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Law and (Created) Order

Sermon - 3/15/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 19:1-10

The sermon text is actually in the back of our hymnal, so turn to page 731, and you will find Psalm 19.  So I invite you to share this with me, we will read it responsively (I will read the light print, you will read the bold print) and together we will sing the response that occurs at the beginning, middle, and end:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
4yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
   and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
   and its circuit to the end of them;
   and nothing is hidden from its heat.

7The law of the Lord is perfect,
   reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
   making wise the simple;
8the precepts of the Lord are right,
   rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
   enlightening the eyes;
9the fear of the Lord is pure,
   enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
   and righteous altogether.
10More to be desired are they than gold,
   even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
   and drippings of the honeycomb.

11Moreover by them is your servant warned;
   in keeping them there is great reward.
12But who can detect their errors?
   Clear me from hidden faults.
13Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
   do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
   and innocent of great transgression.

14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
   be acceptable to you,
   O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

C.S. Lewis called this Psalm the greatest poem in the Psalms, one of the greatest lyrics in the world.  Arthur Visor, a name that I don't think many would recognize but a very prominent Biblical scholar of the early 20th century wrote the commentary for the Old Testament library series on the Psalms, said of the author of the Psalm:  "His insight combines with his powerful metaphorical language to raise him to the status of a great poet who has stimulated the creative work of such imminent writers and composers as Goethe, Haydn, and Beethoven".  Of course, 3 Germans he would name, being German (although Haydn was Austrian, but the Germans of that period kind of saw Austria as part of Germany).

This is indeed incredibly powerful poetry that is perhaps better suited for quiet contemplation than a sermon full of wordy reflections.  But don't get your hopes up J.

But before I get too wordy, I would invite you to read again the Psalm with me, only this time use your Bibles.  Pay particular attention just to the power of the language in this Psalm.  [Dan then read the Psalm again].

-----------------------------

Now don't close your Bibles just yet.  Take a look, and I want you to take note of the two subject matters here.  Two distinct, different subject matters.  Did you catch that?  The first 6 verses -- what's the subject matter?  Nature, creation, the world.  Then, beginning with verse 7, the subject matter changes to -- the law, Torah, the teachings of God.

Now, I invite you to consider with me the relationship between these two things.  Because they are two things that I don't think we often put together.  Here's what Visor has to say on the two:

"Psalm 19 consists of two independent Psalms which in subject matter, mood, language, and meter differ from each other so much that they cannot be composed by the same author.  Why these dissimilar poems were united in one single Psalm cannot any longer be established with any degree of certainty".

Really.  Maybe it's the "wanna-be" scholar within me, or the training I received to think critically and to take the text seriously as it is written, maybe it is just because I love a good challenge, or maybe it's because such a hypothesis makes for a lousy sermon J.  You know, 'these texts don't have anything to do with one another so I'll just make something up and hope no one notices'. 

In any event, I beg to differ with the esteemed Dr. Visor, famed scholar that he was from the very renowned Tübingen University.  Besides, he's dead, I'm alive, so I can have the last word J.

My thesis this morning is simply this:  first of all, that even if these are two different poems, they have been combined into 1 Psalm by the ancestors of our faith for a most definite purpose that I believe is very evident.  And secondly, in that purpose there is a very important and even urgent message for us today.

So before we make the connection that reveals the purpose of the Psalm and its relevance, let's take a closer look at the two parts.

The first thing that struck me when I read this Psalm was the paradox in the first 4 verses.  Did you catch it?  Take note of the verbs -- to tell, proclaim, put forth (as in speech), and to declare.  This is classical Hebrew poetry, parallel construction of similar terms.  The heavens 'telling', the firmaments 'proclaiming', day 'pours forth' speech, night 'declares'.  All involving verbal speech.

And then, in verse 3, we are told there is no speech.  There are no words.  There's no voice to be heard. 

The paradox is affirmed in the next verse as the proclamation of the good news:  the voice of no voice goes through all the earth, the words of the wordless to the end of the world.

Now I've been told in our Thursday-morning spiritual formation group that this is very typical of an Eastern way of thinking in such traditions as Taoism.  Or, if you're familiar with the Buddhist concept of a kōan -- what is the sound of one hand clapping -- is a kōan.  You might think of these verses in those terms.  Something that is not rational, and yet can be known through intuition.

Nature cannot speak, and yet it's message comes to us loud and clear, as spoken words, with it's own voice, revealing the glory of God.  To behold the wonder of God in the beauty of a sunset, the mystery of creation in the image of a distant galaxy, the power of love in a child sleeping on your shoulder, is to know knowledge beyond words.  Music without sound.  Given praise to God.

Ever since my evolution sermon back in February, I've engaged in a little bit of an E-mail debate with a young-earth creationist.  That is, someone who believes the earth was created literally in the year 4004 B.C.E.  He read my comments in the Oregonian, found my E-mail address, so we've been going back and forth.  The primary objection to evolution from creationists, as I understand it, is primarily two-fold:  first of all, evolution (they say) contradicts the Bible.  And I simply disagree.  I don't think it does.  I don't think there's anything in the Bible that contradicts evolution and vice-versa.  Secondly, that evolution makes God unnecessary.

And that is an argument that I understand, and am even sympathetic to.  When we make the specialness of life, and the beauty of this world, the product of random events and mechanical equations of probability, it can make our existence seem like little more than a purposeless game of chance.

And it is for that reason, even with all that we now know about the solar system, laws of physics, gravitational forces, rotation of the earth, the age of the earth, the origin of fossils and so on and so forth, things that the Psalmist could not have possibly known, that I find the witness of the Psalm to the voice of creation all the more important.

For the wisdom that comes from the power of observation is no less evident in this Psalm as it is in modern science.  God's world, the order of created things, is fundamentally a place of beauty and harmony and thereby reflects the very nature of God.

Or so I thought, until I had to be at church last night, a little after 6:00 p.m. I heard this big commotion, went out to the front just in time to see a group of nude bicyclists parading in front of the church (some kind of protest against big oil).  It was not a pretty sight J.

From the wonders of the created order, some of them better to behold than others J, the Psalmist abruptly shifts to reflect on the merits of the law, or Torah.  And note too, in this section of the Psalm, the evocative language which calls forth joy and celebration.  The verbs -- revising, rejoicing, making wise, enlightening.  This is nothing like our usual portrayal of the law as something that is rigid, oppressive, and demanding.  We think of the laws in the Old Testament as something that we need to be liberated from, that's why Jesus came, right?

But of course for Jews, the law (or Torah) is the Word of God that gives life.  It is liberating.  And therefore is something to be celebrated.  As the Psalmist says, 'it is more to be desired than fine gold and sweeter than honey'. 

When Temple Beth Israel (the Synagogue) moved to their new location -- where University St. Christian Church used to be, and I love the symbolism of that -- they held a parade of the members of the Synagogue carrying their two Torah scrolls from the old Synagogue to the new Synagogue, to be dedicated.  And I thought that would be a fun event to witness, so my daughter Paulina and I went to watch the parade.  Much to my surprise and great joy, the Rabbi invited me to carry one of the scrolls for part of that as the members of the Synagogue were dancing and singing so joyously, leading us to their new Synagogue.  It was an absolutely wonderful, joyful occasion.

Many of you know Northwest Christian University has received a Torah scroll (was in the news not too long ago).  A scroll from the 19th century that was rescued in the Holocaust and has been restored.  Still needs a little bit more work to be done.  The Rabbi from Temple Beth Israel, when he saw a picture of it, realized it didn't have a cover.  And so he donated this beautiful, embroidered cover to NCU so that the scroll could be properly stored and handled because you never, ever, touch the scroll with human hands.  You only touch the wood portions of it, never the scroll itself.  And so it needs to have a proper covering on it.

Now, we may view such notions as peculiar because we see the Bible as a book -- you know, something we touch and handle all the time.  It's a very special book for sure, divinely inspired, but it's still a book.  The Torah is so much more than that for Jews.  It is God's revelation to humanity.  And so Jews view the Torah in the same way that we Christians view Jesus.  Not an inanimate object, but the living Word of God.

And so that scroll in the vault of the library at NCU is not a bunch of words on paper (or animal skin as the case may be), it is the very real witness to the presence of God in our world.  I was with the Rabbi when he brought that cover over to the school and got to talk with him about it, and it's tough, actually, for him.  He has some real feelings about this scroll being in a vault of a library rather than in a house of worship as it should be.  But yet, wants to extend to the school in some way and develop that relationship to make sure it is properly treated.

So when you read this psalm, think not just of law or even Torah, but think of the way of God.  The path of faithfulness.  Everything that God desires of us and for our world, 'thy will be done on earth as in heaven'.

So here we have, then, in this Psalm, two different testimonies to the way of God in which God is revealed to us.  In the Word of God, and in the world of God.

In the divine wisdom of God's people, eons ago, someone took these two revelations, combined them into one -- as two sides of the same coin.  And therein lies I think the central message for us:  that the way that we are to live in this world, at harmony with God and creation, is revealed to us in each:  the unspoken word of creation, and the spoken Word of God's way of life.

And two and a half, perhaps three thousand years ago, before we knew anything about climate change, about bacteria, about weapons of mass destruction, ozone depletion, DNA, stem-cells, nuclear fusion, this Psalmist knew that living in harmony with God's way of life was essential to living in harmony with the earth.  The Psalmist calls it 'a great reward' when we live by this way of God.

Today, I think we can even say that living in harmony with the earth by God's way of life is essential if we are to live at all.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer.

 


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