February 16, 2014, Epiphany 6 – Choose Life
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Carroll and I like to watch detective shows sometimes; they’re very exciting. And I imagine we’ve all had the experience of watching a really exciting episode, and things look really desperate, and then you see the words “to be continued….”
This sermon is going to be a two-parter, just like that. I can’t promise that it will be exciting, but I can promise that it won’t be finished until next week. And the reason is that the gospel reading this week is actually the middle of a longer passage that we can understand best if we look at it as a whole thought. It began at the end of last week’s reading and doesn’t really conclude until the end of next week’s reading. Last week we read that Jesus said, “I didn’t come to get rid of the law; I came to fulfill the law, right down to the last stroke of a letter.” And in today’s reading, Jesus went on to explain what he meant by fulfilling the law completely. “You know the law tells us not to murder, right?” he told them. “Well, I’m here to tell you that if you want to fulfill the law completely, you shouldn’t even be angry at your brother or sister. If you insult your brother or call your sister a fool, you’ve already broken that law.” And it’s the same with adultery, or divorce, or swearing oaths or getting even, right down to loving your neighbor.
Everybody knows that we’re all supposed to love our neighbor, but Jesus told them that fulfilling the law means not only loving your neighbor, but loving even your enemy. Well, that brings us to next week’s reading, where winds up the whole passage by saying, “Therefore forget everything you thought you knew about the law. What you need to do to fulfill the law is to be perfect, just like God the Father is perfect.” Right.
So that’s a little preview for the sermon part two, just a little taste of where it’s all going to end up, and we’re not going to learn how to be perfect yet. Today, I want to get some perspective on fulfilling the law, with a little help from the Old Testament reading, which is all about the law. It was from the book of Deuteronomy, which means the “second law”, because Moses is re-telling the whole law to the second generation of Israelites. It was their parents who lived through the time of slavery in Egypt and the dramatic deliverance when they saw the Red Sea open up to let them pass on dry ground. Their parents saw the smoke and fire on the mountain when Moses went up and God wrote the law on tablets made of stone. Their parents had built the Tabernacle, the elaborate and beautiful tent that served as their place of worship in the wilderness. And their parents had wandered for forty years in the desert, fed by the strange bread that fell from the sky every morning.
But when it was time for them to enter the land God had promised to give them, most of the first generation had passed away. And so Moses called them all together and he read the whole law out to them – men, women, and children. He explained it to them, and then he challenged them to make a choice. “Today I set this choice before you all, the choice of good and evil, the choice of life or death. Come on, choose life!”
To obey, Moses told the people, is to choose life. If you want to thrive in this new country God has brought us to; if you want your children to grow up here; if you want your grandchildren to live here in peace, then what you have to do is to obey the law that God has given us. Obedience is choosing life. Disobedience is choosing death.
Now Jesus said, “I didn’t come to throw out what Moses taught you. I came to obey it perfectly.” But they – and we – had a lot to learn about exactly what the law required, and what it meant to obey it. We all tend to think we have a pretty good handle on what it means to be good – even if we don’t always have the willpower to do it. But Jesus taught that obedience means something very different than controlling our actions. To obey the law, it isn’t enough to stop your hand from picking up the gun and shooting your brother. Because as soon as you hated him, you had already disobeyed. And it isn’t enough to not get into bed with your neighbor’s wife. As soon as you let your imagination linger over the idea of having her, you had already disobeyed.
Obedience, Jesus taught, doesn’t begin with willpower or self-control. Obedience is first and foremost an attitude of the heart. It’s not merely a matter of right or wrong; it’s a matter of love or not-love, an inward state rather than an outward action. But there is one outward action that Jesus gives us here, advice that I think is really hard to come to terms with. “If your right hand causes you to sin,” he said, “cut it off. And if your right eye is the problem, pluck it out.”
That is a verse that I would very much rather read over quickly and move on to something less barbaric….divorce, taking oaths, even murder – those sound like safer and more interesting topics….but if Jesus meant anything when he said he came to fulfill the whole law, I think we have to assume that we don’t get to skim past anything in the Scriptures, no matter how unpleasant or obviously ridiculous it seems to be. My first reaction is to put in a big qualifier: obviously, Jesus is NOT telling anyone to cut their hands off or pluck their eyes out. Phew! See, I’m already feeling more comfortable about it.
But we don’t get to stay comfortable, because Jesus uses that kind of violent language purposely. He wanted to grab our attention, because there was something we needed to learn. If disobedience is a matter of the heart, an inward attitude, then what does it mean to say, “If your hand (or your eye) causes you to sin”? Eyes and hands are our outer members, those parts of us that connect with the outside world. What we do proceeds from the attitude of our heart, as Jesus said once, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, so it is with all our actions. But it goes the other way, too. .Our actions can’t cause our hearts to have an unloving attitude, but they can feed our un-love. The things we do and look at and spend time with are not just isolated actions, good or bad in and of themselves. Because if something perfectly innocent and lawful turns us away from God (and turning away from God is what disobedience is), if it makes our heart less loving, then, Jesus says, we need to cut it out of our life.
If I want to use an example to explain what I mean, I am stuck with using myself as an example because I don’t know anybody else’s heart but my own. It’s kind of a silly example, on the surface, which makes it a good one for what I want to say.
When we lived on our farm, our house was what you might kindly call rustic: with eight children and any number of critters in and out of the house. And I used to love to get those Country Living magazines, with pictures of perfect, clean houses full of antique furniture and sunshine. There is absolutely nothing sinful about those magazines, except that for me they fed into something very un-loving in my heart. It took me a while to admit that when I spent too much time poring over those pictures I was nourishing a festering ingratitude. It was like I was harboring a malicious little beast in my heart and feeding it up, little by little, into something truly ugly and dangerous. Obedience, for me, was to cancel my subscription – cut off the hand, pluck out the eye – and as silly as it sounds, that was kind of hard for me. But beyond that, obedience meant to pay attention to the good in my life, to count my many blessings, to consciously seek to grow in thankfulness and love. That was what it meant to choose life, for me, at that time in my life.
One of the main things Moses wanted people to understand, when he stood before the nation of Israel and read out the law to them, was that obedience is not just a matter of following a set of rules, thou shalts and thou shalt nots. Every group of people has lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, with punishments for disobedience and rewards for obedience. There wasn’t anything unique about Israel having a law. But the law that God gave to Israel was different from any other law in any other nation on the earth, because it was not a matter of outward behaviors. It was a matter of the heart. And it was a matter of life and death, because Israel had been called out to live in communion with God. Remember that Moses knew God; he spoke to God face to face, the Bible says, as a man speaks to his friend. Moses knew what he was talking about.
The problem, of course, is that, a written law, rules and ordinances inscribed on stone, could never really give life. Paul wrote, in his letter to the Galatians, “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness – being made right with God – would indeed be by the law”. And he goes on to say that the written law, and the Scriptures, were only able to serve as tutors or guardians for us until the full expression of the law could be revealed in Jesus, until the new Covenant could be made with mankind, the Covenant Jeremiah promised, when he wrote,
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
That new Covenant that Jeremiah foretold has everything to do with Jesus’s perfect fulfillment of the law, and with what it means for us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. But that has to wait for next week….
To be continued…..