Rules restrict, but grace is good to go, or
Preaching the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation
15/1/2023 Canberra Baptist Church
Text: Psalm 40:1-10 (primary); John 1:29-37
Sometimes you can back yourself into a corner. I have literally done that when I was treating a stone floor with whatever fixative I had to use, and discovered that I really could be so silly as to find myself in the corner of the room, surrounded by wet and sticky goo, with nowhere to go, not even a handy window to jump out of. I suspect I had to re-seal several tiles.
I’ve done it again, with the choice of Psalm 40 as my focus for today’s sermon, which we heard a few moments ago. In particular, I backed into the corner labelled “verses 9 and 10”:
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
See, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and faithfulness from the great congregation.
These were the words that jumped out at me as I was looking at the lectionary readings for today, and couldn’t get it out of my head. So I let Belinda know I was focussing on that. She assured me that you have heard about John the Baptist on several occasions, so was happy for a change of focus.
Well, silly me!
Here we are, then, with a text: I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation. It is easy to get arrogant with this text if one is the preacher. I have told the glad news of deliverance in that great Victorian congregation, and that one, and those other ones over there as well.
And here I am now in the nation’s capital the great congregation of Canberra Baptist Church. Wow, I am so fantastic, and have I got news for you. If I were to continue on with such arrogance, I daresay your elders and pastors would soon be ushering me away from the lectern; your sound technician would be turning down the microphone; a couple of your most gentle members would sit next to me to calm me down, and someone else would be announcing a hymn to sing. And quite rightly, too.
I don’t get a sense that such arrogance pertains to the writer of this psalm. This is one person’s experience of the mercy of God, in one particular situation. The mercy of God does not push the psalmist into the limelight. If it did, it would no longer be the glad news of deliverance. This glad news does not speak of the fame and fortune of the speaker, but has the speaker pointing away from themself, to the God of mercy and deliverance.
Let’s have a brief look at some of this psalm, the section we have read this morning. And note that what is called psalm 40 may very well be two separate psalms, put together at some stage. But we will stay with the first half, as we have read.
(v 1, 2) We don’t know what the psalmist’s problem is, except that if he were wearing gumboots and trying to step out of his miry bog, the boots would remain stuck and he would have to walk away barefoot. That, by the way, is another silly thing I have done – stepped into a muddy pond, sunk in, and quite literally left my shoes behind as I struggled out. The joys of rural living!
It is, actually, a bit more serious than that. He has been in the desolate pit, on the way to Sheol, on the road to death. But that is all we know of the psalmist’s mire.
Do we know where our feet are? I imagine we have all been in the mire at some stage, and some of those boggy mires are fairly topical.
Many years ago, when I was nursing, I was on an evening shift with a fellow, let’s call him Michael, who I knew was gay. During our tea break, Michael confronted me, saying, “Sue, you don’t like working with me because I’m gay. Isn’t that right?” Well, a confronting statement like that was pretty hard to deal with, and I truthfully couldn’t deny it at the time.
It was a huge wake-up call for me, that I had never really questioned the so-called Truths that I was exposed to in the group of Christian people with whom I associated. Until then, I didn’t know I was stuck; I was captive to my ignorance, to my prejudices and to my lack of personal awareness.
With considerable time and a lot of self examination, I realised that I was in a deep bog, and others kept on pouring in muddy rules, camouflaged as verses out of the Bible, ensuring that I stuck to the belief that people like Michael were wrong, ugly, sinful, damned. It was getting harder and harder to get out. When I was able to drag myself out, I discovered that I had metaphorically left my gumboots behind, and I walked out bare footed.
Where do we walk bare footed? Often in the holy places. You know: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. (Ex 3:5, Acts 7:33) Holy ground in bare feet, is liberating, free; one can walk slowly and thoughtfully, or skip with naivete and delight.
Not only was it holy, it was humbling. It was a case of: How can I have been so arrogant, so uncaring (and there I was, a nurse of all professions)? Only then, could I go back to that nursing colleague and say: Michael, you were completely right; help me to understand this better.
There are plenty of other issues, of course. It’s not just about gender identity and orientation. You all know how long, endless, is the list of issues which need our full consideration.
I wonder which boggy mire you have to be dragged out of? Do you even know yet that you are in one? Or perhaps you are one of the blessed few, of greatly humble heart, utterly aware of yourself, utterly without guile, utterly conscious of God within everyone. If this describes you, please let the rest of us know how to get to that state! Do speak glad news of such deliverance in the great congregation!
(v3a) So, there is the mire from which the psalmist is extricated by God, and then there is thanksgiving in the form of a new song. The songs the psalmist already knows, are inadequate to express what needs to be said, and God puts a new song in his mouth, which he then returns to God: a song of praise to our God.
(v 6) Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. This is not a declaration that sacrifices are a waste of time in the liturgy and practice of the temple. In several thousand years of retrospect, some Christian folk would make the claim that Jesus comes to do away with such sacrifice, but Psalm 40 is from long before that.
This psalmist is basically saying that he has attended to these sacrificial requirements throughout his life, and this particular instance of being drawn out of the miry bog does not require another sacrificial offering. Rather, he can declare that the will of God is a delight, and it is a matter of the heart, of love and freedom.
(v 9-10) One last thing remains: to speak the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation, in the synagogue and amongst the people generally. His experience causes him to speak of God’s faithfulness, not of his own righteousness, not of the realities of his problematic proximity to Sheol. Once again, as with his new song, he points away from himself, towards God’s deliverance and saving help.
John the Baptist understands this. He says: This is he of whom I said, “After me comes one who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I’ll leave you to work out the chronology of that statement!
And a little bit later, “Look, here is the lamb of God.” (John 1:30, 36) John testifies to someone else, like the psalmist does. Stop looking at me, look at him! And truly, that is what the disciples do; they turn away from the one who testifies, towards the one who embodies glad news of deliverance.
Today, in faith, we are not pointed to a set of rules; we are pointed to a person, to Christ, with whom to live in fellowship, we are pointed to the glad news of deliverance, and faith can become bigger.
Faith can become deeper as we search to have the mind of Christ more and more.
Faith can become freer, because the grace of God relieves us of rules and sacrifices.
Faith can become more exciting and even dangerous. There is a degree of safety in being surrounded and cushioned by black and white rules; some would say such rules refine us.
Maybe, … but they also confine us. When, in our freedom of knowing glad news, we come across those who need clear rules for behaviour and opinion, let us be patient and gentle, ready to speak when they are ready to discover. Giving up the rules of faith is hard work.
I remember how stunning it was to discover the nuances of shades of grey in faith having spent a few years in black and white.
But my mind was utterly blown when I discovered colour, and then more: varieties of shape, edges that stretch to the horizon and beckon us on a journey, on many journeys. There is always more.
The glad news of deliverance, God’s grace and faithfulness, solid ground to stand on and to joyously skip on, faith that needs a new song. May you, the people of the great congregation of CBC, continue to discover that the grace of our God is good to go. n
One of my favourite modern prophets is Michael Leunig.
He goes places with honesty, courage and freedom.
How to get there:
Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate
Go through the gate and head straight out towards the horizon.
Keep going towards the horizon.
Sit down and have a rest every now and again.
But keep on going. Just keep on with it.
Keep on going as far as you can.
That’s how you get there.
May God’s freedom and grace be yours as you head towards the far horizon.