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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Sun of the Torah.

 Psalm 19:7-14. 
            C.S. Lewis referred to Psalm 19 as the greatest of the Psalms and one of the greatest poems in all human literature.  It starts out with a magnificent praise of God whose presence and power are perceived in creation.  Anyone who believes the creation to be merely an object God gives us to use as we please is not paying attention to this Psalm or the rest of the Bible.  Creation is alive and praises and points to the One who made it.  The heavens themselves proclaim the grandeur and goodness of the Creator, giving particular attention to the glory of the sun.
            Then the Psalm shifts gears in verse 7, and immediately transfers its praise from creation to the Torah, the law of God.  What the sun is to life on this planet, the Torah is to human life: a powerful force illuminating and giving life to everything.  Without the Torah, God’s law, in our lives, our existence freezes over and we become spiritually blind and effectually dead.  There is no true human life apart from the law of God.
            The sun can be experienced in at least two ways.  For one thing, we are more conscious today of the sun’s dangers.  When I was a kid and we went to Ocean Grove for the summer, there was no such thing as “sun screen.”  No one ever heard of an SPF, “solar protection factor,” rating.  Who wanted to be screened from the sun?  You went to the beach to soak up as much sun as possible.  What you brought with you was not sun screen but sun tan lotion.  You didn’t want to burn, of course, but, at least in my family, you wanted to get deeply tanned.  Now of course we are much more aware of the sun’s dangers what with skin cancer and the depletion of the ozone layer and so forth.
            But more obviously, the sun is the source of all life and energy on this planet.  Even the energy we get from fossil fuels was, they tell us, originally solar energy stored in vegetation on the earth eons ago.  Without the sun we live on a dead rock.
            The Psalmist tells is that the Torah functions in the same way in human hearts and communities.  It is incredibly beneficial and essential.  We are spiritually dead without it.  Without the law we fall into situations of toxic injustice and violence where the strong oppress the weak and society freezes into fear, hatred, and anger.
            But the Torah also has the effect of revealing our own shortcomings and sins.  When we are confronted with the law we see clearly how far from keeping it we are.  We perceive the wretchedness and brokenness of our lives.  The law burns us and can even become as spiritually deadly to us as radiation is to growing life.  The Torah is both lethal to life and necessary for life, depending on how we use it, how we receive it, how we process it.      

            With the sun, though, something has to come between the earth and the sun’s rays, acting as a filter, converting lethal radiation into beneficial sunlight.  For the earth, of course, this filter is the atmosphere.  God’s law can also seem like unadulterated, destructive wrath, with ethical demands that we cannot possible live up to, leaving us guilty and condemned.  There must be a mediator, a filter that turns the Torah from destruction to benefit.
            You’ll notice in the structure of this Psalm, in verses 7 through 9, there is a pattern.  Each verse starts with a synonym for the Torah: law, decrees, precepts, commandments, and ordinances.  Then a word of description: perfect, sure, right, clear, true and righteous.  And finally a beneficial effect in human life: reviving the soul, making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart, and enlightening the eyes.  But stuck in the middle of that series is a verse that is slightly different.  That is verse 9a: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.”
            The Psalmist is giving us the attitude we need to have if we are to appropriate and ingest and receive the law.  And this attitude is the deep respect and awe and submission that the Bible describes with the word “fear.”  This is an awareness that the law is from God and therefore holy, and way bigger than we are, and not to be trifled with.
             Approached without this kind of fear, without awe and respect and reverence and wonder, we reduce the law to some words that we can use as we please.  We start abusing the law, making it a weapon against our enemies, or an excuse for retaining our privileges and status.  Both Jesus and Paul recognize the lethal character of the law when taken literally and objectively and wielded against people, especially the weak.
            We are called to be subject to God’s law; it is not subject to us.  We serve it; it does not serve us.  We do not define God’s Word; God’s Word defines us.        
            “The fear of God is pure,” says the Psalm.  One ancient writer understood this to mean that the law not about blame or dread.  It is not a self-centered terror about what will happen to us. 
            Rather, the fear of God is a radical openness to God and a desire to conform to God’s will.  When we fear God it means we don’t fear anything or anyone else in all the world.  To fear God is to behave fearlessly in this world.  To fear God is to live in full-hearted love for the world God made.  It is not a fear of punishment, but an awesome awareness of what we have been given and of who we truly are.  To fear God is to let go of our illusions about ourselves, and to welcome the transformation God brings into our lives.

            And so the Psalmist realizes that, along with the sweetness and surpassing value of the law, it also contains a warning.  By the law’s light we see our own defilement and shortcomings.  We see our own sin.
            The Psalm talks particularly about “hidden faults,” the sins we don’t even know about.  Our unconscious, repressed, denied, and casual acts of complicity in evil that we would rather not bring to mind.
            For when we subject ourselves to the light of God’s law, when we open ourselves to this fearsome radiation of the truth, we are forced to see what hides in the darkness within our own souls.  None of us is pure.  We are entangled in a web of deceit and evil in which we are breaking, shattering! God’s law all the time.
            The moment I open my eyes in the morning, this complicity becomes apparent.  The first thing I see is the cotton bed sheets I slept in.  God’s law is so inconvenient because it forces us to see beyond this comfortable fabric, and ask where did this come from?  How did it get here?  Who grew the cotton plants?  Who harvested it?  Who processed the cotton and turned it into yarn?  Who wove it into sheets?  Who bleached it, colored it, cut it, sewed it, packed it, transported it, and sold it?  Was that all done in a way that glorified God?  Was it all done with care and respect for God’s creation?  Was it all done with justice and equality for workers and families and communities, according to God’s law?  When I bought them, was I not becoming a willing participant in the whole process?
            That’s just in the first second of wakefulness!  I then proceed through my day asking these kinds of questions about where all the things I enjoy came from, by the light of God’s law, and I have no choice but to realize my hidden faults.  I am living off the blood, suffering, poverty, degradation, pollution, exploitation, and destruction of God’s creation and God’s people.
            So of course the Psalm has to plea desperately to God: “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.”  The “insolent” are the proud, the powerful, the self-righteous, self-important, successful leaders of our society and economy, who exert “dominion” over others by force.  These are the ones whose sinful control over the way we exist has spawned this whole system by which we are all complicit in murder, theft, rape, and other kinds of evil.
            Fearing God means knowing the inevitable consequences of this kind of thing, and realizing that we are so in for it.

            Fearing God also means recovering our blamelessness and innocence, at least of great transgressions, by separating ourselves from this kind of corruption as far as we are able.  At the very least, do not give the insolent a toe-hold in your own heart.  Do not let the sinful have dominion over your soul.  At the very least pay attention, and do what you can to balance this evil in your own life, in whatever small ways you can.  Support people trying to free child-slave cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, for instance (just to continue with the cotton theme).  Buy things produced less destructively, and traded fairly.  We’re all in this together.                    
            The law, the Torah, at its heart, is about love.  God gives the people the law so that they do not fall back into the hateful, iniquitous corruption they bore the brunt of when they were in Egypt.  Do not be like that!  Do not enslave and exploit your neighbors!  Do not let an insolent ruling class and a Pharaoh congeal over you!  Do not let some have dominion over others!
            And it’s not just about those thousands of escaped slaves gathered at Mt. Sinai.  They and their descendants – including those of us who have been adopted into Abraham’s family by faith in Jesus – are to be the exemplary nation, revealing in their life together God’s will of peace for the whole world!
            Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, who became flesh to dwell among us.  He is the Torah, the law, the fulfillment of the commandments.  Obeying him is obeying God’s law, and vice-versa.  And in him we see most clearly that the essence of the law is love, God’s universal love for all creation and all people.
            In the gospel reading for today we hear Jesus even say that whoever is not against him is for him.  So it is enough simply to not work against what Jesus is doing.  Someone doesn’t even have to be a card-carrying member of Jesus’ circle, they don’t have to have taken on his name; if they imitate and obey him by casting out demons, that is to say, by bringing liberation into people’s lives, by lifting people up out of bondage, that is enough.
            Then he talks about the consequences of insolence and dominion, when it causes others, particularly the weak, to stumble or go astray.  In other words, when they do things in people’s name and with their tacit authority that actually separate them from God because they are so violently in disobedience of God’s law.  Even if these are done by responsible leaders, the “hand,” the “foot,” and the “eye,” this constitutes a grievous betrayal.  Jesus doesn’t talk about hell very much, but he never talks about it so graphically as here.  Causing a gentle soul to sin unawares is a terrible thing to do.

            What is most imperative in human life and the life of the whole planet is that people follow Jesus, that we keep the law of God, that we observe Torah, that God’s commandments about how to live together in peace be obeyed and cherished.  For if we do not, then we draw down upon ourselves the consequences, which are unrest, disorder, inequality, violence, injustice, and fear.
            This Psalm concludes with a famous verse asking for God’s acceptance of one’s words and thoughts.  “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  It is a beautiful general conclusion to a prayer or a sermon.
            We pray that we will be acceptable before the living God who is our rock, that is, the sure foundation of our faith and our actions, and our redeemer, the One who forgives, renews, and transforms us.  We pray to be made acceptable because we know how unacceptable our words and thoughts have been.  We pray that God make us acceptable, and give us courage to fear nothing in this life, least of all the insolent who seek dominion over us.  That, fearing only God, we obey God’s law with all our hearts, and follow God’s Messiah, Jesus, with all our words and actions.

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