A sermon preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 11 March, 2011
Readings for lectionary Year B: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple (Ps 19:7)
Being an inveterate eavesdropper, I was listening to two older gents talking politics yesterday morning as my wife and I waited to pay our bill at our favorite greasy spoon. “I’ve voted for them for thirty years”‘ one said, “but not any more. There are just too many laws these days. They want a law for everyithing. it’s not the Alberta I know anymore.”.
After living in this province for a year or so myself, I have come to see the truth in the saying that Alberta is Canada’s Texas. It’s not just the wide-open skies, the honest to goodness cowboys, and the big pickup trucks that every other person seems to drive, but it’s also the recent memory of the frontier and the pioneer spirit. Central to that spirit is the idea of personal freedom, the notion that the individual should be as free of constraints as possible. Perhaps that libertarian spirit explains why Alberta was the last province in Canada to make it law that seat belts be worn in motor vehicles.
I think that many of us tend to be Albertan in our relationship with God. We may agree that God exists, we may be grateful for the gift of creation, and thankful for God’s blessings in our lives. We may go as far as to agree that a sense of God’s love should guide our dealings with others as a kind of golden rule principle. But how many of us would agree that God should bind our lives with law, and agree with the Psalmist that “the law of the Lord is perfect?”. Not so many of us, I’m thinking.
Among those who shun churches, there is a widespread perception that Christianity is about self-righteous people who score themselves and others by keeping rules and regulations. Among those of us still in churches, we have an ambiguous relationship to the law. We don’t want to think of ourselves as Pharisees, since innumerable sermons on innumerable gospel readings remind us that Pharisaical thinking and rule keeping is wrong and contrary to Jesus’ teaching? So isn’t law bad, love good?
If we look at Psalm 19 Ina little detail, we can find a simple and balanced view of God’s law and love. This psalm is one of the shortest and most succinct statements of theology in scripture, and is worth going through in some detail, especially at those times when we are feeling kind of ornery and Albertan about God.
It has been said that Psalm 19 is about three gifts of God: creation, law, and love. These threengiftsnare complementary but, when seen through the lens of Christian faith, are also arranged in increasing order of importance.
Creation is seen by the psalmist as a proof of God’s existence: “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (19:1). The arrangement of earth and sky, day and night, speaks to the psalmist of God’s creative power and gift. The idea that nature is proof of the handiwork of God is, by itself, not always helpful. It can be debated by science, and called into question by events, such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami whose anniversary we mark today, which suggest the cruelty and randomness of nature. As Christians, we accept that nature, like our bodies, can turn against us, and we hope, as Paul says in Romans 8, that nature, like ourselves, will be redeemed in God’s good time and purpose. However, the gift of creation outweighs its dissatisfactions. The gifts of life, of world, of intellect and identity, and of others to share these things with are signs of God’s creative work and love for us.
Law is the second gift and is related to related to creation because it allows God to continue his creative work in the world. Through law, God creates communities and people’s who know him and who allow him to be known by others, Our first lesson today, from Exodus 20, only makes sense when we think of it as part of God’s creation of the people of Israel. God creates his people out of the descendants of Israel, he frees them from slavery in Israel, and then shapes them and gives them a new identity through the gift of law. An observation which I have found helpful notes that the law in Exodus 20 is not just about the law as a kind of existential burden laid on the self, but rather is always about the self and others. In the first part of Exodus 20 the law governs the poeples’s relationship with God and orients them o. god like a GPS showing them the right way. God does knot self-describe as jealous because he iis insecure, but rather because he alone is life giving and wants Israel to keep its lock on him so it can find its way and be a blessing to others in the world. The law allows not only the people of Israel to benefit, but also benefits those others in relation with Israel, such as the resident aliens who also benefit from sabbath keeping (Ex 20:10). In this way Israel will continue to be a blessing to e world that God has created and will continue that creative work by renewing g God’s people, as we Christians believe that we are created to be a new people that continues and renews God’s covenant with Israel.
The psalmist turns to the third gift, of God’s love, when he says that “the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever” (Ps 19:9). it may well seem strange to begin tDiscussion of love with mention of fear, since the two ideas might well be thought of as exclusionary. How, and perhaps more importantly, why, should we fear what we love? However, if the law comes from God’s righteousness, by whi h the psalmist means God’s perfect goodness, his justice, goodness, hatred of evil, etc, then why shouldn’t his creations, who are capable of evil and I perfection, fear him? Indeed, that is the story of Isrsel’s wandering in the desert after leaving Israel, and of Israel afterwards when it is settled in Canaan, and indeed of our own stories. If God is the good creator who gives us the law, and if we are capable of breaking that law, then we would be foolish not to fear him. But how many of us have kept the commandments perfectly. The psalmist recognizes that while the law warns us, it does not keep us from straying off the reservation, so the psalmist throws himself on God’s mercy, praying that God will “clear me from hidden faults”. The psalm ends with one of the loveliest and simplest prayers in scripture, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and redeemer” ((19:14).
Psalm 19 is a perfect little template of devotion for the Lenten season. It begins in gratitude for God and for God’s gift of creation. It recognizes that God’s law comes for. God’s righteousness and Resolves to follow that law because it alone is life giving. It then recognizes the difficulty of following that law because of human imperfection, and throws itself on God’s mercy, turni to God as “my redeemer”. The spirit of Psalm 19 seems to me to be a perfect guide for the remainder of this time before Holy Week, when God”s law, love, mercy and new creation are fully revealed in the cross and in its aftermath. If you find it helpful as a devotional practice for these remaining weeks of Lent, try to memorize the last verse of this psalm and pray it daily, and more often as you find it helpful, and especially when you’re feeling all ornery and Albertan, because (and apologies to singer Corb Lund for borrowing the name of his band), we need God most when we are hurting’ Albertans. Amen.