February 13, 2011

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

Can you think of a sermon that changed your life? Can you remember a speech that transformed the way you think or feel about life, about faith, about God? Maybe you can think of a sermon preached from this very pulpit by one of our previous ministers. Maybe you are remembering a speech by a political figure, by a leader in human rights and justice, or by a major religious leader.

I remember a lecture given by one of my favourite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor. I don’t remember exactly what she said. But I remember the way I felt as I listened to her. I remember the way her words made sense to me, and how I suddenly understood my own calling to be a preacher in a new and deeper way.

When rightly used and directed, a skilfully prepared and delivered speech can take on a life-transforming importance. And even if we can’t recall the exact words that affected us so deeply, few people can claim that they have never been so deeply moved by a powerful speech or sermon that they have changed the direction of their lives.

Although it is encouraging and inspiring to think that my own Sunday sermons might carry that kind of power, it is good to know that we have access to many other sermons, reflections, and writings which can both supplement and inform what any given minister might preach on Sunday morning. In fact, in today’s readings from the scriptures, we have already heard portions of two great sermons.

The first was part of a speech attributed to Moses – his final speech to the people of Israel, given just before Moses dies, and just before the people enter the Promised Land. The second was part of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher within the Jewish tradition, and he probably spent lots of time reading the scriptures, reflecting on them, and teaching from them in the various synagogues throughout Galilee. But in this case, we might imagine Jesus outside… sitting on a hill with a crowd of people gathered around to listen… preaching about the commandments of God.

And Jesus said: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire…

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus is taking the commandments – those same commandments that God gave to Moses and to the people of Israel – and he’s saying that they are still important. Often we think of Jesus as the one who brought in a new commandment from God – that we love one another as Jesus has loved us. And, of course, he did do that.

But he didn’t reject the first commandments. He didn’t throw them away and replace them. As a Jewish rabbi, he read the commandments, and studied them, and took them seriously. And in fact, Jesus interpreted the commandments even more strictly than many others might have. Not only “do not murder,” but “do not be angry.” Not only “do not commit adultery,” but “don’t even think about it.”

And even though the good news that Jesus preached was about God’s love and grace and forgiveness, it wasn’t the kind of cheap grace that says, “do what you want… live however you want… because God’s going to forgive you anyway.” No, Jesus preached about God’s love and grace and forgiveness that calls us and empowers us to live lives of goodness and righteousness, to put away anger and lust, and to live by God’s commandments.

Jesus preached his heart out, and those who listened were changed. They lived differently. They became his followers. They shared his words of wisdom and passed on his transformative “Sermon on the Mount” from generation to generation.

From what we know, Jesus was a natural when it came to preaching and teaching. He followed in the tradition of the prophets who interpreted the commandments and laws of God, who observed the practices and activities of the people, who listened for God’s voice, and who called the people to return to God and God’s ways.

Among the earliest of those prophets was Moses – the great leader who was called by God to lead God’s people Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. But you may remember that speaking in public was not one of Moses’ greatest gifts. Just before Moses goes back to Egypt to begin his mission, he complains that he’s not up for the job if it includes giving speeches.

Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

Of course, Moses objected some more, and God suggested that his brother Aaron could help out with some of the speeches, and that God would help them BOTH to know what to say.

But today’s reading from Deuteronomy is a portion of one of Moses’ great speeches to the people of Israel. It seems that God really did give him the words – God really was with his mouth – because Moses’ speech is a brilliant example of the rhetorician’s art. It is such an inspiring message that one commentator calls it “one of the most brilliant dramatic compositions that the Old Testament contains.”

Very much like in Jesus’ sermon centuries later, Moses is calling the people to live according to the commandments. You can imagine the huge crowd of people gathered to listen to their great, old leader. Moses has led them out of slavery in Egypt and through the wilderness. Under his leadership, they have been fed and sustained through the challenges of their desert wanderings. They have received the commandments of God, and unfortunately, they have often ignored or broken them. But they have made it through.

And now they stand… ready to enter the Promised Land, and to begin a new life of hope and promise. Moses is an old man who is about to die, and this is his last opportunity to speak to the people – to guide them, to encourage them, to send them into the land to be God’s faithful people.

The lectionary didn’t include my favourite verses from Moses’ speech as he encourages the people to know and believe that they DO have the capacity to be God’s faithful people:

Moses says, Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Perhaps Moses is thinking back to his own fear and trepidation about becoming God’s servant and God’s voice to the people. He didn’t know what to say! He didn’t know how to speak! But God gave him the words, and God led him all the way.

And now the people must go on without him. They must listen themselves for God’s voice. They must pay attention to God’s commandments and live as God’s people without Moses’ guidance – but with God’s help, and with God’s Word in their hearts.

What is so powerful about this scene is that it is a new beginning for God’s people. They’re about to enter a new land. They have a chance for a fresh start. They can put behind them all the mistakes they made in the wilderness – how they grumbled and complained, how they bowed down to idols and worshipped other gods.

This is a turning point for the people of Israel. It is an opportunity to decide whether they truly want to be God’s people. They get to choose.

Moses says, See, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

In studying Moses’ powerful and life-changing speech, biblical scholars have determined that the speech was probably appended to the original law book many centuries after God’s people had settled in the new land. In fact, the person who composed the speech was likely not Moses at all. The author was probably a Deuteronomistic writer during the period of the exile in Babylon.

Like any great sermon writer, this author was telling the story of God’s people in relationship with God. He was telling the story of the ancestors about to begin new life in a new land… a story that was oh so relevant for that same people centuries later as they were hoping and preparing to find their way back to the Promised Land again.

And so even though Moses’ speech seems to be for the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land for the first time, it is also for the Israelites in exile years later. Once again, they are in the wilderness; once again, they are wrestling to break free from bondage to alien nations; once again, Israel would have to cross the Jordan and repossess the land.

Israel is once again “poised on the edge of the land” exactly as its ancestors were when they stood across the Jordan in the plains of Moab. And there is a demand made on the present generation, the same demand that had been made on every Israelite since the original Horeb covenant had been established.

They must choose between following the way of God or abandoning it. They could either remain totally loyal to the covenant, obeying its commandments, or they could turn away; but in doing so they would also abandon the promise of hope altogether.

Presbyterians don’t often talk about making the choice to follow God. Our Reformed Theology includes the Doctrine of Predestination – the idea that GOD has chosen us for salvation, that it’s not something that WE have the power even to choose.

But the reality of our experience is that we do choose how we will live. We do choose how we will live with our family members, and how we will treat our neighbours. We do choose how we will spend our time and our money. We do choose whether or not our faith with impact our decision-making. And we do choose what we will teach our children about God and life and faith.

Consider the Drover family today. Doug and Vickie are “poised on the edge of the land.” They are at a new beginning as they welcome Samuel into their family, and their relationship with him is just beginning. And like God’s people Israel, they have been given the opportunity to choose. And they have chosen life. They have chosen to commit themselves to nurture Samuel in faith, to share with him the love of God, and to teach him about Jesus Christ our Lord.

I wish that I could say that this will be the last time they need to choose. But I am sure that like the Israelites, there will be times when they make mistakes, when they turn away, and when they will be called to return to God and to choose once again.

But that is what the good news of the Gospel is all about. It’s not that we don’t need to live by the commandments. It’s not that God no longer demands anything of us. It’s that no matter what happens, there will always be another opportunity to choose. God’s forgiveness and God’s grace never run out. And today, we are “poised on the edge of the land” once again.

I invite you to pause and to consider your own life and where you’re at right now. Is God calling you to choose life today for the very first time? Or is God calling you to choose life once again, and to renew your commitment to following God in Jesus Christ our Lord?

Jesus’ sermon acknowledges the fact that as human people we are prone to make mistakes and to fall away at times from the high standards that the commandments set out for us. And dramatically, Jesus tells us “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

Did he mean it literally? I don’t think so. But I think he did mean that we should make a deliberate and bold decision to get rid of the sin in our lives, to turn away from evil and turn towards God… and to choose life.

If it means gouging out our eyes… if it means cutting off our hands… if it means giving up our lives and dying with Christ, then we must do that. And that is what baptism is all about. In our baptism, we die to sin, and we are raised to new life with Christ. Baptism is forgiveness. Baptism is a new beginning. Baptism is the opportunity leave behind the mistakes of the past, and to choose life.

I don’t imagine that many of you will remember this sermon. I probably won’t even remember it myself, and I’m the one who wrote it and preached it. But I do hope and pray that you will remember your baptism… that you will remember that today and each day is another opportunity to live into your baptismal promises… that today and each day is another opportunity to choose life.

May God bless our choosing and our living in relationship with God and with one another. Amen.