Sermon 12 February 2017

Sermon 12th February 2017

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Revd Andrea Price

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you our Lord and redeemer. Amen

Three year old Bobby insisted on standing up in his high chair. His mother repeatedly admonished him to stay seated but Bobby keeps standing up. After Bobby at last remained seated he looked at his mother searchingly and said: “Mummy, I am still standing up inside!”

 Well, is that not just what human beings are doing? We sit in church, or hear in some other situation a great Christian wisdom and nod in agreement. But soon we stand up again, ignoring the will of God. We are grown, independent people after all!

Are we so much different than the people Moses knew? Are we not like the children of Israel needing to concentrate on choosing life rather than death?

Jesus, teaching his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, knew our sorry state, our lust for independence and conversely our small minded legalism. We delight to stand up in defiance – even if it is only inside, hidden from others and sometimes even from ourselves.

Choose life, Moses admonishes Israel.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”(19b-20a)

Our OT reading is the very end of Moses’ fare well speech. He is going to die soon and the people of Israel will enter the promised land lead by another, Joshua.

He places before them a sharp choice: life or death, the ways of their God or the ways of the fertility cultures they are going to encounter as they settle in the new land.

In Christian tradition we sometimes look down at the OT law contained in the five books of Moses or the Torah. We have it in our head that we do not need the law anymore since Jesus came. Surely we do not need anymore those endless rules on sacrifice and temple equipment.

And yet just a few verses before our gospel passage today Jesus said that he is not abolishing the Torah but fulfilling it!

If Jesus had just abolished the Torah Marcion of Sinope would have been right. Marcion of Sinope lived and worked between 85 – 160AD and might have become one of our church fathers, had he not caused a great debate and been subsequently denounced as heretical by the church.

Marcion rejected the OT with its tales of God and the law. He thought the OT God was a tribal creation, a war God mixed up with all things material. He took the OT literally and struggled with the interpretation of scripture as many still do today.

Marcion thought the Father of Jesus Christ, to be the true God, a pure divine Spirit untouched by creation.

Marcion forced the early church into debate and to make a choice, to choose which gospels and letters teach the gospel and which were to be disregarded. There were many other gospels and pieces of Christian writing.

And so Marcion helped to create an approved NT canon in opposition to the publication Marcion had offered of gospels and letters, in which any reference to the OT had been cut.

Marcion and his teaching was denounced by the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers maintained that the OT is an integral part of the revelation story of God to his people.

God gave the law to his people to enable them to live together as God’s chosen people. For no society can live without rules and laws without descending into chaos.

Now we understand that the OT is no dictation of God, but the end result of years of literary growth of many texts and genres. The OT contains people’s wisdom and insight on their faith journeys gathered together and is also evidence of a growing society declaring how to live together doing the will of God.

Through the OT texts God has been heard to speak time and time again. While we do not need the rules for sacrifices and temple equipment anymore, let us not imagine that the OT laws do not contain challenges, which we could still heed to our benefit:

There are of course the ten commandments but also the charge to share with the hungry (Dtn 14,27-29), the charge to cancel debts in the seventh, the Sabbath year (Dtn 15,1-11), the charge for the rulers not to acquire excessive wealth (Dtn 17, 14-20), the charge to pay wages promptly (Dtn 24, 14-15), to leave some of the harvest to glean for the poor (Dtn 24, 19-22) or the charge to limit punishment to safeguard dignity (Dtn 25, 1-3), to name but a few.

The Torah, the law of God directed Israel to a way of life in community, an ordered society, which was not legalistic but God’s gift to Israel to help them live well.

The Torah is less law and more instruction in how to be!

And strikingly it regulated not only life among the children of Israel but also gave protection to the stranger and the needy among them.

Is it any wonder that Psalm 119, the longest Psalm of all, is a joyous celebration of the Torah, the law, the instruction of God. In a multitude of ways the law, the instruction of God is praised using a different word for law almost in every verse of our passage.

And yet Paul warns against the Torah, e.g. in his letter to the Galatians.

Galatians 3:10-11 (NIV)

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”[a Deut. 27:26] 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”[b]

The Church Reformers, whom we remember in this year of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, picked up this teaching of Paul when they cried their “Sola Fide”, their Faith alone! But they cried it against corrupt church practices, not against the Torah.

And no one will deny the truth that we are saved, that we are taken into the presence of God only by the grace and mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Law says Paul can only confirm our fallibility. Our own efforts will lead us only into repeated experiences of failure. Yes, we want to do the good, yes, we try our hardest – but we fall short time and again.

So what is Jesus doing in our gospel passage today making it seemingly even harder for us to live God’s will?

For we are all against murder – but who can say they never were angry with another, never insulted or called names and let a disagreement go on until it nearly was too late to solve.

We all disapprove of adultery – but who can say they never eyed up someone with pleasure and yet no one is going around after self mutilation.

We all agree that swearing is foul language best avoided, even if nowadays we do not believe anymore in the binding power of word magic. But who can say they never broke their word?

What is Jesus doing? Making it impossible for anyone to fulfil the will of God?

If life and living was just a matter of black and white, yes or no God would have given us his laws and all his people would have to follow them. Period.

But life, God’s first gift to us is a never ending growing and waning, interconnected organisms, structures and societies pushing and pulling and having to somehow get along. And so black and white has endless amounts of gray in between. The colours of the rainbow are almost endless and what we have to decide, will vary from situation to situation.

The forest of laws, rules and regulations surrounding us bears witness to this. (Is Brexit not in part a rebellion against the legalism of the European project?)

The number of instructions on top of the ten commandments in the OT show that Israel too knew of the fallibility of mankind!

Choose life, admonishes Moses, several times in Deuteronomy, knowing how often Israel will chooses death by ignoring God’s commandments or being in a new situation making it necessary to think again of how to apply them.

Jesus, in sharpening the OT laws, in the sermon on the mount is teaching his disciples, committed people following him.

For them doing the will of God is not a tick box exercise of keeping laws.

Jesus challenges us to strive to live the kingdom way because we are in a new place, have turned around to God, are a new creation as Paul put it.

William Temple is quoted to say: “It is sometimes supposed that conduct is primary and worship tests it. That is incorrect: the truth is that worship is primary and conduct tests it”.

What we do is a reflection of what we truly believe and not the other way round.

Jesus asks us time and again how we love God with all our heart, strength and mind. For where we place our heart, where we love, where we are passionate that shows the God we worship.

Choose life thus is a call to worship first and foremost, which then leads to action in the Spirit of God, who will lead us into deeper and deeper relationship with God and thus with his creation.

Jesus teaches Kingdom of God rules, where human relationships go deeper, out of a living relationship with the God of Life and thus humanity is restored to live in peace.

But first comes worship then action out of it.

A missionary in New Guinea once observed an old native man who always stayed behind after mass was finished, kneeling on the beam used instead of kneelers. He could not read. He only looked towards the altar now empty with his arms crossed over his chest.

One day the missionary asked the man what he was doing kneeling like this. The man replied smiling:

I am holding my soul into the sun!

May we choose life, worship God and thus leave here refreshed and strengthened to live fully and in the new kingdom rules with the grace of God.