Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

…therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love Jehovah thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days…

Ok, so we don’t much like dealing with the scriptures for this Sunday. As I was doing my research, I found a discussion board with postings from pastors that did not know what they were going to do with the texts. “No wonder there aren't a lot of postings here. This is such a difficult text to preach on. This is not the good-news Jesus we're used to.” “I'm not sure where I am going with all this either.” “It seems to me this is a very scary passage to preach.” Moses offers us difficult choices and Jesus tells us that even our thoughts are destructive. How do we, who prefer to emphasize God’s grace, find grace in such hard texts?

In Deuteronomy 30:20 Moses says, “…for he is thy life.” The NIV translates it, “The Lord is your life.” There’s the grace and the foundation on which everything we read today is built. The writers have used a lot of words describing the Law, but if we think about them, we’ll see that each one is built on the reality of God’s love for His people. He is our life. Now, what do we do with that?

The choice is simple: life or death, prosperity or destruction. Certainly we have no trouble making that choice! And yet, we don’t always know which way is the way to life or the way to death. It isn’t so clear cut as we are wandering through our own wildernesses.

This particular passage comes at the end of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering. They have been going in circles for forty years and have finally reached the Promised Land. They are standing on the other side of the river, preparing to receive the promise that was made to their forefathers. Moses was giving them their final message before they crossed. They made the choice once, when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land? They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.

But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The new part of their journey would take incredible trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all. Sometimes they obeyed, and when they did, they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction.

The Lord is your life. If we live according to this word of grace, we will trust that He will do what is good and right and true. After all, God knows far more than we know. He can do far more than we can ever do. Can you imagine what it must have been like to stand facing an army of thousands with only three hundred men? Or to see the Angel of the Lord prepared to take battle? These are images we may never experience, but we are reminded that God is standing with us, too. Sometimes, however, we choose to turn the wrong way.

I think it is interesting that Moses lays before them the offer that if they love God, walk in His ways and keep His commandments, decrees and ordinances, then they will prosper. Why bother with three different words describing God’s Law? The words have unique perspectives.

A command is an order, a direction, a mandate. It is as if God is saying, “Go forward.” A decree is a decision or edict. It is as if God is saying, “We will go forward.” An ordinance is a rule established and enforced by an authority. It is as if God is saying, “You must go forward.” What happens if we don’t go forward? With a command, we end up going in the wrong direction. With a decree we turn away from God. With an ordinance, we suffer the consequences of our disobedience. We will not prosper if we disobey any of God’s commands, decrees or ordinances, not because God intends on hurting us but because we have not trusted in Him. He knows what is good, right and true. He will not command anyone to do what is wicked.

When they followed His direction, decisions and rules, they succeeded. When they did not, they knew only failure. God held them in the midst of it, but they suffered destruction and death along the way. He restored them each time, reminded them of the promise and re-instructed them on His commands, decrees and ordinances.

Then Jesus came along. Last week Jesus reminded the people that He did not come to destroy the Law. Last week we heard, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.” He came to fulfill everything God promised in and through the Law. He came to help us reach that final destination. The Israelites may have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, but a greater promise lay ahead: the restoration of God’s people to Him for eternity. How do we get there? How do we keep going forward? We love and trust God because He is our life.

Jesus’ word for us today is hard. It is easy to say that we haven’t killed anyone, but quite frankly I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get angry once in a while. A story is told about D. L. Moody, the evangelist, who was almost always an example of Christian love and charity. He was known to have a temper, but he kept it in check. Once, however, he was disturbed by a heckler and he lost it. In his anger he shoved the man down a short flight of stairs. The man was not harmed, but the tone of the evening was damaged because so many had witnessed his outburst. Anger can destroy lives as badly as murder.

The same is true of lust. Perhaps this is truer in our day and age when it is so easy to become involved in non-physical adulterous relationships. How many marriages are failing today because of online romances and virtual intercourse? Unfaithfulness is not just a physical action, but it is a turning of the heart. When one is unfaithful to a spouse by lusting after another, one has turned in the wrong direction.

This is not easy. There are perfectly valid reasons to get angry. Perhaps the attacker had said something that could ruin his reputation? What if the detractor said something libelous? We don’t know what made him lose control, but it may have been something we would quickly justify in our own lives. But Mr. Moody knew he was wrong. When the meeting began, he apologized. “Friends, before beginning tonight I want to confess that I yielded just now to my temper, out in the hall, and have done wrong. Just as I was coming in here tonight, I lost my temper with a man, and I want to confess my wrong before you all, and if that man is present here whom I thrust away in anger, I want to ask his forgiveness and God’s. Let us pray.”

We will fail. We certainly should try, but we will fail. We’ll get angry. We will lust over someone. We will not live up to the expectations of our Lord. I suppose that’s why we have such a hard time with these texts. He sounds so very unforgiving in this passage. He tells us we won’t get out of prison until we’ve paid our debt and that we should rid ourselves of our eyes if they cause us to look at someone with lust. This is not good news, and it doesn’t seem as though Jesus is giving us a way out.

We don’t live very long in this world before we are hurt by sin. Every day we fail to live up to the expectations of our Creator and the people in our lives. Our failure, our sin, touches the lives of others. They are harmed in body, mind and spirit by our thoughts, words and deeds that go against God’s good and perfect will. It is the same for us – we are hurt by the sins of others. The wages of sin is death, but during our lives sin brings small defeats that destroy relationships.

The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now, God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that block the pipelines between people. God gives us the strength and courage to seek reconciliation between those who have been harmed by sin. If you are hurt, forgive. If you have hurt, ask forgiveness.

We come to these texts knowing that Jesus has completed the work and that His forgiveness is ours. The text for today comes out of a larger body of words, it is an isolated scripture that is read in light of the rest. In this passage Jesus challenges us to be what God intends us to be because He knows the consequences of our failure. Anger can get us into deeper trouble. Adultery can destroy lives. Breaking our promises can lead us down a path of darkness and death. And so we come to the knowledge of our failure with the promise of forgiveness.

Jesus makes it much harder because it is not just about keeping our temper under control. He desires more: reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger showing hostility. After all, we learn in preschool that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the listening crowd that calling someone a fool will send us to hell. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final. Lawsuits and verbal abuse can also create permanent separation. We are called to something better, to a life lived in peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall into temptation. This is why Jesus came: to bring reconciliation and peace.

We tend to see things as we choose to see them. The passage from Sirach says, “He has placed before you fire and water.” Here, again, is a choice. Which do we want? Fire or water? Well, to be honest with you, with the cold weather around here right now, a little fire might feel good. But we can’t live without water. The next verse says, “Before each person are life and death.” Are there parallels? Fire is life and water is death? We can certainly see it that way. We can also see fire as death and water as life. Some of our choices are not so clear.

That’s why Moses tells God’s people to Love God, walk in His ways and keep His commands, decrees and laws. When we follow God’s direction, decisions and rules, we will keep on the right path. It might be difficult to read these texts because they are so law-focused, but sometimes we need to hear God’s voice so we know the direction that He wants us to go. The trouble is that we do not always hear God as God intends. We can see that clearly in the battles we wage against our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is following God’s commands, decrees and ordinances?

We do see the world differently. Our decisions are often affected by the circumstances of our life. Just as fire is good and water is good, and both can be bad, so too the way we see God’s Word can depend on our point of view. A woman will see things different than a man. A child will see things differently than an adult. A person from the south will see things differently than a northerner. But in Christ, the Lord is our life, despite our differences.

Paul writes, “For we are God's fellow-workers: ye are God's husbandry, God's building.” We have different purposes in the Kingdom of God. We have different gifts and different opportunities. The trouble that was happening in Corinth is that the people were following individuals. One group believed the Gospel from Apollos’ point of view. Another followed Paul’s witness. Yet, each was a part of God’s work in the world. They weren’t looking to God, but to man.

That is, perhaps, our greatest problem. We look to ourselves, to our opinions, to our points of view for guidance, when God has something completely different in mind. We get so caught up in what we want that we miss what God has for us. The Israelites followed God out of Egypt, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that the path was going to be hard, and they stopped looking to God. They wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. How often do we start following God but when the going gets rough we decide to turn around. We think, “This way is better.” Or, “God could not have made this decision.” Or “I can’t go forward.” And then we end up going in the wrong direction. And when we end up going in the wrong direction, we find ourselves suffering the consequences of our actions.

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “If you love God, walk in His ways and keep His commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous.” The outcome is not dependent on our obedience because God wants us to earn His grace. The outcome is dependent on our obedience because disobedience takes us on the wrong path. If we love God and follow Him, we’ll be blessed by all that God intends for us. If we do not love God, we will be destroyed. If our hearts turn us away from Him, we’ll experience the loss of His presence, death and destruction.

In Sirach we read, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” So, in the midst of this Law, let us see the grace in God’s presence among us. He is our life. Let us choose life and keep our hearts turned to Him.

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