Tuesday, July 07, 2009

God’s Ways

Psalm 25 [1]

During the season of Epiphany we have been talking how Jesus’ life and ministry served to open our eyes to the reality of God’s kingdom, already working among us to make all things new, to set things right and restore life as God intended for it to be. As we move into Lent, it is appropriate to ask ourselves some important questions. For example, how does this good news impact the way we actually live. What does it mean to live our lives according to God’s kingdom?

The psalmist puts it this way, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation” (Ps. 25:4-5). If you’ve paid any attention to my preaching at all, you may have noticed that I begin my sermons with that prayer. This particular Psalm is a prayer for God’s instruction, for God’s torah. [2] Now, most of us have labored under the mistaken notion that the Torah was the law, something from which we have been set free by Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. The torah is not a set of rules that are intended to bind us or to be codified into a set of laws. The torah is God’s instruction for what it means to live in the light of the reality that God is working in this world to make all things new. [3]

As one of my favorite commentators on the Psalms says, Torah is “instruction in the broadest sense”; that means that in the Psalms,

“you may find instruction about what God is like and how God deals with people and the world. You can learn about the human predicament and human possibilities in a world populated by the powerful and the lowly, the wicked and the righteous. You can learn about the conduct of life and how that affects its outcome. You will be taught trust and the language of trust, prayer and praise.” [4]

What it means to live in the light of God’s kingdom is simply this: make God’s ways the guiding orientation to all of life. [5] But what are God’s ways? The Psalmist answers that question also: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10). [6] This verse contains two very important concepts in the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of God’s character. God is a God of “faithfulness”—which means that God never gives up on relationships; and God is a God of “steadfast love”—which means that God never quits loving us. [7]

Based on God’s character, the focus of torah is simply “what is right” (Psalm 25:9). It is the Hebrew word that is often translated “justice.” God is also a God of “righteousness,” a God of “justice." [8] But remember that we’ve had some misunderstandings here too. In the Bible God’s justice is the compassion and kindness that creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially the most vulnerable. [9] It is a word of salvation; it’s focus is on setting things right. [10]

So from the perspective of the Psalmist, what it means to live in the light of God’s kingdom is to emulate God’s character—to be faithful in relationships, loving in a way that never quits, working to set things right. Now being the industrious Presbyterians we are, we might be tempted to go out and devise a plan to do just that. In fact, I guess you’d have to say that’s exactly what we’ve done as a denomination—devised a plan to systematically follow this way of life.

But notice that God’s torah or instruction is for those humble enough to know that they need it: “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9). [11] Those who are open to God’s way are the ones who are humble enough to realize that they need God in every aspect of their lives. They are the ones who are humble enough to align their lives with God’s kingdom when it begins to make an appearance. One of the fundamental lessons of Lent is that we are called to live the life of the kingdom of God. But another one of the fundamental lessons of Lent is that we cannot live the life of the kingdom on our own. The only way we can possibly achieve any success is if God “teaches” us. [12] Being humble enough to seek God’s instruction is a matter of trust—of entrusting ourselves to God’s goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness, and being willing to take the risk of following God’s ways.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/1/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]As the Psalmist puts it, God “instructs [torah] sinners in the way” (Psalm 25:8). James L. Mays, Psalms, 127, reminds us that in the context of the Psalms, “the torah of the Lord, his instruction of those who fear him, is part of God’s saving work.”

[3] Mays, Psalms, 126: God’s instruction “is guidance that makes it possible to live in and according to the rule of God.” Cf. also Mays, 98-99, 152, 168, 254-57, 301, 381-84.

[4] Mays Psalms, 15-16. He continues, “The Psalms compose a book of Torah. In all their styles and types they give instruction. So they can be used. And so they have been used, all of them, to this day.”

[5] Cf. Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 323.

[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 32-33, 156-57, 168, 218, 277, for explanations of God’s character or “ways” in the Psalms.

[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 33, 328, 344-47.

[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 57: “God’s ‘righteousness’ … means the divine purpose and power to make people and affairs right for life.” Cf. further Mays, 75, 237, 270-71, 277; cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms, 45: one of the most prominent of the effects of God’s reign on earth is “the establishment of justice or the setting of things right on earth.”

[9] Mays, Psalms 311, says it this way: “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”

[10] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 57, 73, 212, 311, 315, 383 Both the Hebrew words mishpat (justice) and tsedeqah (righteousness) relate to this idea.

[11] Most biblical scholars would argue that Jesus translated the “humble” in the OT Psalms and Prophets into the “poor in spirit” or the “meek” of the Beatitudes. Cf. Mays, Psalms, 35 and Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 92-95.

[12] Mays, Psalms, 126: “The life of prayer is incomplete unless there are supplications that say, ‘Teach me, instruct me, guide me, let me know.’”

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