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Sunday, 13 February 2011

Choose Life

The Children's talk is an integral part of this sermon, albeit separated by the music group and the Gospel reading!

Children's Talk

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a kingdom far away, there was trouble in the land. The King, whose name was Manasseh, had decided to forsake worshipping the God of his ancestors, and to worship other, more exciting gods instead. Not only that, but he put up altars to them in the holy Temple at Jerusalem, and despite all the priests could do, and despite dire warnings from the prophets, he carried on like this, even sacrificing one of his children and practising black magic.

The priests in the Temple were scared. They didn't know how much longer they would be allowed to stay, or even whether the King would have them killed. What if no new priests could come? How would future generations know how to worship God? Their country had enemies, and it was quite possible that it would be over-run, and God's name might disappear altogether.

So the priests did the only thing they could think of. They wrote a book to tell future generations all about God, and how to worship, and, especially, how to live as God's people. And then they hid it away in the depths of the Temple, and carried on as best they could.

Roughly fifty years later, there was a new king on the throne, the grandson of King Manasseh, and his name was King Josiah. King Josiah did worship God, and one day he decided that it was high time the Temple in Jerusalem was refurbished, painted, cleaned, the stonework repointed, all that sort of thing. And while that was happening, the priests found this book that had been hidden away for so long – either that, or they decided that now was a good moment to produce it – and they brought it to the King.

And that book was at least part of, and perhaps all of, the book of Deuteronomy which our reading came from. I'll tell you more about what it said in a bit, but when Josiah read it, he was horrified and realised that he and his people had been doing things all wrong, and he made them all listen to it and do what it said. And God was pleased. The doom that had been prophesied did come on the land, but not in Josiah's lifetime. You can read all the story in 2 Kings chapters 21 to 23, if you've got a good modern English translation. Not now, though. Now the music group is going to sing for us.

Choose Life

The book of Deuteronomy turned out to be like nothing Josiah had ever heard before. The central theme of the book, how God wants his people to be, is of course that famous passage that begins "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is God, the Lord is One". We are to love God with all of our being, and to keep all the commandments, decrees and ordinances, says the book of Deuteronomy. And, as the passage we heard read says, we are to choose Life. To choose to follow God is to choose Life.

The rest of the book is an expansion of that theme. You look after your neighbour, especially if your neighbour is an Israelite. Refugees or "sojourners" who have settled among you are also to be treated with kindness and compassion, since you were once sojourners in Egypt. If you have slaves or servants, you must give them the opportunity to go free at the end of six years, and give them some capital to help them make a new start. You mustn't give it grudgingly, either, since you've had work from the slave for six years, and no way could you have got a hired servant so cheap. If your slave runs away, people are to assume that you were a cruel owner, and the slave won't be returned to you. If your paid servants need it, you must pay them daily, and don't you dare cheat them!

You don't fancy military service? Well, you don't have to go if you are about to get married, or have just got married, or if you've just built yourself a house or planted a vineyard, or even if you are afraid. Fighting is the Lord's work, and we don't want anyone who isn't whole-hearted about it. If you do go to war, the camp must be kept clean and hygienic at all times - please go right outside the perimeter when you need to "go", and use your trowel afterwards. And when you fight, give your enemy every chance to surrender first.

Above all else, the book of Deuteronomy is concerned with rooting out idolatry, forcefully if necessary. Because of this the whole system of worship is being changed. From now on, you can't sacrifice to God where you please, but only in the Temple in Jerusalem. No more popping into the local shrine; it's too difficult to police it and to make sure it is only God that sacrifices have been made to. Now, obviously, this is going to cause some upheavals, and the authors have made provision for this.

Firstly, you ask, what about your dinner? If you've been in the habit of eating your share of the sacrifice, what do you do if you can't sacrifice any more? Have you really got to go hunting every time you fancy some meat?
No. From now on you may butcher your own meat, or have it butchered for you, so long as it is done in a certain way. It doesn't have to have been sacrificed first. Secular meat is quite OK.

Bur what about me? I'm a Levite, a descendent of Levi. I've been used to working in the shrines and keeping myself on part of the meat brought as sacrifice. What am I going to do now? Well, you get given charitable status, along with widows, orphans and sojourners. Henceforth it is the duty of all religious Jews to support you.

Well, OK, that's fine, you say. But how am I going to worship God? It's three days' journey to Jerusalem; I can't go gallivanting up and down each week. What am I to do?

The answer to that one has repercussions to this day! What they did was, they set up a system of praying with psalms and readings that gradually developed into the synagogue worship that persists even today. What's more, we Christians adapted it, and in various forms it became the Benedictine Daily Office, the Anglican Matins and Evensong, and even has echoes in a Methodist preaching service such as this one! All because those who wrote Deuteronomy felt it would be better, or that God was saying, if you prefer it said that way to have sacrifices made only in the Temple in Jerusalem so that an eye could be kept on what happened. There was too much worshipping of other gods going on.

The other thing that shows God's hand in all this, of course, is that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Suppose the Jews hadn't had an alternative form of worship to fall back on? And what would we have done without it? Jesus rendered Temple worship obsolete, because he was, as the old Prayer Book has it, "a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." God is clever sometimes!

But that is all detail – I find it fascinating, and suggest you sit down and have a good read of the book of Deuteronomy in a modern paraphrase sometime. All sorts of fascinating rules and regulations....

But that's the point. They could so easily become just dry rules and regulations. The priests were aware of this, I think, which is why they were so emphatic about the need to choose, to choose life: “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

But it got too easy to follow God just by keeping the rules, and by the time Jesus came along, that, all too often, is what was happening. And all the rules were getting hedged around with “Well, what if....” and “In this case, you should...” until they had become a real burden.

Jesus cuts through this, as we heard in our second reading. Just keeping the rules isn't enough. It's not enough to not murder someone – you haven't to be angry with them in a way that would destroy their self-esteem, and when things go wrong, it's down to you to be the first to go and put them right. It's not enough to not have sex with someone if the only reason you fancied them in the first place was because they had a great body. You don't get divorced for trivial reasons, no matter how scrupulous you are about doing it legally. You don't need to swear by anybody or anything, as you should be so trustworthy that just a “Yes” or “No” is enough.

Jesus is giving this picture of what his followers would be like, and it's really hard to live up to. I'm pretty sure I don't, and I'm pretty sure you don't, either.

But then, of course, we don't have to. I mean, not like that. It's not about our trying and struggling and failing to make ourselves into better people. It never has been. In our own strength, we are always going to fail. It's about a reciprocal relationship with God. It's about allowing ourselves to be transformed. About saying to the Holy Spirit, okay, here I am, You do it. He will! Probably not in ways you'd expect, and quite possibly not in ways you'd like, given a choice, but you will be transformed, more and more, into the kind of person God created you to be.

Josiah could have just listened to the book of the Law, and nodded, and said "Oh yes, how very interesting", and let it flow over him. But he didn't. Josiah really wanted to worship God properly – his cousin Zephaniah was a prophet, and quite possibly influenced him to follow God – so he rooted out all the shrines to God that were sometimes used to worship other gods, and he required his subjects to worship God alone, and to celebrate the Passover. The Bible tells us that that first Passover, in the eighteenth year of Josiah's reign, so in about 621 BC by our reckoning, was unique: "No such Passover," it says, "had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah."

The point is that Josiah really meant it about worshipping God, and when he was confronted with the Scriptures, the book of the Law, he chose life.
And we are asked to make that choice, too. Is our religion something formal, a matter of coming to Church on Sundays, of obeying certain rules, going through the motions?

It would be much easier if it was just a matter of obeying rules, wouldn't it? We would just have to do this, do that, not do this, not do that, and God would accept us. But it doesn't work like that. Nor does the more subtle temptation: “I believe that Jesus died for me, so I am saved.” And that's true, of course – but it's the wrong way round. Once again, it's making our relationship with God dependent on something we do – but, my friends, nothing we can do can save us! If we think it is our faith that saves us, we need to think again. It is Jesus who saves us! We can and should believe in Him, but that belief shouldn't be a matter of static facts, a matter of just the Creeds and no more. It should be a belief that leads to a living, two-way relationship with him. He has saved us; we can do nothing to help or hinder him. What we can and should do is be willing to enter into that relationship with him, so that we can know He has saved us, so that we can be saved to the uttermost, as our doctrines have it.

“I set before you life and death;” says the Lord. “Choose life.”