The scripture passages for the morning were Psalm 119:1-8 and Hebrews 9:11-14.
Don't Blame the Cat
Scriptures: Psalm 119:1-8
I’ve found there are many things in life that used to seem perfectly harmless don’t seem so mild-mannered anymore. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized the full destructive potential of things like rocks, sharpie markers, sticks, toilet paper, flour, Vaseline. . . we learned the other night just how destructive spray enamel can be (Please don’t ask about that one, the wound is still too fresh). Stickers are particularly destructive. I loved stickers when I was a kid, but as a mother I’ve come to hate them with a deep and abiding passion. I hate scraping them off the inside of the windows in my minivan. I hate trying to hold the dog down while peeling them out of her fur (or worse yet, the cat). I hate fishing mushed up stickers out of the bottom of the washing machine. I hate realizing in the evening that I’ve been walking around all day with a My Little Pony sticker stuck to the back of my pants. (True story.)
I’ll never forget the day I walked into my living room to find that our little fish tank was covered with Dora the Explorer stickers. The poor bewildered little fish inside was probably wondering why all the lights had gone out. This was back in the comparatively calm days of parenthood when I only had one child to manage, so it was obvious who the culprit was. I called my then 3 year old daughter out into the living room and asked her, “What happened to the fish tank?”
“I not know.”
“You don’t know how all of these stickers got stuck to the poor fish’s tank?” I asked her, giving her a well-practiced “Mom look.”
Those of you who are parents or teachers know how hard it can be sometimes to keep a straight face when dealing with children. This was definitely one of those moments. Lexi took just a split second before bursting out with, “Da KITTIES DID IT! Wif dem CLAAAAAWS!”
She knew she had messed up. And she knew I knew she had messed up! She did something that was clearly wrong, but she didn’t want me to know she hadn’t stayed within the boundaries of the house rules. She loved me and didn’t want me to be disappointed, so she did what most children do in those types of situations: she lied and made up an unbelievable story to cover her tracks. Some people call that “saving face.” Sometimes they come up with a ridiculous lie, blaming someone or something else. Sometimes they pretend they just didn’t know any better. Sometimes they admit the action, but try to justify it.
We laugh when children come up with crazy stories to cover their tush when they know they’re about to get in trouble, but it’s not just kids who go through life trying to save face. We all try to find someone or something else to blame from time to time or some way to justify our actions when we know they are questionable and there are a variety of ways in which we do it. Think about it:
“I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know the speed limit was only 30 here.”
“I know the budget is tight right now, but they were on sale.”
“I was going to do that, but.. .”
You get the idea.
Why do we do this? Perhaps it’s partly because we’re just afraid of the consequences of our actions. I’m certain that Lexi knew she would be punished for misusing her stickers. (And she was punished, for the record. The rest of her stickers were taken away for a while and she had to peel all the stickers off of the fish tank.)
Maybe we don’t want to feel the perceived shame of not being perfect. Sometimes, we just don’t want to disappoint people or even God because we’re afraid they will think less of us or stop caring for us. My daughter certainly didn’t want to disappoint me. Like the Psalmist, she wanted to show her love through obedience. The difference is that she knew she had just recently messed up. She wanted me to think she’d been obedient, even if it meant lying and adding to the offense. She was trying to convince me of her past obedience. In this Psalm, the Psalmist is expressing his intention to be obedient in the future.
Desiring to be obedient is a good thing! We SHOULD want to be obedient and walk in God’s ways. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “WHY do we want to be obedient?” As we see in Psalm 119, obedience is an expression of our love for God and our gratitude for His saving grace. We should obey God because obedience pleases the God we love. But we all put stickers on the fish tank from time to time. What happens when we are unable to keep up our end of the bargain being offered in this Psalm? “I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes. . .”
This Psalm goes on for a very long time after this about how exactly the author intends to go about keeping God’s commandments and honoring Him and exactly how worthy and wonderful the law is. It’s the longest Psalm and it’s worth reading the entire thing sometime after you get home. I don’t want to try to preach on the whole thing this morning though, because you might miss the kickoff of the Steeler game and that’s not a very good way to end my first sermon.
Let’s really think about this Psalm, though. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little intimidated by the high ideals the Psalmist seems to be raising up here. I’m certainly not blameless- I have a mess of baggage and I share much of the blame for that. I don’t always seek God with my whole heart- there are a lot of other things I let in the way. I do wrong sometimes- just ask my husband! I don’t remember ever finishing a day patting myself on the back and thinking to myself what a wonderful job I’ve done of keeping God’s law and statutes.
Before we get all worked up about how imperfect we are at keeping God’s commandments, let’s remember that this is called a “Psalm of David.” That means it is usually attributed to the great king of Israel who stands at the very roots of Jesus’ lineage. He was the king who made Israel great and mighty. David was said to have a heart after God’s own heart. That sounds like a pretty tall order! But let’s not forget that David was also arguably the most notorious “face saver” in the entire Old Testament. When he got a little too friendly with the neighbor’s wife and she got pregnant, he went to enormous lengths to cover it all up in order to look righteous in the eyes of the nation. But God still knew. David could try to cover it up, but it didn’t go away. Just like my daughter was caught because Mom knows everything that happens in her home, David got caught too because God our watchful parent knows our every move.
In this first passage (PAUL) read today, the Psalmist’s last words are “Do not forsake me!” David is acknowledging that there are going to be times that we humans are simply unable to keep all of God’s statutes. No one can keep all of the law all of the time. The Good News is that even when (not IF, but WHEN) we don’t live up to the rest of this Psalm, God lives up to that last line! He does not forsake us.
It’s a little difficult at first glance to see the relation between the two Scripture passages today. The Psalm seems optimistic, perhaps almost unrealistically so. The passage from Hebrews sounds pretty dark and gory with all of its talk about blood, but these two readings really do connect.
In the days that the Psalm was written, a person who sinned was supposed to offer a sacrifice to God in order to make things right between them. There were different sacrifices for differing offenses, and it was often an animal that was to be offered as a sacrifice. These sacrifices had to be perfect. You couldn’t just offer up any old crippled animal limping around your farm waiting to die. You had to give one that didn’t have anything wrong with it at all.
Even when someone didn’t keep all of the law, there was an avenue for redemption. But if they sinned again right away? They had to turn around and go back and offer another sacrifice. Sacrifice was the way in which they could be righteous enough to come before the presence of God after having sinned. In the tabernacle - the place in which the Israelites could meet with God – the altar was placed where it could not be missed. It was a reminder of what was necessary to ready oneself for meeting with God.
There’s a word we often use for someone who winds up taking the blame for something that someone else did (like the poor cats who were blamed for the great sticker disaster of 2003). We call them a “scapegoat.” That term comes from the Hebrew traditions regarding sacrifice. In addition to the other sacrifices that were made throughout the year, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the priest would symbolically place the sins of all the people from the entire past year on a goat that was then driven into the wilderness.
Jesus Christ came once and for all to take away our guilt and shame so that we no longer need priests or sacrifices or scapegoats! Christ came to fill all of those roles so that we can be freed from that system of law and sacrifice. Even when we don’t manage to keep all of God’s statutes, God has not, God does not and God will not forsake us. Christ’s sacrifice was a one-time deal. It is through this sacrifice that we are able to approach God, to dwell in His very presence.
This all can, in our modern ears, sound pretty harsh: this gruesome talk of blood and sacrifices, but to the people reading this in the earliest churches, these were freeing words! They had grown up with this system of law and sacrifice. They needed to hear that those earthly, non-lasting sacrifices that were part of their everyday lives had been ended once and for all by a sacrifice of eternal proportions!
We need to hear those words too! We need to hear those words of eternal freedom. Jesus didn’t just “take care of” the eternal consequences of sin. He didn’t come to erase a certain number of our sins. What Christ did affects everything: starting today! This is where the rubber meets the road! Jesus came to take away the very defilement of sin, no matter how poorly we have followed God’s law in the past. Christ destroyed the dominion and rule of sin! The guilt that can plague one’s conscience no longer has to loom over us. Jesus bought our freedom from all of those things that make us want to hide from God or “save face” when we haven’t lived a perfect life.
Thank God that it isn’t our own ability to be righteous law-keepers that saves us! It’s not the good stuff that we do that saves us but the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice! The Old Covenant that was celebrated through sacrifice of animals was a way of looking forward to the Cross. In the New Covenant, celebrated through communion, we look backward, reflecting on, remembering and showing our gratefulness for the Cross.
Our passage from Hebrews says, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God.” We don’t have to worry about doing good things just to do good things and avoiding bad things just to avoid bad things. We are freed from those “dead works” to “worship the living God.” Because of Christ, we can cherish obedience to God in the way the Psalmist does rather than simply obeying out of fear or guilt. What a hope for us all that we have this opportunity, this privilege to live a new life: a holy life.
Jesus didn’t just leave us hanging here on Earth with no direction once He fulfilled the law by becoming our ultimate sacrifice. Jesus left us with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead our lives if we will just allow ourselves to listen. We are able to live a righteous life through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and by using God’s Word, God’s law, the Holy Scriptures as a light in a dark world. We aren’t made righteous by our own power to be perfect.
Phil Williams says it this way: “The law is the light that reveals how dirty the room is, not the broom that sweeps it clean.” We don’t have to keep the law in order to be “swept clean” from all of our sins. Jesus is what sweeps us clean. We are free to appreciate the law in a new way: the law is a light. In fact, later in this very same Psalm – as you’ll see when you go home and read it after the Steelers game – the Scripture (including the law) is called exactly that. It says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). And in Proverbs, it says: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light …” (Prv. 6:23).
The law is our guidance, an illumination in the dark world we live in. We can rejoice in it because Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, was offered up to atone for our sins. Jesus Himself talked about this in Matthew 5:17:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
He didn’t come to get rid of the law or cross it off out of the Bible entirely. The law is still good: it is still useful. What Jesus came to do is to fulfill the law: to be our sacrifice so that we can rejoice in the law. We don’t have to blame the cat when we put stickers on the fish tank. We don’t need that scapegoat! The atonement is complete for all eternity no matter who we are and no matter what we have done. Thank God that we can stop running and hiding and trying to save face and we can embrace Jesus, the freeing and eternal sacrifice given on our behalf.