Sermon for 3 Lent Yr B

3rd Sunday in Lent Yr B, 7/03/2021

Ps 19

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“God’s glory, the law, and beyond”

My NRSV Lutheran Study Bible has two titles for Psalm 19: The superscription-title is “To the Leader. A Psalm of David” and the second title reads: “God’s Glory in Creation and the Law.” The Lutheran Study Bible (pp. 849-850) identifies Psalm 19 as a creation psalm and an instructional-wisdom psalm. Psalm 19, along with Psalms 1 and 119 are also referred to as Torah Psalms—they praise God’s laws. Indeed, there are several similar phrases about the law in these psalms if you compare them. For example, Ps 19:10 is similar to Psalm 119:127 and 103. Both of them state that God’s law is to be desired more than gold and it is sweeter than honey. 

Turning to the first six verses of Psalm 19, which focus on God’s glory in creation, over the centuries these verses have been an inspiration to musicians. Franz Joseph Haydn, probably the greatest composer of his age, who left a rich legacy of oratorios and symphonies, was once asked where he obtained his musical inspirations and ideas. Simple in his lifelong Catholic faith, he answered, “Well, you see, I get up early, and as soon as I have dressed I go down on my knees and pray God that I may have another successful day. Then when I’ve had some breakfast, I sit down at the clavier and begin my search. But if I can’t get on, I know that I must have forfeited God’s grace by some fault of mine, and then I pray once more for grace.”

One of his greatest works is The Creation, based on the account of the creation in Genesis and the opening verses of Psalm 19, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had to be carried, due to illness, to the gala Vienna performance of The Creation. In a tremendous ovation the distinguished audience rose with thunderous applause as a tribute to his genius. Franz Joseph Haydn protested and, pointing his hand toward heaven, exclaimed, “This did not come from me—it all comes from above.”1

At least two other musicians were inspired by the words of Psalm 19. Isaac Watts wrote his hymn “The Heav’ns Declare Thy Glory, Lord” and Thomas Birks wrote his hymn “The Heavens Declare Thy Glory” based on Psalm 19. 

After the psalmist begins with God’s glory in creation, he shifts his train of thought to praise God’s law, also known as God’s Torah. The word Torah literally means God’s teaching, God’s instruction.

In verses 7-9, the psalmist employs six different words, which are synonyms to describe God’s laws. In each case the word also has an adjective: the law is perfect, decrees are sure, precepts are right, the commandment is clear, fear of the LORD is pure, and ordinances are true and righteous. In four of these synonyms, each has some consequence or benefit: the law revives the soul, decrees make the simple wise, precepts rejoice the heart, the commandment enlightens the eyes. 

In verse 11, the psalmist describes the function of the law: it warns you of the consequences if you do not obey it; and it rewards you if you do obey. That reminds me of the following story told by Professor Fred Craddock.

Professor Craddock says: I recall in a class on the parables a few years ago, the students gravitated heavily toward the stories of a reversal type in which the offer of grace was extended to the wayward son, the publican, the eleventh-hour worker, and the servant who took big risks with the master’s money. These students frowned on punishing lazy stewards or slamming doors in the faces of poor girls who forgot to bring oil. In short, grace was no longer unexpected, but instead was expected by these seminarians and hence was no longer grace, and if it was, it was cheap. So Professor Craddock read this story once without explanation and asked if it was a parable. 

There was a certain seminary professor who was very strict about due dates for papers. Due dates were announced at the beginning of a semester, and failure to meet them resulted in an F for the semester. In one class three students did not meet the deadline. The first one explained, “Professor, unexpected guests from out of town came the evening before the paper was due, and I was unable to finish it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor. 

The second student explained, “On the day before the paper was due, I became ill with influenza and was unable to complete it.”

“Then you receive an F,” said the professor.

The third student, visibly shaken at the news about the fate of the other two, cautiously approached the professor’s desk. Slowly he began, “Professor, our first baby was due the same day the paper was due. The evening before, my wife began having pains, and so I rushed her to the hospital. Shortly after midnight she gave birth to a boy. Our son weighs eight pounds. We named him Kenneth.”

The professor listened with interest, moved his chair back from the desk, and looked up at the ceiling. After a long pause, he looked across at the student and said, “Then you receive and F for the course.” The news spread rapidly through the seminary. A large delegation of students came to the professor to protest.

“Why have you been so cruel and harsh?” they asked. 

The professor replied, “At the beginning of the semester I gave my word concerning the papers. If the word of a teacher in a Christian seminary cannot be trusted, whose word can be trusted?” The students were dismissed.

Most of the students were angry not only with the professor in the story but with Professor Craddock for telling it. They insisted it was not a parable.2

That story reminds me of the closing verses of Psalm 19, wherein the psalmist confesses that he is in need of something beyond God’s law. The law shows him his sins—both his unwitting sins and his wilful sins. Yet the law cannot forgive him of his sins—only the LORD and his grace can do that. 

That reminds me of another story. When I was in seminary, many years ago, I handed in a paper late. At the end of my paper, I wrote to the professor apologizing for my tardiness, and telling him that he should operate by the law, and dock me the appropriate marks for handing my paper in late. Well, the professor liked my paper, and rather than getting an F like the students in the story earlier, my professor chose to be gracious—I ended up getting a B. 

As the psalmist says, yes, the law is good. It functions to punish us if we disobey, and it rewards us if we keep the law. Society needs the law for everyone’s protection and well-being. For example, the lower speed limits in school zones protect students from being injured or run over, and protect drivers from injuring the students. The law however also functions to show us our sins. As the psalmist admits, no one is perfect, we all sin, and cannot perfectly keep God’s law. The law cannot forgive our sins, we need something beyond the law. Rather, the law functions to reveal our sins and shortcomings, and to drive us to Christ who, by his grace, forgives us. 

That is why the psalmist ends his prayer in verse 14; and that is why many of us preachers pray a version of verse 14 before we begin our sermons: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Only by God’s grace can my words and our thoughts become acceptable. Thanks to what Jesus has done for you and I on the cross and through his resurrection, we are forgiven and generously receive his gift of grace. 

During this Lenten season, by God’s grace, may we all be more mindful and appreciative of what Jesus has done for each one of us through his suffering and death on the cross! 

1 Benjamin P. Browne, Illustrations For Preaching (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), p. 47. 

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 18-19. 

Sermon 3 Lent Yr B

Read my sermon for March 4, 2018 here: 3 Lent Yr B