Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Matthew 5: 21-27
This is proper ‘Old Testament God’ stuff from Deuteronomy:
“See, I have set before you today 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 that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish”.
On the face of it this is fairly straight forward – choose to follow God’s laws, or perish.
And it’s no good looking for a get-out in the words of Jesus, either. The Gospel reading had Jesus saying:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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.”
But before we all fall quaking to our knees, let’s just go back to that word ‘choice’. God says to the people of Israel – choose life. Choose to walk in God‘s way. Choose to be mindful of God’s laws, and to keep them – not because otherwise you fear punishment, but because this is the way to live full and happy lives. So do not kill – not because you will be punished by God if you do, but because when everyone keeps this law society is richer and better. Do not break God’s laws, because in laying down the laws, God has shown people the best ways to live.
But how do we choose well, not when it is fairly easy and straight-forward to tell right from wrong, but when life is a lot more murky?
Faced with the choice to kill someone or not to kill them, I think we all know what the right choice is.
But Jesus warns his followers ‘if you are angry you will be liable to judgement’. If you are angry with someone you are choosing the path that leads to sin – the path that ultimately can lead to murder. Jesus wants his followers to orientate themselves towards the will of God – to know how to turn at every twist in the path of life. Jesus wants us to choose well, and to choose always what enhances life and affirms and builds up, rather than destroying life and hope.
To underline how important it is to make the right choices, even when they seem small choices, Jesus points out that anger can eventually lead to murder, that looking lustfully can eventually lead to adultery, that divorce should not be entered into lightly and thoughtlessly, any more than marriage should be in the first place.
And in case his listeners think that sin is only about big things and not the little choices, Jesus uses some dramatic language:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Jesus doesn’t want us to be able to blame a wandering eye or itchy fingers for what we might think of as ‘minor’ sins. Jesus wants us to be wholehearted in our walk in God’s way - loving God with all our heart, soul mind and strength and choosing the right path, even in the little things of life.
So the good news so far is that we are not walking in fear, trying to be good in order to avoid God's wrath & judgement.
It is not about obeying God’s orders, it is about following God’s order for life. But it’s still not feeling like really good news, is it? It still seems that so far we’ve been thinking about what we need to do to get our lives right.
But let’s not forget that we do not walk in fear and we do not walk alone. We are following Jesus.
This is just some of his teaching to a crowd of followers in the fifth chapter of Matthew, that we call ‘the sermon on the mount’. Matthew places this teaching right at the start of Jesus’ ministry. And where does Jesus start? With blessings: ‘Blessed are the poor, the humble, the hurt & grieving’.
Jesus starts with a message of God’s love for all people – especially the ones who might feel that life suggests they are cursed, not blessed.
Then Jesus talks about his followers as salt and light for the world – spreading the good news of God’s new light & life to everyone. Then, and only then, does Jesus turn to the law, and warns ‘I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’.
Jesus says know you are loved & blessed, be ready to share that Good news with the world, but don’t think you can live however you like – live as children of God who walk in God’s light. Jesus will move on to teach about revenge, love, giving, prayer and money. But the conclusion of this ‘sermon’ is simple ‘do not worry. Your father in heaven knows what you need’.
God knows the strength we need to be enabled to make all the right and good choices in life.
So it is good that we meet today in the Lord’s house. Here we have a reminder of all that God’s love has done for us and all that God wants to give to us.
Here we can receive the strength we need to choose well and live well and walk well.
Here the Holy Spirit will come among us and dwell in us, to help us to live as God’s beloved children.
Children who are loved, and blessed and enabled to walk with God.
To his praise and glory.