Download or listen to the Third Sunday after Pentecost: “Your Testimonies Are My Inheritance” (Psalm 119:111)
“Your Testimonies Are My Inheritance”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On July 31st, Trinity will celebrate its 125th Anniversary. The theme chosen for that celebration comes from the hymn: “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage.” During the Sundays leading up to July 31, we are going to focus on passages of Scripture that revolve around that theme; some of them are assigned for the Sunday, others are not, such as today’s: Psalm 119:111: “I have Your testimonies as an inheritance forever/they are the joy of my heart.”
I don’t know what images are conjured up for you by the word “heritage” or “inheritance,” but what comes into my mind is a sort of heirloom, an antique, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Something you take out of the closet or off the shelf once in a while, blow the dust off, and remember. You think about what life must have been like, or the people who may have owned it. Maybe some of you have old or antique tractors, maybe even 125-year-old tractors. They are interesting to look at, to consider what it might have been like to use them, to think about the people who used them. But as interesting as they are to think about, no one is going to be using a 125-year-old tractor to plow his field. With the technology we have, we have the ability to do things much more quickly and efficiently. An old tractor, as an inheritance, is interesting, but no one is going to actually use it for work. I think that’s how some people might hear the theme, “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage.” When we consider the heritage of God’s Word, which we have received, we might think of it sort of as an antique heirloom. Maybe like an old family Bible, which we take out once in a while, blow the dust off the cover, open its yellowed pages, and consider the names and dates written there. Birth dates, baptism dates, confirmation dates, marriage dates, death dates. We consider with nostalgia our ancestors, perhaps in sepia tones. We consider how they taught us the Word of God and handed it down through generations, as many of our ancestors did. But we treat that Word of God sort of like a dusty keepsake: it may have worked for people who had nothing to do but sit by lamp-light and read the Bible; who had nothing to do on Sunday but go to church; but our technology and the ability to do things so much more quickly and efficiently have relegated such things to the past. We appreciate our history, even our religious and spiritual history, but the life of faith lived by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents has about as much use for us as an antique tractor. It may be our great heritage, but it’s not good for much.
That’s one way to think of an inheritance, but, finally, such an inheritance is not really “ours.” It is “theirs,” even if it’s come into our possession. If the Word of God is that sort of a heritage, then it is fitting that we not hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it; it is fitting for it to stay, like an old family Bible, in a closet, or on a shelf, or buried in a box beneath all sorts of other old stuff. But if the testimonies of the living God are our inheritance forever, then they have to be something more than that.
When Israel finally entered the Land of Promise, when God gave them the inheritance in the land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the land was divided up among all the tribes of Israel (Joshua 13-21). But there was one tribe that did not receive a part of the land for its inheritance, the tribe of Levi. They were the priestly tribe, sons of Aaron, the first high priest, and it was their responsibility to serve before the altar of Yahweh, offering sacrifices and thank-offerings and delivering the mercy of God to the people. But when Yahweh promised to give the land as an inheritance to Israel, He said to Aaron, “You shall have no portion in the land and no inheritance among the people. For I am your portion and inheritance” (Numbers 18:20). God Himself was their inheritance, and so they had no permanent inheritance in the land. They had cities in which to dwell, but the only thing they had to pass on to their children and grandchildren was the Word of Yahweh. The evidence of their inheritance in Him, the assurance of His mercy to them, was what they received from the altar of the Lord. They were completely dependent on the Lord, and He provided for them from the offerings of the people. Their inheritance was not in a portion of the land, but God Himself.
As our nation celebrates Independence Day tomorrow, we are reminded that we are much like the Levites. We celebrate the many blessings of living in this country, especially the freedom to gather and to hear the Word of God and to receive His Gifts. For that freedom, many have fought, and many have died. But as blessed as we are, as much as we thank God for this land, we have no permanent inheritance in it. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “We have here no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (13:14). As much as we pray for our country and work for her good, she is still Babylon. We have cities in which we live, as the Levites did, but our inheritance is not in the land. We, the baptized, royal priesthood of God, have our inheritance only in the Lord. St. Peter, quoting the prophet Hosea, says, “Once you were not a people—once you wandered in the wilderness, homeless and godless—but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people to declare the wondrous works of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. The testimonies of God are not just about what He did, but also about what He is doing, what He continues to do, as He speaks His mercy in Jesus Christ to you.
Insofar as we have relegated the living and active Word of God to the nostalgic past, we have abused our heritage, and we must repent; insofar as we have neglected the hearing and reading of God’s testimonies to Himself, we have abused our heritage, and must repent; insofar as we have failed to leave an example for our children that the Word of God is the single thing for which everything else must come second, we have abused not only our inheritance, but theirs, and there is nothing to do but repent. Thank God that even when we are unfaithful, He is faithful, because He cannot be unfaithful to Himself and His own Word. He is the one who caused our parents and grandparents to hand down His living Word to us for these many years; He is the one who caused them to be faithful in delivering the inheritance which they received. He is the one who has caused His pure Word and Sacraments to be available to us, even when they were unfaithful. He is the one who comes to us every single week with His killing and enlivening Word, as we declare not independence, but dependence to our God for everything we have. He comes to us with assurance of our inheritance from the altar of God, so that you may know the hope to which you have been called, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance with all the saints (Ephesians 1:18). So that we pray confidently with all our ancestors in the faith, “O Yahweh, revive us by Your Word!” So that we will rejoice at Your Word, as in great treasure; so that we will sing with all those who have gone before us and are with us and will be after us, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the House of Yahweh,’” where He will give us our inheritance in Christ, of which we have the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, until we acquire possession of it (Ephesians 1:11ff.). In Christ alone, the testimonies of God are our inheritance forever, and they are the joy of our hearts.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/1/11