The youth group at my childhood church was called “Power & Light.” The name was based in Scripture, for sure, but it also described our programming pattern. We would alternate “power” nights, evenings with deep and focused Bible study, with “light” nights, gatherings full of large group games that helped build our community of friends. One of the favorite Light Night games was Sardines. I know some of our youth play it, but for those here who don’t, Sardines is essentially backwards Hide and Seek played in the dark. Very dark. Really for it to go well, the playing area has to be pitch black.
In Sardines one person hides, while everyone else counts. The counters then turn into seekers who are sent out to find the hider. However, when a seeker finds the hider he or she doesn’t scream and yell and get chased back to base. In fact, at its best, all the seeking is done in complete silence. When a seeker finds one who is hidden, the seeker joins the hider in the hiding place. The game continues until all the seekers have found the growing mass of hiders packed into a usually tiny space like, as the name of the game implies, sardines. This is why it matters that the rooms be dark. If you can see, with even the faintest hint of light, the hider hiding or the other seekers finding the game loses its excitement.
When we played at Eastminster Presbyterian Church our leaders got the building D. A. R. K. dark. They turned off all the lights. They blacked out windows. They even completely covered the red glowing emergency exit signs. There was not a flicker of light in the fellowship hall or any of the rooms that connected to it – the library, the kitchen, the nursery, and the preschool rooms. It was a building BUILT for epic games of Sardines.
One game in six years of playing sticks out in my mind as the best game of Sardines ever. It was also the longest game we ever played. The building was blacked out at usual, and we seekers were moving slowly and carefully through all of the rooms, searching under every table, behind every door, even in the cribs in the nursery (because despite the warnings about weight limits we had most certainly all climbed into the cribs together more than once). But despite all of our careful searching, it took us more than 45 minutes to find this one particular hider whose brilliant spot ended up being right smack dab in the middle of the room, sitting upright on a folding chair. She would have been in plain view of everyone if there had been even just the tiniest bit of light shining to show us the way. But instead, very carefully, in the dark we had moved along the edges of the room, holding on to the walls we could touch and avoiding exactly what we were looking for without even realizing it. Just a little bit of light is all we would have needed.
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”
Or in the version I read today “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
This beloved little verse is tucked away almost exactly in the middle of the entire Bible. It is verse 105 in Psalm 119, the longest psalm in all of Scripture. In fact, with 176 verses in the psalm, 119 is longer than some whole books of the Bible, but its structure leads many scholars to believe that in the ancient world it was a psalm that the faithful would delight in memorizing. There are 22 stanzas within this poem, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first word in each of the 8 verses in each stanza begins with the letter assigned to the stanza in alphabetical order. So the first letter of the first word of each of the 8 verses in stanza 1 all start with aleph. Verses 9-16 all begin with bet. We heard this morning the “mem” and “nun” stanzas – M and N. This is no haphazard piece of writing, but instead the attention to detail mirrors the attention to the law the psalmist sings about with praise and gratitude.
The entire psalm is the prayer of one who delights in and lives by the Torah, the sacred law. This may sound strange to our ears as Christians; we’ve been told over and over again that the law is not going to save us. We have been fed misunderstandings about the Jewish use of the law, and the idea of being excited about the law, praising it as a divine gift and blessing doesn’t line up with the dichotomy we’ve been erroneously taught - - the law was something by which people tried to justify themselves until Jesus came and freed us from seeking salvation through obedience.
But the law, God’s word, was never meant to be a source of salvation for anyone, Jew or Christian. Israel knew what we have forgotten, or maybe never even knew. God gave the law out of mercy so that God’s people might have life. It was a blessing to people in order that they could know best how to live in relationship with one another and with God - - it was, it is a way to order life so that our living can align more perfectly with God’s desires. With that law we don’t have to guess what God means for human beings; a picture of God’s desires can be drawn from the laws, the statutes, the commandments found in Torah. The law sheds light on faithful living. Following the law does not supercede faith in God or offer an alternative to walking in the way of Christ, but it shows us what God intends for human relationships and faithful living.
In this sense the Law isn’t a step by step road map nor the path on which we walk. It is as v. 105 declares – a light to illumine the way. Thinking back to my game of Sardines in youth group - - the light, had it been allowed into the dark space, would not have become the path itself. It would not have drawn arrows from point A to point B and told us exactly what steps to take. But it would have shined light on the floor in front of those of us who were seeking. We could have seen what steps to avoid, what route was clear, and how to get to our goal more directly. As the light was not the goal itself, obedience to the law is not the end of faith. To view it that way would be idolatrous and contrary to the gift God has given us. But the law, the Scriptures, the Word of God, help us find our way in the darkness, help us find our way to right relationship with God in Jesus our Christ.
But how do we use this light that we have been given? Reading and interpreting Scripture is not always an easy task. As we will see in some of the Scriptures that have been suggested for worship in the coming weeks, sometimes it seems like Scripture contradicts itself, sometimes it feels out-dated, sometimes we’re so used to hearing particular passages interpreted a particular way that we can’t even imagine how they might shine light on our path in a new way.
In the Presbyterian tradition, reading and interpreting Scripture is one of our core spiritual practices. We are most definitely a people of the Word, and historically have placed great emphasis on educating our members and pastors in the Bible and how to read it not as a book set in the past, but as the living Word of God, offering fresh insight, more light on the path of faith. To that end over time we have agreed upon various principles that guide our reading and use of Scripture, principles that help shine the wisdom of God’s word on our paths as individuals and as the Body of Christ. In a recent book, Mark Achtemeier, a Presbyterian theologian and seminary professor, organized these historic principles into four guidelines for interpreting Scripture.
The first - - Right interpretations of Scripture make coherent good sense. In other words, these things that God asks of us are not arbitrary rules whose sole purpose is just to create obedient human beings with no understanding behind the behaviors that are spelled out. In creation God blessed human kind with reason and intelligence and creativity and understanding. God encourages us to use these blessings and not follow laws out of idolatrous obedience, but with an intent to understand them, to dig around to find out their meaning and purpose, to apply the intent of the law as much as the the letter of the law, to look for the coherent good sense of what God is calling us to be and do. There is a good, coherent sense behind what God asks of us, and we should never have to appeal to "because God said so" as the highest reason to follow a teaching. Our God-given reason blessed by the Holy Spirit can help us uncover the reason behind the words.
Secondly, as Christians our interpretations must be Christ-centered. This doesn't mean that every word of every verse of Scripture must be about Jesus. The passages of the Old Testament, for example, have life and meaning without directly foretelling the coming, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ. Yet at the same time if the purpose of the Law is help us live more like God wants us to live, and Jesus is God, presumably living exactly how God would want human beings to live, an interpretation that leads us to act in a way contrary to the way Jesus acted, needs to be thought about again.
Third, when we are struggling to find the meaning of a text, a good tool to use is other passages of Scripture. We call this interpreting Scripture by Scripture. When the coherent, good sense of a passage in the Bible is hard to uncover it can help to look at other passages in the Bible that talk about a same topic or even to appeal to overarching themes that are found throughout the Word of God - themes like grace, abundant love, new life, freedom from captivity, justice for the oppressed.
The fourth and final historic principle that guides our reading and interpretation of Scripture, according to Dr. Achtemeier, is the understanding that context matters. All of the stories, laws, letters, poems, proverbs, and prophecies of Scripture were first written and uttered in cultures and times that are very different from our culture and time today. While we trust that the Holy Spirit has inspired and continues to inspire the words on the page, they were originally written to communicate to a very different audience than we comprise today. Uncovering the original context and making educated attempts to understand the original meaning of Scripture within that original context is important to good understand and faithful interpretation of biblical texts. Looking at the context includes looking at the historical setting of the author, if known, the original audience, and even the setting of the passage within the biblical narrative. the way we hear Scripture is colored by what we know and the world in which we live. Finding a faithful interpretation of what we read is aided when we can take into account the worldview of the original recipients of God's word in the Bible.
"Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path."
Read and interpreted responsibly, in community, with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, the law serves life; God, like a loving parent, has given us the gift of Scripture to shed light on the path before us so we can get from today to tomorrow walking in the way of God's holy purposes, living in peace with all the children of God, joining God's mission of mercy and justice in the world. This is a good thing, and the psalmist knows it. These words are "sweeter than honey" and "a lamp to my feet." All of these words -God's law (torah), or word, precepts, ordinances, commandments -- all of God's instruction, including God's promises and judgments, they are meant to help us walk in the way of God, the way we see most clearly in the person of Jesus. May we know and trust know these words are worthy of love and of meditation all day long (v. 97).