Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sweeter than Honey (Psalm 19, Matthew 5.14-19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 2, 2017 - Psalm 19; Matthew 5:14-19

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering (Lyric) Video: Voice of the Skies (The Shiyr Poets)
Singing Together: God of Wonders (Mac Byrd, Steve Hidalong)
Singing Together: Joy (Amy Grant)
Singing the Word: Your Law, O Lord, is Perfect (Landis, CHRISTUS, DER IST MEIN LEBEN)
Offering of Music: We Will Feast in the House of Zion (McCracken, Moore)
Hymn of Sending: Behold the Morning Sun (Watts, LAUDES DOMINI, arr. Austell)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

This past week at Vacation Bible School we talked about the Creation story. One of the great themes of that story is captured in the beginning of Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God… declaring the work of His hands.” That Psalm continues with vivid metaphors to explore the ways in which God’s creation glorifies it’s Maker. Then, in what may be a surprising turn for us as modern readers, the Psalm turns to the beauty and perfection of God’s Law… another life-giving and God-glorifying product of God’s person and power. Today we will look at these two gifts of God – creation and commandments – and then see how Jesus connects and embodies these two gifts.

Creation (Psalm 19:1-6)

Psalm 19 declares that the heavens “speak” – they tell of the glory of God and declare the work of God’s hands. (v. 1) This kicks off a string of metaphors where the passing of days and nights also “pour forth speech” and “reveal knowledge.” (v. 2) What is this message? What is this knowledge? It is that GOD IS CREATOR and GOD IS GLORIOUS. And yet, these are not actual words and speech, and too many miss the majesty and glory of God all around us in Creation. Creation’s “voice is not heard.” (v. 3) Though the rising of the sun is like a groom coming out of his chamber to see the bride or an athlete racing to the finish line (v. 5), we sometimes still miss out on the message: GOD IS GREAT AND GLORIOUS!

Nonetheless, theologians speak of Creation as God’s “general revelation” – it may not contain the specifics of salvation or forgiveness from sin, but it does proclaim – even “shout” – in its own way that THERE IS A GOD! And the reach of this general message is far further than the written word. It stretches and reaches “to the end of the world.” Bible translators are still laboring to get scripture translated into every tongue, but the sun rises and sets, the starry expanse displays to peoples in every distant part of the globe. The Psalmist uses these images and metaphors as if to ask, “How can you miss it?” Isn’t it evident all around you?

Commandments (Psalm 19:7-11)

From there Psalm 19 shifts to talking about the “Law of the Lord.” This is not as abrupt a change as it might seem at first. The Psalm had been using communication metaphors like “speaking” and “telling” – how natural to shift into actual words given by God to reveal His purpose and will.  And after saying that some people do not “hear” the proclamation of Creation, it makes sense to make the point that God has ALSO revealed Himself through the literal spoken and written word.

For the modern reader, what may be more surprising than the shift from Creation to Commandment is the affection and imagery with which the Psalmist talks about the Law of the Lord. There are six pairs of sayings  (remember the love of Hebrew poets for repetition?!) that line up with a description of the Law and its effect or blessing in our lives:

The Law of the Lord is perfect… restoring the soul.
The testimony of the Lord is sure… making wise the simple. (v. 7)
The precepts of the Lord are right… rejoicing the heart.
The commandment of the Lord is pure… enlightening the eyes. (v. 8)
The fear of the Lord is clean… enduring forever.
The judgments of the Lord are true… they are righteous altogether. (v. 9)
Then, after that, a startling claim about what can seem to us a dry, boring subject: [God’s Law/Commandments] are “more desirable than gold… sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honey comb.” (v. 10) I remember tasting honey from the honeycomb from my aunts beehives as a child. There is nothing more sweet and natural than honey. And this is comparing that to God’s Law? To Leviticus and the Ten Commandments and all the rest? Really?!

Let me talk for a moment about God’s Law or Commandments. In Hebrew scripture – in our Old Testament – the Law served three main purposes. Some of it was civil law, instructing Israel how to govern itself as a nation. An example of that is Exodus 21:33-34 – “If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his.” While there is an underlying principle of fairness and restitution, this “case law” was the equivalent of our traffic laws or other national laws and is not meant to be replicated in other nations. It was specific to ancient Israel.

Some of the Law or Commandments had to do with the practice of religion and was ceremonial in nature. Examples include the various feasts and sacrifices as well as the kosher food laws and laws about mixing fabrics.

And some of the Law or Commandments was moral or ethical, describing God’s intent for things like sexual purity, the value of human life, or the treatment of family or neighbors. The best known examples are the Ten Commandments.

In every instance, the follower of God in ancient Israel understood that God’s Commandments were for safety and blessing. They weren’t for salvation, but for thriving and flourishing. They were given and spoken out of God’s love for His people, much like parents make rules for their children’s health and safety.

Calling (Matthew 5:14-19)

In Matthew 5, Jesus speaks of the Law, saying “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (v.17) In his teaching, Jesus goes on to help us understand the value and beauty of the Law. While he lives in the context of the nation of Israel ruled by Rome, he acknowledges the need to keep the laws of the land, even acknowledging the lawfulness of Caesar to tax – that’s the famous “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” statement; though people rarely finish the sentence – “…and render unto God that which is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Yet Jesus isn’t focused on proclaiming a restoration of the kingdom of Israel, but announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

The religious ceremonial laws were meant to point to something beyond themselves; Christians believe that something is a SOMEONE, Jesus Christ. He has gathered up all the feasts and sacrifices into himself as the once and for all sacrifice. He has fulfilled and completed the food and clothing laws – rather than eating and dressing in a particular way to be distinct in the world, believers are now to “eat his flesh.. the bread of life” (John 6:48,53) and are to put on “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12) as their distinctive clothing.

And regarding the moral law like the Ten Commandments, and right after his statement in Matthew 5 that he is not doing away with the Law, but fulfilling it, Jesus teaches through a number of those commandments and presses them even deeper – God’s desire is that we not only keep them externally, but also in the heart and mind.

And so that is all very interesting – Jesus does indeed value the Law and he helps us understand how all the Old Testament Law relates to us as Christians and modern people. But here’s the really fascinating part, given our starting place in Psalm 19 today: Jesus connects us and calls us through his fulfillment of the Law back to the role of Creation to declare the glory of God. Look, it’s right there in Matthew 5 before he starts talking about the Law. He uses a metaphor that calls to mind those first days of Creation:

You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (v. 14,16)

Do you see the connection and the CALLING? When we keep God’s Law – now embodied, explained, and fulfilled in Jesus – we function like Creation itself, shining God’s GLORY for the world to see. It is not to show ourselves off, but to point the world to God.

And let me add this so you don’t miss it. Neither the Old Testament Law nor keeping the Commandments now is salvific. The point of them is not to “get us to Heaven.” That’s God’s job in reaching down to us. The purpose of the Law is two-fold: 1) to help us experience God’s best (particularly when it is fulfilled in Christ) and 2) to demonstrate God’s glory. It is when we yield to that and live in it that we can begin to experience it as “sweet as honey.” That’s also when we really start to “shine.” Amen.






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