a sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017
“I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”
So speaks Moses.
The Israelites, following their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, stand on the threshold of the land God promised them. Throughout their journey, many were the declarations about the blessings of obedience to God’s will as codified in the commandments and warnings of the misfortunes of disobedience. Now, about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice: life or death.
The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God, singing, “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” Then, in addition to “law”, using, lest any fail to grasp the point, a cascade of words, verily, synonyms for God’s will: “decrees”, “ways”, “commandments”, “statutes”, “judgments.”
But an immediate problem arises. One inherent in our humanity, which our Collect clearly identifies: “O God…through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do nothing good…” “Weakness” ironically, for me, conveys the power of our freewill, poetically expressed in the words of a prayer, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” Succinctly stated, we humans want our way, follow our will. In Moses’ language, we “bow down to other gods” – our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh, our pride and trust in our intellects, our feelings and senses of how things and others should be, our hungers for self-attainment.
Jesus, speaking expansively of God’s commandments, amplifies our problem. In one example, Jesus reminds us of the olden law, “You shall not murder.” Then he declares that beyond our outward obedience in refraining from killing someone we, in our inward will, must renounce our right to be “angry with a brother or sister.” Given our egoistic freewill and our desire that things and others be as we want them, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ stringent definition, none of us can keep God’s commandments and therefore, according to Moses’ strict description, we unavoidably choose death!
No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?
The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. An auspicious moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice. We, near the end of the season of Epiphany, stand on the threshold of another Lent when we again will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we again will tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we again will remind ourselves of our need to crucify anew all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”
But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is for us to trust, as our Collect also says, “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.
Pontheolla and I have a dear friend whose company we enjoy. On most occasions when he comes to our home he dines and partakes of libations with us. Only sometimes does he bring anything to share to eat or drink. Pontheolla, being hospitable, doesn’t seem to mind. I, being territorial, take umbrage at what I consider his taking undue advantage. I once said to her, “Baby, all he brings is his appetite and you do all the rest!”
Precisely. In this, Pontheolla is an earthly, incarnational image of who God is and how God works. Whenever we come with even the barest hunger and thirst, as the Beatitudes commend, for God’s righteousness, God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, fills us, leading, guiding us into obedience.
Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy
Illustration: Moses restating the Law to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884)
 The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 From Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62.
 Matthew 5.6