Psalm 119:89–96; Ezekiel 32:17–33:20; 1 Peter 2:13–25

Psalm 119:89–96: Our psalmist integrates God’s law and God’s creation. First, “Your word stands high in the heavens” (89) as it suffuses all creation. Then it effectively becomes not just part of creation but is the very sinew that holds creation together: “You made the earth firm and it stood./ By Your laws they stand this day,/ for all are Your servants,” (90b, 91). Indeed, “all” is not just Israel to whom the law has been given in a specific act, but it applies to all people. This would be, I think, moral law that seems intrinsic in virtually every civilization (although our particular culture seems pretty intent on shredding what remains of God’s moral law). We can stretch it to include all nature, especially physics, where God’s laws seem most visible.  In fact, the deeper we go, such as quantum physics, the more mysterious and unfathomable God’s law seems to be.

As part of creation itself, God’s law provides sustenance. Certainly that is the case of nature. Without God’s law there would be only chaos. The psalmist underscores this when he says, “Never shall I forget Your decrees,/ for through them You gave me life.” (93) And as an intrinsic part of creation, God’s laws are everywhere and in everything. Like the psalmist, we must conclude “For each finite thing I saw an end–/ but Your command is exceedingly broad.” (96). In the end, we cannot escape God’s moral law, nor his physical law. It is everywhere, all around us. We may be creatures with finite limits, but God’s law is unlimited and ubiquitous.

Ezekiel 32:17–33:20: We begin to wonder whatever happened to Israel and Judah as we read (once again!) of Egypt’s destruction: “Egypt has been handed over to the sword; carry away both it and its hordes.” (32:20) But then Ezekiel pulls his camera that has focused on Egypt back to a wide angle shot of war and destruction all around as he catalogs the armies form different kingdoms that have fought each other and have “their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword.” (32:22). Assyria. Elam. Meshech. Tubal. Edom. The princes of the north. The Sidonians. All of them “have gone down in shame with the slain, for all the terror that they caused by their might; they lie uncircumcised with those who are killed by the sword, and bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.” (32:30)

Amidst all this warring and bloodshed God appoints Ezekiel: “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel” (33:7).  We have seen these same instructions much earlier in the book. If the prophet fails to warn the wicked and they do not turn from their wicked ways God will require Ezekiel’s own blood. On the other hand, “if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” (33:9)

With this rather harsh motivation looming over him, Ezekiel warns both the wicked and righteous of the fate that awaits them if they do not turn back to God. Of particular note, “The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress;” (33:12) In other words, one sin by a righteous person and he’s doomed anyway. This may seem manifestly unfair but God’s economy of justice is really quite simple if stark: “When the righteous turn from their righteousness, and commit iniquity, they shall die for it. And when the wicked turn from their wickedness, and do what is lawful and right, they shall live by it.” (18, 19). They can complain all we want about God’s harsh justice, but God simply brings up the terms of the Old Covenant: “O house of Israel, I will judge all of you according to your ways!” (33:20)

This is one of those places where, like Israel, we despair at God’s harsh justice. And eventually, as we know, God’s terms were simply unachievable by mere humans. We can be grateful that we live under the terms of the New Covenant where grace abounds.

1 Peter 2:13–25: Peter gives the practical if uncomfortable advice that was so essential to the survival of the early church, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (13, 14). He reminds us that while we are indeed free, we are to use that freedom responsibly and not as “a pretext for evil.” Living the Christian life as resident aliens in the Roman Empire boils down to the simple admonition: “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

I’m particularly struck by the subtle distinction of the instruction here: we fear God but we merely honor the emperor. Same goes for us. Of course this distinction nevertheless led to trouble in Rome when emperors demanded to be worshipped as gods. But Christians could not fear the emperor; they could only fear God. We see traces of this in our own culture where many are called to worship the mores that go against our true belief in the name of “tolerance.” Increasingly, those do not bow down we are castigated, even by others who consider themselves Christian.

Peter then turns to address slaves–and we grow even more uncomfortable: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” (18). This is one of those places where we must acknowledge the existence of a very different world than ours.

We know that this verse was used again and again down through history–and particularly in American history–to justify the institution of slavery. It repels us. But we cannot succumb to “presentism,” the act of projecting our cultural mores on a culture so far removed from us. What has happened cannot be undone.

But there’s a larger lesson here as Peter uses Christ’s own example of suffering to remind us that God has not called us to an easy time, but to suffering. Wand when we suffer, we must imitate Christ: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (23)

In today’s post-Christian culture, entrusting ourselves to a system of justice and cultural mores that are increasingly hostile will put many of us to a test we have not yet had to endure.

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