people together, it made those
If there was going to be any violence or revolutionary moment, if there was
going to be a riot or any attack on the Roman government buildings, this would
be the time. So right about a week before the Passover, the extra security
details from Rome would arrive. Imperial troops and cavalry to reinforce the
Roman garrison, and to keep the peace. That is usually the way outsiders try to
keep the peace, by using a show of force, military power and police presence.
So this parade would not have been popular with the people of the city. It
was a reminder that they did not rule themselves. It was a reminder that they
were subject to another’s power, and that if they tried to change that there
would be bloodshed. So you can imagine that the welcome the troops received was
not positive. There were probably shouts of, “Go Away!” and insults about the
So Marcus Borg is saying that Jesus chose that day to ride into Jerusalem
to make a statement. His parade, his leadership was very different from the
He did not lead with armies, warhorses, and weapons. Just a few rag-tag
disciples; he isn’t on a warhorse, just a donkey. “According to the prophet
Zechariah, the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of
war from the land and speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Rome on the
other hand was based on violence and the threat of violence.” The so called Pax Romana or Peace of Rome, was a peace
brought by the sword.
So there is quite a contrast between these two parades. Imagine the
atmosphere at each, the emotions on the streets. The Roman one would have been
stern, frightening, and angry. Its tone would be ominous. The marching of feet,
the sounds of the horses, the rattling of weapons. Children were probably kept
off the streets, just so they wouldn’t be harmed. In my mind it is like a
parade of Imperial Stormtroopers walking through the city. But perhaps that is
a bit too silly and cinematic and geeky.
In reality it would be more like living in a place where there was a military
dictatorship, and the soldiers walked down your street to keep you under
control. Where the message was submit or die.
Compare that with Jesus, whose message is peace to the nations. Real peace
brought by a very different method – by changing hearts, by bringing people to
God, by loving neighbors, by restoring relationships. These are the things he
had been teaching. Peace through God’s kingdom. So the people did not cower in
fear from him, or shout insults. Rather they came out in joy and welcomed one who
would save them. This parade’s atmosphere was celebration. There was no fear of
what might happen to their children and so whole families gathered. People were
rolling out the red carpet, they threw their coats on the street, they shouted
religious greetings. Like the Memorial Day parade here in town, where everyone
is smiling.If you had to choose, which parade would you attend? [pause] I’d go
to the happy one, personally.
Now in my imagination, as a worst case scenario, I wonder what if those two
parades collided downtown in Jerusalem?
What if the two routes crossed and suddenly you had the Roman army facing
down Jesus and his disciples? You had the fear of oppression clash with the joy
of freedom. What would happen? Frightening thought isn’t it? It might end in a
massacre, as people shouted for Jesus as the new king, and the power of Rome
moved to crush it. Actually we don’t have to imagine too hard. Because it
actually happened in 70CE, less than 50 years after Jesus. [pause] It started
with riots in 66CE, and erupted into a 4 year war which ended when the Roman
army surrounded the city just a few days before Passover, then marching into
the crowded celebration, and eventually destroying the Jerusalem temple. See it
But it also happens with Jesus, this collision of parades. Not literally.
Not on Palm Sunday. But eventually the things they represent clash. The
military parade and the Messiah of the people are destined to cross paths. And
in the end, the violence of Rome is so threatened by the Messiah who speaks
peace, that Rome cannot bear it and tries using all of the weapons in its
arsenal to silence it. They put him on trial. The soldiers strip him, whip him,
and call him names. They execute him publically, trying to humble him and silence
his message. It looks like a massacre. And yet what happens? Well, if it had
worked we would not remember this parade that welcomed Jesus, the violent one
would have won out.
But it did not, God would not allow Christ’s life to be silenced, the dream
of peace cannot be quieted by the noise of oppression. Eventually, the love,
the power, and the forgiveness of God win.
We know that, that’s why we celebrate today. The end of the story tells us,
love wins, peace wins. The man on the donkey defeats the army on horseback. The
man on the cross defeats those who try to put him to death: the governors, the
executioners, they cannot stop his power to change the world.
Still today there is this conflict between forces of oppression and those
of freedom. There are those who would use fear, violence, and oppression to
gain power. There are countries that abuse their own people. There are places
where police are not protectors but enforcers. There are places where the
military does not represent freedom, but it is meant as a threat.
And in those times and places, Jesus still rides into town on a donkey
suggesting that there is a different way. That there is a way of ruling
humanity that is built on very different principles. Where peace does not come
through death, but through God. Where life is meant for celebrating and
experiencing the joy of knowing that you are loved. His resurrection is a
reminder that this second way, is stronger than the forces of oppression. That
even executions and death cannot stop God from freeing God’s people.
For those who live under the thumb of military and police violence, it is
no wonder that Palm Sunday is such a huge celebration. It is no wonder that
they want to march the streets carrying palm branches to celebrate this Messiah
still today. There is hope, that he will ride into their town, through their
streets. That he will confront the hatred and brutality they face each day, and
overcome it. That is why we still shout the words, Hosanna, save us! Blessed is
he who comes in the name of the Lord. Because we call for his reign in our
midst, and a new day for all of God’s people.
As you know, our theme this year is about giving things up, and my subject
that I was given to talk about is giving up our lives. How many of you have
heard the old story of the boy who misunderstood what would happen when he gave
blood to save his sister’s life? [look around] It isn’t new, so I expect you
will recognize it when I tell you. And yet it is powerful.
The pediatrician told a little boy that he could save his little sister's
life by giving her some blood. His six-year old sister was near death, a victim
of a disease from which the boy had made a miraculous recovery two years
earlier. The little girl's only chance for restoration was a blood transfusion
from someone who had previously conquered the illness. Since the children both
had the same rare blood type, the boy was an ideal donor.
"Johnny, would you like to give your blood for Mary?" the doctor
asked. The boy hesitated. Then he smiled and said, "Sure, I'll give my
blood for my sister." Soon both children were wheeled into an operating
room. Mary was thin and pale. Johnny was robust and full of life. Neither of
As Johnny's blood siphoned into Mary's veins, one could almost see new life
come into her tired little body. The ordeal was nearly over when Johnny's brave
voice broke the silence, "Say, Doc, when do I die?"
It was only then that the doctor realized what the moment of hesitation had
meant earlier. Johnny actually believed in that giving his blood to sister
meant giving up his life. In that brief moment, he had made his great decision.
Obviously, in Johnny's mind his act of love toward his sister had no
personal reward. In fact, he believed that in helping her, he would not even be
around to enjoy whatever relationship he might share with his sister. He was
willing to give up his life for his sister.
It is an old story but it still brings a tear to the eye. He had deep love
for his sister. The story led me to a thought experiment. Thought experiments
are things that physicists, like the amazingly brilliant Stephen Hawking who
died this week, that these physicists use to explore the depths of our
universe. Einstein used them to work out his theory of relativity. The idea is
that you think about a situation, and work out from what you know about the
world what the possible outcomes are.
My thought experiment today started out from that story – who would you die
for? Who do you love so much that you would die so that they could live? Just
shout out some people that come to mind – who would you give up your life for?
[open it up]
Now, although giving up our lives is a big deal, as Christians we have
scriptures like the story of the dry bones, we have stories like Jesus raising
Lazarus from the dead, that tell us that death is not the end. So giving up our
lives isn’t quite a hopeless trade off. The expectation is that God will raise
us from the dead, that we will enter into the heavenly realm, and that we will
dwell in the house of God forever. So giving up our lives is a sacrifice, but
not it is not without its reward. Unlike the little boy, we have an expectation
of life after death.
So I took my thought experiment a little further, and some of you might
find this a bit sacrilegious, but hang with me for a bit. Who would I be
willing to give up eternal life for, so that they could have eternal life? I
don’t mean like selling your soul to the devil, and going to hell – I mean, who
do you love so much, that if you could guarantee them a place in heaven, you
would be willing to give up your place in heaven? Who do you love enough to let
your final breath be the actual end of your life, and let the grave truly be
your final resting place? Is there anyone that you would risk that for?
And that is trickier in some ways, because now there really is no reward
for our act of love. There really is no promise of resurrection. And yet the
gift that we are giving is so much bigger than even the gift of life on earth.
We are giving the gift of heavenly peace and joy for eternity. Would you be
willing just to die and be done with life so that someone else, anyone else
might have life in heaven?
Like I said, it is a thought experiment, because I don’t think that God
works like that. I don’t think we can go and barter with God and say, let my
sister into heaven in my place. Rather, the idea is to get us to really think
about what we are willing to sacrifice for those we love. Would we give
As Jesus sat with his disciples at that last meal with his disciples almost
2000 years ago, as he looked around at their faces, it was much more than a
thought experiment. He had given up his place in heaven to live among us on
earth. He had lived with these men and women, journeyed with them, taught them.
Did he love them enough to risk death, death forever, that they might have
As he walked out into the garden of Gethsemane to pray, as these people
could not stay awake for even one hour. Did he love them enough? Enough to
overcome the betrayal? Enough to overcome the denial? Oh, he knew the plan. The
plan was that God would raise him from the dead. But what if it didn’t work? Yet
even in the midst of the questions and the heartache, his love remained strong,
and he went forward. Walking toward the cross so that others might have eternal
life. That’s love.
Who do you love enough to give up your place in heaven so that they might
have eternal life? I can come up with a list in my mind. People that mean that
much to me. But I am not sure I would include in that list people who have
betrayed me, people who turn their backs on me, or people who I have never met.
I am not sure that I would include on that list murderers, or thieves, or
sinners of the worst sort. And yet Jesus did.
And I am called to love people like he did. So I have to go back to my
heart and try to tell it to grow big enough to understand that others are worth
the risk. You see, the power of resurrection is not in the magic of conquering
the grave. The power of resurrection is in loving others enough to go to the
grave in the first place. That’s what makes resurrection happen. It is love
that overcomes death. It is love that knits together dry bones, it is love that
calls Lazarus from the tomb and bids him rise. Love at that depth has the power
to overcome anything. The betrayals of this world. The fears of this world. The
uninspired, tired and brokenness of this world. Love can overcome all of that.
And in their place, offer heaven.
So who do you love enough to do what Jesus did for them? Do you love the
person in the pew next to you that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you
love the people in your home that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you
love the people you work with that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you
love the person who cut you off in traffic that much? With God’s help, may it
be so! Do you love the broken, the hurting, the wounded, the lost, the hopeless
that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the sinner, the accuser,
the abuser, the betrayer, the oppressor, and the fool that much? Only with God’s
help, but may it be so!
So I talked to you earlier about the new covenant that God promises to the
people of Israel while they are in Exile. Jeremiah shares an interesting image
– rather than engraving the law on stone tablets God will now engrave the law
on our hearts. We won’t have to try to learn it, or teach it, it will just be
there – guiding us.
Jeremiah’s vision is an amazing word of hope in times of evil and
injustice. The days are surely coming, when people will no longer be confused
about good and evil. It is certain, it will happen, people will be guided by
what is right and just. God will make a new covenant with us, and this one will
be written on our hearts.
As I was researching this sermon, I found this reflection from Anne Lamott.
“There’s a lovely Hassidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if
they studied the Torah, it would put scripture on their hearts. One of them
asked, ‘Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?’ The rabbi answered, ‘Only God can
put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and
then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.’”
When I first read that story, it was clear that the rabbi was talking about
this scripture passage from Jeremiah. But I was not sure where to go with it. I
knew that it would take further thought. I mean, what is the difference between
having the covenant on our hearts instead of in our hearts. Why did the student
ask the rabbi that? Why did it matter to him?
It is such a small difference, that difference between on and in. It is one
of the most difficult things to learn when you are learning a different
For example, I was an exchange student in Germany, so I learned rather
quickly that in German you don’t stand in a field. People think that is funny,
because it means you are buried up to your neck in the field. Rather, you stand
on a field, on the top of it.
But we don’t think of it that way. We think of being in the field, like we
are standing within its borders, while if I told you a farmer were standing on
his field, you would understand me, but you think it sounded strange. Why would
I need to tell you he was on top of it? I mean, if he weren’t on top of it, if
he were under it, that would imply something very different in English! Poor
Farmer Fred is six feet under his field.
The difference between in and on in this example is quite slight, and yet
somehow to each of our languages it is important. Likewise for this student of
the rabbi, the difference was probably slight but significant.
So I thought more deeply about it. If I say that you and your family have
been on my heart, what does that mean?
I think it means I am thinking about you. I have been feeling drawn to you,
as if I should reach out to you. It is a yearning, a desire, a need for
But if I say that you and your family are in my heart, it sounds
like the connection is more continual: like I am always carrying you with me,
that our emotional link is always there.
And perhaps that is what the student was getting at: he or she didn’t just
want to yearn for scripture or just have a desire for connection with it; but
the student wanted scripture to be carried around within their heart at all
times, to be always linked.
So I think that explains the student’s question, but then there is the
rabbi’s answer, which explains that while studying the scripture can put it on
our heart, only God can put it in our hearts. And then he talks about how we
read scripture until our hearts break, and then the holy words fall inside. And
again, I was sure that rabbi was thinking about this passage in Jeremiah, so I
looked at it again as well.
And the word that most helped me, was the word that God uses for how these
words will be put upon our hearts. The phrase used is “I will engrave them on
their hearts.” Engrave.
What do you engrave words on? [expect answer of stone] Engraving is
something you do to write on that which is hard, that which is resistant to
When we read scripture, it is engraved upon our hearts. And the process of permanent
change begins, but it is not completed, because our hearts are still hard, they
are still stone. But God can cause a change, and I think the rabbi is referring
to Ezekiel 36:26, where God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new
spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it
with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according
to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws.”
In a sense, I think that is what the rabbi meant by our heart breaking. When
he says our hearts break, I don’t think he meant it like we think of some lover
with broken heart, I think he may have meant when our stony hearts break, when
we allow them to become softened with love, when they become alive and shed the
stony exterior, then the words get inside, and then we can carry them with us
all the time. Then our connection with them is constant and complete.
After struggling for a while with the passage, that made sense, imagine the
stone heart, where God writes a new covenant on the outside, and these words slowly
cause the stone to erode and crumble until our hearts are flesh. But just
reading the scripture, even though it is amazing can’t do that. The change of
heart is so drastic, that to really soften us, to break away the stone, requires
God’s help. Then the new covenant can be lived. I think that is what the rabbi
is trying to tell the students.
The interesting thing is, I don’t think we are born with stone hearts. I
think we build them up over time. People hurt us, friends disappoint us, and
slowly layer after layer our hearts become stone. Kind of like the process of
an oyster creating a pearl. Only our stone heart isn’t very pretty. It starts
with an irritant and we try to protect ourselves. We don’t like to get hurt. So
we try to shelter our emotions, and we prevent ourselves from loving others
like God does.
Glynnis Whitwer writes in a devotion on Proverbs31.org, “My daughter
Cathrine held out her hands, palms up, for her brother to see. "Look, I
have bumps on my hands ... what are they from?"
Robbie ran his fingers over her palms and answered with the authority of an
older brother, "These are calluses, you got them from lifting weights at
school. Look at mine."
He turned his hands over, and she ran her fingers over his palms and
My children's hands are a resume of their work in the gym. Calluses formed
to protect their tender skin from harm as they lift weights.
I sat at the table, watching the interaction, and then looked at my hands.
Smooth palms and short nails revealed my hardest workouts came at the keyboard,
not the gym. But a thought skirted in and around my mind: Where else might
calluses have formed?
Turning back to my computer, my eyes stared out the window and my fingers
stilled on the keys as an image came to mind. My heart ... covered in calluses.
I closed my eyes and sighed. That explained a lot. My heart is harder than
it used to be. And sadly, much harder than I'd like it to be.
It's easy to see how I've gotten here. Each time I've been hurt, my
approach to dealing with pain has been stoic. The warrior-like determination
inside me to protect myself had affected the softness of my heart. With each
offense, each lie, each rejection, I made a silent declaration to not be hurt
like that again.
… My empathy was diminished, which is a very dangerous heart-position for
someone whom God has called to love others.
I'm convinced these calluses aren't supposed to stay there. A callused
heart may protect me from great pain, but it also keeps me from great love. To
love deeply, to love like Jesus, requires risk.
Boy Oh Boy, do I get what Glynnis has written here. My heart has callouses!
Yet, this passage is talking about the cure for those callouses, that opens us
up to loving God and others like we are supposed to. As though one day we are
insensitive and incapable of loving like God does. Our hearts are
self-centered, they keep everyone except family and a few closer friends at a
distance. We can hear about loving our neighbor, but it just doesn’t soak into
us. The stone prevents us from changing.
But as time passes we learn to see all people like God does, and we realize
that they are connected to us. And the stone is broken away. We allow others
into our lives, we carry them with us. And slowly this circle of people grows,
until we love everyone as our neighbor.
God promises that this will happen to us. It starts with reading scripture,
until the words will be written on our hearts. But then comes the miracle as
God softens our hearts and the words will fall into their depths. On that day
God’s promise will be fulfilled in us, “The days are surely coming when we will
no longer need to teach each other, because they will all know me, from the least
to the greatest, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember
Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
There are several types of sermons that a pastor can preach: encouragement,
education, challenge to action, condemnation of sin, and so on. But all of my
sermons do have one thing in common, they start from a scripture passage or
two, and I let them set the tone. So in other words, sometimes the bible
passage seems encouraging and lends itself to a sermon that is encouraging. Sometimes
the scripture passage challenges us and it leads to a sermon that is
challenging. When I read the first of today’s scripture passages though, I was
not initially encouraged or challenged. In fact, if anything, I was left with
lots of questions. This may not be a passage you are familiar with. The setting
is that the Israelites have followed Moses out of Egypt. They have crossed the
Red Sea, they have been fed with Manna, they have made a golden calf and had
God get angry with them about it, they have been given the 10 commandments, and
through it all they have bellyached and griped, groused and whined.
Today’s passage is no different. Listen to Numbers 21:4-9
They marched from Mount Hor on the
Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road.
The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to
kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this
miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit
the people. Many of the Israelites died.
The people went to Moses and said,
“We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that
he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a
poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and
live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit
someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.
As I said, my first reaction to the passage was not encouragement nor
challenge, but questions. Perhaps as you listened, you may have had some
questions too. If not, I will share mine with you! You see, we have this
passage where the people of God have escaped slavery and are now marching
through the wilderness complaining with great gusto. So God sends poisonous
snakes to bite them.
Now, as a human being I get that. Complaints are annoying. Although I can’t
say that there has ever been a time when I was frustrated enough with someone
that I wished for a poisonous snake to bite them, I might wish for a
non-poisonous snake to bite them. But this is God. God is supposed to be above
that kind of petty emotional response. And yet God sends poisonous snakes.
I was watching a show on Dangerous Animals on TV this week, and it was
talking about the bite of the Fer-de-lance in Central America. Its bite is
seldom fatal anymore because of anti-venom, but people who are bit still
experience severe pain, oozing wounds, swelling, internal bleeding, gangrene,
amputation, and usually post traumatic stress. When fatal it is due to internal
bleeding and kidney failure. This is no fun way to die. So what kind of God
does this? This does not sound much like the loving Father that Christ talks
And then, the very same God who ordered them not to build idols, who in
fact nearly killed all of the Israelites for making a golden calf, now orders
them to make a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who looks at it will
be cured from the poison. So bull idols are wrong, but snake idols are okay? Doesn’t
this all strike you as a bit odd?
So as I read the passage, I had many questions. What do we do with passages
like this? What do they tell us about faith in our time, faith in our life?
Should we be worried that God is going to send a poisonous snake to bite us if
we complain too much? Should we build a golden snake idol in each church for
people to look at and be healed?
Probably not. In the end this passage reminds us that there is a
complicated relationship between sin and suffering, between blame and shame,
and between God’s love and redemption.
We live in a world were love is real and pain is real, where cancer is
real, and healing is real, where war and abuse and brutality are real, and
where compassion and friendship and peace are real. And God is working within
that complicated web to bring about our healing, wholeness and redemption.
So sometimes it is hard to tell whether God is punishing us or the world
around us is just unfair; sometimes it is hard to tell when God is rewarding
us, or we are just lucky. And the biblical writers struggle with that too. They
try to interpret events of their lives from God’s perspective. So when a rash
of snakebites happens, they wonder if their complaining caused it. Just like
you might wonder when you are diagnosed with heart failure if a sin in your
life led to God’s punishment. That is part of being human trying to make
connections between what is happening in our life and our faith. We ask, is it
my fault? And if so, what did I do?
Most of the time though, when bad things happen to us, although we might
have a little responsibility (like we forgot to check for poisonous snakes
before we reached into that woodpile), it is probably not true that God is
punishing us. For example, the flooding recently in Buchanan and Niles. God
wasn’t punishing us. There was no particular sin that the people who had houses
closer to the river had done that others had not. Rather, bad things happen,
that is part of what it means to live in an imperfect world, a world that is
still in need of God’s redemption.
So in general, while the answer to the question of “does God cause us to
get snakebites because we have done something bad” forces us to think seriously
about our responsibility – that isn’t the answer to the problem. The real
answer always comes later, when God reaches out with ultimate healing and
restoration. God does not leave the people in the predicament of suffering but
offers them a way out. You see, while we may question what we have done to find
ourselves suffering, God is busy saying to us, “Stop worrying about that, and
come to me for healing and protection.”
So in this passage, although people are being bit by snakes, God gives them
a way out. God wants them to know that God is the answer to their problems. In
other words, when we worry about what we have done to deserve this, when we
wonder if we are being punished we are caught up asking questions when we
should instead be looking to the answer – God.
Now, I admit, this is a weird passage, but Jesus actually talks about this
passage at one point in his ministry. In fact, he talks about it right before
he utters one of his most famous of teachings. This is fromJohn 3:14-17
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in
the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who
believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his
only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have
eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but
that the world might be saved through him.
What do you think of that? So Jesus says, that he is like the snake idol,
being lifted up before the world so that they can find healing and restoration
when the snakes of the world bite them. If they feel like they are being
punished, or they are suffering, rather than looking at the cause, rather than
trying to figure out what they did or didn’t do to deserve this – they should
look to him and they will find eternal life.
God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, not to punish
the world, not to send them all to hell, but that the world might be saved
through him. He is there to offer a way of healing for our hearts, minds and
The one who suffered is ultimately the answer to our suffering. The one who
died is ultimately the answer to our death. He shows us that innocent people do
suffer, innocent people do die, and yet there is also a way to overcome that.
By looking to God through Jesus Christ, by opening ourselves to the healing of
God, we are saved. Snakes may bite, their poison may actually kill us; but they
cannot destroy our soul. And we know that through our trust in our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ, it is well with our souls. He has made sure of that for
us. We need not worry!
So today’s passage started out as one that was full of questions, and yes,
it is even a little disturbing, because it deals with people striving to make
sense of suffering (when life is a little disturbing).
What we learn through Jesus’ teaching, is that God cares about our
suffering, and in fact, God cares so much that God does something about it. In
Moses’ day, it was a golden snake, but then later, it was the gift of God’s son
who came to show the depths of God’s love, who is willing to reach into our
world and bring us help and hope. In other words, the passage ends up being one
of encouragement! Who would have guessed that from where we started! I surely
didn’t. But God did!
I know that for many of you, when you are outdoors, walking in the woods, or
hunting ducks, or out on a lake, fishing for bluegill, you find yourself close
to God. And most days, I would agree. There is not much better than standing in
an old growth forest, or looking down from a mountain top, or kayaking down a
river with a heron on the shoreline ahead of me for connecting me with God. I
love sitting out at night and looking at the stars and the moon.
And so does the writer of our Psalm – “The heavens declare the glory of
God, the sky is God’s handiwork.” Or the lines about how the Sun is like a
warrior, that thrills at running its course through the sky. Clearly the writer
But the psalm also has this sharp turn in the middle of it. It switches
suddenly from talking about creation and nature, and then speaks about God’s
instructions, laws and regulations. “The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
reviving one’s very being. The Lord’s laws are faithful making naïve people
Some scholars have said this shows that they were originally two different
psalms, and that somewhere along the line they got stuck together.
Actually, that isn’t as crazy as it sounds. We stick songs together all the
time, we call them medleys. Not quite like a vegetable medley like on the
screen, but a song medley. You know how they work, you start out singing Beyonce’s
Hold My Beer, and then in the middle
switch to Brittney Spear’s Oops I Did It
Again. And somehow the two make sense together. So some scholars think that
in the psalms along the way, these two very different songs – one about
creation and one about the law got stuck together.
But other scholars suggest that these two seemingly very different things
aren’t a medley at all, and that they actually started out together for a
reason. This second set of scholars say that the ancient Israelites understood
that what God taught us through nature is very much the same thing that God
teaches us in the law. They come from the same source, and they are both
beautiful and enlightening.
In fact, according to the Jewish Virtual Library
“in rabbinic literature, it was taught that the Torah” (or law) “was one of
the six or seven things created prior to the creation of the world. According
to Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean, for 974 generations before the creation of
the world the Torah lay in God's bosom and joined the ministering angels in
song . . . Rav” (a famous Babylonian rabbi) “said that God created the world by
looking into the Torah as an architect builds a palace by looking into
That is such a totally different view of the connection between the natural
world and God’s law. The beauty of a sunset and the human need for rest are
related to each other. The fact that predators kill prey and the command that
humans shall not murder are intended to stand as contrasts. The strong bond
between a newborn and the mother is supposed to naturally imply the command to
honor our parents. And so when the writer of the psalms moves from talking
about the beauty of nature to the beauty of God’s law – it isn’t like switching
songs – it is just the next verse of a song about how beautiful the works of
God are. As we admire the palace, first we sing about the builder and then we
sing about the architect. As we praise God, first we sing about the world, and
then we sing about the laws that made it what it is.
So for just a moment think about it. How often have you thought of the instructions
of God as beautiful? How often have you sat and read through the book of
Leviticus which is generally agreed upon as one of the most boring things you
could read, with its list of law after law, and thought – that is so beautiful?
How often has it given you goosebumps? Probably never.
But let’s try, Here is Leviticus 6:1-7
The Lord said to Moses, If you sin:
by acting unfaithfully against the Lord; by deceiving a fellow citizen
concerning a deposit or pledged property; by cheating a fellow citizen through
robbery; or, though you’ve found lost property, you lie about it; or by
swearing falsely about anything that someone might do and so sin, at that
point, once you have sinned and become guilty of sin, you must return the
property you took by robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was left with you
for safekeeping, or the lost property that you found, or whatever it was that
you swore falsely about. You must make amends for the principal amount and add
one-fifth to it. You must give it to the owner on the day you become guilty.
You must bring to the priest as your compensation to the Lord a flawless ram
from the flock at the standard value as a compensation offering. The priest
will make reconciliation for you before the Lord, and you will be forgiven for
anything you may have done that made you guilty.
I could see your eyes glazing over. You were not thinking, “This is
beautiful, I am getting goosebumps.” You were thinking, “Lord, please make it
stop!” And yet really it is beautiful.
This is about justice and making wrongs right. Rather than allowing the
ugliness of fraud and cheating, robbery and lost property to go on unchecked,
this law talks about restoration. Not just punishing the person who committed
the evil. It is about making amends, not only with the person that was harmed,
but also with God. And quite honestly that is beautiful.
So if we look over the whole scope of the law. Think about how beautiful
the world would be if we actually heeded the law of God.
Add that to the natural beauty of the outside world. If we imagine a world
that truly loved their neighbors as themselves, if we imagine a world that
loves doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God; if we imagine a
world where swords are beaten into plowshares; if we imagine a world where the
teachings of Christ are lived out in our daily lives; it is beyond beautiful.
Just like a sunset with a thousand colors, or a night sky with a billion stars,
it is beautiful.
Out of curiosity, as you think about it, with this new frame of mind.
Considering the beauty of the law – what is the most beautiful law of God to
you? Would you be willing to share? [open it up for discussion]
The law of God describes an ideal for what should be. It describes a way of
treating others and relating to them. It is the kind of world I want to live
[repeat some of those that were brought up in discussion]
That kind of world is one which brings peace to my heart, mind and soul,
just like standing at the beach watching the waves roll in does. It is pure and
good. This is how it should be!
So maybe you don’t get goosebumps when you read God’s instructions, but
maybe you should. Maybe you don’t sigh and feel the deepest peace when you open
this book of God’s laws, but maybe you should. Because there is beauty here,
more pure than gold, and sweeter than honey.
As we meditate upon these things, our hearts and our lives are shaped into
those which are pleasing to God. God becomes the creator of the heavens, and
the savior of salvation of human hearts. Or in the final words of the Psalmist
God becomes our rock and our redeemer.
So I don’t know if this psalm was originally a medley or not. But clearly
as it stands today, it reminds us that what God does is beautiful, and we
should admire it. All of it.