Prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
In an earlier sermon I opened with a few comments about the Lectionary, and do so again. Today it lists three scripture passages that are hard to ignore. Who can brush aside the Ten Commandments? What lover of classical music could discard the beautiful Psalm 19 that inspired the most famous chorus in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation as well as the prayer with which this sermon began? Next is a spirited message from the Apostle Paul, who traveled the Mediterranean world with the Gospel. Finally, we take up Matthew’s Gospel, which establishes such important principles that it is the take-home lesson. Consideration of the first three scriptures will be relatively brief.
Exodus 20 presents the Ten Commandments. You have all heard them and know them. I will make a few comments about them.
It is easy to observe that the ten commandments vary greatly in the frequency with which they are violated. As a ready example, we live in an age in which it is quite common to hear a phrase such as “Oh, my God.” The mention of God in this superficial way violates a commandment.
Exodus 20:10. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
Both our OT and NT passages assume a culture in which there are slaves. In this respect we are ahead of Biblical times. We have made slavery illegal, though we still have various situations in which one part of the population dominates or controls another part. There’s plenty of room for progress.
Exodus 20:12 Honor your father and your mother. Mark Twain is credited with a remark of pure teenage rebellion that ends in honor to his father: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Looking at the ten commandments overall, two of them — honor your parents and remember the sabbath — tell us things we are supposed to do, whereas the other eight commandments name things not to do. If we had only the Old Testament we might feel oppressed by life in a “Thou shalt not” world. However, the New Testament says more about things we are supposed to do, and we will get to that in a general way with the passage from Matthew’s Gospel.
Our Exodus passage ends with these words about the delivery of the Ten Commandments to the people:
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distanceand said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”’
It seems to me an unhealthy relationship between God and God’s people when it is based on fear as the Commandments came down. We know that the nature of the relationship between God and humanity is viewed much more warmly in the New Testament, as well as some places in the Old Testament.
A positive view of the Ten Commandments recently appeared in print. The writer saw “refreshing, communally oriented commandments …guidelines for human flourishing…” (Christian Century, Oct. 2023, p 25)
Now let’s turn to Psalm 19. The Heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. See VT 197.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth
and their words to the end of the world.
The writer has observed nature and the sky, and is overwhelmed by what he sees. We all ought to observe the earth and the sky and reach the psalmist’s conclusion: The heavens are telling the glory of God. The writer of this beautiful psalm is transported to lofty inspiration.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
God’s instructions for life inspire the Psalmist to extraordinary heights of Divine praise. These four poetic verses pile adjectives on adjectives. Condensing the text, we have God’s words as perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, and true. It’s an amazing list, a stroke of exalted writing.
The poetically inspired author comes down to earth with this humble prayer: “But who can detect one’s own errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.”
The Psalm ends with a passage we often hear as a prayer to start a sermon; all of you know it:
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Philippians 3:13-14 “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul has something to say about himself:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
I cannot see any reason for Paul to carry on about himself in this way. He is writing to believers in the church in Philippi, a Greek city hundreds of miles from Israel, and I don’t see why they should care at all about Paul’s history in a minor culture that surely seemed inferior to their own Greek culture, which produced the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, and Pythagoras and Euclid in mathematics. There was no reason for a Greek to look elsewhere for original thinking.
To put it mildly, the Apostle Paul is a strong personality. A commentator said of him that if he were in prison — and of course sometimes he was imprisoned — he would spend his time preaching to the other prisoners! Paul’s recitation of his strong Jewish pedigree is almost embarrassing. However, he soon trashes it in favor of his new relationship with Christ Jesus in these words…
Philippians 3:13-14 “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Thus Paul sets his exalted pedigree aside and embraces Christ Jesus.
In Matthew 21:42 Jesus gives the parable of the wicked servants, then explains it. New Testament preaching is always easier when Jesus explains his parables. In this case the explanation is very important for two reasons.
First, when Jesus says to his Jerusalem audience in Matthew 21:43 “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruits” Jesus is declaring the superiority of operational theology as a guide to life, which can be put more simply as the claim that what we do is of far greater importance than what we believe. A lot of American Christians feel that what they believe is of prime importance. Here our Lord turns it around, stating that actions are far more important than words.
The second reason is that Jesus has concluded that the Jewish religious leaders around him are not going to accept his message, and so he says in verses 42 and 43:
“Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;[f]
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruits.”
These are hard words. Here Jesus essentially says to his listeners, Because your religious leaders don’t accept me, my message must go out to the entire world. That includes all of us, and has transformed our lives and influenced much of the world.
But before we sit back and smile at our good fortune, we must remember that the message of Jesus comes with an obligation to act, not merely to believe. May we be worthy actors on the divine stage set before us in life. Amen.