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Learning to Love God's Law

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, July 24, A.D.2011 – Elijah White
First please read Psalm 119:121-136 and Matthew 5:14-20

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

We just read 16 verses from one of my favorite Psalms, 119, th longest chapter in the Bible with no fewer than 176 verses, a wisdom hymn rejoicing in the worshiper-poet’s ecstatically fervent love of and delight in God’s Law. This may seem odd to us ‘moderns’ because as ego-centric and therefore incipiently antinomian creatures we have ambivalent feelings about The Law [capital T, capital L] – certainly other people should obey at least the civil law, but we ourselves fear that the Law of the Lord might restrict our freedom to do as we wish. We respect those of the Ten Commandments we have no trouble obeying – at age 73 I’m not likely to be tempted by adultery – but we wink the eye at those we find inconvenient,* and we don’t want to be even reminded of many of Jesus’ own very specific commandments in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.

We knew for about two years that her recurrent severe attacks of atrial fibrillation, in which her heart rate would skyrocket to 240 beats a minute for hours at a time, these physically and emotionally devastating attacks could lead to an immediate heart attack or to congestive heart failure – which together killed her on D-Day, June 6. Many have said they were shocked because ‘she always looked so well’ – that’s because when she wasn’t well, you didn’t see her. Asked how she was doing, what could she say? “I’m ok for now, but I could die any minute?” That’s a conversation stopper you don’t want to hear.

*not guilty? Ever told a little white lie? Ever ogled a spectacular body? And who’s for tithing, Numbers 18:25 et passim, and Malachi 3:6-20?

So how can you and I best relate to this Psalm’s 176 verses rejoicing in God’s Law? Why is the Psalmist so delighted with it? Well, 119 is a deliberately instructional hymn, so I offer an instructional sermon on it, starting with its very unusual poetic structure. 119 is one of the acrostic Psalms: in Psalm 25, for an instance, each verse begins with a Hebrew letter in alphabetical order as if in English the first word of verse 1 began with an A, of verse 2 with a B, and so on to Z -- but 119 expands that method to clusters of eight verses each beginning with the same letter before going on to the next eight beginning with the next letter. That’s why it’s so long: because biblical Hebrew has 22 letters we have 22 sets of 8-verse stanzas for a total of 176, a technical tour de force made even more complex because all but 3 of the 176 contain one of eight synonyms for the God’s truth revealed to man, terms usually translated as Law, Testimonies, Precepts, Statutes, Commandments, Judgments, Word as revelation, and Word as promise.

This complex structure makes a very demanding self-imposed structural challenge – perhaps the poet was showing off, but I think that perhaps he set himself a difficult task simply to show his love of the Lord the way a knight would go look for a really fearsome dragon to demonstrate his love for a lady: talk is cheap, actions count – like the bumper sticker I’ve never dared to put on my car, “If you love Jesus, Tithe! anyone can honk.”

You notice I said ‘love of the Lord,’ but the Psalm proclaims love of the Law – we today may not think of these as equivalent… nor did the poet: for him love of the Lord is absolutely primary, love of the Law secondary, derivative, literally con-sequent.

Think of it this way: in your own experience, if you love someone you want to do your very best to please him or her, right? You ask yourself, you may even ask the one you love, ‘what can I do that would please you?’… so you’re very glad when your beloved one lets you know what would be pleasing. Letting you know is a great kindness to you, so you don’t have to guess. You rejoice to learn how to please the one you love, not to ‘make’ him love you, not to ‘earn’ or ‘win’ love, but because you love – and if you already know that you’re already loved by the other, you’ll be all the more grateful to know how to please and you’ll try all the more to do so.

Does this relate to your own experience? We want to please those we love, and we’re glad for any hints on how to do so – right? Which is precisely why the psalmist rejoices in the Law, the Teachings, the self-Revelation that the Lord has graciously vouchsafed to give to those who love Him: because God whom the poet loves has kindly told His people what delights Him (and, conversely and necessarily, what does not). Now, through the Law, those who love God know how best to put their love into action. We self-loving sinners think of the Law as limiting our freedom of choice – the poet who loves the Lord experiences the Law as freeing, instructing, helping him to put his love of the Lord into pleasing concrete action, moving up from feeling love into doing love.

This delight in God’s teachings is why rabbis and others in the old days, and ecstatic Lubeivichers in Brooklyn today, in schul and in the streets dance with the scroll of the Torah as with a beautiful bride at a joyous festive wedding feast, delighting in the Law of the Lord, grateful for the Law, rejoicing that the God of all creation has kindly made known His ways to men so that they can follow Him and please, delight Him. Properly understood, God’s Law is not about His seeking to control us but about His love for us and our loving response to His love so freely given to us and for us.

As the late Rev’d John Stott wrote, “God never ceases to be our Father and we never cease to be His children, but He wants us to be His grown-up children. Dependent and obedient we must always be, yet the obedience we muct give Him must not be slavish, mechanical or grudging, but intelligent, glad and free. God treats His children as adults, and give us the responsibility to discern and decide for ourselves. In this way our obedience becomes creative. It fosters and does not inhibit our growth.”

We misunderstand both the Old and the New Testaments if we think of God’s Law as a draconian set of hurdles we have to clear in order to earn His love or to ‘make’ Him love us. He already does: why else create us in the first place? Why send and sacrifice His only-begotten Son to redeem us from our addiction to self-seeking self-destructive sins and Sin? God loves us, (John 3:16) He “so loved the world…” The question isn’t about God’s intentions, but ours – God loves us enough to reveal His innermost self to us, His most heartfelt feelings, hopes, desires, giving us His love up front {First John 4:19, “we love, because He first loved us”} – the question is not ‘whether’ God loves us: the question is, How do we respond to His love?

Amongst other things, by delighting in His Law, understanding His purpose in its gift to be an opportunity for us, not a burden: remember the poster for Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town that was made into a postage stamp in the 1930’s? A little boy carrying another little boy on his back through a snowstorm and saying, “He ain’t heavy, Father – he’s my brother.” When we love, it’s not a burden. Go home and read Psalm 119, slowly, one verse at a time, even one verse a day – and study to rejoice in God’s Law and His laws as an opportunity to properly, appropriately, lovingly respond to His love,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.