A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 21, 2001
Text: Psalm 19
“The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.” (vs. 7-11)
Fellow servants of the Word, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Epiphany is a strange season to me. I’ve never known quite what to make of it, and its meaning has eluded me, despite the determined efforts of my confirmation and Sunday school teachers. It has remained a more or less insignificant aspect of my faith, a foggy gray season to follow the Christmas brightness and clarity.
Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I had to turn to one of my numerous reference books to get a handle on what the Epiphany and the Sundays that follow it are really about. First of all, we are in a season of transition. We are moving from the solid, definitive moment of Incarnation to the concrete penitence of Lent. In our readings, Jesus is on the move, heading from place to place as he begins and advances his ministry of teaching and healing. The nature of the season hustles us along with him, trying to match his pace.
This season is also a time of growth. You’ll notice that the color in the sanctuary is green–green for growth, green for life. Sometimes it seems like the “green” Sundays drag on interminably in the church, Sundays where we’re not rejoicing and we’re not mourning; we have neither festival colors nor penitential purples. Just ordinary green. Green for growth, green for life.
Most importantly, though, the season of Epiphany is about revelation. It begins with the revelation of Jesus to those long-traveling astrologers, the Oriental kings who finally find the babe beneath the star on the Day of Epiphany. Jesus has come into the world; now he is first made known to the nations.
The revelation of Epiphany continues the very next Sunday, where we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus. Remember the words that come rolling out of Heaven’s vault: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It is the start of Jesus’ public ministry. His identity, his mission, his secret become a little clearer on the Jordan’s banks.
The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany is the Transfiguration. It is the mountaintop experience, the blinding revelation of Jesus the Christ, the best glimpse we have of what he is all about this side of the cross. But all along the way, every Sunday from Baptism to Transfiguration, we get a taste of revelation as Jesus own words and deeds paint the picture a little sharper.
This theme of ongoing revelation during Epiphany is the reason we read the Nineteenth Psalm today. As a Bible camp counselor, the opening lines of this poem always struck a chord deep within me: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.” Working every day on the shore of Lake Andrew, under the clear Minnesota sky, surrounded by the trees and grass and frogs and coons of our little woods, it was easy to believe that creation had something to tell me about my Creator.
I was drawn to the psalm today like bee to clover. As I looked through the readings for this Sunday, I knew right away that I wanted to preach from this psalm. The heavens–and the frogs and coons–of the opening lines, perhaps! Or the final words, ones which are never far from the preacher’s heart: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” One text with two beloved passages...how lucky could I be?
Then it hit me: as I read through this psalm, I mentally skipped over the entire middle section in my rush to get from “good part” to “good part!” Rereading those middle verses, it quickly became clear to me why I had bypassed them. “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.” And five more or less identical statements following! It was repetitive. It was boring. It was uninspiring. And it was the very heart of this psalm. I imagine many of you share my reaction to these lines, but if we are to understand the words of Psalm 19, we need to engage this song of the Law.
I grew up the son of a lawyer. At one point in my life, I thought that I, too, would like to go into law. My younger brother enjoyed a class in Constitutional law so much in high school that he’s now in a pre-law program himself. Needless to say, despite the incessant lawyer jokes at the dinner table, there’s an awful lot of respect for the law in my family. We’re fascinated by it. We enjoy the intricacies of it. And, of course, we live by it! But as far as I know, no one in my family has ever written a song about the magnificence of the law. Not even, I imagine, about God’s Law.
In the psalmist’s eyes, creation and the Law are cut from one and the same fabric. They both shout “God!” to us for all they’re worth. Many folks, myself included, can easily hear this cry in the wonders of nature, yet can barely make out the shout of “God!” in the Law he made for us. Why is the law worth rejoicing in? Perhaps some closer listening is in order...
What does the Law reveal to us about our God? Forgive me if this is too obvious, but I think the first thing it tells us is that Law is important to God. If it were irrelevant or inconsequential, God would not give it to us. So God values the Law. If he values this Law, it means that all things are not equal before God. One thing is right, another is not; one thing is lawful, another is sin. So, on the most fundamental level, the Law reveals to us a moral God, one who distinguishes right and wrong from each other.
But let’s go a step further. The Law also reveals to us that God is a loving God, and that we matter to him. This is made clear in its very giving. I have known children whose parents have never “laid down the law.” The kids get into trouble, of course. They steal; they curse; they disrespect their parents and others in authority; sometimes they get in worse trouble still. But more painful than any consequences their behavior might bring is the message their parents have already unwittingly sent them: “You don’t matter. What you do is irrelevant. I don’t care about you enough to give you rules.” We can take God’s Law as a gift given to shape our lives into his image.
The Law reveals the mighty creative power of God, as well. Law brings peace and order out of chaos. To the ancient people, bringing order out of chaos defined the act of creation; anyone who could tame the primordial chaos was indeed a God. So a God who gives law is a powerfully creative God.
Most important of all, the psalmist would point out, the Law reveals God because it is in the Law that God speaks, using his own words to tell us about himself. From the creation we can make inferences about the Creator, but in the Law the Creator speaks to us in the first person.
Lutherans spend a lot of their time talking about Law. Following the apostle Paul, we have usually seen two great values, or uses, of the Law, in addition to its revelatory nature.
First of all, God’s Law shows us how to conduct our lives. The natural law philosophers Locke and Hobbes understood that humans are essentially self-centered, and that without some outside motivation, our lives will be a short, brutish mess as we destroy each other in an attempt to get what we want. A rule of law, they said, enables human beings to live together in community. It is the outside motivation that makes the whole thing work. Just consider the events of the last two days in our nation’s capital, and you’ll see what I mean. Today marks the first day of President George W. Bush’s presidency, and there has been no bloodshed. There are no riots, and there is no tumult in the government. Despite the fact that precisely half of our citizens would not have chosen President Bush to be their leader, there will not be a revolution. He will be the 43rd President of the United States, and the transition of power will go down without violence, because of the rule of law.
And following God’s Law would be all well and good for us, if we were able to do it. A people made in God’s image and living according to his own “rule book” would have it made. Except that we are fallen creatures, and we can never really get past the self-interest that rules nature. It rules us, too–mercilessly–and it is here that the Law fulfills its second function: The Law makes us aware of our sinfulness, driving us to the grace of an even fuller revelation of God–the gospel of Christ.
The more of the Law I read, the more I see in myself that comes up short. The Law isn’t making me fail, but its an exceptionally good instrument for revealing the myriad ways in which I am already failing. The harder I try to save myself by keeping the Law, the more it condemns my self-centeredness and highlights my sin. That is its nature.
Only after a person has been beaten up and worn down to nothing by the law, only when he has despaired of all his power to save himself under the Law, only then does the Law give way and point beyond itself. Even as God’s revelation in the created world led us to the more perfect revelation in his Law, so does the Law itself finally bring us to God’s most perfect revelation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. In him we learn about God’s love and mercy. In his life we have a perfect role model. And in his death and resurrection we behold his terrifying and magnificent power to redeem us. The Law drives us to the cross, and the power of the cross alone saves us.
From revelation to revelation, our God is an awesome God. For creation, for the Law, for the Word and for our salvation, let our words of praise and our meditations of thanksgiving be acceptable in his sight. Amen.