Keeping the Law
Pastor Michael Costello
I incline my heart to perform your statutes
forever, to the end. Psalm 119:112
The longest psalm of the Bible, Psalm 119, was one I regularly passed by for use in worship and prayer. This changed in 2017, when I had the opportunity to conduct a musical setting of Psalm 119 by 17th-century German composer Heinrich Schütz. Schütz coined his setting for double choir his Schwanengesang (swan song).*
This was one of the most complicated works I have ever conducted, not because the music was particularly challenging, but because of two primary factors: 1) the length of the composition required vocal stamina unlike any other piece I have encountered, and 2) performing this polyphonic masterwork from two balconies at Grace meant that each performer had to be in lock step with what the entire ensemble was doing, even across the large, cavernous space that is Grace’s nave. After the performance the singers told me, jokingly, that performing this work felt almost as difficult as keeping God’s law.
Keeping God’s law for a lifetime is repeated throughout Psalm 119. In today’s text the psalmist promises “to observe [God’s] righteous ordinances,” but then turns around and declares, “I am severely afflicted.” But this declaration is not one of despair. Rather, the psalmist knows where to find help and cries out, “Give me life, O Lord, according to your word.”
We gaze into the mirror of God’s law and see that we too are “severely afflicted.” We are tempted to despair, I know. We are sinners, after all, with failures and shortcomings too many to count. But because of the gift of God given in Jesus Christ we do not despair, for we too know where to find help. Our help is in the Lord our God! We repent, hearing the good word of forgiveness that comes from God. With the psalmist we pray, “Give me life, O Lord!” And God does give us life, life abundant and eternal, with which we can offer praise our whole life long.
Lord, we acknowledge our sin before you, but we do not despair. We know that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and free to be your people, declaring your love forever and ever. Amen.
*If you would like to listen to the concert of this program as a meditation on Psalm 119, feel free to download and listen to the recording, available in two parts HERE. This live performance is of members of Chicago Choral Artists on October 8, 2017, performed from the north and south balconies of the nave. The program is also available at this link for a direct translation from the German to English.