Jan 21, 2022
Key Bible passages: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10; Psalm 19; Luke 4:14–21 Click here to read
SUMMARY: It might sound odd, but the Law is better than chocolate! If we think of the Law in the Bible as dry rules then we have it wrong. It's stories, promises, and poetry as well as rules. Even some of the rules are pretty amazing. The storys are about hope. How God makes a world, a people, heals them and rescues them. This message explores the second part of Pslam 19, Part of Ezra 8 and draws on Jesus' words from Isaiah in Luke 4.
How can the psalm writer say that the law “refreshes the soul”, that the law “gives joy to the heart”, “more precious than pure gold” and that they are “sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb”.
you heard some of these laws?
Listen to Leviticus 14:35 following:
“the following regulations about houses affected by spreading mildew. (These were to apply after the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, which the LORD was going to give them as their possession.) If someone finds that the LORD has sent mildew on his house, then he must go and tell the priest about it. The priest shall order everything to be moved out of the house before he goes to examine the mildew; otherwise everything in the house will be declared unclean. Then he shall go to the house and examine the mildew. If there are greenish or reddish spots that appear to be eating into the wall, he shall leave the house and lock it up for seven days. On the seventh day he shall return and examine it again. If the mildew has spread, he shall order the stones on which the mildew is found to be removed and thrown into some unclean place outside the city. After that he must have all the interior walls scraped and the plaster dumped in an unclean place outside the city. Then other stones are to be used to replace the stones that were removed, and new plaster will be used to cover the walls. If the mildew breaks out again in the house after the stones have been removed and the house has been scraped and plastered, the priest shall go and look. If it has spread, the house is unclean. It must be torn down, and its stones, its wood, and all its plaster must be carried out of the city to an unclean place.” (Leviticus 14:34–45, GNB)
Now this is good hygiene advice. I have heard from more than one source that if a house has mold it can be a health hazzard, but have those words refreshed your soul? Have they given joy to your heart? Do you think to yourself “Wow this is more valuable than Gold!” Are you thinking “how sweet, it’s even better than chewing on honeycomb”?
The words of the psalm remind me of an episode of the Muppets where they want to listen to Danny Kaye the actor/comedian backstage, so while he sings to them Kermet sends onto the Stage Clive Cahuenga the singing civil servant, who then sings “the Municipal Vermin Abatement Code to the music of Mozart. He sings each piece he performs twice, because he has to do everything in duplicate.” If we think of law as dry rules about dry subjects, the psalm makes no sense, but this is not the way the people of Ancient Israel thought about the Law.
Firstly even the dry rules had some powerful ideas. There are many references to caring for the poor the widowed and the orphaned. There is the repeated command that foreigners or migrants who live in the land should be treated just like citizens. For instance Deuteronomy 10:17–19 says “...the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19, NRSV)
But secondly and much more importantly when the Old Testament refers to the Law it is not only talking about the rules. Sometimes the word “law” just means “rules” as we would use the word Law. Jewish poetry repeats ideas rather than rhymes. So if you look at verses 7 to 9 of psalm 19, in the NIV for instance the word law is parallel to “Statutes”, “precepts”, “commands” “fear” and “decrees” . In the Contemporary English version it’s “teachings”, “instruction”, “commands”, “worship” and “decissions”.
The Law was not just rules, it was wisdom and instruction for the good and faithful life. It revealed what God is like and it showed what God’s people should be like and how they should love each other and even strangers who lived among them.
Moreover the Law was not only this instruction and this wisdom. The people of the Old Testament and of Jesus’ time and modern Jewish people call the whole first five books of the Bible “The Law”. There are lots of rules and instructions in the Law especially in the third book of the Bible, Leviticus and the fifth book Deuteronomy. There are quite a few rules and instructions the the second book of the Bible, Exodus, and the fourth book of the Bible Numbers, is mostly a catalogue of very tedious lists. Yet in these five books which Jewish people then and now called the Law there is so much more. There are stories, there is poetry and there are promises. Together they tell one great big story about how God made the whole universe including human beings, about how God made the world Good, how we human beings have rejected God, and how God still loves us has made promises and has a plan to bring us back. This promise begins with God caring for Adam and Eve when they left the garden, rescuing Noah through the flood, making a promise to Abraham to bless or make the whole world happy through him. It is a story of Abraham’s family being rescued from slavery in ancient Egypt and being taken to a promised land. In those stories, slaves are freed, promises are kept, and Abraham’s family becomes a great people. Songs of joy and victory are sung; tears are shed; lives transformed. Some of those stories are violent and difficult to hear and understand. Some of the rules and instructions sound very strange to us today, but they all lead in the one general direction. They lead to a restored relationship with God and with each other. They lead to victory and healing. They lead to a safe and secure home.
When the Psalm writer said that the Law was sweeter than Honey that’s what is being spoken about. It would be almost 3,000 years before Europeans brought Coco beans from South America and put them together with sugar to make chocolate. But if it had been around that’s what the Psalm writer might have compared the Law to “The Law is better than fine chocolate, even much fine chocolate.”
This is what the people in the story of Ezra and Nehimiah weep over. The story is that the Jewish people had been conquered by invaders from Babylon (modern Iraq) and their leaders had been taken away as exiles. Their city Jerusalem and the the Temple, the place where they worshiped God and the place they believed God was most present on earth had all been destroyed. The temple, their whole city and its walls had been burned and torn down. Around 70 years later the people of Babylon are defeated by the people of Persia (Modern day Iran). The Persians send the Jewish people back to Jerusalem and give them permission to rebuild the city and the Temple. First they rebuild the Temple and then they rebuild the wall around the city. Our story takes place just after the rebuilding of the Wall. It’s sort of like after the Earthquake in Christchurch. The basic infrastructure has been rebuilt and now houses are being rebuilt and the city resettled and coming back to life. All the people gather in worship and ask Ezra one of the priests and a teacher of the Law to read the Law to them. When they hear it read and explained they weep.
when they hear the rules and instructions about how they are to
live, how they are to love God and their neighbour and how they are
to treat the poor the widowed and the orphaned as well as the
stranger, perhaps they weep because they have failed to live up to
the demands of the Law.
Perhaps though they weep because they hear the way that God kept the promise to Abraham, and the stories about how God rescued and cared for Abraham’s family including rescuing them from being slaves in Egypt and bringing them to the land of Israel. And when they heard those stories they heard their own story and realised that they were now part of the story too. For God had rescued them from slavery and from another land and brought them back to Israel. God was still keeping the promises. Perhaps they were tears of joy, perhaps they were tears of sadness. It is likely that they were both. The scene finishes with Ezra telling them not to weep. ..“Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV)
500 years later Jesus is sitting in a worship service in the town
of Nazareth where he grew up. He reads part of the Bible. This part
of the Bible talks about how the things promised in the Law and the
stories of rescue from slavery, of people being healed and saved
will one day come true. Jesus is a teacher who also has a
reputation as a healer. The custom was different to ours. The
preacher or teacher would read a part of the Bible and then he
would sit down to teach or preach. So Jesus sits down and everyone
looks to him, ready to hear what he has to say. “Today this
Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At the very least Jesus
was saying that he is the one announcing freedom and justice and
We can look back over the rest of his life and over the 2,000 years since and with a mixture of historical knowledge and faith know that this Jesus was not only announcing freedom, justice and healing, he is also the source, of freedom, justice and healing. His teaching, his healing, his miracles, his sharing meals with and being the guest of both sinners and religious people show that healing and freedom at work. Above all through his death and being raised to new life, defeating death, he brings the ultimate freedom.
I think we are most like the people in Ezra’s time. The Uniting Church our movement or denomination is far from ruined like the Temple and Jerusalem were, but we are living at a time where we are only a small band. A shadow of our former selves. When we add to that the pandemic, climate change and the breakdown in community connections represented by the decline in things like Rotary Clubs, P&Cs, CWAs, Unions, political parties and of course families and personal relationships it would be easy to despair.
If however we listen to the Law, hear its promises and its stories and the positive things it says about how we should live with God and with each other, then we can go forward with confidence. Abraham’s family did become great. The people of Israel in slavery in Egypt were released. The Temple and the city and its walls were rebuilt. Jesus was dead and buried but he rose again and because as a human like us, he received God’s Spirit God’s indwelling presence, the Spirit has been poured out on us too.
Like the people of Israel hearing the Law, we should weep. Weep because we have fallen short of the way we live with God and others, we have not loved God with all we are our neighbours as ourselves and we have not welcomed the stranger as we should. Like them we should also weep with joy. God does heal, God does bring freedom, God does bring justice, God keeps the promises. Even better like the family of Abraham, like Ezra and the people of Israel, above all like Jesus, God includes us in this story, in these promises.
The Law does “refresh the soul”, the law “gives joy to the heart”, it is “more precious than pure gold” and“sweeter than honey from the honeycomb”. It is better even than the best Chocolate.
So with our souls refreshed we are called to take our place in the story.