Thy Word is a Lamp (July 12, 2020)
Psalm 119: 105-112
Thy Word Is a Lamp
If I had to guess, my guess is that most if you have not read today’s passage in the actual Bible for a while, and maybe ever. Because unless you’re someone who actively reads the Bible every single day, the odds are good that you don’t actually sit down and read the Psalms; and if you do read the Psalms, my guess would be that you don’t read this one: psalm 119, which has the distinction of being the longest chapter in the Bible, clocking in at 176 verses or eight verses for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
And there’s a reason for that. The psalms are incredibly difficult, and so pastors don’t often choose to preach on the Psalms. So you might not have them in your memory to pull from quickly. We might read them aloud in worship if they’re small enough that it won’t take up an enormous amount of time, but we don’t often preach on them because they're difficult. You have to sit down with all your attention on them and wrestle with them. They’re not prose, one line doesn’t follow logically after the next; with the result that it often just baffles the mind and you just can’t figure out what you just read. I know personally I can get through some of the shorter ones, like Psalm 117 which has the distinction of being the shortest chapter in the Bible, clocking in at two versus. Or Psalm 23, a nice short paragraph; I can get through that one. But if you get much longer than that my mind tends to turn to mush. Maybe you’re that same way.
So my guess is that you haven’t read this one in a while, but I also guess that you have heard these specific words very recently. The words that lead off this reading, Psalm 119: 105 are very famous; made famous by Amy Grant’s song, “Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. When I feel afraid, think I’ve lost my way, still you’re there right beside me. And nothing will I fear as long as you are near. Please be near me to the end.”
Now, that song doesn’t look like what followed the words in the Scripture, but the message is right. If we follow the path illuminated by the word, then God will indeed be right beside us and we need not fear as long as God is near. Thy word is a lamp to my feet is so profound. It shows us what the Bible does for us, to use the words of later in the passage that was read, it shows us what “following the statutes of God” does for us: it provides a lamp into our feet and a light unto our path. Reading the Scriptures will shine a light upon the way that God wills us forward. But importantly it doesn’t show us the destination. Like God with Abraham, where he says to go to the land that He will show, without identifying it, so God often tells us the next step or two, but not the whole way.
This psalm is about following God‘s statutes. It is a call to follow God‘s law, or in Christian terms we might say following God‘s will. For the last several hundred years that statement has been assumed to be a correct idea, that just simply because this is what God wants us to do we therefore should do it. But I don’t think that can be assumed anymore, so very briefly before we get into what the Scripture says to do, I want to get into why we should do what the Scripture says to do here. Both for you and for your to take to others.
The last few hundred years Christianity has focused heavily on the afterlife, so my guess is that many of you were taught by at least someone in your life as you were growing up that you need to follow Christ in order to get to Heaven and to avoid Hell. That’s my guess. And that’s correct, but incomplete. Following Jesus will ultimately lead to heaven because that is where Jesus is going; the Scriptures tell us that Jesus is going to prepare a place for us in his father’s house, and so if we follow God we will wind up in Heaven. That is the Destination.
But I want you to notice that nowhere in the reading today does it talk about Heaven or Hell. That is not the only concern when we are talking about following God in the here and now. Why should I follow God now and not just accept on my deathbed? What does it mean for this life?
I think that this psalm alludes to a couple of answers to that question. The first is kind of a communal answer. This was written in the days of Israel, when the whole kingdom was built around the Levitical laws and following the stuff we read in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and summed up in Deuteronomy. They were trying to follow all of that. And there’s a sense, which I think is true, that if everybody was following that stuff then the world would look more like the Kingdom of God. It would be a better world.
For Christians, we don’t follow the Levitical laws, we follow the Commandments of Jesus: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself; love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you; go and do like the good Samaritan. Those are the things that we follow. And I believe that if everybody was doing those all the time then our world would look like the Kingdom of God, and our world would be demonstrably better. So this is one reason we should all follow God, and follow the commands of God.
But for the tangible effects of making the world better, of transforming the world to use our mission statement’s language, for that to happen everyone would have to be involved in this. And you’d probably have to convince them; I don’t think this is something you could dictate from on high. Literally God tried to do that with people of Israel and continually failed; that’s the entire story of the Old Testament. We see effects in the world from following the ordinance of God if everyone, or at least the vast majority, are doing it. I would argue that that’s not the case right now, even within the church.
Now personally; even if only you were the only one following the ordinances of God, there actually are benefits. And this actually comes down to my favorite line in this whole passage here, which is really telling us how to live following the will of God. The line is the last verse that I read, verse 112, “I incline my heart to perform your statutes.” This is the conclusion of the stanza: how do I do it? It's a conscious choice. I incline my heart to perform your statutes.
It is hard to live to the moral standard of Jesus. It’s easier to live to the moral standard of whatever benefits me. There are many in this world who live to the moral standard of whatever benefits me, the commandments of love thy-self rather than love thy neighbor. It’s hard to do unto others what you would want them to do to you, because it might hurt you. You might have to make a sacrifice to help somebody else. So, how do you do it? You have to make a conscious choice to do so. You have to choose, and focus on doing that.
The point here is we are called to follow God; not follow heaven. Our focus has to be on God. And we have to trust that God is going to get us to heaven. My son is four years old, and we often go shopping. And when we go shopping at someplace like Walmart, he has to follow us. And he doesn’t do that perfectly; because he’s four. He likes to follow us “socially distanced.” And that’s not that big of a deal if he’s ahead of us or to the side of us, is it’s more of a deal if he’s deciding to socially distance behind us. One of the problems is if we’re not paying attention, which so far hasn’t happened, but if we’re not paying attention and he is 10 feet ahead of us, if he’s going to say garden center at Walmart and we’re going to electronics, what happens if he’s going 10 feet ahead of us toward what he thinks the destination is, and then we turn; when he looks back there’s no one there, and he’s completely and totally lost.
That’s what we’re doing: we’re going to follow God, and you can’t follow God 10 feet ahead, you have to follow God by being right next to God’s side, looking at God with your focus on God. So if God turns, you turn with him. And one of the things that doing that does for us is that we aren’t focused on the destinations, we're focused on the journey. All the self-help manuals say this, right: “focus on the journey.” That’s what we’re doing. And if the word is only illuminating a couple steps ahead of us, only illuminating our feet, then we’re focused on the journey because we can’t see further than that.
And the other thing that we do is we learn a lot about the character of God. We learn about where God goes along the path. We often will see the work that God is doing in the world. We might be able to see God‘s fingerprints in the coincidences of our world, where if we’re not focused on God we might not see that actually happening. So even if our world is not demonstrably better because we're following God, our soul is, and our knowledge of God is. The way we approach the world is often demonstrably better because we’re following God’s will like this.
And that takes a conscious choice. Which is why pastors for at least the last couple hundred years have urged people to pray some variation of what you might call the sinner’s prayer. The prayer is a pastor’s way to ask you to commit to following Jesus before you walk out the door, to make the conscious choice, to covenant with Jesus that you are going to follow His commands, law, or will, whatever word the pastor chooses. Before you walk out the door I want you to do that. It might involve an altar call to come up here and publicly say I’m going to do this. Now, I’m not gonna ask you to come up to the altar while trying to be socially distant, but I’m going to ask you to pray before you leave today.
Can I tell you why though? It’s not because that prayer saves you. You won’t be any more saved when you walk out the door than when you walked in. It’s Jesus who saves you, not a prayer. But if the pastor wants you to come up and make a public declaration, they want you to be held accountable by more than just your conscience. Making a public declaration that everyone in the building will hold you accountable to consciously choosing to follow the ordinance of God. And the pastor hopes that you consciously choose that and do it in such a way that it still is a thing after lunch, that you’re still doing that on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday. That’s the idea of the church trying to hold you accountable so if you’re not following the will of God, you’re not following the commands of Jesus on Wednesday, someone from the church who saw you go up to the altar on Sunday might go up to say, “hey that’s not very loving of neighbor.” That’s the idea; that’s the point.
On your bulletin is Wesleyan Covenant prayer. I don’t think Wesley made this but he certainly taught it. And he normally taught it as a prayer that people should pray every single morning. This was an early form at the sinner’s prayer, this is an early form of a committal to following Jesus whatever the cost, whatever it means. I am going to ask you to join me every day and pray that prayer, and in fact I’m going to ask you to join me in praying that prayer right now if you’re willing to follow the commands of Jesus, and as they say “so help me God.” For God will help in following. Let’s open our bulletin to that prayer, and let us pray together.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition (Contemporary Version)
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.