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February 15, 2017, 8:26 AM

Law is Life!


Deuteronomy 30:14-20
 
Matthew 5:21-26
 
Psalm 119:1-8
 
Law is Life!
 
Our Psalm reading for this sixth Sunday of Epiphany is a small portion of the longest psalm, the longest chapter in any book of the Bible…176 verses long! Pretty impressive! Our wonderful poet-composer wrote for God’s people a tribute centered around the Hebrew alphabet in praise of God’s Law.
Happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the Lord.
2 Happy are those who keep God’s decrees,
    who seek the Lord with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
    but walk in God’s ways.
4 You have commanded your precepts
    to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
    in keeping your statutes!
 
Our poet then goes on for 171 more verses in praising the Law, using an incredible thesaurus to bring up about every possible way to refer to the Law, and using every possible admiring and devotional adjective to describe the Law. Reading all the way through this psalm is an act of faith and discipline in and of itself. So, your homework for this week is to read through the entire psalm each and every day… (allow a moment for response). Doesn’t sound very ‘spiritually fulfilling,’ does it?
 
The problem, I believe, is that we hear this psalm as a chant, or even a dirge, to legalism, and it sounds foreign to our ears. But in fact, this is a celebration of joy for the beloved gift from God. This song writer is bursting with delight and love, and cannot help but erupt into song. We need to hear this with new ears, sing it to a new tune.  Do you remember the popular song, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams that we sang in worship one Sunday?
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I'm happy)…
 
Do you remember? That is the tone of Psalm 119—Joy, Celebration, that feeling of being blessed.
            You are happy…
            clap along if you are blameless in the Law.
            You are happy…
            clap along all of those who keep God’s decrees.
            You are happy…
            clap along all of you who delight in God’s commands…
What a difference, right? That certainly sounds more celebratory…but why? Why does this composer spend 176 verses celebrating the Law?
 
We 21st century children of the Reformation have a very negative reaction to legalism within our spiritual life, and that is how we see The Law. First, early Christians broke away from Judaism—for many reasons—and embraced the way of Jesus. Paul calls us to be free of legalism—the letter of the Law—in Galatians and Romans (and a few other places), declaring that following Christ is to follow the embodiment of the Law. At least, that is the popular reading of Paul. We are children of these early Christians and of Paul’s teachings. Second, Martin Luther nailed his objections to the legalism of the Catholicism of his day to the door of the Church, and charted a different course, a course John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s founders, built upon in their life and teaching. We are certainly children of Luther, John, and Charles; children of the reformers, of those people called Methodist.
 
Along with this, over the generations, our understanding of The Law found in the Hebrew Scriptures has been colored by our life within the laws of our world, especially our own nation. Laws in the United States are created by our legislative branch, interpreted by our judicial branch, and overseen by our executive branch—good ole 5th grade social studies. Laws are imposed, enforced, debated, petitioned, protested, overruled, rewritten, defeated…the verbs go on. We see laws as necessary for an ordered life, but we have varying views as to how many laws there should be and what they should address. The way we wrestle with national, state, or even local laws affects our understanding of God’s Law.
 
That is not how our psalmist views God’s Law. It is not how Moses views it. It is not how Jesus views it. Perhaps the problem is this word, ‘law.’ So, let’s see if we can differentiate by using the Hebrew word for this gift of which the psalmist sings—Torah. “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Torah of the Lord.” Or using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from “The Message:”
Psalm 119
You’re blessed when you stay on course,
    walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
Yo
u’re blessed when you follow God’s directions,
    doing your best to find the Lord.
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
    you walk straight along the road God set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
    now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
    keeping to the course you set;
Rev. Peterson wanted to make the scriptures fresh for the eyes of God’s people, for our ears to hear. He returned to the ancient Hebrew and Greek and delved deep; researching, listening, discerning the heart of God’s message. And then he used our contemporary language to speak the deep meaning of the text, often lost a bit by the language differences across the generations. Torah is the road, the path of God. It is the way God calls us to live in the world. Torah is a gift of love given to a community, so that this holy community could live in deep relationship with God and model this Way for the world to see.
 
That is why Moses is so confrontational in today’s reading. This is a matter of life and death. For 29 chapters, the book of Deuteronomy reviews God’s Torah, God’s way of life for the people. And now, at the close, Moses implores the people to embody the Torah, to let it be their way of life. Because that’s what Torah is…it is life, life with God in all its fullness. Though the book of Deuteronomy takes place on the cusp of the Promised Land, as the Israelites are about to enter the land and seek to live Torah as a settled community, the book of Deuteronomy is being preserved onto papyri centuries later, as the Israelites lose the Promised Land and are dragged into exile. They chose poorly. They chose to follow their own ways, to chase after false gods, to chart their own course. Now they dwell in death and destruction, and Moses’ words challenge them afresh—“Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving God, by obeying God’s voice, by clinging to God.” After all, there is nothing else left to cling to.
 
Many generations later, Jesus sits on a mountainside teaching his followers and a large crowd of Israelites descended from those who were exiled, and returned, descended from those who first entered the land and settled with Moses’ words fresh in their hearts. In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the Torah of God, and the legalistic way it has been followed in recent years. Jesus addresses this misconception that if they haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t lied much, haven’t committed adultery or been overly covetous, they have kept Torah. He proclaims, as we heard last week, that God’s people must excel at living Torah, their righteousness—which is also the word for justice in Greek—is to be greater than the experts of Torah. Jesus begins to address certain lines of the great 10 commandments—our reading today being one excerpt of this larger teaching. Jesus says, “You think you have kept Torah if you haven’t killed anyone? Torah goes to the heart of your living and being. It addresses your anger, how you let it lash out at friend and stranger. It addresses how you use your words and actions. It is not just reading the lines of text, it is hearing the depth behind it, the heart of it. God’s Torah is about your whole life, in all its tiny details, not just the big actions. It is about the integrity of our being. Whew!
 
“You’re blessed when you stay on course,
    walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow God’s directions,

    doing your best to find the Lord.
”sings the psalmist. Jesus echoes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And behind the words of Jesus, behind the ancient song to Torah, Moses implores, “Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving God, by obeying God’s voice, by clinging to God.” Do we begin to see the difference between the laws of our nation and our community, and the Torah of God? The Torah is gifted to us by God as an act of love and as a desire to live in deep relationship with us. The Torah is gifted to us as a community to strengthen us in embodying God’s way together as a model for the world. The Torah is gifted to us to remind us that we are responsible for that world; for friend and stranger alike. All are created in the wondrous image of God.
 
And though the beautiful word, ‘Torah,’ helps us to make those distinctions, it is still good to call Torah God’s Law. It reminds us that ultimately this is our Law, the Torah. Human laws come and go, transform, are modified, dismantled and built. God’s Torah, God’s Law, is forever. God’s way is the way of life always—to love the Lord your God with all that you are in your entirety and to love your neighbor as yourself, the summation of the Law, the Torah. It is the Law against which all other laws are tested and measured. God’s Law, God’s Torah, comes first—to love God and to love our neighbor. That is our real homework day in and day out, it is our life work; to ‘walk steadily on the road revealed by God.” Together! We seek to live together as a community, studying and embodying God’s holy Torah, as witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as a testimony to the world of what God desires from all humankind, and all creation.
 
You are happy
when you stay on course, on the road revealed by God.
You are happy
 when you follow God’s way, doing your best to find the Lord.
You are happy
                        when you walk straight along the road that God has set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
    now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that our steps might be steady,
    keeping to the course you set.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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