Sermon on Psalm 19 and John 2:13-16 for March 4, 2018, Lent 3B

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims  God’s handiwork.

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.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of God is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

John 2:13-16

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

I want to confess something – a bad characteristic of mine that I seem, at the moment, powerless to overcome.  I buy more books than I read.  I do a good bit of reading, but not nearly as much as I want to.  So if I have unread books, why do I buy more? 

Here is another confession – because I hear an author being interviewed or I read something that refers to another book, and I often find myself thinking, “O my gosh!  I don’t know much at all about that.  I have to read that!  I’m ignorant in that area.”  I often feel inadequately informed. 

But that problem is backed into the cake of what I do: I am a pastor.  I have to stand up here every week and say something about God, and life, and how the two intersect.  But God is unfathomable, and life is mysterious, so when do you ever know enough to say something? 

I love what our Presbyterian constitution, the Book of Order says about this:

“The mystery and reality of God transcend our experience, understanding, and speech, such that we cannot reduce God to our ways of speaking. Yet we are compelled to speak of the glory, goodness, and grace of the God who is revealed in the world around us, in Scripture, and above all, in Jesus Christ.” (W-1.0302: Language)

God transcends our understanding and speech, and yet we must speak.  This is not a new problem, and it is not unique to ministers.  Perhaps you have felt this too. 

Nature’s Wordless Speech

I think this problem of the reality of God and the difficulty capturing that reality in words was in the mind of the writer of Psalm 19.  So she begins without words, in wonder. 

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Maybe the purest experience of God is simply wonder and awe.  You do not need words at all.  All you need is to have a body capable of experiencing the world in the present moment with mindfulness and gratitude. 

Mindfulness and gratitude are how this Psalm begins.  I picture the psalmist throwing her head back, looking up and spreading out her arms as she says:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims  God’s handiwork.”

How do the heavens tell, and how does the firmament proclaim things about God?  Well not with words, exactly:

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.

All you have to do is to mindfully look up, day or night, at the sun or at the stars, and you get the message.  You feel gratitude.  You want to say “thank you”.  And you cannot say “thank” without a “you” to thank. 

The psalmist begins to think about the sun, and pictures the daily journey across the day sky like the joyful journey of an athletic bridegroom:

In the heavens, God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.

From Awe to Specificity

Now here something subtle and important is going on.  The psalmist has started with the feeling of awe and wonder, that gives us goosebumps, without any words and without any definitions.   But now, some specificity is introduced.  God is imagined one way and not another very subtly here – and importantly.

In the world the psalmist lived in there were lots of gods almost everyone besides the Israelites believed in. 

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Most ancient religions were nature religions.  Every aspect of nature was a god.  There was the rain god, the river god, the sea god, the moon god and the sun god. 

And the gods were not necessarily friendly.  They could be – or not.  They were capricious and unpredictable.  Therefore there was always an element of fear – the sun could warm you, or it could shine so strongly that it burned up your crops, causing famine and starvation.  You never knew which would happen.

But the psalmist utterly rejects that a-moral version of god.  The sun is not god at all – it is just light that runs across the sky every day from its dark tent that the Creator God has made for it.  There is no fear here – in fact, there is delight; mindful gratitude.

Torah’s God

How do you know which version of god to believe in?  The psalmist has already tipped her hand.  She has a set of stories, a wisdom tradition that has been handed down to her, that has formed her perception of the divine.  She has Torah.

The next section of her psalm celebrates Torah.  In English, it gets translated “law” – which is unfortunate in the extreme.  Torah means guidance and instruction.  Of course, it includes the laws of Moses, but so much more!  And besides, even the laws themselves are set in the context of stories – the stories of God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. 

That is a beautiful story of a God who is morally good, and who wills the well-being of the people.  Now that is a huge contrast to the capricious nature gods of Israel’s neighbors.  So learning about God from Torah is a cause for more mindful gratitude:

The law (Torah) of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart

Rejoicing in Torah

Thursday was my last bible study here before I move to Arkansas.  I left with a study of the moral vision of the Torah, the law.  The Israelite version of God is amazing and so inspiring!  In the law, we see that God wants conditions set-up so that the poor are cared for. 

So, in bible study, we notice that, according to Torah, every tribe in Israel was given a proportional share of the land on which to work and be productive and responsible. The law made it impossible for a family to be permanently dispossessed of their land at any price.

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There were other laws that provided for the common good.  Every seven years all debts are to be forgiven, and debt-slaves were set free.

The poor were allowed to glean in fields they did not own, behind the reapers, so that they could have something to eat.  Even if they lost their family land, every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, they got their land back, so a permanent poor class could not be formed. 

According to Torah, everyone has obligations to their neighbor to be, as it says,  liberally generous, especially to those in hardship, including the resident aliens, the non-citizens.  They are, in fact, commanded to love their neighbors as themselves. It is from the law, from Torah that Jesus got his most famous line, which he called “the second greatest commandment.”  Right up there with “loving God” is the love of neighbor – love, that is, in the most practical, economic sense of loving benevolence.

Jesus’ God

This God-concept was in Jesus’ mind, as it was in all faithful Israelites.  But Jesus took it seriously in a way others did not have the courage to. 

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When he saw people being exploited – especially by the temple leadership, very people who were supposed to be helping them connect with the loving, caring God of Torah, it upset him. 

This understanding of God is exactly what motivated Jesus’ action in the temple that day.  He shut the whole place down, at least temporarily, in a symbolic action, reminiscent of the prophets of Israel who acted out public dramas to get their message across.

We believe that Jesus shows us what God is like even more clearly than the stories of Torah.  This also what our Presbyterian constitution says:

“Yet we are compelled to speak of the glory, goodness, and grace of the God who is revealed in the world around us, in Scripture, and above all, in Jesus Christ.”

We start with wonder and awe.  We begin without words, just like the speech of the sun and the stars.  We start with mindful gratitude; with a pure “thank you.”

And then we go to scripture for fuller understanding.  We read about a good Creator who wills the liberation and well being of all of us.  And finally, we come to Jesus to understand what God is like. 

In Jesus we see God acting against injustice, against oppression, against exploitation.  We see courage, we see risk on behalf of setting things right.  We see love in action.

This tells us what kind of people we aspire to be: people filled with the joy of loving an awesome God, and therefore loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

That is why what we are doing right here and right now is of such importance.  As we gather, we focus our attention on this God, we orient ourselves towards God, in other words, towards the highest possible good.  We remind ourselves of the high calling we have been given.   

And as we gather to break bread together we enact a vision of what we aspire to be: a community united in common bonds of faith, nourished in our very souls to go out and live lives of God-seeking, love-seeking, justice-seeking courageous faithfulness.  We seek to follow Jesus.

So, go out into the world in peace.
Have courage!
Hold on to what is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted,
support the weak,
help the suffering.
Honor all people.
Love and serve the Lord your God,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Farewell, my beautiful, courageous, open-hearted, inclusive, responsive, compassionate, inquisitive, community in Gulf Shores!  I will miss you, but I will remember you with fond affection and prayers.  God bless you all!

Pastor Steven

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