A sermon for Epiphany 6
Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20, or Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, Psalm 119:1-8
Did you ever have to make up your mind?
Pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It’s not often easy, and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind? [i]
That’s what all of today’s scripture lessons have in common, choosing, at one level obvious, but deep down hard, uncomfortable, leaving you wanting to lean one way, while keeping all your options readily available. So did you? ~ ever have to make up your mind? Did you ever have to decide? Did you ever have to choose?
Moses is telling the Hebrews as they are getting ready to cross into the Promised Land, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose God and you shall live and become numerous, the LORD your God will bless you …. But, if your heart turns away … you shall perish …. Easy choice! right? So why after 40 years wandering in the desert, witnessing, first hand all, God’s presence why does Moses have to say anything? And when we recall this part of Deuteronomy was written during Josiah’s reign, in the 7th century BCE 500 years after the moment [ii] we begin to understand choices are hard, even obvious choices, like following God are very hard.
The author’s intent is to use Moses’ farewell address, as a reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel. The legal tradition of … Exodus is reinterpreted in contemporary terms of Josiah’s religious reforms. [iii] Centuries later Israel’s King, after their return from exile, is, once again, trying to convince the people to make up their mind.
At 176 verses Psalm 119 is so long we’re not likely to read it all in one setting and less likely to hear it; and thus we miss its structure of 22 sections, one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet, of 8 lines each, designed to be a teaching devise so the people can learn Torah. [iv] We recited the first section, which suggest that contentment is found in actively following God’s ways. It is curious that in verse five, the psalmist acknowledges their failure to keep the law; and then in verse eight renews their commitment. [v] Although we heard it as a response to Deuteronomy it’s very likely Psalm 119 was written before hand during the exile; [vi] in which case the need to make up your mind could not be more evident.
Jesus does not make our decision any easier. Anyone familiar with debate will recognize the thesis – antithesis structure: You have heard … but I tell you. And when we remember last week’s ending verse Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. we realize we are face to face with the decision of our life. Eugene Boring writes that Jesus reaffirms Torah as the people know it, thus honoring his statement that he did not come to destroy the law. He then radicalizes the specific point. [vii] It is important to know ‘radical’ comes from Latin meaning root; Jesus is trying to get the people back to God’s purpose in giving us the Law in the first place. [viii] Boring continues noting that it is up to us to make the between times application of God’s will revealed in Torah. It’s an effect similar to the prophetic pronouncement of destruction, but also of hope. [ix]
Jesus’ comment on lust and divorce are the most revealing. At one level they sound as if Jesus enforces absolutes about sexuality and marriage. However, Douglas Hare writes: What is prohibited is looking at a woman “for the purpose of lusting after her” … which requires a new kind of self-discipline … with which male followers of Jesus must master their sexual desires. [x]
As to divorce Hare writes that God intended monogamy, not seriatim (serial) polygamy. He continues: As we shall see in 19:3-12, what is especially interesting in Jesus’ treatment of divorce is his concern for the rights of women. Whoever divorces his wife … deprives her of her right to support and thus renders it probable that she will enter into a second marriage in order to survive. [xi]
Carla Works is succinct: Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce reinforces the dignity of women and warns against a culture of male privilege. [xii]
In short; yes, it is important to know what Torah says; more importantly it is important to know the relationship God desires for us to have with each other as a reflection of the relationship we have with God. In every interaction with another person we have to decide, we have to make up our mind.
Now, if you think this is hard, you are right. And scripture affirms your thought. The Corinthians believe they are spiritual people; THE spiritual people. They’ve begun to form clusters of exclusive folks, each claiming superiority, sometimes by whom they were baptized. Paul, having previously affirmed the Corinthians by giving thanks to God for the grace they’ve received suddenly turns around and tells them he is speaking to them as spiritual infants! In the first four verses Paul liberally uses the term ‘flesh’. However, in Greek it is two words, one referring to flesh as in skin, the other referring to moral and ethical character, [xiii] implying a type to scale from worldly decisions to moral decisions. Paul is telling them, that they have chosen poorly. You might think it’s all over; it’s not. In the next verses when Paul writes of his planting and Apollos’ watering the verb is not a tense we know in English and that is completely finished. So he and Apollos have done what they can, their work is complete. However, the tense of God was giving growth (the literal translation) is one that implies continuing action. [xiv] God is still at work, the Corinthians still have an opportunity to make up their mind, and follow God, or not.
Our real trouble in making up our mind is the totality God demands. We choose to give an hour or two Sunday morning, if something else doesn’t come up. God demands that we give everything; the remaining twenty two hours of Sunday and the other hundred and forty four hours in a week. We choose a divine relationship with family and friends, well – sometimes times. God demands we chose a divine relationship with everyone; including the folks across the street, across Willow, across 16th, across Holly to Hearn. We choose for our church finances and discussions to open and honest, a model of integrity. God demands the same of all our finances and discussions, complex financial arrangements that hide risk and contracts written in in circumlocutory language don’t cut it.
In the act of creation God, made up the divine mind. In sending an endless line of prophetic voices, God made up the divine mind. In coming to us incarnate in Jesus, God made up the divine mind. In continuing presence in the Spirit, God made up the divine mind. Did you ever have to make up your mind? Pick up on one and leave the other one behind; It’s not often easy, and not often kind; Did you ever have to make up your mind?
Yes, and the time is now. But if we are a bit like the psalmist, in that we don’t always get it all right, we can decide again, for spiritual growth in each of us is a continuing work of divine grace.
[i] The Lovin’ Spoonful, Do You Believe in Magic, 1965
[ii] Mark Water, World Religions Made Simple, Copyright © 2002 John Hunt Publishing Ltd Text © 2002 Mark Water. Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp. World Religions Made Simple.
[iii] Mark Ellingsen, Lectionary Scripture Notes, http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/
[iv] Doug Bratt , WorkingPreacher.com, Psalm 119:1-8
[vi] J. CLINTON McCANN, JR. New Interpreters’ Bible, THE BOOK OF PSALMS INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS|[vii] M. EUGENE BORING, New Interpreters’ Bible, THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
[viii] Scott Hoezee , Matthew 5:21-37, cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching
[ix] Boring, ibid
[x] Douglas R.A. Hare , New Interpreters’ Bible, MATTHEW A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING James Luther Mays, Editor Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor
[xii] Carla Works, Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL) Matthew 5:21-37, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033 1/3
[xiii] Stan Mast, I Corinthians 3:1-9, cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching
[xiv] Brian Peterson, 1Corinthians 3:1-9 Commentary, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1950