Tuesday, February 18, 2014
6th Sunday after Epiphany
St. Matthew 5:21-37
In last week's Adult Forum, we talked about the three great "God is" statements in the writings of John the Apostle; these three statements are God is Spirit, God is light and God is love. God is Spirit indicates that God does not have a body and so therefore is not in a place; nor is God like a man with the passions and desires that go along with being human. Furthermore, whatever conceptions we have of God invariably fall short of his reality. God is light means that God is holy. He cannot have fellowship or take delight in our darkness whether as individuals or as a society. If you have felt an instinctual revulsion at some evil--say something you read in the news or something you did in your past--you've identified in a small way with the reality of God's holiness. Finally, God is love. God's love is in a the driving force behind the unfolding of events in the Bible, because over and over again, one reads of God reaching out to a people who have turned their backs on God. God's love is a persevering love. Together, these three statements, God is Spirit, God is light, and God is love give us a helpful and scriptural conception of God.
In the Old Testament and Gospel lessons today, we get a sense of God's holiness that God is light. The Old Testament lesson comes near the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy. The people led out of slavery in Egypt have been wandering in the desert for forty years. Now they are about to enter the promised land, and Moses has been told that he will soon die and will not enter the promised land with the rest of his people. The book of Deuteronomy is the farewell speech of Moses. He reiterates the Law once more and reminds the people of the covenant and promises that they made to God. Speaking through Moses, God says, "see, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. . . choose life." A caricature of the Old Testament is that it is full of arbitrary and meaningless rules. From the standpoint of faith, however, God is anything but a fickle parent who disciplines purely for his own pleasure and convenience. The world operates under an implicit principle of law that has been made explicit in Scripture. In other words, God's law is embedded in the fabric of creation itself. Think of the teaching of the Bible about sexuality which forbids intercourse outside of marriage. As a society we have largely cast off this traditional morality, but isn't it interesting and significant that there are good, natural reasons for the practice of monogamy? Monogamy limits the spread of venereal disease; it provides arguably the best environment for the nurturing and rearing of children. Further, when Moses tells the people to choose life not death, he is not merely speaking figuratively. Transgression of God's good law can and sometimes does lead to the death of the body. I have a friend in Oklahoma whose brother is quite literally drinking himself to death. David's plea to his brother is to choose life.
The holiness of God is further set forth in the Gospel lesson. The text is taken from the sermon on the mount. Jesus teaches the true meaning of Old Testaments laws, including the prohibitions against murder, adultery and false swearing. Contrary to the common perception, he is not saying that the Old Testament laws were not strict enough. Rather, the point of his teaching is that these insights into the law were already implicit in the commandments. If adultery is forbidden, how does adultery begin? Clearly, it begins long before consummation, in the heart of a man, so this too must be forbidden. Our Lord is thus unpacking what is already there in the commandments; he is not changing or amplifying them.
If we have faithfully read and heard these lessons, we will probably have a sense of the divorce between our own broken and fractured lives and the perfect law of God. We are not alone. The narrative that follows the book of Deuteronomy is largely a record of the people of Israel not choosing life. They periodically return to God, but these seasons of repentance and faithfulness are quickly succeeded by more and greater acts of disobedience and willfulness. The people of Israel did not choose life. Furthermore, I suspect our Lord's words might remind us of our own acts of unfaithfulness and disobedience. If we have heard them faithfully, they will pierce us. Both of these lessons demonstrate what it means that God is light. Through these lessons God's light may shine on our lives.
Think about light for a moment. One obvious characteristic of light is that it reveals. It can reveal things as they actually are. These lessons show our human inadequacy and sin, that we have not chosen life in so many instances. It is also the nature of light that if we have not been long exposed to it, light can be painful. It might give us pain to think of the foolish ways we have broken God's law as described in the lessons. God is light, and while it might be difficult to hear these lessons, they are addressed to sinners and lawbreakers. These passages of scripture are for you if you have a wayward streak. They are for you if you have followed a path of self-destruction. They are for you if you have ever chosen death, either consciously or unconsciously. The question is will you allow this light to be shed on your life? Paul wonderfully writes in the letter to the Ephesians: "when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light." In other words just by allowing your life both past and present to be exposed to the light of God is transformative. Consider the Samaritan Woman in the forth chapter of John's Gospel. Our Lord violates all kinds of social and religious norms by conversing with a non-Jewish woman. Like the voice of the prophet he names her history--she was married four times and living with a fifth man not her husband--in this act of naming her history there is forgiveness and transformation. Could you, my friends, take the moments you have chosen death and self-destruction and put them in the light of the Lord, allowing them to be exposed to the light of God and even perhaps hearing the voice of our Lord Jesus naming that history. Just by allowing his light to shine on it and to acknowledge that history will contain the seeds of new life and transformation.