If You’re So Smart
Rev. Kurt Lantz 2 Christmas B Psalm 119:97-104
January 03, 2020 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people taught the Word,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I can be quite arrogant at times, and quite sorry for it later. I can remember with clarity telling one of my professors at the seminary that he wasn’t teaching the course properly. He calmly asked me how I thought he should be teaching it. I said that he should be using the textbook. That was how I learned best. I could study the textbook on my own, and be prepared for the next lecture topic and perform well in class discussions. Nothing would catch me off guard. There would be nothing unexpected. Instead, this seminary professor had some crazy idea that the textbook would be for supplemental reading and that his primary teaching resource for lectures ought to be the Bible.
I’m sure it seems obvious to you that he was right and I was wrong. But the Bible doesn’t deal with doctrines in an orderly way. It goes here and there and all over the place. It doesn’t keep things grouped together in a neat and organized manner. Jesus says and does things that catch you off guard. It is hard to prepare to excel in the lecture when you don’t know the topic headings and sub-points and things are not flowing in a logical progression. That is the Bible. That is life.
In studying the textbooks to prepare this sermon on Psalm 119, I read one commentator who is quite blunt and says that this longest psalm of 176 verses, grouped in sections of 8 verses apiece, with each line of a section beginning with same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each section doing so for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, well, it really gets rather tiresome and forced. It is not natural. It “is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry... This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject matter. The psalm is a many-colored mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in a wearisome fashion” (Weiser, Page 739). Well it is, even in English translation where we don’t get to see the neat little trick that each section begins every line with the same letter.
Psalm 119 is too long to read in its entirety in one service. I don’t know what the writer of the psalm was thinking. He wasn’t doing it right, like some seminary professors I suppose, or some pastors. You cannot very well follow a systematic train of thought if you are forced to begin each line with a certain letter of the alphabet.
Remember those cute poems they made you do in grade school for Mother’s Day where you had to write “M means that My Mother Makes Me Meatloaf,” or something like that. None of those poems ever turned out to be too thought provoking. None of them won distinguished awards or were the subject of study for a Master’s Thesis or Doctrinal Dissertation. Yet, those are the poems that are displayed in the house where everyone is sure to see them—on the refrigerator. And those are the poems that are read over and over and over again by mothers who, like Mary the mother of our Lord, find a deeper meaning and ponder them in their hearts. What kind of a deeper meaning can there be?
Only a fool would snicker at the poem in the presence of the mother. To her it conveys a deep emotional knowledge of the relationship between her and her child. There is wisdom hidden in the words which may be repetitive and somewhat forced to fit the form. There are untold allusions to the real life that is lived between mother and child in each and every line. Such is the wisdom and knowledge that can be found in each and every line of Psalm 119, no matter which letter of the alphabet is at the start.
A different commentator on the psalm has proved that he has pondered it in his heart rather than dismissed it for it’s pedantic form. He writes, “First, [God’s Word] is not a dead letter (cf. 2 Cor. 3:2-6), but an active agent which gives life. That is, [God’s Word] is not just a set of rules, but it is a mode of God’s life-giving presence” (Brueggemann, Page 41).
Like the grade school poem on the fridge is not just a collection of words but conveys a part of the child, in a much more mysterious and divine reality the words of Scripture (all words of Scripture) are not just a collection of wise thoughts and sayings but very much so “the Word that became flesh.” In Psalm 119, as in all of Scripture, we have the Word of God. We have Jesus. By teaching doctrine directly from the Bible my seminary professor was not just giving me bullet points to memorize. He was giving me Jesus.
When reading the Scriptures you are not just making good use of pandemic shutdown time, you are deepening your relationship with Jesus, the Word made flesh. If you followed through with the three-year Bible reading plan that we posted on our web site and started back in 2018. You have now read not only the entire Bible, but the entire New Testament twice, and all of the Psalms twice each year (six times). This was not simply a matter of checking off days on the calendar and making steady progress through the text of Scripture, but finding time to spend with Jesus each and every day, deepening your relationship with Him and with your heavenly Father through the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work in the Word. Perhaps there was a kind of hokey structure to it, but it was time with Jesus, and I hope that you will find a way to spend time with the Word made flesh each and every day of this year, too.
By the time the writer of Psalm 119 got to verse 99, he could write: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.” I don’t know how long it may have taken the writer to get to that point, or how many years he had been studying the Scriptures before even undertaking the writing. I would venture to guess that he was no longer in grade school. However, when Jesus, at the age of twelve, went with His parents to Jerusalem for the festival, as was their custom, we find this Scripture already fulfilled in the Word made flesh entering on puberty. He displayed that He had more understanding than all the teachers of the Law with whom He was disputing. “All who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:47).
This event, which Mary pondered in her heart and so could quite readily relate to the evangelist Luke, reveals more than that Jesus was a bright boy. This is the one who fulfills all of Scripture, including all of Psalm 119. This is the one who knows Scripture for He is Himself the eternal Word of God who was made flesh. In His divine nature, He knows all mysteries and doctrines and the depths of inexpressible relationship with the heavenly Father.
In His human nature He knows what it is like to be a twelve year old boy and to be taken to church by mom and dad. He knows what it is like to grow in wisdom and stature through the difficult years of adolescence. He humbled Himself to take on our entire nature so He grew physically and mentally and emotionally and went through all of the struggles that entails, not giving into any of the sins and temptations that accompany such growth, such as telling your teachers that they don’t know how to teach. Even His display of wisdom, insight, and understanding before them was without sin. His divine nature and His human nature share their distinct properties with each other.
So, someone might ask, “If Jesus was so smart why did He end up dead on a cross?” But that is precisely it. Jesus was so wise that He did go to the cross. He was so wise as to know exactly how to save us, how to atone for the sins of the whole world, how to bring about a plan of salvation that would save us from each and every sin of arrogance and pride and presumption. It was divine wisdom that conquered all of the scheming of the evil one. Jesus revealed Himself to be wiser than His enemies (Ps 119:98), wiser than our enemy, who knows just how to tempt us to think we are smarter than teachers and parents and government officials and public health professionals and just about everyone else.
It is when we can see Jesus present in the Scriptures, present in the Scriptures to save us, and present now with us in the Scriptures, that we have gained understanding to avoid evil and false ways (vv. 101, 104) and to find the humble way of confessing our sins and looking to Jesus Christ crucified for our forgiveness and victory over our wily foe. When we see Jesus as our Saviour from today’s sin, then His words are sweeter than honey as we read them (v. 103).
Wisdom finds Jesus in all of Scripture, even in the repetitive and rigid words of Psalm 119. In fact, it is in the foolish things of the world that God has chosen to reveal His wisdom and saving might for us. In a twelve year old boy the wisdom of God is revealed. In a man bleeding and dying on a cross is the victory over all of sin, death, and hell. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:7-10).
I don’t know what all of that means. But I do know that it means my sins are forgiven in Jesus because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was as real as any twelve year old boy, and He died as surely as any man born of woman. But He rose again and His death and resurrection have given me victory over my enemies. In my relationship with Him through His Word I will find the wisdom to answer my questions, questions like “If God has blessed me ‘in all wisdom and insight’, why am I suffering, poor, sick, and dying?” The mystery is solved in Jesus and revealed in His Word. He will be with me in His Word day by day whatever the year may bring. He will be my teacher, and when I question His methods, I may just find Him to be my Saviour.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.