Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sermon: Beautiful Laws

Psalm 19

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 enjoys nature.

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 na├»ve people wise.”

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.[1]

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 blueprints.”[2]

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 in.

[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.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2018

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