Sweeter Also Than Honey
A Sermon based on Psalm 19
Its all so very proper, so very polite, so
very . . . well, right. The preacher steps into the pulpit, adjusts her manuscript, clears
her throat and bows her head in prayer, saying as she 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
preachers 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 the young or the 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 that hangs 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 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 Isaiahs vision of a year lived in
such a way that it is acceptable in Gods 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 comes to an abrupt ending
as the people attempt to get rid of Jesus by throwing him off of a cliff. We will, I
trust, hope for a slightly less dramatic conclusion to this mornings service.
Jesus is asking for trouble. He chooses to preach about the year of Jubilee. If he had
been more pastorally sensitive he would have stuck with one of the poetic Psalms of
praise. It is hard to imagine stirring up trouble with a song like the 19th Psalm:
"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. Throughout the Psalm, an idea is voiced and then repeated in similar but different
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 this is: the Universe as preacher. One day passing on word to
the next day, one night informing the next of the creative glory of God. The sun emerging
each day as joyfully as a bridegroom dashing out from beneath the wedding canopy at a
Jewish wedding shouting mazel tov . . . bits 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 University 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
doesnt 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,
didnt you? Its 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 shouldnt 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 Gods Commandments. Which leaves one wondering about
our habitually tepid response to the reading of scripture. We take it for granted . . . or
we just dont comprehend it . . . or we are busy wondering wholl 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 were missing something. Perhaps if we attend carefully to the text we
might discover reason enough for weeping, for rejoicing and even for consternation with
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 Rabbis have placed a drop of honey so that the children
will know from earliest memory the sweetness of Yahwehs Word to Yahwehs
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.
Yet still some followers of Jesus wonder why they might feel compelled to read and
study and know the ways of the Old Testament.
But it is understandable that we no longer think of Gods commands as more
precious than gold or as sweeter than honey. We live in an age that 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
Gods 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 Gods Torah is the good news that Jesus proclaims and embodies. Too
often the Church has taught that Jesus proclaims a gospel that 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, didnt you? At the conclusion of this great hymn to obedience . . . in
the last verses of this love affair with the Law . . . there is the profound confession of
the hard truth: "But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults."
Here, at the climax of this great psalm of the law-abiding comes the painful
acknowledgment that none are blameless. Here even the purest 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 Gods law and Gods
grace, Gods judgment and Gods mercy, Gods commands and Gods
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 the same traits of character that 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". Amen.