Psalm 119: 97-112; 1 John 5: 1-5
August 19, 2012
Imagine for a moment that you are not in a sanctuary this morning, but a courtroom. And you’re not sitting in a pew or comfy Koinonia Room chair, but a jury box. The case before you is one that has been tried numerous times, but always ends up with a hung jury: whether God’s laws and commandments, found in the Bible, are a joy or a burden. The first witness takes the stand. He’s wearing an Armani suit, and the kerchief in his coat pocket matches his tie – bright colors. He’s got a perpetual smile plastered on his face that, oddly enough, looks genuine. He holds in his hand a shiny leather Bible; holds it lovingly and respectfully like it’s grandma’s keylime pie for the church social. Now that he has your attention, he begins with a soft-spoken voice:
Oh, how I love God’s law!
It is my meditation all day long.
How sweet are God’s words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
It’s a very convincing argument. Obviously, the Bible is near and dear to his heart. For him, living biblically is a pure joy; something that comes as naturally to him as breathing. You almost find yourself feeling a bit envious.
Now it’s the second witness’ turn. His appearance alone is enough to grab your attention. He’s wearing a white robe that runs the length of his figure, exposing only the sandals on his feet. Poor guy hasn’t shaved in God-knows-when, as both his beard and hair are scraggly and unkempt. He holds in his hands another book, which he opens to the first few pages and begins reading:
It’s the first day (of living biblically), and already I feel like the water is three feet over my head.
From the moment I wake up, the Bible consumes my life. I can’t do anything without fearing I’m breaking a biblical law. Before I so much as inhale or exhale, I have to run through a long mental checklist of rules.
It begins when I open my closet to get dressed. The Bible forbids men to wear women’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5), so that comfortable Dickinson College sweatshirt is off-limits. It was originally my wife’s.
The Bible says to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), so I have to mothball my poly-cotton Esquire magazine T-shirt.
And loafers? Am I allowed to wear leather? I go to the living room, click on my PowerBook and open my Biblical Rules file. I scroll down to the ones about animals. Pigskin and snakeskin are questionable, but it looks like regular old cow leather is permissible.
But wait—am I even allowed to use the computer? The Bible, as you might have guessed, doesn’t address the issue specifically, so I give it a tentative yes. Maybe sometime down the road, I could try stone tablets.
And then I stumble. Within a half hour of waking, I check the Amazon.com sales ranking of my last book. How many sins does that comprise? Pride? Envy? Greed? I can’t even count.
I don’t do much better on my errand to Mail Boxes Etc. I want to xerox a half dozen copies of the Ten Commandments so I can Scotch tape them up all over the apartment, figuring it’d be a good memory aid.
The Bible says, those with good sense are “slow to anger” (Proverbs 19:11). So when I get there at the same time as this wiry fortyish woman, and she practically sprints to the counter to beat me in line, I try not to be annoyed. And when she tells the employee to copy something on the one and only functioning Xerox machine, I try to shrug it off. And when she pulls out a stack of pages that looks like the collected works of J. K. Rowling and plunks it on the counter, I say to myself: “Slow to anger, slow to anger.”
I remind myself: Remember what happened when the Israelites were waiting for Moses while he was up on the mountaintop for forty days? They got impatient, lost faith, and were struck with a plague.
I finally make it to the counter and give the cashier a dollar. She scoops my thirty-eight cents of change from the register and holds it out for me to take.
I ask her, “Could you, uh, put the change on the counter?”
She glares at me. I’m not supposed to touch women – more on that later – so I am simply trying to avoid unnecessary finger-to-finger contact.
“I have a cold,” I say. “I don’t want to give it to you.”
A complete lie. In trying to avoid one sin, I commit another.
When I get back to my apartment, I decide to cross Numbers 15:38 off my list: Attach tassels to the corners of my garment. I had purchased some tassels from a website called “Tassels without Hassles.” They look like the kind of tassels on the corners of my grandmother’s needlepoint pillows. I spend ten minutes safety pinning them to my shirtsleeves and hem.
By the evening, I’m bushed. I barely have the energy to listen to (my wife) Julie talk about the U.S. Open—and even that conversation is fraught. I have to be sure to avoid mentioning Venus Williams, since she’s named for the Roman goddess of love, and it would violate Exodus 23:13 (make no mention of other gods).
As I go to bed, I wonder whether or not I took a step toward enlightenment today. Probably not. I was so busy obsessing over the rules – a lot of which still seem thoroughly insane – that I didn’t have time to think. Maybe I’m like a student driver who spends every moment checking the blinkers and speedometer, too nervous to contemplate the scenery. But it’s only the first day.
(from The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. 2007, Simon & Schuster. pgs. 15-17)
So tell me, jury: how do you rectify these two very different witness accounts? Are you inclined to side with the Psalmist, who says God’s law is as sweet as honey to his mouth? Or do you sympathize with A.J. Jacobs and the struggles he encounters on his very first day of trying to “live biblically?”
You know, it’s funny – I think we instinctively want to lean toward the Psalmist guy, because who doesn’t want to say that God’s commandments are a joy? That’s what good Christians are supposed to believe, right? But if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s not always our experience. Last week at this Bob Chilton Bible study, when we read this Psalm together, I expected folks to nod their heads in concurrence, wax poetic about how they, too, love God’s law and it’s sweet as honey and wonderful.
And this is why I love this little group that meets at Pages every other Thursday morning. I didn’t get the pad response. One person in particular said point-blank that she wasn’t buying it; that this guy was making biblical living out to be a breeze and worry-free, and that wasn’t her experience. And others, including your pastor, agreed with her – it is hard.
I love it that we can be real in our faith and acknowledge that our relationship with the Bible is a very complicated one. On the one hand we say we believe in it, when in fact we really only know a small portion of what’s in there. On one hand, we say we make every effort to follow God’s commandments – when, in fact, what we really do is a fair bit of cherry-picking: gravitating toward the laws and rules that tend to align with the life we already live, while putting on the back-burner or flat-out ignoring many others.
This schizophrenic way of reading the Bible can produce some pretty contradictory and humorous results. For instance: the picture floating out there on the internet of a man with Leviticus 20:13 – the verse many interpret as against homosexuality – Leviticus 20:13 tattooed on his shoulder; even though Leviticus 19:28 clearly forbids tattoos. Think about that! Or a preacher’s sermon that spouts racial rhetoric in the name of Jesus, even though Leviticus 19:33 clearly commands the faith community to “welcome the alien into their midst.”
So if A.J. deserves anything from us in his quest to live biblically, it is our respect for doing what, frankly, we’re not always willing to do ourselves. To acknowledge our tendencies to cherry-pick and gravitate toward more familiar and socially-acceptable laws. Because despite all his stumbling and bumbling, his over-analytical tendencies and self-confessed OCD behavior, despite all that, A.J. demonstrates for us quite clearly that trying to follow God’s law is not the thing that gets us closer to God. Yes, you heard your preacher say that! Trying to follow God's law is not what gets us closer to God. At the same time, we can’t simply disregard the law, claiming that Jesus’ arrival renders it meaningless; since he said himself he came not to abolish the law but to complete it.
So what is the purpose of all these laws and commandments? What is their meaning for us today? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it, women and men of the jury? Last week I suggested that the purpose of these 613 commandments – the ones we choose to follow and the ones we don’t – their purpose is not to get us closer to God, but to take us out of ourselves and our self-centered way of living and working in the world. To put it more directly: to make things a little awkward for us, and to give us pause.
That’s not an easy thing for us, is it? I mean, be totally honest, okay: what would you have said to the woman at the Mail Boxes Etc. counter? Hurry up, already! Come on lady, move it! And those are the things you can admit to in public! What do you say to that guy who cuts you off in traffic, the individual who asks more of you than they really should, the person who receives special treatment or benefits you don’t feel they earned?
Following God’s law goes against our grain, makes things awkward for us, knocks us out of our rhythm, gives us pause. Which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. Because a lot can happen in that pause, my friends. A little “holy space” opened up in our cluttered, over-stuffed lives for God to come in and be with us in a real and powerful sort of way that goes beyond simple allegiance to do’s and don’ts. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the real crux of living biblically: that ultimately, it’s not about following some laws, as much as it’s about the fact that we are not following ourselves anymore.
And into that pause, into that “holy space,” we find ourselves in relationship. That’s the difference-maker, don’t you think? We’re in relationship with each other; we’re in relationship with God. It’s what 1 John was getting at in the passage read earlier. We don’t follow God’s commandments because we’re checking them off like a grocery list. We follow them out of our relationship with Jesus. Love is at the heart of that relationship; a love that compels us to change our focus and our orientation and live our lives differently than we did before. So we don’t follow God’s commandments as a way to get to God – we follow God’s commandments because God has already gotten to us.
And see, that’s one of the reasons why I like this book and am so thankful for the author’s quest of living biblically. Because he demonstrates for us, quite convincingly, how exhausting it is to try and follow God’s laws like some sort of checklist, where we wind up picking and choosing, where we emphasize some and ignore others. Like the way we do more often than not. We need to be in relationship with the One who longs to be in relationship with us.
Now does this make following God’s commandments any easier? Lord, no! Does it make it any easier to discern what these commandments, created thousands of years ago in an entirely different culture on the other side of the world, does it make it any easier to figure out what they mean to us in the 21st century? No, it doesn’t.
What it does do is set us on a journey that never ends – a journey filled with joys as well as struggles. Light to our feet, and sometimes even a pain in the neck! Living biblically is a challenge, that much is for sure. But being in relationship with the God who created us and the community of faith that nurtures us – well, that makes the effort more than worth our while.
And with that, women and men of the jury, I rest my case. The question now is what you are going to do with the evidence. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.