a sermon on Psalm 119:1-8, 169-179; Deuteronomy 30:15-20
I have always been something of a rule follower. While I may not always keep to the exact speed limit while driving, I am a stickler for proper attention to most other traffic laws, chief among them a four-way stop. It’s not that hard, people. First, come to a complete stop! Then, if someone else is there at the same time, the car that got there first goes first, and if two cars arrive at the same time, it’s the person on the right!
In other matters, I try my best to obey copyright law and other such things, often to a fault. Back in the days when my friends were all freely swapping music online, I was that guy who was building up a CD collection that now sits mostly idle amidst all the online music available for free! And I have embarrassed more than one friend by refusing to show my ID when paying with a credit card because it is against the rules of the credit card companies to require. I’m not proud of the scene that inevitably results, but I haven’t lost any friends over it—yet. All of this surely comes as no surprise to those of you who have known me even for a little while—it’s just part of who I am that I like to follow the rules!
It’s no surprise, then, that I spend half of each week working for the Presbytery of New York City as our Stated Clerk, a position that blends the important work of record-keeping with the interpretation of our extensive Presbyterian rules. Now it is not just my personality but my job to follow the rules! In the four months I’ve been in this position, people have learned that my rule-following nature means that I like to do things by the book. Sometimes this means that I have to tell someone that something can’t be done, but more often it means that I end up offering a plan to work within our rules to make something happen. It might take a little longer than they had expected or require a different kind of approach than they initially thought was necessary, but in the end the rule-follower in me fits in very well with our Presbyterian way of doing things “decently and in order.”
Our two texts today from the Psalms and Deuteronomy ought to fit very well with mindsets of rule-followers like me, as they both deal with the joys of God’s law. First we heard the beginning and end of Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the entire Bible. This psalm is an acrostic poem praising God for the gift of the law, and each successive section offers a new word of thanksgiving built on the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In these two segments that we read heard this morning, the psalmist proclaims the happiness and the possibility of God’s intervention that come from following God’s law. This happiness comes from not being put to shame, from diligent attention to the precepts of the law, from seeking God, the source of the law, with the whole heart. All this brings not just happiness but deeper and greater praise. The hope of intervention proclaimed in the second segment comes from understanding the law, from the deliverance promised in the law, from lips and tongues that sing praise and show delight in God’s law. Even when he is lost, the psalmist longs for God to seek him out, “for [he does] not forget [the] commandments.”
All this poetic praise for God’s law is very similar to our second reading today from Deuteronomy, a portion of Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel. In these brief words, Moses places the hope of life in following the words of the law. The law was everything to Moses—he had received the origins of it in the Ten Commandments, and he knew that it was the best thing God could offer to the people of Israel to guide them in their life together.
Here, though, he makes it abundantly clear: the law is a life and death matter. Obedience to the law means life—it shows ultimate connection to God and to God’s people by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and keeping God’s commandments. But turning away from the law means death—death through bowing down to and serving other gods and ignoring God’s commandments. So as he concluded his time journeying through the wilderness with the people of Israel, Moses called on them to make the choices that would lead to fullness of life for them and their descendants, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
These perspectives work well for rule-followers like me, but dealing with the law as Christians isn’t always so straightforward. By the time of the early church, Christians had come to believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law, meaning obedience to the law was not the ultimate thing to bring the gift of life. But what exactly does the law mean after this? The apostle Peter long struggled with how much of the law he should follow, with his struggles culminating in a vision recounted in Acts where he was invited, even encouraged, to eat things that he had considered unclean under the law. But others in the New Testament were equally chastised when they set aside the whole of the law, thinking that any sin that might result would just allow grace to abound.
Even now, we still wonder to what extent we must follow the law in order to enjoy the happiness, understanding, and life that comes from God. How much of the law—and which particular provisions—must we follow in our own time? Can we set aside the law’s prohibitions on eating bacon cheeseburgers or shrimp cocktails while still demanding that “thou shalt not kill”? Is it okay to condemn divorce while ignoring the ways in which we are not fully loving our neighbors as ourselves? Are we okay with God if we do some work or go shopping on the Sabbath but not if we fall in love with someone of the same gender? In all these things, what is the extent of forgiveness that can be allowed? And ultimately, how do we sort out what the law is for us if it is not the source of our salvation but yet still matters?
The founder of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, had some strong thoughts about the law. Like many of the reformers of his day and age, Calvin was concerned about how the Roman Catholic Church of his time had placed great emphasis on checking off the legal boxes and following the rules of the church that were necessary for salvation. Even so, Calvin also knew that scripture included the law and lifted it up as something worthy of our attention. At his core, Calvin was a bit of a rule-follower like me, partly because he trained as a lawyer before starting his reforming work and partly because he spent a lot of time sorting out how to make the people of Geneva behave!
In the midst of all this, Calvin described three uses of the law that I think continue to be helpful for our reflection today. First, Calvin said that the law convicts us of our sin and shows us our need for God’s grace. In this way, the fullness of the law insists that we fall short of the way of life that God intends for us. Second, Calvin insisted that the law is necessary to preserve the civil order. He knew of no better source for the kind of order necessary in his adopted home of Geneva than the Bible itself! But finally and most uniquely, Calvin said that the law shows us how to live—it shows us different and new and gracious ways to live out God’s love in our lives and in our world.
For Calvin, this third use of the law ultimately embodies our gratitude to God, for all that we have and all that we are comes from God, built on the salvation we have in Christ Jesus, so our best response is to live in gratitude and hope. In all this, Calvin suggests that we put less focus on the details of the law and instead encourages us to emphasize the gifts that the spirit of the law under Christ can bring to our lives and our world.
The ultimate gift of the law, then, is not to make more rule-followers like me and Calvin but rather to guide us in our love for God and in the expression of that love with others and our world. It’s easy to get caught up in all the details, to use the law more to condemn than to bless, to miss the spirit of the law that drives us to deeper love for God and neighbor, to focus on following the rules rather than the one who gives them to us. But the gift of the law is to show us how to live in gratitude to God and in grace toward one another, to strengthen us in following the source of all life and hope and grace.
So may God help us to use the law not just to convict us of our sin or keep us in line but to deepen our rejoicing in all of God’s gifts as we walk in God’s ways and learn more of God’s law in our lives as we live more fully each and every day through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.