(Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37)
I’m going to begin with a passage from the Wisdom of Sirach, a book that is included in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant Bible. The Wisdom of Sirach was written in the time between when the Old and the New Testaments were written, during what is called the intertestamental period. It is considered to be a wisdom book, like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.
Here is the passage I would like to share with you: “[God] has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (15:16-17).
Given the choice between choosing life or death, who would not choose life? We all want to choose life, to choose those things that bring the abundant life that Jesus stated he came to give us: “I have come so that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And, yet, so often, we choose death: we choose those things that prevent the abundant life that Jesus wants us to have.
This tendency of human beings, to choose death over life, is what Paul wrote about in the scripture passage from 1 Corinthians: “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations” (3:1-3)?
As my kids would say to the Corthinians: “Roasted!” Paul just laid it out for them. “Hey,” he wrote, “if you’re going to keep choosing death, I’m going to have to keep talking to you as if you’re spiritual infants! Get with the program! Start choosing life!”
So, what would choosing life look like? For the answer to this question, we’re going to turn to the passage from Deuteronomy, which, like the passage from the Wisdom of Sirach, states that God offers us a choice: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (30:15).
Moses, the person speaking in the Deuteronomy passage to the Hebrew people, right before they are going to cross the Jordan River into the promised land, tells them, “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” (30:16). Choosing life, then, means loving God, obeying God, and walking in God’s way.
Moses wanted to prepare the Hebrew people for the newness they were about to enter. They would be exposed to different people who practice different religions and live in different ways. They might be tempted to abandon their religion and its practices for the new thing they would find. The abundance of the new land might make them comfortable and they might forget that they need God. Who knew what would happen? Moses, being the good leader that he was, was trying to prepare the Hebrew people for what lay ahead so that they would remain faithful to their God. Abandoning their God would be to choose death, and Moses wanted them to continue to choose life.
At the heart of the Jewish religion is a covenant with God and with each other. Remember the Ten Commandments? They lay out the boundaries of how the Hebrew people are to relate to God and to each other. They are to love and honor God and each other. They are to love and honor the relationships they have with God and each other. That love and honor are expressed through how they treat each other. They have a covenant to treat one another with love and honor by doing those things laid out in the law.
If we review some of the laws about relationships found in Deuteronomy, we will see love and honor for God and each other expressed in those laws. For example, the Hebrew people are to: share feasts with the hungry (14:27-29); cancel debts that the poor cannot pay (15:1-11); organize government to guard against excessive wealth (17:14-20); share hospitality with runaway slaves (23:15-16); not charge interest on loans in the covenant community (23:19-20); pay hired hands promptly what they earn (24:14-15); leave the residue of harvest for the disadvantaged (24:19-22); and limit punishment in order to protect human dignity (25:1-3). There are more laws, but this sampling shows that God’s laws are all about loving and honoring God by loving and honoring others. Don’t take advantage; don’t be greedy; limit punishment; share with those in need; and so on.
If we’re paying attention, we notice that the well-being that comes from loving God, obeying God, and walking in God’s ways is not miraculous; instead, it proceeds directly from our actions. Our community will have well-being because we’re treating each other well! It won’t be because God looks at what we’re doing and then blesses us; we’ve blessed ourselves by doing what God asks us to do! God, throughout history, has made it clear what God requires from us. We choose life and are blessed when we do what God requires from us! We choose death and are cursed when we don’t.
The Hebrew God, who through Jesus became the Christian God, is a covenantal God. He has a covenant with us, and he commands that we have a covenant with each other. That covenant has laws, the two greatest of which are: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. ALL of the other laws AND the teachings of the prophets hang on these two commandments.
If we turn to the Sermon on the Mount, we can see that, in it, Jesus was taking the laws of the Old Testament and the teachings of the prophets and fulfilling them. He was taking them into the fullness they could be. So, for example, he took the law against murder and took it to its fullness to include, even, anger: “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” (5:21-22).
Under the covenant being made with and through him, the laws and the teachings of the prophets would be fulfilled; they’d be brought to their fullness. Remember, earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17). Jesus was taking things to a “whole ‘nother level!”
No one said it was going to be easy to be a disciple of Jesus. What he asks of us is hard. But, if we want to choose life, we’ll try to be faithful. So, as we go about our days and are forced to make choices, choices that are insignificant (Where should I park my car?) and choices that are significant (How should I respond to the need around me?), we must ask ourselves if what we are choosing fulfills the two greatest commandments. If it does, we are choosing life; it if doesn’t, we are choosing death. Ultimately, the question is: Are we honoring the covenantal relationship we have with God through Jesus and the covenantal relationships we have with all of humanity through Jesus?
The answer to that question is of utmost importance, because we participate with God in creating reality for ourselves and others. If I see someone hungry and do not feed that person, then I am participating in creating the reality of hunger for that person. If I see someone hungry and do feed that person, then I am participating in creating the reality of being satiated. This is true for every other condition of life. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world when we are going about our daily lives, and we are the body of Christ in the world when we are gathered. Teresa of Avila, who was a Catholic nun and saint, knew this and said,
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
We are the hands and feet, the very body of Christ in the world. We help to build the kingdom of heaven on Earth. Or, we help to prevent the kingdom of heaven on Earth. It is our choice which we will do. Will we love God, obey God, and walk in God’s paths? Or will we not? God has set before us life and prosperity, death and adversity. Which do we choose, now and every moment of every day? Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corintians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). May God give the growth to us, so that we may choose life and honor our covenant with him and each other. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, February 19, 2017, the Seventh Sunday After Epiphany.
 This list is from “Sixth Sunday After Epiphany” in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A, by Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, 138-139.