A sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020.
“I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”
The Israelites, on their exodus from Egyptian captivity, embarked on a forty-year sojourn through the wilderness. Throughout their journey, Moses repeatedly proclaimed the blessing of obedience to God’s will and warned against disobedience. Now, on the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice in the starkest of terms: life or death.
The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God: “Happy are they whose way is blameless!” And lest anyone miss the point, the psalmist uses many words, all synonyms for God’s will: “law,” “decrees,” “ways,” “commandments,” “statutes,” “judgments.”
But there’s a problem. Inherently human. Therefore, unavoidable. Today’s Collect identifies it, confesses it: “O God, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee.”
“Weakness,” ironically, is a metaphor for the strength of our freewill. In a word, we humans want our way. We follow our will. We, as Moses says, “bow down to other gods and serve them.” Our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh. Our pride and trust in our knowledge. Our thoughts and feelings about how things and others should be. Our hungering self-interest, our hankering for self-attainment.
Jesus magnifies our problem. Take one example. Jesus reminds us of the commandment, “You shall not murder.” Then declares that our obedience to God is not, cannot be merely our outward refraining from killing someone, but also our inward renunciation of our right to be “angry with (harboring hostility toward) a brother or sister.” Given our free-and-self-will of wanting things and others be as we desire, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ definition, we can’t keep God’s commandments. Therefore, according to Moses’ description, we, unavoidably, choose death!
No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?
The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. A providential moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice.
We, near the end of the Epiphany season, stand on the threshold of Lent when we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we confess our need to crucify all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”
But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is that we, as our Collect says, ask for “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.
Last Sunday, during Communion, we sang a hymn, the words, on reflection, being the perfect prayer for the help of God’s grace to do the rest:
God be in my head and in my understanding…
Daily, we are bombarded from every side by words, news and fake news, truths and half-truths. God, by your Spirit, grant us wisdom that we may interpret the times rightly in accord with your will.
God be in my eyes and in my looking…
Daily, our senses are assaulted by flashes of images; too many to number, too many to filter. God, by your Spirit, give us clarity of vision to see those whom you send us to help and those circumstances when you call us to stand for the right, your right.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking…
Daily, there is much we say that we need not; wasted words that do not heal, but hurt, that do not lift up, but tear down. God, by your Spirit, gift us with your word of love for all your people.
God be in my heart and in my thinking…
Daily, our thoughts are burdened with cares and concerns, many without resolution, too heavy to carry. God, by your Spirit, grace us with trust to believe, to know that as you have borne our sins to the cross of our redemption, you free us from the weight of worry and woe.
God be at my end and in my departing…
Daily, we draw closer to the end of our living of life in this world. God, by your Spirit, gladden our hearts with hope in life eternal.
(1) The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(2) The words of the hymn, God be in my head, are found in the Sarum Primer (1514), a collection of prayers and worship resources of Salisbury Cathedral, England.
Illustration: Moses speaks, “Choose Life” (artist unknown)