A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 12th February 2023

“…Keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well- being.” (Deut.10:13)

Today’s readings focus on the challenges of keeping the law of the Lord, and the promises that come with being obedient to God’s law.

Our first reading from Deuteronomy, which is an insightful comment on how the People of Israel were to live out God’s law, is an encouragement to live out the spirit of the Law. The opening verse reminds us of the words of the 7th century prophet Micah, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). What they were both implying was, without the heart, Israel’s conformity to the Law was nothing more than hypocrisy.

The potion of Psalm 119 today, also exalts us to keep the law, and make the link between keeping the law, not just externally but internally with our hearts.

“Blessed are those who keep his commands, and seek him with their whole heart:” (Ps.119:2)

In today’s second reading, Paul is recognising that the Corinthians are struggling to live up to the challenges of God’s law. He says “you are still behaving according to human inclinations”, but then goes on to encourage them to recognise that “it is as God’s servants, working together” where true growth will be seen.

The Gospel reading appears to be the harshest of the three! It takes us back to the law of Moses.

The 10 Commandments were given to the People of Israel through Moses. After years in the desert Israel was now free from slavery in Egypt, and was camped around Mount Sinai when thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, and the sound of trumpets signalled God’s presence. Moses met with God, and the 10 Commandments were written for the people to follow.

They were intended to secure a relationship of “shalom”, true peace and harmony between God and God’s chosen people, and between all of God’s people. Consequently, Israel had understood her election as conditional on her obedience to God’s law.  Failure to obey these obligations could only lead to divine judgement, but keeping the law would bring great blessing.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us not to dismiss the 10 commandments as irrelevant!

“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. (Mtt.5:17)

Rather Jesus is reminding his disciples, as he is us, that to live in the spirit of the law, requires much more than obeying the  written law of Moses, and in keeping with this we hear Jesus say several times–“You have heard that it was said…” followed by “But I say to you…” 

No longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become doorways into the examination of many internal dynamics as well as external behaviours of a person’s life; anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, and religious speech which are considered to be equally sinful.

“Jesus insists that our obedience is more than external submission to God’s commands. It is obedience of the heart. “If in our heart we experience God’s own respect of and compassion for others we are not going to commit murder, or use another person for our own sexual satisfaction, or be dishonest to achieve an unjust verdict in court. The word obedience comes from the Latin word audiens, which means ‘listening’ (compare audience), with the prefix ob, which means ‘right up against’ (compare obstruction). We are obedient when we are listening right up close. (So) to obey God is to be close to God and to be listening with the intention of doing what God inspires us to do with all our heart and with joy knowing that God’s will is the most beautiful and liberating thing we can do.” (michael B fallon homilies/matthew)

Our culture can make it really difficult to hear God’s word and do God’s will. There is a lot of emphasis on our individual achievements and goals, our own wishes and feelings, our rights and ambitions, even our own personal relationship with God. None of these are bad things!  But they do tend to separate us from community. The more self -reliant we think we need to be, the less likely we are to listen humbly to others, to respect others and to learn from them.

And the same is true when it comes to our spiritual lives. St. Paul reminded the Corinthians of their need to work together as a community. On a personal level it is easy for us to seek joy in what- ever gives us fulfillment, when as our gospel reminds us, God is wiser than our natural desires and at times it is clearly wiser to go against something that would give us immediate gratification!

At times when our living out of God’s law has to find new expressions in line with our culture, just as they did in Jesus’ day.  For example, when I was very new to the church I remember being dismayed when my friend’s mother was asked to leave the Mother’s Union because she became divorced. Even as a teenager I could not understand how the church could do that to my friend’s mother at a time when she needed the support of that group the most! Thankfully we have come a long way since then, but this example exemplifies the tension we face when we are attempting to be both faithful to the rules, and are at times challenged to have the courage and compassion to put first the rule of love. The question is always What would Jesus do?

Jesus isn’t interested in giving us a new checklist of things we aren’t supposed to do. Jesus is interested in inviting us again to live with him in a covenant relationship of love. As we strive to cultivate this relationship as individuals and as a community, that relationship of love will extend throughout our community to those whom Deuteronomy refers to as “the strangers in the land” (Deut.10:20) which includes everyone beyond our walls!

What does God require of us?  I think God wants us to listen attentively to God’s Word, to recognise and to respond to God’s unbounded love, to love and respect each other and to see God’s image in one another.