Richard Maxwell

Epiphany 6 A
16 February 2014
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Some of you may have noticed that we’ve been hearing a lot from the Sermon on the Mount recently.  It’s the first of Jesus’ big speeches in Matthew’s Gospel and it has a lot of familiar teachings . . . like the Beatitudes, for example.  You know:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart . . . all that stuff.  Today’s teachings get tougher:  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away . . . if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” . . . great.  If you HAVE noticed that we’ve been hearing a lot from the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve probably also noticed that I’ve been avoiding preaching on it.  One of the reasons why I’ve been doing this is that Jesus concludes the part of the speech we’ve been hearing for the last couple of weeks, with this summary of what he’s taught so far:  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Right.  Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.  I don’t feel very perfect.  And I think it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever become perfect.  How about you?  And, I dunno, maybe it’s all the snow, but I don’t feel like talking about how we should TRY to be perfect.

I much prefer Moses’ teaching today, about making choices.  What we heard today is near the end of the Pentateuch . . . the Torah or the Law . . . in other words, near the end of the first five books of the Bible.  The last four of these books tell the story of the Hebrew people’s flight from Egypt and their long journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  Now, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is about to die.  He will not enter the Promised Land himself, but God will allow him to see it before he dies.  What we heard this morning is the conclusion of Moses’ last teaching.

Moses explains to the people that they have a choice to make . . . to our ears it may sound like a simple choice . . . “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.”  Well, sure . . . of course, we’re gonna choose life.  And how do we show which choice we’ve made?  “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live.  But if you heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve then, I declare to you today that you shall perish.”  That sounds pretty clear and simple, doesn’t it?

Yet why after all these years together, years that have been hard and yet years during which Moses has taught them all he can, years during which they have seen God’s love for them demonstrated over and over again, why after all these years must Moses once again teach them this lesson?  Because, amazingly, although they know very well what God wants of them – just as we do! – it’s a lesson that’s so easy to forget.

Think how often God’s loving presence among the Hebrew people was demonstrated . . . and how often they forgot this.  The journey begins with a miracle:  the Red Sea parting for them to walk through it as though walking on dry land, and then the sea coming back together to destroy the Egyptians pursuing them.  I think that would have stuck with me for a while.  But the people soon begin to worry, and doubt, and complain.  They complain about their hardships a lot . . . even though they were hungry and God gave them manna to eat, and they were thirsty and water flowed from a rock.

Perhaps the most famous story about when the people forgot God – or at least turned their back on God – is when Moses went up the mountain and received the Ten Commandments.  Remember how all that began?  Moses didn’t just wander off; he didn’t just disappear and stay away for a long time. No!  In the morning of the third day after they arrived at Mount Sinai, a trumpet sounded.  It was so loud that everyone was afraid.  The mountain became wrapped in smoke and the Lord descended in fire.  The mountain shook and the trumpet became louder and louder.  Moses spoke to God and God answered in thunder.  All this was the prelude to Moses going up the mountain.  I don’t know, but I’d like to think that all of that would have kept me focused.  But we hear that the people turned away from God and Moses pretty quickly.  They had Aaron cast an image of a calf made out of gold to serve as their God.

All of this and more is in Moses’ mind as he teaches his people one last time.  On the one hand, the Hebrew people have seen and experienced enough that they should be willing to worship this God that has chosen them.  But, on the other hand, it’s a difficult God, impossible to control and often difficult to understand . . . and the people yearn for an “easier” God.  Maybe they’ll have better luck with a smaller God, one they can carry around, one they have made themselves.  The God that had made them turned out to be too difficult to deal with, so maybe they’d have better luck if they switched over to a god they had made themselves.

Things haven’t changed much.  The God who made us is still difficult to deal with, God’s ways are still not our ways, and our comfort and security don’t seem to very high on God’s agenda.  So, just like our ancestors we make up our own gods.  If you think you don’t have any, the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor[1] offers a few golden calf detectors:  Your checkbook or credit card statement, for example.  What do you spend most of your money on?  What do these records tell you about what you worship?  Or, you could check your calendar.  What get’s most of your time?  When it comes time to rest, or pray, or wait on the Lord, what gets in the way?  It’s probably a golden calf.  A job that promises security.  A house that promise comfort.  A portfolio that promises protection.  A relationship that promises safety.  A position that promises power.  A car that promises prestige.  All these little golden calves lined up on the shelves.  None of them bad things in themselves, by the way.  Had you noticed?

The raw material of a golden calf is almost never a bad think.  It is usually a good thing – like gold – that’s been made into an ultimate thing – like God.  That’s where the problem lies . . . because things are not God.  They may provide what they seem to promise for a while . . . they may provide safety and security and all those good things for a while . . . maybe for a long time.  But ask someone whose job has been taken away, or whose health has failed, or whose marriage has ended and that person will tell you just how much those golden calves are really worth.

But God – the one, true, living God – is not so interested in providing all those things we are so interested in.  God is more interested in producing life – not mere pulse and breath life – but abundant lie, extravagant life, my-cup-runneth over life, which has very little to do with comfort, security, power, or prestige.

We can bow down to those gods.  We can make that choice.  We can serve them.  Or we can stand up, brush the gold dust off our hands, and seek the living God . . . even if the food is not so good, the water is hard to come by, and the expectations are ridiculously high.  It is our choice which way to turn:  toward the golden calf corral or toward the wide-open spaces, the wilderness, where the true God may be found.  Or as Moses said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.”  Which will it be?


[1] “Choose This Day” in Gospel Medicine published by Cowley Publications in 1995; pp. 123-127.

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