Sermon for September 16th, 2012
Excerpts from Psalm 119
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.
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
107 I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me your ordinances.
129 Your decrees are wonderful;
therefore my soul keeps them.
130 The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
131 With open mouth I pant,
because I long for your commandments.
132 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
as is your custom towards those who love your name.
133 Keep my steps steady according to your promise,
and never let iniquity have dominion over me.
134 Redeem me from human oppression,
that I may keep your precepts.
135 Make your face shine upon your servant,
and teach me your statutes.
169 Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
give me understanding according to your word.
170 Let my supplication come before you;
deliver me according to your promise.
171 My lips will pour forth praise,
because you teach me your statutes.
172 My tongue will sing of your promise,
for all your commandments are right.
173 Let your hand be ready to help me,
for I have chosen your precepts.
174 I long for your salvation, O Lord,
and your law is my delight.
175 Let me live that I may praise you,
and let your ordinances help me.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
We Respond to God's Word: Part I
We are now 6 weeks through our 8 week series on the Heart of Worship, where we are taking a look at what we do here every Sunday morning in worship, why we do it, and what the scriptures have to say about it. The four broad movements of our worship service are found in your bulletin in bold, capital letters: Early in the series, we talked about Gathering in God's Name. More recently, we talked about Proclaiming and Hearing God's Word, and you'll remember that for us as Presbyterians, Jesus Christ, God's living word, is reflected in three different ways: God's written Word in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; God's proclaimed Word in the sermon; and finally last week Dr. Neal Presa shared with us on the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, which are God's Word enacted.
God's Word--Jesus Christ--truly is the heart of our worship service, and the reading of the word, the preaching of the word, the enacting of the word--these things form the climax of the service, the highest part. So adding a whole lot more on to the end of that could seem, well...anti-climactic. I know that in some churches, particularly non-denominational or Evangelical ones, once the sermon is done, a final song is sung and then everyone goes home. Game over. Lunch time. And yet, we Presbyterians, in our service, still have two more entire sections to go--we're only halfway done at this point! What gives?
Maybe a better question is "Who gives?" Up to this point in the service, the answer has been God. God gives his word to us in scripture, sermon, and sacrament. But if we have truly listened and heard God's Word--Jesus Christ--it's our turn to give, because we cannot help but respond! Have you ever been in a restaurant or some other crowd of strangers, and you overhear someone say something that you just know is incorrect, and you don't want them to know you've been eavesdropping, but you just--can't--help--but--respond? It's like that. Or better yet, I'm going to knock a few times on the wood of the pulpit here while you try really hard not to respond: [Shave and a Haircut...] It's hard, isn't it? You know you want to! I've been told that if you're ever stranded on a deserted island, the best thing you could possibly have with you is a deck of cards. Why? Start playing solitaire, and inevitably someone will come out of nowhere to stand over your shoulder and tell you which cards you should play where!
There are some things for which we just cannot help ourselves--we have to respond, and our worship service is structured the way it is because we believe that God's Word is one of those things. Our passage from James this morning encourages us to not merely be hearers of the word, but rather doers of the word. I love the metaphor James uses for those who just listen to God's word without ever responding: James says they are like those who look into a mirror, and as soon as they walk away forget what they look like! In other words, one reason we must always respond to God's word is so that we remember! Any teacher knows that if you tell me something, I may forget. If you show me something, I may remember. But if you involve me in something I will understand, and if I teach it to someone else...it will be a part of me forever. Don't be just hearer's of God's word--be doers, be responders, and in the words of James, you will be blessed in the doing.
So...how then do we respond to God's Word? Probably different denominations and branches of God's family answer that in different ways. If you're a Quaker, it might involve quaking, and if you're Pentecostal, you might do a little dance. We Presbyterians, of course, respond to God's Word according to 1st Corinthians 14:40--"but all things should be done decently and in order." That's how we roll.
Seriously though, I can think of no better example of how we should respond to God's Word than Psalm 119. I wish we could study the entire Psalm, and I encourage you to do just that--if you're looking for a good text to use for personal devotions or daily prayer, use this one. It has twenty-two stanzas (one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), each one just the right size to meditate on before you pray. If you do this Monday through Saturday, it will take about a month to go through the whole Psalm.
The entire Psalm is basically a reflection on God's Word, its value, and its impact on the lives of those who hear it and live it. I've tried, in the selections from today's reading--four stanzas from different parts of the Psalm--to focus on parts of it that particularly address how and why we respond to God's Word in our worship service. One poetic feature of Psalm 119 that I'll call your attention to right up front is that in every stanza, there are a number of synonyms used for God's Word: law, ordinance, statute, decree, precept, promise, commandment--all are poetic variations on the central theme of the Psalm, God's Word.
In the first selection, verses 11-16, we see immediately one of the ways we can respond to God's word: "With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth." Declaring openly our faith in God's Word--Jesus Christ--is exactly what we do when we stand at the end of the sermon to say the Affirmation of Faith. In verses 14, 15, and 16, we see two other responses: delighting in and meditating on God's Word. When we pray the Lord's prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in the gospels, we are meditating on God's Word, and when we offer the Doxology at the end of the offering, we are showing our delight in God's Word--remember how in the Doxology we "Praise" God four different times!
In the next selection, verses 105-108, we again see both affirmation and doxology: "I have sworn an oath and confirmed it," and then in v.108, "Accept my offerings of praise." But in v.107 there is something new: "I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word." In response to the promise of God's Word, we cry out our afflictions and ask for new life. In our worship service, one key place we do this in the Prayers of the People.
In verses 129-135, we see how deeply our response to God's Word is embedded: "Your decrees are wonderful, therefore my soul keeps them." Our response is not forced, perhaps not even a choice we consciously make--it springs forth from the deepest part of our souls. It comes from the highly educated and the simple alike. Verse 131 says that "with open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments." Now, we haven't officially written "open-mouthed-panting" into the order of worship yet, but I think I've seen one or two of you trying this when the sermon runs long--usually accompanied by closed eyes and nodding heads! From now on, I'll just interpret that as fervent longing for God's commandments.
Finally, in verses 169-175, which actually happens to be the final stanza of Psalm 119, we see again the familiar responses of prayer and supplication: "Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word. Let my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise." As noted previously, we cry out to God in the Prayers of the People, and give voice in those prayers to our hope in God's promises. In verses 171 and 172, we read that "My lips will pour forth praise, because you teach me your statutes. My tongue will sing of your promise, for all your commandments are right." And here we have another response: Music and Song. Both our Offertory Anthem from the choir, or sometimes from a soloist, and the Doxology which we all sing are examples of responding to God's word in songs of praise.
Perhaps the most powerful verse of Psalm 119 is the very last one. Verse 175 sums up everything the psalmist has been trying to say all along, and even manages to take it up a notch: "Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances (your Word) help me." We respond to God's Word with our praises, with our prayers, with our professions of faith, but most importantly...with our lives. However you come to worship God each Sunday, I hope you at least leave alive! I'm not sure where exactly in the bulletin that is, but if you're still clutching it between your two hands, reading it with your two eyes, and carrying it out on your two feet, we'll assume you have responded to God's Word in this way as well. So then, having heard God's Word, let us make the prayer of the Psalmist our own prayer: Let us live so that we may praise God, and let his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths!