Choose Life, sermon by Pastor Fred
The God of Israel cares about life — we see in our Deuteronomy passage – not only our lives, but also the life of the world. God is a God of life.
And then in our Gospel in Matthew – as we continue this week reading from the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus digs deeper into its meaning. ‘How can we live together as God’s people, people who flow with God’s eternal life, pouring out blessing on all people?’ Jesus came, to fulfill the law and the prophets, not to abolish them – and to ‘tell us what it means to be people who choose life for the world.’ How can we live together as God’s people, people who flow with God’s eternal life? That’s the question Pastor Isaac S. Villegas poses to our readings today. (@Isaacsvillegas)
Jesus – by the time of his public ministry – was steeped in the Law and the Prophets. And the primary Meta story of the Torah, the first five books of the bible, is that Moses led the Israelites for 40 years wandering in the desert, out of Slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. In our reading today, they were finally on the verge of entering this land of ‘milk and honey.’ And so, in his penultimate Farewell Speech, Moses gives a passionate plea: “15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, … then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you …17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray …, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
So Moses is about to set them free, to be the people of God, in the most awesome and powerful way! Life, or death? Prosperity, or adversity? Your choice, says Moses – who is literally standing on the other side of the Jordan River, on the eastern bank, at the doorstep of the Promised Land, which he himself will not enter, his work now almost complete, and realizing a new work must be acknowledged by the Israelites, and re-covenanted with their God. I say to you, says Moses, “Choose life!” “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
But the most curious thing ‘you never knew’ about this speech from Deuteronomy – the last of the Five Books of Moses, that started in the beginning with Genesis, and continued through Exodus, the exit from Egypt, through the Laws of Leviticus, and the census and number of sojourners recorded in Numbers, to finally, Deuteronomy, meaning “a second Law,” …the most curious thing is that it was actually written 100’s of years later – almost 1,000 years – when they were exiled in Babylon! Yes! Though it was in development since the time of Moses, as an oral tradition, and some parts of Deuteronomy were written down even as the threat of destruction by Babylon was imminent, some decades prior to the Exile – these last chapters, from which we’ve read today, came together and were compiled in their final form, only when Israel had already been carted away, and so, had lost everything – their homes, their government, their land – and become captives once again, like they were in Egypt, this time, slaves to King Nebuchadnezzar, in Babylon.
And what they needed then at that moment, most desperately, was somehow to have hope for the future, in the midst of this Exile, this second wilderness wandering, this loss and deep grief. At this, their lowest ebb, was when this theological speech was written, as a ‘salve’ to bind the wounds of their exile, to remember their God of promise and life. Deuteronomy recalls how Moses, on the precipice of entering the Land God brought them back to, offered them a choice between life or death, to accept the gift of re-covenanting with God, and live lives of justice and peace – or, to turn their hearts, and lives, away.
Where do we get our hope today, to live for the future? In the midst of this escalating slide into separate systems of truth, fueled by everyday modes of slick, but never-quite-satisfied social media bots and controversies, manipulated by elites within and without, by oligarchs dripping with ill-gotten wealth, threatening our 246 year experiment in democracy, and the very institutions of church and state – In the midst of this seemingly uncontrollable earthquake in our lives, and deep fissure shaking our social fabric – where do we get our hope to live for the future?
The font of life and light of the world comes in the person and message who offers us a new interpretation of the Law – not to abolish it, but to fulfill it. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder…’ but I say to you” says Jesus, “that if you are angry… if you insult a brother or sister… if you say, ‘You fool,’” you have already violated the Commandment not to murder.
And so, four times in these verses, Matthew quotes Jesus using this same formula, “you have heard that it was said,” so and so… “but I say to you,” this and that… This second interpretation of the Law, in Matthew – or third even, if you count Deuteronomy – was written at the end of the first century of the Common Era, addressed to a whole new crowd, a wider audience, a couple, 2 to 3 generations after Jesus.
For those followers of Jesus who were then forming the church, this new interpretation of the 10 Commandments was meant to permeate their lives, and social institutions, rejecting all ‘nativism,’ with the practical-ideal of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ that Jesus had already ushered in. “You have heard it said that you should not murder, but I say to you,” you should not even harm the reputation of your neighbors.
- It’s not just actually stabbing someone that breaks my covenant of love and life, says Jesus, but stabbing someone in the back!
- It’s not just anger, but the hate in the anger, and cutting someone down with your words.
- It’s not just pushing someone off a cliff, but bullying and crushing the very light, salt and spirit out of them.
- It’s not just speaking falsely against your neighbor, as Martin Luther explained in the Small Catechism, but failing to take responsibility to put the best construction on their intentions.
The Command against killing, doesn’t just avoid being an axe murderer. It creates the law of Love, and shows no hostility.
Jesus took the “thou shalt not’s,” of the Ten Commandments – that in our time in some quarters, have come to be used as a bludgeon against each other in the name of God – and transformed them into a New Covenant that placed the responsibility for life in the midst of the ‘people of faith,’ to live as ‘lights and salt’ for the world. “Choose Life, so that you and your descendants may live, …”
Finally, Jesus’ re-do of Deuteronomy – created an opening for a new Covenant, between God and the Gentiles. It was built on the original rock-solid Hebrew foundation, but sprang up again from the root of Jesse, in the self-giving grace of the cross, so that it could not fail to bring new life. And so it continues to teach us to build on those foundations of justice and love.
Jesus, light of the world, shines and exposes the deep, hidden places we don’t want to look at, because sin isn’t pretty, and we don’t like that look on us! But in Jesus sin is no longer the last word. Where once the punishment for making a wrong choice, for falling off the path with God, was death, Jesus comes to us as the new covenant – a washing in baptism, and present-gracious-gift-of-life in bread and wine.
Jesus writes the new covenant, the will of God for our lives in the flesh, in the deep red of his own blood, and pours it out for us even today, for the forgiveness of sins. As the anointed one, Jesus not only teaches us the way, but models for us on the cross, the consequences of human-inability to choose well, so we can be picked-up when we falter and fail, and choose life.
And so, in the light of Epiphany, we can begin to see that ‘Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.’ He asked us to live every aspect of our lives built on the foundation of justice and love, leaning-in to the gift of life God offers us in the kingdom of heaven – right now. In a word, Jesus says – from the cross, and journeying with us by the power of the Holy Spirit – “Choose life.”