Sunday, January 27, 2019

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 29
God's law is perfect, refreshing the soul;
God's instruction is sure,
giving wisdom to the simple;
God's precepts are right, rejoicing the heart;
God's commandment is pure
giving light to the eyes;
God's fear is clean, enduring forever;
God's judgements are true,
every one of them righteous;
more desirable than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
pure honey from the comb.

As a general rule, you should always make sure you can deliver on your promises.

Nowhere is this sentiment more acute than in the world of advertising. Make a crazy claim and Competition Bureau Canada may come calling, enforcing their mandate to root out “deceptive representations” and ensure that each of us can make informed choices. It sounds a little bureaucratic, to be sure, but in the real world, we need to be wary.

It begins with outrageous claims: ‘this detergent will make your whites whiter than white’ or this food is ‘all-natural,’ meaning it has origins somewhere on planet Earth. The technical name for this is puffery, suggesting that something is better or best without supplying the means to verify the claim.

And that’s just the simple and obvious examples. What about fillers and oversized packaging? We’ve all seen the big box with the tiny little product inside, but what about injecting brine in my chicken and charging me by the pound, or fillers like too much oatmeal in my granola?

Those who watch American television can tell you about ‘certain side-effects’ listed in very tiny scrolling print at the end of the commercial, or the announcer who begins to talk really, really quickly to share something they don’t want you to hear. Or something called ‘angel-dusting,’ listing 12 essential nutrients that are only provided in microscopic quantities. Or the old bait-and-switch, listing a eye-catching sale price only to find that it applied to a single seat on the airplane.

And it’s not just detergent and breakfast cereal we need to watch, it’s churches too. Drive around town and read the signs: the ‘friendly church’ that may or may not be friendly, the ‘church with a big heart’ that actually sounds like a medical condition, or ‘a family church,’ a metaphor that tends to suggest that the church will mirror whatever disfunction happens to live within your own family. Yikes!

Even scripture is not immune, and the example is found in Psalm 29:

God's precepts are right, rejoicing the heart (of course).
God's commandment is pure, giving light to the eyes (lovely).
God's law is perfect, refreshing the soul (Amen to that!).
God's instruction is sure, giving wisdom to the simple.

Okay, hold it right there. That’s a pretty bold claim! I’ve spend hours puzzling over a single passage, trying to make sense of it, so what does that make me? And I’ve met people who read exactly the same Bible and draw completely different conclusions about what it means, what does that make them? “You can lead a horse to water’ and all that, but how does it follow that these instructions can make the simple wise?

Maybe the best way to enter this question is to think about examples in the Bible of this movement from simple to wise. Who’s done it? Perhaps the most obvious example would be the twelve: fishermen, common folk, who were willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. And they didn’t do it (it would seem) from any kind of informed position, or from a position of great learning, but from a sense of openness, a willingness to simply follow.

Picture them on a typical day-in-the-life, fireside on a beach, maybe sitting in someone’s kitchen in Capernaum, or even an upper room in the big city. What were they doing? Talking, praying, singing psalms, psalms like Psalm 29, a song that Jesus and his disciples would have sang many, many times. And the song itself is a compelling summary of why the law is at the heart of their religion. Time and time again, Jesus made it known that he was there to fulfil the law rather than overcome it, and Psalm 29 was a case-in-point.

The poem essentially restates the same idea in a half-a-dozen ways: that the law is commended to us, and its impact is clear: refreshing the soul, reviving the heart, lighting the eyes, and (of course) making wise the simple. It brings together Jesus love for the scriptures and a central lesson that he stated and restated and he hoped we would understand: Jesus believed that the key to a happy and faithful life was a life lived in the law.

When a teacher of the law heard Jesus give a smart answer, he asked him, "What is the most important commandment?"
Jesus answered, "The most important one says: You must love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.' The second most important commandment says: ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.' No other commandment, no other part of the law is more important than these."

This ‘love God and neighbour’ passage is at the heart of scripture, but I want you to ignore the content for a minute and listen to the topic. Jesus is a teacher of the Law, the perfect Law, the Law that Moses carried to the people, the Law that resides in Ark of the Covenant that resides in the Holy of Holies. Rather than divorce Jesus from his religion and his past we need to draw a stronger connection.

He took a band of seemingly simple people and turned them into religious reformers, intent on re-igniting the flame of belief. He wanted to reintroduce people to the heart of scripture and the link to their lives—to make them passionate followers of the law and compassionate neighbours and friends. He wanted to make a case for the Most High in a time that featured numerous rivals for the title, whether it was Rome or mammon or other local gods. And when we wanted to get started, he wasn’t above a little drama to make his point:

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place that best described his mission and motives, and he read the words. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

I’ll get to the words in a moment, and the important link to Psalm 29 in moment, but first there are lessons behind the lesson, found in this simple description. First, it happens in the context of sabbath worship, a teacher of the law entrusted by his community to bring a word of hope. Next, he is handed Isaiah, one of Jesus’ theme books: always grounding the lessons in everyday issues, always living in the tension between God’s comfort and judgement, between grace and hard truth. The congregation is captivated, the words are compelling, and the last word is the most arresting of all: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Just as an aside, there is another link to Psalm 29 here, mostly unintended, but one that’s worth noting. Further down, the psalmist makes another request, one that speaks to all of us who like to talk a good game: “Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins,
lest they get the better of me.” To be presumptuous, of course, means to fail to observe the limits of what is permissible, the very thing that Jesus seems to be doing as he suggests Isaiah has been fulfilled by his reading. But we know the truth. So here are the words once more:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]

When we hear these words we tend to think of types of people—the poor, the incarcerated, the blind—rather than types of needs. But if we shift our gaze to types of needs, we start to get a more universal picture: the need for good news, the need for freedom from all forms of imprisonment, the need for new sight whenever we fail to see clearly, and the need to escape oppression, particularly the many ways we oppress ourselves.

And these mostly universal needs—hope, freedom, insight, release—are the very needs that God in Jesus wishes for us, commends to us in scripture, and makes manifest in the gathered community that we call the body of Christ. The law makes the simple wise by lifting up simple needs and pointing to God. Loving our neighbour, we see God. Forgiving others, we see God. Trusting in Jesus and his promise of fulfillment, we see God.

May God grant us hope, freedom, insight, and release. And may God grant us greater and greater wisdom, through God’s Word, Amen.


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