Psalm 119:1-16; Matthew 5:6

October 28, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

During the first period of every class that I teach, I always hand out a syllabus. At one level, a syllabus clarifies the basic “nuts and bolts” of the course–objectives I hope to attain, assignments the students must complete, and the schedule that we will follow during the semester. But a syllabus does more than simply outline the standard guidelines for the course. It actually establishes who it is that has the final authority in the class. As the professor, I prepare the syllabus and I, not the students, ultimately determine the requirements and award the grades. Regardless of how caring and conversational I may be, I have the final say. As a result, when students enroll in my class, its in their best interest to take my syllabus seriously.

In these opening verses of Psalm 119, the Psalmist seems to be enrolled in a lifelong class taught by God himself. God, as the professor, has handed out his syllabus, and the Psalmist carefully reflects on the requirements and expectations. His response is most instructive. Rather than dropping the class, as many do, the Psalmist begins by affirming and accepting the fact that God does have the say. At least seventeen times in these verses he refers to God’s laws, God’s precepts, God’s commandments, and God’s decrees. With alarming redundancy, he affirms that God calls the shots. God, once again, has the say in the Psalmist’s life and in the lives of his classmates.

All of us here this morning are members of various groups. In each of these groups, someone exercises authority and enforces certain standards and expectations. In our families, for example, parents have the say over their children, and they provide parameters in which those children are to live. As a Brensinger growing up, I knew very well that I was not in charge. My parents, and particularly my father, made that quite clear to me on many occasions. And with my own children, I reminded them just a few weeks ago when one of you offered us a cat that our family–as much as we share together–is not a democracy.

Employers have the say over their employees, and they of course expect their workers to meet their responsibilities and to abide by the standards of the company. My guess is that the bishop of our conference, not to mention our church board, would have been less than thrilled had I chosen to stay home this morning to watch T. D. Jakes preach on television instead of spending this time with all of you. Government officials exercise authority over the citizens of the state, and there are rules and regulations by which the people are to live. In religious groups, people believe that their god or gods exercise authority. We who call ourselves Christians affirm that Jesus Christ has the say in our lives, and we similarly suggest that being a Christian involves living in a certain way. Even so-called peer groups–the kids you hang out with, women you yard sale with, other residents at the village you play bingo with–have a certain pecking order; someone is typically in charge, and the group has certain standards that all must meet. All of our groups have their leaders and their own set of expectations.

We can, of course, live rather nicely as members of multiple groups so long as the expectations of those groups coincide. I can, for example, eat a hot fudge sundae while being a member of all of my groups. My parents think eating hot fudge sundaes is O.K., though both of them prefer other flavors. Bishop Hock has never instructed me to avoid them, and I am aware of no local, national or biblical law prohibiting their consumption. Eating hot fudge sundaes is acceptable in all of my groups.

What happens, however, when the expectations of two or more of my groups conflict? Chaim Potok, the wonderful Jewish novelist, struggled mightily with this matter in some of his writings. What happens, for example, if my parents ask me to do something that is in conflict with the expectations of my school? What do I do if one or more of my groups–friends, family, school, nation–pushes me to live in a way that clashes with what God requires? At such a moment, all of us encounter perhaps the most foundational question we can face–who has ultimate say in my life? What should I do? Who should I listen to? As long as we waffle over this question–who has the say in my life and in the life of our community?–we will continue to stumble through the myriad of choices that life has to offer.

The Psalmist’s response to the question is resoundingly clear. “I will observe your statutes.” “I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.... I will not forget your word.” God, and no one else, has the ultimate say in his life.

Notice, furthermore, that the Psalmist not only affirms God’s authority, but he also accepts God’s requirements. Just as I clarify the assignments in the classes that I teach, so too does God establish parameters for those who follow him. All groups, after all, need parameters, and the people of God are no different. Imagine your place of employment if all structures and all expectations were removed. Imagine your family with absolutely no guidelines. Can you even picture our society if all regulations were done away with? And what would one of my classes look like if I never provided a list of objectives, assignments, explanations and due dates? Students, to be sure, may fuss when they look over my syllabus, but they would certainly be lost without it. Chaos would obviously result.

God’s people need parameters as well, but we often get the wrong idea about why such parameters exist. The most common word in the Bible that gets at this idea of God’s parameters and stipulations is the word “Torah,” and unfortunately, it is typically translated into English as “law.” The problem with the word “law” is that it usually carries with it negative connotations. When you think of “law,” you tend to think of lights flashing in your rear view mirror, prohibitions that limit your freedom and enjoyment, and consequences for the times when you violate society’s regulations.

The word “Torah,” however, actually comes from the verb meaning “to aim at.” You pick up a bow and aim the arrow at the center of a target. You line up the field goal unit on your football team and aim the ball at the goal posts. Your two year old son positions himself by the potty, learning to pee standing up for the first time, aiming for the center of the bowel. And you know all to well what a mess results if he misses! We used to have a small stone on our toilet when our sons were little. Painted on the stone were the words: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.” Aiming at the target is crucial.

By implication, then, the word “Torah” actually means instruction–God’s instructions and commandments enable people to aim their lives in the right direction, directly at the target. How do we know what is best for us? How do we know what to do with our lives? How do we know how to act in certain situations? We need direction. We need parameters. God’s stipulations and regulations are not meant to stifle our fun, but to help us live life to the fullest. They show us how to treat each other. They guide us in serving as caretakers of creation. They prevent us from getting our priorities all out of whack. They help us understand God and how to function as his people. They prevent us from shooting our arrows randomly into space, and teach us to direct our lives at the target. Rather than harming us, God’s instructions free us to live rightly.

We must be careful, however, not to assume that the positive nature of God’s commandments makes their observance any less important. I too establish regulations in my classes for the betterment of the students–to teach them and to assist them in learning and growing. Nevertheless, I do intend for the assignments to be completed and the instructions to be carefully carried out. Imagine, for example, a student in my Old Testament Literature class submitting a paper entitled “Root Causes of the Vietnam War,” or “Lawrence Kohlberg’s “Developmental Theory and Your Child’s Intense Disinterest in Lima Beans,” or perhaps “How to Make Hanging Drywall an Enjoyable Family Activity.” I would of course refuse to accept such a paper, defending my decision on the grounds that it failed to meet the requirements of the class. “Oh,” the student might respond, “it’s a great paper. I handed it in a few weeks ago in Dr. so and so’s human development class, and she gave me an A.” Perhaps it is a great paper, and perhaps Dr. so and so did give it an A in her class. After all, a paper on Kohlberg and a child’s likes and dislikes is appropriate for a class in human development. But it does not have anything to do with Old Testament Literature. I have the say in this class, and you must meet the requirements that I have established if you hope to succeed.

God feels the same way. In the words of the Psalmist, “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.” God, as loving and as gracious as he is, takes obedience and righteousness very seriously. Once again, it becomes a question of who has the ultimate say in our lives. When the expectations of our various groups conflict, God expects us to do things his way, regardless of the cost. When friends in our peer groups entice us to dabble with drugs or engage in sexual activities outside of marriage, the Lord expects us to listen to him instead. When our employer pressures us to compromise our integrity in order to advance the company, the Lord expects us to guard our ways. When our government calls on us to do things that violate the teachings of Scripture, guess what? God reserves for himself the position of ultimate authority in our lives as individuals and in the life of his church. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, God expects us to obey him in all things. He longs for a righteous community.
Unfortunately, this presents a problem for many people. In various religions of the world, you can seemingly follow a few stipulations or repeat select formulas and get away with it. It takes little to please certain gods. The God of the Bible, however, expects more than that. In fact, he has the audacity to demand our full compliance. He insists that in every instance when his expectations conflict with those of people around us, we do things his way. He even wants us to think like him. Yet, so many Christians don’t seem to be taking him seriously.
Some ten years ago, George Barna conducted a survey in which he compared the views of both Christians and non-Christians on a wide range of issues. In fact, Barna selected 150 different lifestyles areas–materialism, time spent together as a family, television and video games, marriage and divorce, abortion, and so on–and he discovered that in virtually every area, the church here in the states is not noticeably different from the society around us. Frighteningly, Barna even concluded that the “survey data shows that most Americans believe that you cannot tell a born-again Christian from nonbelievers because there is no difference in the way they live.” Christians are equally self-centered, equally in love with material things, equally driven to play, and equally prone to view their religion in terms of personal self-fulfillment rather than as a corporate experience.
For the Psalmist, such a situation is unthinkable. God has given us his instructions. He has shown us how we ought to live. Now, he expects those of us who enroll in his class to follow the guidelines. I remember one occasion when I was teaching a class in Christian Theology at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a freshman level course, and I had just handed out the syllabus. As the students and I were reviewing the assignments, one young man near the back raised his hand and asked, “Are you serious?” I assured him that I was. And so is God. He has the say, and he is looking for people who are serious about following him. People who will dedicate everything they are and have to being his disciples, and people who will loving but firmly assist others to do the same.
Finally, note the surprising passion that repeatedly comes through in these verses from Psalm 119. One might expect a consideration of God’s standards to be cast in gloom and dread–oh, God is so mean, and his expectations so demanding and unrealistic. Yet we find no trace of such sentiments here, do we? “Happy are those...who walk in the law of the Lord.” “Happy are those who keep his decrees,...” “I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.”
I suppose that the Psalmist’s joy in reflecting upon God’s commandments grows out of at least these two things. First, he realizes that healthy and appropriate guidelines really are a wonderful thing. I don’t like driving to a strange place without good directions. That is how you get lost. Children grow increasingly frustrated when they are left to do whatever they want, never knowing what is expected of them. Students, whether they admit it or not, despise too much ambiguity and uncertainty in school–they want things spelled out. In all honesty, there is a certain degree of freedom and security and peace in knowing what is expected of us. I don’t want to serve a god like the gods of ancient Mesopotamia. You never knew for sure what they wanted, and you always hoped that they got up on the right side of the bed. God has given us his word. He has taught us his way. He tells us what he expects. There is a great deal of security in that, and a great deal of joy.
But beyond that, the Psalmist has also discovered the satisfaction of pleasing his heavenly father. There is joy in obeying. When I was a teenager, I disobeyed my parents more times than I care to remember. Now, knowing they are proud of me brings me considerable excitement and satisfaction. Or recall a time when you received an overwhelmingly positive evaluation at work for doing a good and honest job. There is joy in obeying. There is deep contentment when you go to bed at night knowing that you have lived a life of integrity, knowing that you have resisted evil and have served the Lord. It feels a whole lot better than going to bed dirty and discouraged. Sensing God’s pleasure is a truly wonderful thing. Think of Job. God, when informed of the adversary’s desire to locate one righteous person, responds, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” We can please God. You and I can actually bring a smile to God’s face, and that is an exhilarating thought.
In the summer of 1992, I taught a few courses at Sikalongo Bible Institute in Zambia. The school is very small–I had seven students in my class on the Minor Prophets. On the day when the first assignment was due, only two of the seven handed in their work. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but after a quick prayer, I told the class that I was a busy person. I had not traveled so far just to play games–I could do that at home with my sons. I then informed them that if they did not have their work completed by the next day, I would leave and go to Jerusalem a few months ahead of schedule. The next day, everyone handed in their work. But it gets even better. With more than two weeks still remaining in the semester, several of the students came to my house one afternoon and knocked on the door. When I came out, they informed me that they had completed all of their assignments for the rest of the term, and they were hoping that I might give them additional work. “We have so much to learn and you have a great deal to offer,” they said. “Please, teach us more.”
Are we equally eager to learn and follow the ways of the Lord? “Blessed are you, O Lord,” the Psalmist cries. “Teach me your commandments.” Teach us your commandments, that we together might live rightly all of our days.