Sermon: Epiphany 6 Year A
February 16, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
All of us face the reality of choices, of making decisions in our lives. Some of our choices seem rather inconsequential. What shall I wear today? Shall we eat dinner at home or go out to eat? Shall we watch a football game or the PBS special?
Other choices have more significant consequences. Shall I study for the exam tomorrow or fritter away the evening texting with my friends? Where shall I go to college? Should I date Linda? Should I marry David? Should I insist that I drive Judy home since she has had a few too many drinks at my party? Are we ready to start a family? Should I take a risk with this new company or stay in a dead-end job?
Ancient Israel stood before God in today's text, faced with a choice for a good life and blessing, or for evil and death. Israel was God's people whom God had delivered from slavery in Egypt. God had made covenant with Israel, but Israel had broken the covenant. So, the people removed themselves from the covenant, and in doing so, removed themselves from God’s promises and blessings. Israel was in exile.
But, in chapters 29 and 30 of Deuteronomy Moses proclaims to a defeated Israel that God still loves her and promises to gather her back to the land of promise, and create a future of new possibilities.
The “life” that Moses urges the Israelites to choose is more than mere consciousness, more than the antonym of death, and anything but tidy. In fact, it is the very thing their parents tripped over. It is the life their parents were denied, the life the first generation of the Exodus passed up when nearly forty years earlier they had their turn on the banks of the Jordan.
Where the first generation of this covenant failed to love, obey, and hold fast enough to get across the river and into the Promised Land, the second generation is now being given the chance to make the leap. In the strongest possible terms (“I call heaven and earth to witness…” verse 19), Moses exhorts the grandchildren of the Exodus to find their spiritual nerve. Ancient Israel is on the brink of choosing what their parents never knew, the fullness of life that comes from facing down the Jordan.
We know this spiritual journey—we have been there: Long bouts of grieving, periods of unrelieved unemployment, chronic pain management, caring for aging parents or spouses are part of most every faith community. Life in the Orange Alert era is characterized by all that holds us in death’s thrall: endless wrangling over issues of sex, who is in and who is out, enmity between the right and left flanks of the Church, as well as between right and left flanks of government, obliviousness to all but our own personal concerns, and addiction to whatever palliative—spiritual or pharmacological—is before us.
All of us have those lie-awake nights. Figments of violent criminals or government issues, financial ruin, and irrational bosses jump the fence of our mental motion picture screens, making us wish for a few friendly sheep to count. Maybe we become so frustrated with lack of sleep that we actually decide to get up in the middle of the night and watch insipid love stories on the Hallmark channel. Of course, we would never admit it.
We look around for a hero who can show us the way out. We find on the “tube” or in politicians and celebrities, people with clay feet and the same need, or worse need, for reassurance that we already know so well. How can we find the help we need to get out of our confusion and inordinate self-
absorption and into a healthier chapter, out of darkness into light, out of the desert and into those well-watered and lush planes? Out of spiritual death and into abundant life! How do we make the leap across the Jordan? And into the waiting arms of Love.
In addition to obeying and loving God, and making the choice to choose life with God, we must “hold fast” to God, as we read in verse 20. Holding fast or holding on hard to God, the way the piggy-backing child clings to the neck of his or her father is the image to place in our minds. This phrase—holding fast—is used elsewhere in the scripture to describe how a young lover clings to his gorgeous spouse despite his mother’s dark, disapproving looks.
Here it is used to describe a key ingredient of the fullness of life. The challenge of faith is about “loving, obeying, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days” (verse 20). This is life with a capital “L” Deuteronomy seems to say. It is the kind of life where God is not skulking off to the side of the screen or flitting in the margin of consciousness.
In this kind of life God is not available only in peripheral vision, not next to you, or behind you on the river banks, but rather standing smack in front of you in the middle of the frightening rush of white water, saving arms extended. It’s the kind of life you enter into when you decide that there is no father figure or white knight on his way to rescue you, there is no mythical hero in the wings, no experienced old head who will come and solve the problem for you. There is only you and God eyeball to eyeball. This is the kind of life you find when you find God dead center and filling the screen—not in your weakness but in your strength, not in your suffering but in abundant life.
To choose life, for Israel, meant total obedience to, and faithful love of, God alone. God wanted to bestow upon Israel abundant life from the limitless, faithful abundance of God's love. Israel is called to a single-minded concentration on doing the will of God. Israel is also called to obey the commandments of God as set forth in the Sinai covenant. She is not to serve other gods, but to be totally faithful to God in keeping covenant.
And let’s be honest, “other gods” does not mean worshipping Zeus or some other perceived spiritual being. “Other gods” are those thinks or activities or relationships that take priority over your relationship with God.
The love Israel is called to is not a feeling or a Valentine’s Day sentimentality, but a doing. Love is the spontaneous, personal, and total obedience of God's will as stated in the covenant. Love is a self-sacrificing act of the will in favor of God’s will and God’s ways. It is a choice. As much a choice or even more, as when you make the decision to marry your beloved.
Israel in exile is called to choose life. You and I are called in every today of our lives to choose life. We are loved immensely by God in Christ Jesus. We have been set free from our own exile and bondage, not to Pharaoh, but to our self-centeredness, spiritual death, evil intention, and just plain stupid choices, resulting in brokenness and pain. How we grieve the very heart of God.
We are called to choose life in not seeking our safety and security, but in risking ourselves for righteousness and justice. We are faced with the decision of withholding ourselves from other people or giving of ourselves. We are called to speak the truth in a world of falsehood, of alternative facts, regardless of the cost. We are to love God in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God, as we can read in Micah 6:8.
We are called to choose life in sharing our bread with the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless, or the foreigner in our land. And that does not mean locking them up in cages or building walls to keep them out. We are called to obey the commandments of God, the statutes and ordinances that the Lord has spoken. The call to choose life promises that God will bless us in a world into which God in Christ continually calls us, and for which God's love liberates us and empowers our obedience.
Israel was who she was because God had loved her in freeing her from Pharaoh's brickyard. Israel could choose life in obeying the commandments of God, because God loved her and the Word of God's covenant demands was very near her, in her mouth and in her heart, so she could do it (Deuteronomy 30:14)
You and I are God's people because of the gracious love of God in Christ Jesus that has been poured into our lives in baptism. We are fed and forgiven at the Lord's Table. We belong to the community of God's people in which we are loved and nurtured. Because God has loved us so deeply and dearly, we can choose life rather than evil, life rather than victimhood, life rather than any number of poor decisions that take us down a path of heartache and suffering for ourselves and others.
Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
And in Deuteronomy Moses tells us, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God’s ordinances, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…” Amen.