March 22, 2015 Psalm 119: 1-3, 10-16 Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Rev. Catherine Purves
Have you ever run a red light? I did, just the other day. It was an accident, I should hasten to add. I was coming down Balph and there was a big fat PAT bus ahead of me. It was lumbering around the corner onto Lincoln Avenue at a snail’s pace. I was following along after it, lamenting my bad luck to be stuck behind a bus because the macaroni I’d made for the Lenten Study supper was getting cold and I was almost late. I didn’t think about the fact that I couldn’t see the traffic light until I was in the middle of the intersection when I looked up and saw that it was decidedly red.
I’m not by nature a lawbreaker, and I instantly felt guilty. The law about red lights is there for a good reason. It makes the traffic flow smoothly and it keeps people safe. But there I was, inadvertently flaunting the law, more concerned about my macaroni than I was about those external rules of society that were really only there for my benefit. I feel bad about running that red light, but I hope that none of you will report me.
I expect that most of us think of the law as something that exists out there, a set of rules and regulations that marks out necessary boundaries for our behavior. The law is a good thing. We can’t have bank robbers and murderers running around. We need to have some way to control behavior that is detrimental to society. We need to know what we can do and what we can’t do. The law stands over against us like a kind of yardstick. How do you measure up? Have you run any red lights lately? In order to know how you’re doing and whether your behavior is acceptable, all you have to do is check the law. If there isn’t a law against what you’ve done, then, lucky you, all is well. But if you’ve broken the law, then watch out, because you’re in a whole heap of trouble.
But is that really the way it’s supposed to work? Is the law meant to function as a hovering, threatening presence that is just waiting to judge you and declare you to be a criminal? Is the law like the police car that’s tucked away in an alley spying on unsuspecting drivers who can’t see the red light because the bus is too tall? Is the law out to get you, to show you what a bad citizen you are, and then to punish you?
I can’t really comment on Bellevue laws (or Bellevue police), but if we’re talking about the Law that is God-given, then that is certainly not how that Law is meant to work. Perhaps you noticed that in our Psalm for today a very different attitude to the Law is expressed. Twice it says that those who walk in the law of the Lord are happy. Does the law make you happy? Twice the psalmist says that he delights in God’s statutes and decrees. Have you ever delighted in a law? Why this enthusiasm and this joy? We might agree that laws are necessary, but how excited and delighted and happy can you get over a long list of Thou Shalt Nots?
The way Israel felt about the Law was obviously different from the way we feel about our laws. There was more to the Law than just a long list of Thou Shalt Nots. The Law was more like the day-to-day substance of the covenant that God established with Israel. After the joyful commitment of “I shall be your God and you shall be my people” there was a “therefore…” and that was the Law. This was how the covenant was lived out. The Law was actually proof of God’s care and concern for the people. It was the way to have a good, secure, enriching life within the shelter of God’s love. The Law was something to be cherished and celebrated. It was a gift more than it was a requirement.
We only read a few verses of Psalm 119 today, but it is the longest of all the Psalms. It has 176 verses, and all of them are in praise of the Law. Psalm 119 is made up of 22 stanzas, one for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each stanza has eight verses. Of course, we can’t see this in English, but the first word of every verse in a given stanza begins with the Hebrew letter assigned to it. If we were going to try to write a Psalm like this, in the first stanza, all the lines would start with a word beginning with the letter A. So, it might read something like this:
All God’s people revere the Law.
At night and by day they praise him.
A King and a pauper alike stand under the Law.
Angels honor God’s way.
Anyone who knows the Law is filled with joy.
Alone on my bed I meditate upon it.
Abroad in the towns I speak of it.
Almighty God has given us this Law.
The psalmist is a much better poet than I am, but you get the idea. Can you imagine making that kind of effort and using such creativity in order to honor our laws today? The Law for Israel was something that was loved, because it was, in fact, the living out of their precious relationship with God.
That, at least, was the spirit in which the Law was given by God, and the way in which it was received, but, of course, things went dreadfully wrong. This was not because the Law was a bad thing; it was not God’s fault for giving the Law. It was the children of Israel who broke the covenant, and then the Law stood as proof of their rejection of God’s love. Just as the bright red traffic light declared to me and to all the world that I had done something wrong, so too the Law illuminated Israel’s failures and Israel’s rebellion. The purpose of the law about red lights was not to make me feel guilty, but that was the effect of the law when I broke it. The purpose of Israel’s Law was not to judge Israel, but that was the effect of the Law when they broke it.
Has God’s Law backfired? No, not the Law itself, because it is still the embodiment of the covenant, and it is necessary that our relationship with God would have some form and shape. Love must be lived; it is more than a word. But somehow writing a 176 verse Psalm in praise of the Law is not enough, because the Law is still out there, or up there, or over and against us as a thing that we choose to love and honor and follow. It was the prophet Jeremiah who declared that in the future God was going to give the Law to Israel in a new way: he was going to write it on their hearts.
Heart writing was a new notion. This would make the Law an internal reality for the children of Israel, not an external guide. It would be written not on pieces of paper or tablets of stone, but on and in human hearts. We should note that for the Hebrews the heart was not the center of emotions, but the seat of rational will, the place where the decision to obey the Law would be made. We might use the word “mind” rather than “heart” to express what Jeremiah was trying to say. This heart writing was going to be done by God, and it would represent a radically new thing, because the Law, the stuff of Israel’s relationship with God, would be carved into human flesh and into the very core of what it means to be human. As Jeremiah explains, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.” Once that heart writing was accomplished, the covenant would assume a new form, and the Law would be fulfilled in a new way.
We have to leave Jeremiah now and go forward in time to see how God was going to fulfill that promise. How would the word of the covenant be etched in human flesh? We know the answer. The embodiment of the new covenant was Jesus Christ. God wrote his promise and his way onto the heart of Jesus. We say that he was the Word made flesh. If the Law was the shape and substance of Israel’s right relationship with God, then Jesus himself embodied that relationship. Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, not by following it as an external goad and guide, but by incarnating it as the true Son of the Father. And as the true Son of the Father, Jesus was obedient, even unto death, and this was an obedience that came from the core of his very being. It was written on his heart from the beginning. So even his sacrifice was full of glory, because by it the Father fulfilled the promise that Jeremiah proclaimed, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Now we all know God through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The external promise of the Law is now internal. It is heart writing for us. And it has changed us to the core, because our relationship with God is now in Christ. Our failures and our sins – every red light that we run, every harsh word that we speak, every selfish deed, every denial of the truth of our relationship with God – all of it is covered by his grace. The true essence of the Law – I will be your God and you shall be my people – has now been written on our hearts, because it was incarnate in Jesus Christ, and he is now our living Lord. The psalmist could write 176 verses in praise of the Law; how much more must we praise God for his heart writing?
All the earth was hushed.
At the garden tomb, anguish and awe.
Angels whispered words of resurrection.
And their hearts were filled with hope.
A risen Son appeared.
Astonished, they behold him,
As he writes on their hearts,
A promise of forgiveness.