Living Biblically – Your Word Is A Lamp To My Feet, And A Pain In The Neck!

Steve Lindsley
(1 John 5: 1-5; Psalm 119: 97-112)

Back last August, you may recall, I preached two sermons based on this book: The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs.  A quick recap: this book, which came out in 2007, is subtitled: “One man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  Some number of year ago, A.J. found his writing niche which he called “immersion journalism.”  The idea is that he writes on a particular subject not from a distance, but by totally immersing himself in it.  For The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs chronicles his attempt, for an entire year, to try and follow the Bible as literally as possible.  The results are dramatic, awkward, almost always humorous, and often very insightful – even for an author of Jewish heritage who openly confesses that he is Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is Italian.

I got good feedback from a number of you about those sermons – so over the course of the summer, I’m going craft my sermons around a story or two from this book – a book I invite you to read over the summer months.  It really is an excellent summer read.  You can order the book with the link in your bulletin, as well as on the website when the sermon’s posted.  It’s only $5 on Amazon.

With that in mind, I invite you to hear words from the first letter of John, chapter 5, verses 1-5.  We are looking at God’s word to us this morning about God’s word.  Listen to that word now:

READ 1 JOHN 5: 1-5

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Imagine for a moment that you are not in our gorgeous sanctuary this Sunday morning, but instead you are in a courtroom.  And imagine that you are not sitting in a pew, but a jury box.  You have jury duty – yay you!  The case before you and your fellow jurists is one that has been tried numerous times, but always winds up with a hung jury: whether God’s laws and commandments, found in the Bible, are a joy or a burden.  Whether they are something to give thanks for or something to roll your eyes over.  

The judge gavels court into session.  The first witness takes the stand.  He’s wearing an Armani suit, and the kerchief in his coat pocket matches his tie – both bright colors.  He’s got a perpetual smile plastered on his face that, oddly enough, seems genuine.  He holds in his hand a shiny leather Bible; holds it lovingly and respectfully like it’s grandma’s keylime pie for the church social.  Now that he has your attention, he begins with a soft-spoken voice:

Oh, how I love God’s law!
It is my meditation all day long.
How sweet are God’s words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
How I love God’s law!

Sound familiar?  It’s a very convincing argument.  Obviously, the Bible – one Psalm in particular – is near and dear to their heart.  For them, living biblically is a pure joy; something that comes as naturally as breathing.  You almost find yourself feeling envious in the presence of this unashamed lover of the word of God.     

They return to their seat.  Now it’s the second witness’ turn.  His appearance alone is enough to grab your attention.  He’s wearing a white robe that runs the length of his figure, exposing only the sandals on his feet.  Poor guy hasn’t shaved in God-knows-when, as both his beard and hair are scraggly and unkempt.  He looks this way because he’s on a quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible for an entire year, and there are commandments about not cutting your hair or the kind of clothes you cannot wear.  He holds in his hands another book, which he opens and begins reading:

It’s the first day (of living biblically), and already I feel like the water is three feet over my head.

From the moment I wake up, the Bible consumes my life. I can’t do anything without fearing I’m breaking a biblical law. Before I so much as inhale or exhale, I have to run through a long mental checklist of rules.

It begins when I open my closet to get dressed. The Bible forbids men to wear women’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5), so that comfortable Dickinson College sweatshirt my wife used to wear is off-limits. The Bible also says to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19), so I have to mothball my poly-cotton Esquire magazine T-shirt.

And loafers? Am I allowed to wear leather? I go to the living room, click on my PowerBook and open my Biblical Rules file. I scroll down to the ones about animals. Pigskin and snakeskin are questionable, but it looks like regular old cow leather is permissible.

But wait a minute—am I even allowed to use the computer? The Bible, as you might have guessed, does not address the issue specifically, so I give it a tentative yes. Maybe sometime down the road, I could try stone tablets.

And then I stumble. Within a half hour of waking, I check the Amazon.com sales ranking of my last book. How many sins does that comprise? Pride? Envy? Greed? I can’t even count.

I don’t do much better on my errand to Mail Boxes Etc. I want to xerox a half dozen copies of the Ten Commandments so I can Scotch tape them up all over the apartment, figuring it’d be a good memory aid.  The Bible says, those with good sense are “slow to anger” (Proverbs 19:11). So when I get there at the same time as this wiry fortyish woman, and she practically sprints to the counter to beat me in line, I try not to be annoyed.  And when she tells the employee to copy something on the one and only functioning Xerox machine, I try to shrug it off. And when she pulls out a stack of pages that looks like the collected works of J. K. Rowling and plunks it on the counter, I say to myself: “Slow to anger, slow to anger.”

I remind myself: Remember what happened when the Israelites were waiting for Moses while he was up on the mountaintop for forty days? They got impatient, lost faith, and were struck with a plague.

I finally make it to the counter and give the cashier a dollar. She scoops my thirty-eight cents of change from the register and holds it out for me to take.  My stomach sinks.  See, I’m not supposed to touch women – more on that later. 

Clumsily I ask her, “Could you, uh, put the change on the counter?”  I am simply trying to avoid unnecessary finger-to-finger contact.  She glares at me.

“I have a cold,” I say. “I don’t want to give it to you.”

A complete lie, of course. Great.  In trying to avoid one sin, I commit another.

When I get back to my apartment, I decide to cross Numbers 15:38 off my list: Attach tassels to the corners of my garment.  I had purchased some tassels from a website called “Tassels without Hassles.” They look like the kind of tassels on the corners of my grandmother’s needlepoint pillows. I spend ten minutes safety pinning them to my shirtsleeves and hem.

By the evening, I’m bushed. I barely have the energy to listen to my wife Julie talk about the U.S. Open—and even that conversation is fraught. I have to be sure to avoid mentioning Venus Williams, since she’s named for the Roman goddess of love, and it would violate Exodus 23:13 (make no mention of other gods).

As I go to bed, I wonder whether or not I took a step toward enlightenment today. Probably not. I was so busy obsessing over the rules – a lot of which still seem thoroughly insane – that I didn’t have time to think. Maybe I’m like a student driver who spends every moment checking the blinkers and speedometer, too nervous to contemplate the scenery.  But it’s only the first day.[1]

So tell me, members of the jury: what do you think?  Is God’s word a joy or a burden?  Are you inclined to see things as the Psalmist, who says God’s law is sweeter than honey?  Or do you identify more with A.J. Jacobs and the struggles he encounters on his very first day of “living biblically?”

I mean, I could be wrong, but if I had to guess, I think most of us instinctively would want to lean more in the Psalmist’s direction, because that’s the attitude we think we’re supposed to have.  After all, who doesn’t want to say God’s commandments are a joy?  Who doesn’t want to say they enjoy following what God says? 

But is that really how we feel?  Is that really what it’s all about?

Let us speak frankly, shall we?  Our relationship with the Bible is complicated.  On the one hand we believe the Bible to be the revelation of God to us, secondary only to the person of Jesus Christ – that’s what good Presbyterians believe.  We obviously think pretty highly of it here at Trinity.  There’s a really big Bible over there at the lectern, and we have Bibles in every pew in this place.  We give Bibles away – we give them to babies when they’re baptized, and another to our 5th graders, and another to our graduating seniors; and last year we started giving Bibles to our new members.  We hold the Bible in great reverence – as we should.

And yet, the truth of the matter is that we only know a small portion of it – some of the big stories, and even those we often get mixed up.  We like to say we follow God’s commandments – when in fact what we really do is a fair bit of cherry-picking: gravitating toward the laws and rules that tend to align with the life we already live, while putting on the back-burner or flat-out ignoring those that do not.

This schizophrenic way of reading the Bible can produce some pretty ironic and exasperating results.  Case in point: years ago a picture went viral of a man with the text for Leviticus 20:13  tattooed on his shoulder – the verse many interpret as condemning homosexuality.  This big burly man had Leviticus 20:13 tattooed all over his shoulder, even though a mere chapter before we find Leviticus 19:28 which forbids – can you guess? – tattoos. 

Or the case of a preacher’s hateful sermon that spouts racial rhetoric in the name of Jesus, build-the-wall kind of stuff, even though Leviticus 19:33 and countless other passages clearly command the faith community to “welcome the alien into their midst.”

It’s complicated.  Which is the beauty of A.J.’s year-long journey, one he comes face-to-face with on the very first day.  And despite all his stumbling and bumbling, despite his over-analytical tendencies and self-confessed OCD behavior, despite all that, we have A.J. to thank for revealing this complicated-ness to us, and unpacking in stark nature the inherent challenge that is God’s word, both a joy and a burden, both a lamp to our feet and a pain in the neck.  

So what is the purpose of these laws and commandments?  What is their meaning for us today? That’s the question, isn’t it, women and men of the jury?  613 laws is a lot to follow.  Which makes me wonder if perhaps it is not the laws themselves that get us closer to God, but the fact that they serve to take us out of ourselves and our self-centered way of living and being in the world; out of our comfort zone, to make things a little awkward for us and give us pause; to create space that wasn’t there before so it then can be filled by God.

I mean, be totally honest: what would you have said to the woman at Mail Boxes Etc.?  I know what I would’ve been tempted to say: Hurry up, already!  Come on, move it!  What do we want to say to the guy who cuts us off in traffic, the one who asks more of us than they really should, the person who receives special treatment or benefits they didn’t earn?

Slow to anger, slow to anger, slow to anger…..

More times than not, God’s commandments go against our grain, make things awkward for us, knock us out of rhythm, give us pause, create space.  Which is exactly what they’re supposed to do.  Because a lot can happen in that space, my friends.  A little “holy space” opening up in our cluttered, over-filled lives for God to move in and be with us in a real and powerful sort of way that goes beyond simple allegiance to do’s and don’ts.  So that, ultimately, it is not about us following some laws, as much as it’s about us not following ourselves anymore. 

In other words, we are brought into that space out of ourselves and into relationship.  That’s the difference-maker, don’t you think?  We’re in relationship with each other; we’re in relationship with God.  It’s what 1 John was getting at in the passage read earlier.  We do not follow God’s commandments as if we’re checking them off a grocery list.  We follow God’s commandments, or try the best we can, out of our relationship with Jesus.  Love is at the heart of that relationship; a love that compels us to change our focus and orientation and live our lives differently than we did before.  We don’t follow God’s commandments because it’s a way to get to God – we follow God’s commandments because God has already gotten to us.

Now does any of this make following God’s commandments easier?  Good Lord, no!  Does it make it easier to discern what these commandments, created thousands of years ago in an entirely different culture on the other side of the world, does it make it easier figuring out what they mean to us in the 21st century?  No, it doesn’t. 

What it does do is set us on a journey that never ends – a journey filled with joys as well as struggles.  A lamp to our feet, and yes, sometimes even a pain in the neck!  But in the end, being in relationship with the God who created us and the community of faith that sustains us – well, that makes the effort more than worth our while.  

And so with that, women and men of the jury, the witnesses have spoken.  What, I wonder, will you now do with their testimony?

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible, pgs. 15-17.