Sunday, 20 November 2011

Speaking the word of God

Preacher: Peter 

I was asked to speak today about speaking the word of God. Which made me think of all the different, and often contradictory, ways in which I have heard that phrase “the word of God” used in the course of my Christian journey.

For example, in my years in a Free Evangelical Church, the sermon was often introduced with the words: “and now our brother will bring us the Word of God”. This usually made me feel uncomfortable – how can the disorganised and let’s be honest rather commonplace thoughts of Mr ____ (much as I’m fond of him) possibly be described as “the Word of God”?! Anyway, surely only the Bible is the Word of God?

Or I can look further back to my years in a Pentecostal church, where it was expected that God would regularly speak through ecstatic Spirit-filled worship in words of prophecy or tongues and interpretation: God himself speaking directly to us with words of encouragement or challenge or even angry criticism. Of course there’s plenty of scope for abuse here – the temptation use the overwhelming authority of speaking the very words of God to browbeat your fellow Christians to come round to your way of thinking is too much for most of us mortals to resist.

This Pentecostal prophetic speaking was in tension with an equally characteristically Pentecostal emphasis on the Bible as the inerrant word of God. The Bible was very much on a pedestal, possibly even subject to idolatrous reverence, and of course inerrant scripture required inerrant interpretation from the preacher in his (and it always was a “his”) sermons. Another opportunity to browbeat your fellow Christians into submissive conformity.

So “speaking the word of God” has been a slippery concept in my experience. But before we give up on the idea all together, let’s go back to the bible itself in search of some solid ground.

Acts 4:23-31        
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
         “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
                  and the peoples plot in vain?
         The kings of the earth set themselves,
                  and the rulers were gathered together,
                  against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
         for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

Peter and John have just been released, after being arrested and threatened by the religious leaders and told to stop talking “in the name of Jesus”. They go back to the Christian community who immediately pray for them. This prayer is helpful for us today, because of the way it handles this concept of “the word of God”.

They start their prayer by referring to written scripture  as the word of God. They quote Psalm 2 as words spoken by the creator God, through the mouth of David, enabled by the agency of the Holy Spirit. And they confidently apply these words of scripture to their own situation of besieging hostility, expecting God to speak to them through this ancient text.

But they also pray that God will help them to “continue to speak his word with all boldness”. So here we also see the word of God as something that continues to be spoken by Christians, especially in situations of persecution and prophetic confrontation with the authorities. This speaking is an act of witness, speaking “of what we have seen and heard” (v20).

We have a complex dynamic process going on here – David speaks out his poetry, which is written down and incorporated in scripture, which generations later is read and memorized and meditated upon by Jews who encounter Jesus and apply it to him. Under pressure of persecution they quote the written scripture as they pray for boldness to speak out God’s word, and later the whole story is written down and incorporated into scripture all over again. And finally, here am I reading it and speaking it again. The Holy Spirit is indispensably involved at every step, even – I hope – the last one.

Notice in this passage the emphasis on obedient service – both David, past writer of the word, and the apostles, current speakers of the word, are described as “your servants” (vv25,29). Notice also that both written and spoken “word of God” are deployed in service of the same task – to bear witness to Jesus.

So Acts 4 gives us a helpful model of how the written and spoken “word of God” can be deployed together by the church as tools for prophetic witness. As Lloyd Pietersen puts it: “The biblical text .. acts as a means of funding the prophetic imagination of the church.”

But questions remain for me, and the “word of God” has an elusive quality. Do we choose our scripture, or is it chosen for us? The boundaries of the Christian Bible are fuzzy, even today. If you open a Catholic Bible you will find a slightly different contents page than you would in a Protestant Bible. Going beyond that, how do we even choose which sacred book? After all, we are not the only “people of a book” – there are many books in the world which people hold sacred: the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Te Ching, the Vedas, the Lord of the Rings...

What about novels or poems that move us and challenge us? Is God speaking to us through these – are these in some sense “the word of God” as well? Or music and songs? As The Hold Steady sing in “Stay Positive”: “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures”. There’s a terrible danger here of straying into banal wish-fulfillment religion. Whatever I happen to find moving or comforting I call “the word of God” for me.

OK I’m getting lost again. Let’s turn back to the bible for a some guidance.

Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

The unknown writer of this particular piece of scripture tells us that God’s revelation is progressive. God spoke through the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, revealing more and more of his character, but this self-revelation climaxed in the sending of Jesus his son into the world. Jesus is the ultimate self-revelation of God to us – God can do no more. John 1 gives us the profound idea that Jesus is the Word of God. God is there and he is not silent (to quote Francis Schaeffer) – he loves to speak to us in words that we can understand. He speaks, and what he speaks is Jesus.

This explains why the Bible is our sacred scripture – it is the record of the difficult, troubling, liberating, tragic, argumentative encounter between Israel and the creator God, and the climax of that process in the life, deeds, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bible is sacred because of Jesus. And likewise, the word of God comes alive for us when we speak it – to each other, but also to the world at large in witness, but only if we bear witness to Jesus. When we speak truly of Jesus, bearing faithful witness to what we have seen and heard (as in Acts 4:20), only then is there the possibility for us of speaking the word of God.

So the word of God cannot be a “dead letter”, a book on a shelf. If it is to bring life it must be handled, used, spoken out. How can we even begin such a task? What does it feel like to “speak the word of God”? Is it even possible? I’m going to finish by going back to a very ancient text from our Bible which I have found helpful when thinking about this.

Genesis 2:18-20
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

This primal myth comes down to us with a powerful archetypal image – the first man giving names to all the animals. God makes “out of the ground” animals and birds, and brings each one to Adam “to see what he would call them”.

We see Adam here as the first poet. Good poetry names – it uses words to describe an experience that has perhaps never been described before. But when you read it there is a shock of recognition and you think, “yes, I have felt that too, but never knew how to put it into words”.  So God brings the animals to Adam so that he can name them.

We also see Adam as the first scientist, making an early start on the work of Linnaean classification, bringing orderly description to the chaotic appearances of nature. Naming, classifying and describing open the way into a deep understanding of the structure and workings of God’s world.

Maybe Adam is also the first prophet. God shows something to Adam, and asks him to name it. Think of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. God shows them things too – not animals and birds, but injustice, oppression, violence, idolatry, adultery, unfaithfulness – shows them clearly so that they can no longer be ignored, asks the prophet to name these things, to speak out clearly and name them for what they really are. This is not word-by-word dictation, but nevertheless the prophet is truly speaking the word of God.

Which brings us back to Peter and John before the Council: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), and what they have seen, above all, is Jesus. Their task is to name, to speak out, what God has shown them – the wonderful words and deeds of Jesus. Let’s pray that like them, God will enable us to “speak his word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29).

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Bible can be misused as well as used well

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Matthew 4:1-11 & Matthew 15:1-9

This is another in our sermon series on the bible and Veronica’s headline for today is “the bible can be misused as well as used well”.

We certainly saw that in our first reading.  Jesus is hungry having fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.  And it’s not just hunger Jesus is dealing with.  Before he went into the wilderness, Jesus went to be baptised by John the Baptist who gave a clear message that although John had a powerful public ministry which had people flocking to see him, Jesus was in a completely different league.  And then there was the voice from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  So in the 40 days just past Jesus must also have been turning all that over in his mind, pondering and praying about what this special calling looked like in practice.  If he has already been beginning to think in terms of being Messiah, he has a number of models to draw on in contemporary expectations, including expectations that focused round the Messiah as a king who would protect the Temple and fight Israel’s battles.

And perhaps it’s those models that the tempter draws on in the temptations, ways of being Messiah, different Messianic styles, that, variously, hold out the promise of mass appeal, invincibility and power over an immense empire.  Jesus spends time in the wilderness figuring out his calling, finding his own Messianic style.  Maybe as we think about our future, against the backdrop of so many different ways out there of being church, we need to spend time finding our own calling and our own distinctive “style”.

Anyway, the tempter misuses scripture.   Psalm 91, from which the tempter quotes, certainly does offer a picture of God’s great care for Israel. 

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.  When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.

It would be possible to read this as a charter for risk-takers – don’t worry about what you do because God will always be there to take care of you.  But I think Jesus’ response shows two things: firstly that this isn’t the message of Psalm 91, which is more about finding even in the midst of trouble that God is still there and still taking care of us, and secondly that Jesus knows the whole of scripture and has grasped its spirit so that he can’t be tricked by one verse taken out of context. 

That reminds me of an image in the book the Monday homegroup is working through at the moment, “Reading the Bible After Christendom” by Lloyd Pietersen.  Lloyd draws on NT Wright’s image of the Bible as a five act play whose last act has been lost, except for the first scene.  The fourth act is Jesus, the first scene of the fifth act is the early church.  And because there is so much material in the first four acts and that last scene, the decision is made to perform the play with five acts.  The actors are asked to improvise the rest of the fifth act based on having immersed themselves in everything that has gone before, so they know the characters, the themes, the central questions.

And Jesus has certainly immersed himself in scripture.  He answers all of the temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy.  And he has such a strong sense of the core of all that reading that when he’s tempted with a verse from scripture he doesn’t have to thrash around with questions of appropriate interpretation, he simply has a gut reaction that it would be wrong to indulge that line of thinking, it would be wrong to put God to the test.  The bible has become part of his bone marrow and he can improvise in a way that entirely fits with all that he has read.

And if we return to our improvising actors, I think we’ll find them a helpful image as we think about the second reading.  As the actors improvise they will need both to be consistent with what has gone before AND to innovate, to be creative.  As Lloyd puts it, the bible in this view is not “ a rule book or a repository of timeless truths” but instead provides “an authoritative foundational script for an unfinished drama that requires sensitive performance in the present to move the drama to its ultimate conclusion”. 

And in some ways our second passage could be read as wrestling with the question of how to improvise from an authoritative script.

In that passage, the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus over his disciples’ failure to uphold the tradition of washing their hands before eating.  Now washing your hands before eating sounds like a thoroughly sensible practice and entirely in keeping with biblical attention to purity.  It’s a good improvisation from the authoritative script, you would think.  But Jesus apparently feels free to leave that tradition to one side, to improvise all over again. 

As I was preparing this, I couldn’t help thinking not only about our theme for this sermon series, the bible, but also about our situation as a church, seeking new ways forward that will help us to be visible, open and welcoming and meet people where they are.  No doubt we have some sensible traditions that are in keeping with what we understand the bible to teach – but however good they are it may nevertheless to be time to improvise afresh, to start some new traditions.

But of course it’s not as simple as just innovating away like mad for the sake of it.  Like stock markets and single currencies, improvisations can go wrong as well as right.  The Pharisees too have done their own improvising and innovating over the years.   Their tradition has reinterpreted the command to honour father and mother to allow someone to devote whatever they would have given to their parents to the Temple instead.  Jesus roundly condemns this.  He sees this re-interpretation as just a self-serving attempt to wriggle out of what God commands.  It also seems suspiciously convenient for the Pharisees that their fresh interpretation brings in lots of extra money for the religious establishment.  So it turns out to be quite easy not only to misuse the bible but also to ignore it – just substitute a plausible tradition and you have the perfect excuse to ignore the call of God.

I think we too could easily enough fall – or may already have fallen - into the Pharisees’ trap of interpreting a core commandment into a tradition that just happens to suit us very well by allowing us to ignore scripture.  If some of our old traditions or our new ideas are suspiciously convenient we may need to examine our hearts and the tradition and be open to correction.

I think these passages bring us several challenges.

They challenge us to follow Jesus’ example and immerse ourselves in the bible so we are equipped like Jesus to pick out and apply the spirit of scripture to a whole range of new challenges and temptations.  One of those temptations maybe to follow seductive popular trends which don’t fit with our calling.

But that’s not to say that we should dig our heels in and refuse to change.  We may need to be willing to let old traditions go, however good they are, and creatively improvise new ones.

So it’s not a straightforward question of sticking conservatively with the wisdom of the past, nor a simplistic “out with the old and in the new”.  The old traditions may not continue to be necessary or helpful, but equally the new will not, just by being new, automatically be faithful to the bible.  We’ll have to work together, with extreme alertness to the danger of being too self-serving in our interpretation and improvisation, to give the appropriate value to old and new.  (I think this is what Alan Kreider was talking about in April this year when he quoted Matthew 13:52:  Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.")

So my conclusion seems to be that, as usual, there are no easy answers.  We’ll need a good knowledge not only of scripture but also of the overall character of scripture and the character of God so that we can find our way through all this and avoid misusing the bible.  We’ll need each other as we work together on interpreting the bible and improvising our part of the drama.  And although our practice of seeking to interpret the bible together gives us some safeguards, the community of the Pharisees interpreted together and went astray.  So we’ll need to be keenly alert to the danger of self-serving interpretation, interpreting the bible in ways that are all too convenient for us.  We’ll need to work hard as we seek to discern carefully, keeping all this in mind, as we evaluate traditions new and old, ready to repent of any that are really there for our sake not that of God or others  – and we’ll need the Holy Spirit.  I pray that we may have the determination, the honesty with ourselves and the openness to the Spirit that we will need over the coming months.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The word of God is not easily ignored

Preacher: Veronica

Readings: Jeremiah 36:1-32 John 10:31-38

It’s a strange and almost comic story we just heard from Jeremiah. I like it particularly because as a writer myself, I see it as a story of the most drastic editing in history, followed by the writer’s revenge on the editor. But my reason for sharing it today is different. It’s that I think it links interestingly with what Jesus says in the other story we heard from John 10: ‘the scripture cannot be annulled’.

What did Jesus mean? Fundamentalists might say that it means the Bible is infallible, that it contains factually accurate history, and that its prophecies are literally being fulfilled for today which is, of course, the last days - it always is the last days for people who devote their energy to working out when the last days are.

But readers or hearers of the scriptures in Jesus’ day would not necessarily have thought of them that way. At this time the canon of scripture was still fluid. The final list of which books were authoritative was probably not fixed till the start of the rabbinic period, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. So opinions would vary about which scriptures were valid - and even then, this would not have been thought of in terms of whether you could prove who wrote them, or how historically accurate they were. Rather, scriptures were evaluated in terms of how useful they were in directing everyday living and worship.

Actually, to be honest, Jesus is quoting and using scripture here in a way which would certainly not be recognized as valid by modern scholars. He quotes Psalm 82:6:

I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

In the context of the original psalm, God appears to be speaking to the ‘divine council’. This is a concept we also meet at the beginning of Job when ‘the heavenly beings’ come to present themselves before the Lord. Clearly this is a more ancient form of Jewish theology in which lesser gods, perhaps the gods of other nations, are subservient to the chief God, Yahweh. But Jesus takes this Scripture and uses it to talk about human beings, affirming the divine status of women and men made in God’s image. So actually he’s being very free and easy with Scripture, in a way reminiscent of other rabbis of the time.

When he declares that ‘scripture cannot be annulled’ (or ‘cannot be broken’), then, Jesus is not saying then that every scripture must be interpreted literally or even that every prophecy has a specific time in history for ‘coming true’. Rather, I think he’s saying that no part of scripture can be dismissed or discarded and that every scripture can be used to interpret the relationship between God and humans, and between us and others, at every time in history. In a sense he’s saying something similar to the modest claim of Scripture’s ‘usefulness’, made by Timothy about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16 :

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’

Scripture, then, does not have a ‘use by‘ date or a single use code. It is perennially relevant and will speak again and again to every new generation, though each generation may have to do some new interpreting. But I think there is a second sense in which Jesus means something like ‘scripture cannot be deleted’. To return to the story from Jeremiah, if God wants to say something to God’s people, a penknife and brazier job is not going to silence that message. Despite the king’s drastic editing, Jeremiah is able to reproduce word for word what God has said to him, and even add some more. And this is what I call the writer’s revenge.

Have you ever laboriously written a document on your computer and then found that with one misstroke of keys you deleted the whole thing? I certainly have. But I have found that if I started writing again immediately, it was remarkable how much of the original I could remember, sometimes word for word. I could recreate my writing without too much trouble - although I’ve never deleted a really long document or a whole book, which might be harder. And I don’t think this ability is exclusive to writers like myself.

How does this happen? It’s something about the ideas existing not just on the page or screen but in our own minds and hearts - so that the same mind and heart which produced the first version can reproduce the gist of it in the second version. It’s notable at the beginning of the Jeremiah story that there seems to be a time gap between Jeremiah hearing the word of God and writing it down with the help of Baruch. He is told to write down everything God said to him in the reigns of Josiah and Jehoiakim - a long period of oral testimony before he is instructed to write. The primary source, if you like, is the word which arises in Jeremiah’s consciousness, and the written form is secondary.

Of course if you believe that all of Scripture is directly dictated by God, so that the writer is in effect doing automatic writing, it’s simple - God just dictates the whole lot again. But this is not my theory of how Scripture came to be, and I don’t think it’s even something Scripture claims for itself. When 2 Timothy 3 says all Scripture is inspired by God, the literal translation is ‘All Scripture has the breath of God’. I think that’s wonderful - it suggests that Scripture is created by human beings, using their own insight and imagination and mental powers, but under the inspiration of God.

If the primary source of Scripture is the mind and heart of the writer, rather than the written text, then it is a lot harder to erase, because as an old song says about memories, ‘they can’t take that away from me’. Jeremiah himself describes the word of God as being like a fire in his bones (this is Jeremiah 20:8-9):

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

This speaks to me of God’s communication to humanity being a matter of passion - Jeremiah has to speak it out because he is passionate about what God is saying. And that of course is the mark of really good writing: a passion to say what you want to say. Could we also extrapolate from that and say Scripture is the product of God’s passion to communicate with God’s children? I think there is a case for this. Take Isaiah 42:13-14:

The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant (42:.13--14)

In Luke’s Gospel, Luke has a habit of pairing a parable with a male image of God, with another with a female image of God. Here Isaiah is doing something similar, pairing the image of God as a soldier with God as a woman giving birth. We Mennonites may have trouble thinking of God as soldier; but this is not someone controlling a drone bomber from a remote computer desk, it’s a man going into battle with passion for his cause, crying out his battle cry, perhaps fighting injustice and oppression. And in case that’s too destructive an image of God, it’s immediately balanced with image of a woman giving birth - crying out in pain, but also panting to deliver her long awaited baby.

These are images of God being passionate about letting people know what God feels about them, and what plans God has for them - a passion to communicate, which cannot easily be destroyed. And the word God speaks is meant to make us long with a passion for the same things God longs for: justice, peace and the wellbeing of the whole world. Then the word from God will inhabit our hearts, souls, minds and lives and will bear fruit.

‘Bearing fruit’ suggests a third aspect of Jesus’s saying: that the word of God is never spoken in vain. Which leads us to Isaiah again, in ch 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it

In other words, prophecy is not given to confirm speculation about the future; it is given to accomplish change in the present. When Scripture is engraved on our hearts, it begins to effect real change in the world. Paul describes this process to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 3:

...You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts... for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life..

When the word is written on our hearts in this way, then we can become what James calls ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’.

So to recap: I think there are three things Jesus is implying here:

1. No part of scripture ever becomes redundant; it will always have new applications for a new situation.

2. Scripture, as the product of God’s passion for humanity, cannot be destroyed or blotted out so long as it lives in our hearts and lives.

3. The word of God, once spoken, will accomplish the thing it has been spoken to achieve.

All this brings the Scriptures off the page and into real life. It allows Jesus, in the story from John, to use a psalm verse rather freely to speak about his own unity with the Father. And it also allows us, following in his steps, to achieve the same divine status, as we are gradually conformed into the image of Christ. One of the best ways of conforming us into that image is for us to encounter Jesus in all of scripture, as Anabaptists have been doing for five centuries.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Ps 119 – the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us

Preacher: Sue

One of the things I like about poetry is its capacity to say a lot in a short space, in just a few words.  And so I rarely see the point of long poems…

So you can probably imagine that my heart sank at the idea of preaching on Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it.

But it’s not just the length of Ps 119 that made my heart sink.  For the English reader or listener, Ps 119 is kind of shapeless.  It rambles around meditatively – and repetitively.  There is a clear focus to all the reflections – but no narrative thread or logical progression.

But, while Ps 119 may seem shapeless in English, in the original Hebrew it has a very clear formal shape.  It’s an acrostic, in 22 chunks (or stanzas), one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each chunk consists of 8 sentences, each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet.  So for instance the first 8 sentences all start with the Hebrew letter aleph and the next eight with beth and so on. 

A British Catholic, Ronald Knox, translated Psalm 119 into English using the same pattern.  We’ll hear one letter’s worth of his translation, after we hear the NRSV translation of the same verses, 9 to 16, just to get a feel of how this works:

9 How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.
11 I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
13 With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.
14 I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.

A number of commentators see the first verse of our reading, verse 9, as the key to the psalm, that is the question “How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word” or “By keeping to your word.”  The whole psalm, then, is an answer to the question of how a young person can learn to be faithful to God.  The heart of the answer is a deep commitment to and love for God’s word. 

This answer holds true for any faithful Israelite, not just for the psalmist, and for all of us who ask the question, “How can we keep our way pure?”  Walter Brueggemann talks about Israel as a community of joyful obedience.  In the fragility and vulnerability that followed Israel’s return from exile (when the psalms were probably being edited into their final shape), this community needed identity and comfort.  It found that in its relationship with Yahweh and its commitment to living within the tradition and the story. 

Brueggemann says that Israel’s horizon is defined by the Torah, that they accept Yahweh as the “horizon of life”.  Imagine being on a hill top or in a wide valley – or a 13th floor flat and looking into the distance.  In that word horizon there’s openness and the reassurance of knowing that wherever Israel looks, she is still looking at the world of Yahweh – but there’s also a sense of an edge, a boundary to contain us and protect us.

Well, that was all by way of introduction.  In thinking about how to preach on Psalm 119 I decided to focus on two main questions, what scripture is to the psalmist and how he experiences scripture. 

[interactive activity]

So, to pull some of that together, we noticed a good number of different ways the psalmist refers to the scripture.  Many are connected with direction – in both senses of the word.  God’s word is directive, giving instruction and commandment, and it points out a path, a direction, a pattern of life for the faithful. 

In our Western, 21st century culture, commandment and direction may not sound very welcome.  Yet if we move to our second question, how does the psalmist experience scripture, I’m struck by the joy and delight and sense of freedom in God’s word. 

Let’s take one example, verse 96: “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.” 

The language and sentiment of “I have seen a limit to all perfection” remind me of Ecclesiastes,  In Ecclesiastes nothing makes sense and choosing God and God’s commandments is an expression of faithfulness in spite of everything not because of the rewards.  By contrast with Ecclesiastes, Psalm 119’s overall mood is positive and confident.  Brueggemannn describes it as a psalm of orientation.  There are some tastes of bewilderment and pain – “81 My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. 82 My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me? 83 For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. 84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?”  But it’s as if the psalmist has had brushes with the world of Ecclesiastes - . “I have seen a limit to all perfection” – and then found himself rescued by God’s word – “but your commandment is exceedingly broad.”  The psalmist is intent on keeping God’s commandment but for him this is not narrow and limiting.  It puts him on a broad open path in pleasant places.  Indeed verse 45 of Psalm 119 captures just this sentiment: “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.

Veronica’s headline for this sermon on Psalm 119 was “the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”.  And this psalm certainly sets out plenty of benefits of the Bible.  Happiness or blessedness go hand in hand with keeping God’s commandments.  Obviously that’s only one side of the story – bad things DO happen to good people – and in Brueggemann’s terms this psalm is part of the bible’s core testimony about Yahweh and must be taken alongside the bible’s voices of counter-testimony.  But there are many other benefits which would hold true even in times of trial.  God’s word delights the psalmist, revives him, keeps him from sin, gives him hope, sustains him through misery, gives him wisdom and understanding, gives him light and peace and keeps him from stumbling.  God’s decrees are counsellors for him – a beautiful picture of scripture as companion and adviser. 

And if this all sounds a bit self-centred, let’s notice two of the psalmist’s prayers.  In verse 36 he pleads, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain”.  In meditating on God’s precepts and fixing his heart on God’s ways the psalmist does expect some response from God – but he also expects to be transformed into a less selfish person – perhaps we could even say a more generous person, more committed to the welfare of the weak who are protected by God’s law, like the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  And though he trusts that his obedience will translate into a good outcome – “173 Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts” – he is also determined that any good outcome for him will be a good outcome for God too, for he will have the opportunity to continue being obedient and praising God.  To quote verses 88 & 175: “88 In your steadfast love spare my life, so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth… 175 Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.”

As I finish, let’s return to our headline: the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”.  The psalmist delights in scripture.  It is his constant companion.  The delight and constant companionship feed each other.  Maybe there is something there for us to appropriate for ourselves in our personal lives.  But I think there are corporate benefits too, to our wider community as we turn our hearts to God’s ways and not to selfish gain, and to our church community.  Brueggemann describes Israel at the time of the psalms as marginalised (a new word to me!) and “a vulnerable, outsider community, endlessly at risk, without serious social power”.  They find a dependable reassuring constancy in commitment and obedience to God.  For the church generally in post-Christendom Britain – and for us as a congregation as we learn to live without Lesley and without the building in Shepherds Hill - perhaps a love for and obedience to the bible is one response to feeling fragile, vulnerable and on the margins.  Beneficial indeed…