Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Sweeter also than honey

Nehemiah 8:1-10
Psalms 19
Luke 4:14-30
Sun, January 28, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
It is all so very proper, so very polite, so very .... well, right. The preacher steps
into the pulpit, adjusts his manuscript, clears his throat and bows his head in
prayer, saying as he always does before the sermon:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
Of course, if the congregation is paying any attention to this subversive prayer, it
will be put on guard that the sermon that is to follow may well be provocative,
disturbing, contrary to reason ... even downright foolish. It is this longing that
the preacher’s words and meditations might be acceptable to Yahweh ... the God
of Abraham and Sarah, of Miriam and Moses, of Isaiah and Jeremiah ... that
subverts the sermon. There is nothing here of preaching that is acceptable to the
Official Board or to the Ministry & Personnel Committee ... nothing asking that
the words spoken will please liberals or conservatives or young or old. The
preacher is not praying for a sea of smiling, appreciative faces and many a warm
handshake after the service. Any preacher worth her salt can generate a happy
and contented flock who hang on her every word. But this is not what one who
prays Psalm 19 longs for. Those who sing and pray Psalm 19 practice asking for
words and thoughts and lives that will be acceptable in the sight of Yahweh, the
LORD of all creation. What goes unspoken, of course, is that a life acceptable to
Yahweh is often a life that disturbs and confounds. Which is precisely the lesson
that Jesus is about to discover as we leave off reading from the 4th chapter of Luke
this morning. He returns from his baptism in the Jordan to preach his first
sermon back home. Jesus reads Isaiah’s vision of a year lived in such a way that it
is acceptable in God’s sight. Then he proclaims that the time for such a Jubilee
year has arrived here and now. Within minutes the homecoming congregation
becomes a mob in a lynching mood. The service in the synagogue ends abruptly
as the people attempt rid themselves of Jesus by throwing him off of a cliff. We
will, I trust, hope for a slightly less dramatic conclusion to this morning’s service.

Jesus is, of course, asking for trouble. He chooses to preach about the year of
Jubilee. If he had been more pastorally sensitive perhaps he would have stuck
with one of the poetic Psalms of praise. It is hard to imagine stirring up trouble
with a song like this:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
& the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

On first glance this seems a wonderfully universal and extraordinarily inclusive
song of praise to the Creator. In good Hebrew fashion each line is a rhyme of
ideas. You can see it on the printed version that is in your hands. Throughout
the Psalm, the idea on the left recurs again in different words on the right:
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard.
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth
and their words to the end of the world.
What an incredible image - the Universe as preacher. One day passing on word
to the next day, one night informing the next of the creative glory of God. Then
the sun emerging each day as joyfully as a bridegroom dashing out from beneath
the wedding canopy at a Jewish wedding shouting ‘mazel tov’ ... its heat the silent
Word of the Creator bringing forth life day after day, season after season. Such
silent speech is what many study with fascination on this very campus. Wander
over to the physics and chemistry and biology labs or to the astrophysics
observatory. See the wonder in the eyes of those who consistently witness the
glory of the silent harmonies of the Universe ... harmonies that sing, for those
who have ears, of the glory of God. Of course, one doesn’t have to have a PhD to
hear these songs. See how many enjoy the sunrise and sunset precisely because at
the moment that bridges night and day it is as if one can hear the sun and moon
speaking to one another, in passing, of the wonder of creation.

Yes, on first glance this appears to be a hymn that could be sung by any
worshipper of the generic God met in nature. There is nothing scandalous here.
Nothing to get the preacher into trouble ... or to cause the people to weep. You
heard the people weeping, didn’t you? It’s there in the text we read today from
Nehemiah. It is on the occasion when all the people gather to hear the first
public reading of the Torah in Jerusalem in nearly a century. Together they listen
to the Torah - the Law - of Yahweh. Then they break down and cry. This brings
Ezra and Nehemiah quickly to the pulpit to remind the people that they
shouldn’t be weeping. No, the reading of the Torah is cause for great celebration
and feasting. So everything comes to a halt while the great congregation prepares
a holiday to celebrate the gift of God’s Commandments. Which leaves one
wondering about our often tepid response to the reading of scripture. We take it
for granted ... or we just don’t comprehend it ... or we are busy wondering who’ll
win the Super Bowl ... and before we know it the reading is over and we have to
be careful to suppress a yawn. Not much weeping here ... nor, for that matter,
many spontaneous shouts for joy. Perhaps we’re missing something. Perhaps if
we attend carefully to the text we might discover reason enough for weeping, for
rejoicing and even for consternation with the preacher.

Sure enough, we do not have to look very far to find trouble enough for both
preacher and people. Here it is, in the heart of the 19th Psalm. See how the
rhythm changes ... and with it the content of this potent poetry? No longer is the
subject matter the generic, silent speech of the universal creative God. Now we
sing of the very public and very real spoken word of the LORD ... of Yahweh ...
the one whose speaks to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, to Elijah, to Isaiah and
Jeremiah ... and to Jesus. Like the day and night we join in singing the glory of
God by celebrating the gift of the law. And what a litany of gratitude it is that we
sing: “The law, the decrees, the precepts, the commandment, the fear, the ordinances
of Yahweh are perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. They revive the soul, make
wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever and are righteous
altogether.” This Torah - this way of life - this Word is worth more than gold and
is sweeter than honey. This is the lesson taught by the ancient rabbis to their
youthful pupils when, before the children can read, they are invited to lick the
Torah scroll ... a scroll on which the Rabbi’s have placed a drop of honey so that
the children will know from earliest memory the sweetness of Yahweh’s Word to
Yahweh’s people. It is this sweet, sweet Torah that Jesus speaks of when he says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets:
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not one letter, not one stroke of a letter,
will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
Yet still some followers of Jesus wonder why they might feel compelled to read
and study and live by the ways of the Old Testament.

But perhaps it is understandable that we no longer think of God’s commands as
more precious than gold or as sweeter than honey. We live in an age which is
determined to teach us that we are free, liberated, no longer oppressed by the
shackles of obedience to ancient commands. So some shy away from the
commandments that decree sexual fidelity as God’s will done on earth as in
heaven ... and others cannot fathom a Lord whose ordinances include the jubilee
of good news for the poor. And in a world which has ‘liberated’us from sabbath
practice in order to provide us with ‘free time’ all of us seem to have given up the
possibility of obeying the fourth commandment - that we keep the sabbath holy
by doing nothing that can be construed as productive but only that which is
restful and recuperative on that day. Of course, the habitual breaking of a
commandment as central as keeping the sabbath holy leads to a people who
choose to forget more and more of the commands and decrees and precepts and
ordinances of Yahweh.

We are not the first to forget. Nehemiah and Ezra read the Torah to a people
with over a century of amnesia. When they hear the law again they break down
and weep. Do they weep because they have strayed so far from the way of the
LORD? Are they shedding tears of joy at learning the Law again, as if for the first
time? Yes ... and yes. When Jesus comes home proclaiming that it is not too late
to repent ... not too late to begin living in the Kingdom of God ... he, too, comes
reminding the people of the precious Torah of Yahweh. Some drop their nets and
turn their lives right around and follow him. Others take offense and plot to
silence his radical talk and life. Make no mistake, living a life in harmony with
God’s Torah is the good news that Jesus proclaims and embodies. Too often the
Church has taught that Jesus proclaims a gospel which puts an end to the law.
We have sadly imagined that Jews are caught up in obedience to deathly
legalisms. We have forgotten that the God of the Commandments is also the
redeeming God of grace. We have too easily separated grace from obedience. Our
God has too quickly become simply the warm and cuddly ‘God of love’, the God
of ‘cheap grace’. We have too frequently stopped living lives of costly obedience
to the Holy God of Israel who, in Jesus Christ, has offered to adopt us as full
citizens in the Kingdom of God.

This common pattern of forgetfulness is the reason that our congregation is about
to embark on a lenten journey in which we will seek to discover again Jesus’ call
to follow him into life lived under the rule of God. With the 19th Psalm we long
for spoken words and inner thoughts, for years and lives that are acceptable to
God, “our rock and our redeemer”. With the 19th Psalm we understand that, in
the end, we all must rely on the mysterious grace of God to clear our names, to
pardon our folly, to redeem our reputation. You did notice that, didn’t you? At
the conclusion of this great hymn to obedience ... in the last verse of this love
affair with the Law ... there is the profound confession of the hard truth. Here, at
the climax of this great psalm of the law-abiding comes the painful
acknowledgment that none are blameless. Here even the purest of us confess that
all are convicts who require pardon by the only one who can redeem the ugly
mess we leave behind, the vexing problems we cause, the innocent lives we
damage even - sometimes especially - in spite of our best intentions. The 19th
Psalm remembers what we so easily forget - that God’s law and God’s grace,
God’s judgment and God’s mercy, God’s commands and God’s compassion are
not mutually exclusive categories. They are, instead, the necessary twin character
traits of Yahweh who longs for a world made whole and for a people who remain
faithful. These are, of course, the same traits of character which we see revealed in
Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Torah of Yahweh Incarnate. Jesus comes
as Servant King to call us to turn and live a life of obedience. Jesus also comes as
Crucified Redeemer to make us whole and new and clean and beloved in the
sight of God. As the living Word of Yahweh he is “more desirable than gold, even
much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, pure honey from the comb”.