This is the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 12th February 2017, Epiphany 6 in Year A.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
There’s been a lot of talk about other religions in the news recently, and by recently I could say that these conversations go back decades. We hear, especially about Islam, of people who are “radical” and others who are “moderate”. In Islam and Christianity, we hear of “fundamentalists”. Indeed, if you follow the news from Open Doors or Barnabas Fund or another agency concerned with persecuted Christians you will hear of “radical” Buddhists, Hindus, Zionists, and atheists. My concern today is not with the radical believers of any faith, nor with the moderates. I find both of those adjectives quite unhelpful when speaking of religious believers and I may well speak on that in months to come. (After all, how would you like to be described as a “Moderate Christian”? If someone called me that I’d probably bite them, which would make me a “Radical” I suppose.)
No, my concern today is the fundamentalists, but I want to use that label in a positive way. Today I want to talk about those people who have taken the time to learn and practice the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the foundational stuff upon which can be built a mature and substantially unique faith.
Each of the texts presented to us by the Lectionary this morning has as its key theme a focus on what we might think of as the basics, the fundamentals of the faith. In the passage from Deuteronomy Moses sets two clear choices before the Hebrew people. Having begun speaking at Deuteronomy 1:6 Moses is still going as we pick up the narrative at Deuteronomy 30:15; where he has come to the climax of his oration. For the great leader of God’s people and a man who has walked for forty years to reach this point this really is a life or death moment for his people, even if the threat is not immediately apparent to them. For those of us who live in the twenty-first century and have been taught to dislike the idea of a “prosperity gospel” Moses offers an alternative in the “adversity gospel”. Obey God and go well in the land: disregard God and perish soonishly. Do not be lead astray, all of creation is called as witnesses to the decision you make today. It’s your choice to make, says Moses, and it’s a free choice. But please, for your own sake, choose life so that God will be able to fill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The key decision is not one of law or obedience, but of worship. As newcomers to the land of Canaan will the Hebrews continue to worship their ancestral god, the One who brought them out of Egypt, or will they default to the baals and the local demigods of the defeated native peoples? By the same token will they trust the LORD while they are exiled elsewhere, or will they worship the gods of the receiving nations and conquerors? So, what is the fundamental teaching here? Well it is that the People of God should worship God only, and they should rely completely upon God to deliver them next time just as God delivered them last time.
Then the Psalmist joins in. Happy are the blameless, says the Psalmist, are those who love God and who seek God and who obey God. In other words, how blessed you are if you have learned to trust God out of a proven relationship with God. Happy are those who know from experience that God’s way is always better, even if it seems to lead through the valley of shadows. Those who heed God’s advice will never be forsaken by God: God has never been in the business of mocking or abusing disciples and God does not set traps for the trusting. The psalm opens with a word of declaration, this is not a question or a desire but a statement of fact: those whose way is blameless are happy, that’s just the way it is.
This is paragraph “Aleph” or “A” in an acrostic poem, a poem which may well have been an A-Z primer for young Jewish disciples learning Torah. It is basic teaching, spoon-feeding, and like Moses the message is trust God and worship God, first and only.
In the same simplistic way, Paul addresses our friends the Corinthians, speaking to them as if they were just starting out in life at big school, drinking their milk at play-lunch and learning their alphabet. Look at 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 where he says “I once spoke to you as if you were infants, and I see I still have to because in many ways you are still so immature. So long as you continue to act like squabbily kids I’ll treat you as such”. Ooh harsh! But he doesn’t leave it there, he addresses the nature of their childishness, specifically their self-directed name calling, by placing each of those names and the characters they represent in an ongoing process of growth. It is God from whom you should all take your belonging, says Paul, since I, Paul, and Apollos (to name but two) are merely facilitators of the work the Holy Spirit is doing. Paul and Apollos were both ministers (diakonoi in Greek), and they had slightly different roles in the life of the Corinthian church. But they were colleagues none the less, and servants of God the master gardener and God the landowner. So, what is their message?
Trust God and worship God, first and only. Who is Paul? Who is Apollos? Who even are Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph and the Sons of Korah? All great men, but the LORD is…well the LORD is the LORD, and the LORD alone is worthy of adulation, obedience, and utterly dependant love.
Your instinct for tribalism is good, says Moses and Paul, but your focus must be upon being the people of God, and not on yourselves or your favourite preacher. Don’t fix your eyes on Moses, or Paul: look to God. In our tradition and generation, we might say don’t fix your eyes on John Knox, John Wesley, Brian Houston, or Damien Tann, great men of God that they are. Look to God. Moses says look to God. Paul says look to God. Wesley and Houston constantly say look to God. And I certainly say look to God.
So, what does God say? Some of this we have been told in scripture. Moses is speaking on behalf of God when he says choose the way of life. Choose the way of obedience to the precepts of God, which includes the commandments, but is so much more than that in encompassing your god-directed conscience. Be faithful to God in the confidence that God has already been faithful to you. Trust only in God because if you have nothing except God you have everything, but if you have everything except God you have nothing. What Moses says, as the voice of God, is that if you have God you will never have nothing, because God is generous and God is kind. God knows how the world works and that you need stuff. God does not promise you a Ferrari if you tithe 12%, but God promises you will never be left destitute if you trust God. The “prosperity gospel”, if there is one in truth, is not that God will guarantee you excessive wealth if you trust in Jesus Christ, but that God will guarantee the Spirit’s presence and wise-guidance with you in every instance of adversity, and that God will bring you out of adversity every single time. The promise of eternal life is not Heaven after you stop breathing, but that your life will be worth living while you are breathing. In other words, there is no living death for you: trust God and you will be brought through adversity. Try going it alone in adversity and, as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:17-18, you will not live long in the land. As a Christian you will still go to Heaven, but your life will have been wasted and your call will have been left unfulfilled.
Let’s turn now to Matthew and to more of that great advice for living from Jesus.. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says “you have heard it was said to those in ancient times…but today I say to you…” and what he is doing here, apart from re-interpreting the text for personal application of its meaning is that he’s directing that meaning towards personal relationships. God’s divine law is actually about helping you to be a good bloke/sheila, and a great mate. Don’t let your anger, or your lust, or your bravado get out of control such that you cause harm to yourself or other people. Perhaps Jesus is saying “’be a moderate Christian”, more likely he is saying, “be a person of moderate behaviour because you are a foundational Christian”. As I indicated last week, and I’m really coming to believe this the more I study and the more I preach on this, God would prefer you to be nice to each other than that you come to church. God certainly would prefer that you did both, and certainly church is a place of sanctuary and not a home for the upwardly pious, but given a choice between you being an easy man or woman to befriend and who spends Sundays being nice, and you being a grumpy sook who comes to church, God’s preference is the first one. By all means if you are a grumpy sook keep coming, we hope that the lovely people here will make you feel safe and loved so that you have less to sook and grump about. But if you are truly, passionately, devotedly following God revealed in Jesus Christ then your life should be reflecting that in your kindness, patience, honesty, transparency, and good humour.
This is no easy gospel. There is much more to Christian discipleship than “be excellent to each other” as Bill and Ted once said. (Twice actually because there was a sequel.) The fact is that you can’t actually be this nice if you don’t have Christ within you and the confident hope that comes from the salvation of God earned for you by Jesus on the cross. A “good Christian” must be more than “a nice person”, but he or she should certainly not be less.
The fundamentals of Christianity start at Calvary, I have no doubt of that and my own feet are planted firmly on that rock. I believe in the empty manger, the empty cross, and the empty tomb, and because of what those locations represent in the distant past, human life of Jesus who is and forever will be the Christ of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, today I have the confidence to be patient, resilient, and kind.
You have been saved. It’s more than okay to smile, laugh, and be kind because of that. In fact, it’s practically required of you to do so.