Christ Centered Resources

Sweeter also than honey

Rev. Ed Searcy

Luke 4:14-30, Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalms 19:1-14
University Hill United Church : Sun, January 28, 2001
It is all so very proper, so very polite, so very .... well, right. The preacher steps into the pulpit, adjusts his manuscript, clears his throat and bows his head in prayer, saying as he always does before the sermon: Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Of course, if the congregation is paying any attention to this subversive prayer, it will be put on guard that the sermon that is to follow may well be provocative, disturbing, contrary to reason ... even downright foolish. It is this longing that the preacher’s words and meditations might be acceptable to Yahweh ... the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Miriam and Moses, of Isaiah and Jeremiah ... that subverts the sermon. There is nothing here of preaching that is acceptable to the Official Board or to the Ministry & Personnel Committee ... nothing asking that the words spoken will please liberals or conservatives or young or old. The preacher is not praying for a sea of smiling, appreciative faces and many a warm handshake after the service. Any preacher worth her salt can generate a happy and contented flock who hang on her every word. But this is not what one who prays Psalm 19 longs for. Those who sing and pray Psalm 19 practice asking for words and thoughts and lives that will be acceptable in the sight of Yahweh, the LORD of all creation. What goes unspoken, of course, is that a life acceptable to Yahweh is often a life that disturbs and confounds. Which is precisely the lesson that Jesus is about to discover as we leave off reading from the 4th chapter of Luke this morning. He returns from his baptism in the Jordan to preach his first sermon back home. Jesus reads Isaiah’s vision of a year lived in such a way that it is acceptable in God’s sight. Then he proclaims that the time for such a Jubilee year has arrived here and now. Within minutes the homecoming congregation becomes a mob in a lynching mood. The service in the synagogue ends abruptly as the people attempt rid themselves of Jesus by throwing him off of a cliff. We will, I trust, hope for a slightly less dramatic conclusion to this morning’s service. Jesus is, of course, asking for trouble. He chooses to preach about the year of Jubilee. If he had been more pastorally sensitive perhaps he would have stuck with one of the poetic Psalms of praise. It is hard to imagine stirring up trouble with a song like this: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; & the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” On first glance this seems a wonderfully universal and extraordinarily inclusive song of praise to the Creator. In good Hebrew fashion each line is a rhyme of ideas. You can see it on the printed version that is in your hands. Throughout the Psalm, the idea on the left recurs again in different words on the right: Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world. What an incredible image - the Universe as preacher. One day passing on word to the next day, one night informing the next of the creative glory of God. Then the sun emerging each day as joyfully as a bridegroom dashing out from beneath the wedding canopy at a Jewish wedding shouting ‘mazel tov’ ... its heat the silent Word of the Creator bringing forth life day after day, season after season. Such silent speech is what many study with fascination on this very campus. Wander over to the physics and chemistry and biology labs or to the astrophysics observatory. See the wonder in the eyes of those who consistently witness the glory of the silent harmonies of the Universe ... harmonies that sing, for those who have ears, of the glory of God. Of course, one doesn’t have to have a PhD to hear these songs. See how many enjoy the sunrise and sunset precisely because at the moment that bridges night and day it is as if one can hear the sun and moon speaking to one another, in passing, of the wonder of creation. Yes, on first glance this appears to be a hymn that could be sung by any worshipper of the generic God met in nature. There is nothing scandalous here. Nothing to get the preacher into trouble ... or to cause the people to weep. You heard the people weeping, didn’t you? It’s there in the text we read today from Nehemiah. It is on the occasion when all the people gather to hear the first public reading of the Torah in Jerusalem in nearly a century. Together they listen to the Torah - the Law - of Yahweh. Then they break down and cry. This brings Ezra and Nehemiah quickly to the pulpit to remind the people that they shouldn’t be weeping. No, the reading of the Torah is cause for great celebration and feasting. So everything comes to a halt while the great congregation prepares a holiday to celebrate the gift of God’s Commandments. Which leaves one wondering about our often tepid response to the reading of scripture. We take it for granted ... or we just don’t comprehend it ... or we are busy wondering who’ll win the Super Bowl ... and before we know it the reading is over and we have to be careful to suppress a yawn. Not much weeping here ... nor, for that matter, many spontaneous shouts for joy. Perhaps we’re missing something. Perhaps if we attend carefully to the text we might discover reason enough for weeping, for rejoicing and even for consternation with the preacher. Sure enough, we do not have to look very far to find trouble enough for both preacher and people. Here it is, in the heart of the 19th Psalm. See how the rhythm changes ... and with it the content of this potent poetry? No longer is the subject matter the generic, silent speech of the universal creative God. Now we sing of the very public and very real spoken word of the LORD ... of Yahweh ... the one whose speaks to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, to Elijah, to Isaiah and Jeremiah ... and to Jesus. Like the day and night we join in singing the glory of God by celebrating the gift of the law. And what a litany of gratitude it is that we sing: “The law, the decrees, the precepts, the commandment, the fear, the ordinances of Yahweh are perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true. They revive the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever and are righteous altogether.” This Torah - this way of life - this Word is worth more than gold and is sweeter than honey. This is the lesson taught by the ancient rabbis to their youthful pupils when, before the children can read, they are invited to lick the Torah scroll ... a scroll on which the Rabbi’s have placed a drop of honey so that the children will know from earliest memory the sweetness of Yahweh’s Word to Yahweh’s people. It is this sweet, sweet Torah that Jesus speaks of when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Yet still some followers of Jesus wonder why they might feel compelled to read and study and live by the ways of the Old Testament. But perhaps it is understandable that we no longer think of God’s commands as more precious than gold or as sweeter than honey. We live in an age which is determined to teach us that we are free, liberated, no longer oppressed by the shackles of obedience to ancient commands. So some shy away from the commandments that decree sexual fidelity as God’s will done on earth as in heaven ... and others cannot fathom a Lord whose ordinances include the jubilee of good news for the poor. And in a world which has ‘liberated’us from sabbath practice in order to provide us with ‘free time’ all of us seem to have given up the possibility of obeying the fourth commandment - that we keep the sabbath holy by doing nothing that can be construed as productive but only that which is restful and recuperative on that day. Of course, the habitual breaking of a commandment as central as keeping the sabbath holy leads to a people who choose to forget more and more of the commands and decrees and precepts and ordinances of Yahweh. We are not the first to forget. Nehemiah and Ezra read the Torah to a people with over a century of amnesia. When they hear the law again they break down and weep. Do they weep because they have strayed so far from the way of the LORD? Are they shedding tears of joy at learning the Law again, as if for the first time? Yes ... and yes. When Jesus comes home proclaiming that it is not too late to repent ... not too late to begin living in the Kingdom of God ... he, too, comes reminding the people of the precious Torah of Yahweh. Some drop their nets and turn their lives right around and follow him. Others take offense and plot to silence his radical talk and life. Make no mistake, living a life in harmony with God’s Torah is the good news that Jesus proclaims and embodies. Too often the Church has taught that Jesus proclaims a gospel which puts an end to the law. We have sadly imagined that Jews are caught up in obedience to deathly legalisms. We have forgotten that the God of the Commandments is also the redeeming God of grace. We have too easily separated grace from obedience. Our God has too quickly become simply the warm and cuddly ‘God of love’, the God of ‘cheap grace’. We have too frequently stopped living lives of costly obedience to the Holy God of Israel who, in Jesus Christ, has offered to adopt us as full citizens in the Kingdom of God. This common pattern of forgetfulness is the reason that our congregation is about to embark on a lenten journey in which we will seek to discover again Jesus’ call to follow him into life lived under the rule of God. With the 19th Psalm we long for spoken words and inner thoughts, for years and lives that are acceptable to God, “our rock and our redeemer”. With the 19th Psalm we understand that, in the end, we all must rely on the mysterious grace of God to clear our names, to pardon our folly, to redeem our reputation. You did notice that, didn’t you? At the conclusion of this great hymn to obedience ... in the last verse of this love affair with the Law ... there is the profound confession of the hard truth. Here, at the climax of this great psalm of the law-abiding comes the painful acknowledgment that none are blameless. Here even the purest of us confess that all are convicts who require pardon by the only one who can redeem the ugly mess we leave behind, the vexing problems we cause, the innocent lives we damage even - sometimes especially - in spite of our best intentions. The 19th Psalm remembers what we so easily forget - that God’s law and God’s grace, God’s judgment and God’s mercy, God’s commands and God’s compassion are not mutually exclusive categories. They are, instead, the necessary twin character traits of Yahweh who longs for a world made whole and for a people who remain faithful. These are, of course, the same traits of character which we see revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Torah of Yahweh Incarnate. Jesus comes as Servant King to call us to turn and live a life of obedience. Jesus also comes as Crucified Redeemer to make us whole and new and clean and beloved in the sight of God. As the living Word of Yahweh he is “more desirable than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, pure honey from the comb”.