‘Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path’ proclaims the Psalmist. Which is nice.
But what does he mean?
Well, when the Psalmist is speaking, and indeed when the compilers of the proverbs are writing the definition of the word is quite clear – it is the law. God’s law – the commandments, all 613 of them. For in the commandments – far from the impression we have in Christian circles, is a sense of liberation and joy, a sense of ‘this is how we please God – by living by these commands’
And these commandments are so special, so wonderful, so life-giving that even now any adult member of the Jewish community becomes, on their transition into adulthood a bar or bat Mitzvah – a son or daughter of the law. Even now, as they have done for hundreds, thousands, of years, Jewish scholars and writers dedicate themselves to an understanding and interpretation of the commandments – believing that fullness of life is found within obedience to the word, the law of the Lord. Or as it says elsewhere in the Psalms ‘your statutes are my delight’. How often do we think of delight, of joy, of freedom when we consider the law of the Lord – the word to which the Psalmist and the Proverbs refer? How often is this idea of law taken as a liberation and as an expression of the freedom God desires?
For within the law are not just the ten commandments – that’s a particularly Christian concept – nor are there only laws about religious ritual. In the law are considerations of justice and fairness, of how we live together with care for one another, of how each member of the community should behave in order that there might be peace- Shalom – wholeness. There are considerations towards the stranger, the alien, and towards the poor and needy and sick. There are guidelines about what to eat not just for religious but practical reasons – I mean, eating shellfish in the desert before refrigeration… not a sensible idea. Pork, when it is not subject to the kind of rigour that pork farming is now, is stuffed with all sorts of unpleasant parasites and diseases. These laws became part of a ritual food code, but started as some pretty sensible advice for the wandering people of Israel! The law is meant to take away the stress of living, and show us how to relate to God and one another, faithfully and joyfully.
As Christians we kind of hijacked the idea of law, taking a cue from Paul and holding up the law as oppressive, negative, bound by rules and regulations, and in sharp contrast to the life found in grace in Christ. I don’t actually believe that this is what Paul meant, for in Chapter 7 of his most exquisite and nuanced theological work – the letter to the Romans – he says ‘I delight in the law of God’. And I am certain that this negative view of law is not what Jesus meant when he talked of himself as the fulfilling of the law. Or said that not one iota of the law would pass away until all is fulfilled…
The law, the word of God is considered to be life-giving, life affirming, life-changing. It is meant to be a way in which we see God’s inmost desired and we are encouraged to meditate on this law and to live by it.
But like so many bits of scripture, I would say that it is not the words themselves that are to be our focus – but the meaning behind the words. The law seeks to frame an attitude towards God, not to bind us in a blind obedience, but calls us into deeper, richer, more profound relationship with God. Indeed, in our Christian tradition the whole of scripture calls us that way – and though the Church often focusses on the words of Scripture it is the Word within Scripture we are called to discern.
Ooooer, I hear you think, what does the Rector mean by that?
Don’t get me wrong, I love words, I love reading, I love playing with words. And I am the same with Scripture – I love to meditate, consider, struggle with, think on, pray on and learn from scripture. But the words in themselves are not where God resides – I do not worship the Bible, I worship the one Word, who we call Christ. In the well known prologue to St John’s Gospel we hear the words used at pretty much every Christmas Night service ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ In the Greek the term is logos. The logos is the expression of God – the breath of God gone forth in substance. The reality of God made manifest.
Within the words of Scripture, I seek the Word of God. I look for where the Christ leads me, I listen for the voice of God and long to feel breath of God ruffle the pages of my Bible. It is this word which brings the words of our Bibles to life.
We don’t worship ink and paper. It is disturbing to see how many seek to enshrine the living, breathing, vibrant spirit of God in words and phrases pulled from a book.
Christian faith, following Christ, is actually a much harder, higher, more exciting calling than that. It is to be in relationship with a God who is experienced in prayer, in worship, in sacrament, in love, and yes in study of scripture. But not a God trapped in scripture, we are called to discern the word behind the words, the life behind the scriptures.
And it is the task of each of us to set our minds and hearts on this discovery – together, seeking to discern the life of God. When we trap our understanding of God in words, or traditions, institutions or even just habits of worship then we miss out on the true and living Word.
For a faithful Jew, the life of the law comes from being excited about and by the life behind the commandments. For those of us who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our fullness of life comes from a relationship with him through our common life, through our care for one another and of all in need, through our shared experience of worship and prayer.
And as I said at the early service this morning (my last sermon, found below), taking my cue from the Gospel reading where the disciples are sent out with nothing, not even money or bread - we are not to be distracted – whether it be by the minutiae of biblical verses, or our own comfort, or the way we like Church to be – but to live fully in the life of Christ, abundant, transforming, hopeful, loving, faithful life – that all the world might know and be transformed by it.