The Law as Gospel
| Exodus 20:1-17
|Sun, October 24, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer."
Generations of preachers have used these very words
to begin the act of preaching ...
these words that are the gift of Psalm 19
to Israel and to the church.
Yet did you notice?
Did you notice the odd turn that marks the 19th Psalm?
It is so jarring, so surprising
that the study notes at the bottom of the page in my Bible
suggest that "probably a later writer added"
the latter half of this ancient hymn.
You don't have to be a biblical scholar to see the problem.
The psalm has us singing the glory of God
along with the heavens and the earth.
Everything in creation is singing praise to God.
One day sings to the next
while one night tells another night in silent speech
about the wonders of God.
The sun crosses the sky each day
as bright as a bridegroom on his way to be married ...
God's everyday gift to all of creation.
This sounds like the kind of poem
that would fit nicely on a poster or a fridge magnet
you know the kind ...
one that shows a ray of sunlight
breaking through the clouds
to light the world.
But then Psalm 19 takes a turn.
Without warning it
stops talking about the God of nature
and begins celebrating laws ... God's laws:
"The law of Yahweh is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of Yahweh are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of Yahweh is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of Yahweh is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of Yahweh are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold:
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Now it is one thing to abide by the law,
one thing to live with the law as a ænecessary evil'
and quite another to sing hymns of praise about laws.
True ... it is the law of God that we are singing about ...
not the bylaws of the City of Vancouver.
Still, in a culture like ours that prizes autonomy
and places such high value on freedom,
singing songs of joy to a God who says æNo'
makes us a quite peculiar people.
And it is a divine æno' that is at the heart of the law.
As contemporary author, Cynthia Ozick, reminds us:
"The ornamental elegance of the King James Version
gives us the Ten Commandments
with a rather baroque thrill to them -
all those Thou Shalt Not's.
But if you listen to the Commandments in Hebrew,
you will hear a no-nonsense abruptness,
a rapidity and a terseness.
They begin with Lo, the Hebrew word for No:
no tignov, no stealing. Punkt.
The Torah the Jews carry stands for No."
No other gods. No graven images.
No wrongful use of the name.
Sabbath - no work. Honour - no disrespect.
No killing. No adultery.
No stealing. No crooked courts.
No acquisitive coveting.
This is the heart of the Torah.
Torah is the Hebrew word that we translate as ælaw'.
But Torah means something more than simply ælaws'.
Torah is a word taken from archery.
It means æto aim'.
Torah is about direction ...
about the way a person or a people is headed.
The Torah of God is about the direction that God intends
for the earth and its people.
Though, of course, the peoples of the earth
often feel no need of God's Torah.
We would rather freely find our own way,
thank-you very much.
The negatives of God seem too restrictive,
too onerous ... too, well, negative.
This is the reason that the Jewish Torah
is not restricted only to laws
but includes all of the ancient stories in the
books of Genesis and Exodus.
Abraham Heschel puts it this way:
"had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden;
had to witness the murder of half of the human species
by Cain; experience the catastrophe of the Flood;
the confusion of the languages;
slavery in Egypt and the wonder of the Exodus
to be ready to accept the law."
Is this what brings us to the acceptance of obedience?
We also no longer live in the naive blissful innocence
of Eden ... we who, having witnessed two millennia æA.D.'
and who now find ourselves standing at the end of the bloodiest century in that history.
Murder. Catastrophe. Confusion. Slavery.
These well describe the world we know.
And there is also wonder ...
wonder at the God whose love
continues to save us from ourselves.
It is this love that lies at the heart of the law.
Love, it turns out, is the Torah ... the way ... of God.
Hoping to trap Jesus with a question
that is impossible to answer
a lawyer asks him which commandment
in all of the more than 600 laws of the Torah
is the greatest.
Jesus' reply comes straight out of the law -
Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
"æYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
æYou shall love your neighbour as yourself'
On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets."
Maybe you have heard it said that the Old Testament
is about a God of law and of judgment
while the New Testament is about
a God of love and of grace.
Maybe now would be a good time
to abandon this idea once and for all.
Do you hear what Jesus is saying?
On the law of the love of God
and the law of the love of neighbour
hang all of the law and the prophets.
He does not say anything about
the end of the law
or the end of obedience to the Torah.
He says that the heart of this Torah is to love.
He learned it in Torah school as a youngster.
He learned it in memorizing the ten commands.
The first four say ælove God'.
The last six teach ælove neighbour'.
As one commentator says:
"Moses linked them and Jesus keeps them connected.
You cannot in this tradition say æGod'
without saying æneighbour',
nearly hyphenated, æGod-neighbour'".
Notice. Obedience to God ...
abiding by the Torah of God
is not some kind of heavy, onerous burden
to be carried with great difficulty.
It is instead the response of those
who have fallen in love with God.
Living the law of God
is not simply duty ... it is desire and delight!
Perhaps this is what the rabbis had in mind when they
dripped honey on the Torah scrolls
and invited their infant pupils to taste the law
even before they could read it.
As sweet as honey, indeed.
And this is not just rhetoric.
Walter Brueggemann speaks
of what we are coming to know when he says that
"In a quite concrete way, it is profoundly satisfying
to do what the beloved most delights in ...
Our life consists in loving God for God's own sake.
That is what we are created to do."
Keeping the law is loving our God.
Living such a life in love with God ...
living in obedience to the Torah of God ...
is our great life long calling and challenge.
And it begins here ... in a neighbourhood
which is the size of a single congregation ...
and with neighbours who we have not self-selected.
We do not get to choose who our neighbours are.
Yet in falling in love with God
we find ourselves invited to love
the very neighbours that God loves.
Here is where we practice neighbour-love on one another.
Here, in Christian community, we hold the conviction
that the neighbour ...
the one so odd, so recalcitrant,
so misguided, so careless, so rigid ...
is superior ...
is to be treated with dignity and care and respect.
This is a radical social-experiment.
One that calls for a way of life
that is not much in favour these days.
Namely, a life of obedience to a demanding discipline.
To live such a life ...
to live turned to the God whose steadfast love
saves and restores the earth ...
to live without using the name of God to support our national or denominational or personal
to live the Sabbath rhythms that God ordains,
obediently resting from the endless demands of work ...
to live honouring our elders ...
to live refusing to kill, keeping promises, telling truth ...
to live this way is to live a life that is sweeter than honey and more precious than gold.
Which is not to say that such a life
is ever completely within our grasp.
In a world of great temptation and of ceaseless ambiguity,
we cannot, in the end, be saved by our record.
Remember how the 19th Psalm puts it:
"But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults ... Then I shall be blameless
and innocent of great transgression."
The Torah of God
is the way of the amazing grace of God ...
a way that promises to transform
even our flawed lives of humble obedience
into gifts acceptable to the God of steadfast love.
"Let the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer."