March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent
This morning our scripture passages are all about the law. Lisa read Exodus 20—the ten commandments—and I read Psalm 19 which has that big section about the desirability and sweetness of the law.
That is probably not what most of us think about—gold or honey—when we think about the law.
We may think about “The Law” as police officers cracking down on criminals. I googled images for “the law” and many of the pictures that came up were of a court gavel—you can think of a judge banging the gavel and calling for, “Order in the court!” A lot of other pictures were of books of laws or of the scales of justice that weigh the pros and cons of a case.
Mostly, I think, we see the law as a set of rules—perhaps arbitrary, perhaps punitive. Maybe we think of the law as a list of rules about things we’re not supposed to do. Like the ten commandments: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lust after your neighbor’s possessions or spouse. For many of us, the law is probably not something we’re particularly interested in thinking about or having to deal with and if we have to it’s because we have bumped up—or been slammed up—against it.
But listen to how the psalmist describes the law of God. (If you were reading along in your bible, this is verses 7 through 10.) This is how the law is characterized: It is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. And this is what the psalmist says the law does: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring and it is righteous.
I think most of those words are not words that we would use if asked to describe the law. So I wonder what is it about the law of God as it comes to us through the Hebrew scriptures—that is experienced by the biblical writers as life-giving and beneficial.
One thing that may help us is to know that the meaning of the Hebrew word torah that gets translated “law” is more about “instruction [than it is about] legal rules and stipulations.” (Mays, 41) And torah is not just the list of rules—like the ten commandments. Torah, says James Mays in his commentary on the Psalms, “is used in a comprehensive sense to refer to the whole body of tradition through which instruction in the way and the will of [God] is given to Israel…It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight…because [God] reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.” (Mayes, 41-42)
So perhaps we really need to use a different English translation—not “law” but “instruction” or as Barbara Brown Taylor translates, “direction or teaching.” (Taylor, 75)
In the Godly Play class, children learn about the ten commandments as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” Hear what Professor Mays says again: “It is from this written torah that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and the will of [God] and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness.”
Perhaps there is a constitutional lawyer out there who would describe the U.S. constitution and laws as something like this but for the rest of us when we about the law of God in the Bible, we are talking about a very different thing than we typically think about when we think about the law in this country. So for this morning at least, let’s use the language of instruction and direction and teaching.
And catch again how the psalmist describes this instruction: it revives the soul, it generates wisdom, it creates rejoicing, it enlightens, it is enduring, it is righteous and it is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.
So back to the idea that the instruction, the direction, the teaching of God is not just a list of dos and don’ts. You might think that’s contradicted by the ten commandments—because that, actually, is a list of dos and don’ts. But first, it is a story.
“I am the Holy One your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” begins the story. This is the story of a relationship between the One who created the universe, promised blessing to a nation of people, liberated them when they were enslaved, accompanied them in the wilderness providing food and drink. That’s a pretty big story that is full of difficulty and full of divine grace.
And out of the story comes an identity: We are the people of the One who made us, who freed us, who provided for us.
And out of that identity comes a way of life. Having been created, freed and accompanied by God, how do we then live? The decalogue (that’s another word for the ten commandments—it comes from deca which means ten and logue—like logos—which is related to words) describes how we live. Tom Long paraphrases the decalogue this way: “Because the [Holy One] is your God…you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land. The decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results.” (Long) That is, God frees us to live like this…
Isn’t that kind of an irony in the way we typically think of the law? The law of God, the torah, the instruction, direction, teaching, frees us. Frees us to love God and to love our neighbor—those are the two parts of the decalogue. In this freedom we have an identity and a purpose: we are God’s people, we belong to God and as God’s people we are freed to love God and to love our neighbor.
And so we hear—and might begin to feel—those characteristics the psalmist gives to God’s teaching: It revives the soul, generates wisdom, creates rejoicing, enlightens, endures, is righteous, is more to be sought after than riches and more to be desired than the sweetness of honey. Can you begin to feel that? To feel that freedom? Or maybe feel your own desire for this kind of freedom?
We are free not to chase after other gods. We are free to rest. We are freed from pursuing what does not lead to life. Freed by God, we are set free from treating other people in ways that kill and steal and covet. We are freed from the lies that tell us we do not belong to God. We are freed to become the people God created us to be; to live as God intends for us to live; to become truth about us—that we are the beloved of God.
Now think with me about the story of creation in Genesis 1. In the beginning the earth was a formless void. And God created light and held the light distinct from the dark. And then God separated the sky from the waters. And then God separated the dry land from the waters. In this story, God holds back the chaos so that life can flourish. God pushes back the chaos of nothingness—the formless void—and creates space for life to spring up and thrive. Out of the chaos, God creates living space. Space for life.
And that is what God does in the torah—in what we call the law—the instruction, direction, teaching—including, but not limited to, the specifics of the decalogue. God creates space. Living space. Space for life. God holds back the chaos of all that would tell us we do not belong to God. The chaos that obscures our belovedness. The chaos that persuades us to love only ourselves and not our neighbor. God holds back the chaos so that we might receive God’s instruction and in that direction find freedom. Freedom where there is space for life to flourish. Living space.
It seems to me this is particularly the invitation of Lent. To enter this space of time that we might become aware again (or perhaps for the first time) become aware of our belovedness, to let go of the clamoring chaos that tells us lies and let God’s truth sink deeply into us. The truth not only of our belovedness but the companion truth of the belovedness of our neighbor.
In this living space that God provides we experience freedom and we find again our identity as God’s people and find again our purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. And in that identity and purpose, we find our true life.
* * *
Thomas G. Long “Dancing the Decalogue” in Christian Century, March 27, 2006, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/dancing-decalogue (accessed March 7, 2015)
James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective – Exodus 20:1-17” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.