When you come to church, you probably normally expect to hear one sermon. But today is a little different. Yes, there’s the sermon you are listening to, or not, right now. But we’ve already heard little bits of other sermons, much more ancient than this one, in our Scripture readings.
Our Gospel reading gave us some verses from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is at least arguable that Paul’s letters were a kind of sermon, albeit one delivered at a distance, because it is generally thought that his letters would have been read aloud to the congregations to whom they were addressed. And the book of Deuteronomy is presented as if it were a sermon delivered by Moses in the desert east of the River Jordan, at the point at which the Children of Israel would enter the Promised Land.
If I were to try to deliver a sermon like Moses’, I doubt if any of us would last the course. It runs to thirty-four chapters, and it is packed with teaching. But naturally, it isn’t a sermon in the modern sense. It blends teaching with story with commentary. Modern scholars would not suggest that Moses did actually preach the Book of Deuteronomy, still less that some scribe wrote it all down. Rather, it is a collection of different materials which is given an overarching structure through the voice of Moses.
But this does not make it any less of a sermon. A sermon is not simply a text delivered by a preacher in the course of a service of worship. It can, as we have already noted with Paul’s letters, take a variety of forms. These days, the church is being challenged to explore different kinds of sermons. In all probability, Jesus’ sermons would have been more interactive than we’re used to here. Perhaps we should be exploring that. New technology is offering possibilities to deliver sermons in different ways, well beyond church buildings and set times. This raises challenges to how we understand what sermons are and indeed what worship is. What does it mean to ‘gather in worship’ when people are physically remote and connected only by technology? Is it still worship if you are accessing a recording of something which happened some time ago? These are important questions as we explore new opportunities to communicate the gospel in new ways.
There are several features and characteristics which distinguish sermons from other forms of discourse, and they are to be found here in the text of Deuteronomy. First, sermons should be sacramental. Sermons are should not just be about something, in the way that a nature programme of the television might be about polar bears. Watching a programme like that, we are grateful that someone else has endured cold, discomfort and danger to show us polar bears, and, if we think about it, we are glad that the bears are not present with us. But a sermon should seek to make its subject real for those who hear. It is hard to explain but has to do with taking the step from passive reception to involvement. A sermon does not propose a hypothesis which the hearer can choose to take or leave. A sermon brings God to the people and the people to God, or at least that is what I think every preacher should aim for. It should make past events a present reality.
Moses’ imagined sermon in Deuteronomy does just this, making present to the people waiting to cross the Jordan the events of the Exodus and the giving of the Law. It is saying – these are the things that have made you the people you are, which have brought you thus far, and which will continue to shape you in your new life in the Promised Land. And to subsequent readers, it is making present the act of crossing the Jordan and coming into the promised land, an act laden with theological significance.
Second, sermons are exhortations delivered within communities of the faithful. A whole host of material can make up the subject of a sermon; the purpose of Moses’ imagined sermon is to bring the people to repentance and reform, reminding them of their origins, reminding them of God’s blessing, reminding them of the Law. In the view of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel, the hearers, are God’s own people because of God’s choice and actions, not their own. Through its words, the people are called to live in a manner appropriate for those whom God has chosen and it warns those whom God has chosen not to defy him.
The part we have read this morning comes near the end of the book and it is the point at which Deuteronomy reaches its dramatic climax. The history of Israel has been rehearsed, the Ten Commandments proclaimed, the Law explained and now, for the people listening, comes the point for response, the point for decision, the point for choice. Moses asks the question – will you follow God’s Law, or not?
It is stunningly simple. No one, on reaching this point, could be in any doubt as to what God requires, what his values are, what he offers. Moses puts it very plainly:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.
Faced with that, one has two choices, but they may not be the ones you first think of. The first is the choice of whether you believe the whole premise, that there is a God who offers blessing, in whose gift there is life and prosperity but without whom there is nothing but death and destruction. You could walk away, saying it is all made up, and many have, but for those who don’t, for those who believe and know that God is real, there comes another choice – life and prosperity or death and destruction.
Now, to be clear, prosperity in this context is not about wealth. The choice is not about an offer of riches. It is about well-being, accepting what God provides, not just in material terms but more importantly in terms of the love and care he provides though those he gives to love us and care for us.
By any sober assessment, God here is not offering a choice between equal possibilities. Who, knowing that there is a way to life and well-being, would choose the way to death and destruction? Yet the bizarre thing is that that is what we do, all the time.
The Book of Deuteronomy was written at a time in the history of Israel when the people had turned their backs on obedience to God and were chasing after idols and false gods. The immediate historical contest was the experience of exile, not in Egypt, but in Babylon. Those who wrote the book were drawing parallels between these two great experiences of oppression, enslavement, escape and return to the place of promise. ‘Deuteronomy’ simply means ‘second law’ – not because the book contains new law but because it is presented in the Bible for a second time. When it was first written, it was re-presenting the Law to a people who had largely abandoned it and forgotten it.
All too often, we behave like we have forgotten what God desires of us. Our New Testament readings give examples. Paul speaks of jealousy and quarrelling among the people of God. He addresses divisions in the church based on false loyalties. Some people were claiming loyalty to Paul and others to another teacher of the faith, Apollos. But Paul hates this and exhorts the members of the church in Corinth to work together, giving their loyalty not to any teacher, but to Christ alone, not to follow a servant but to follow the master.
Jesus speaks of relationships which have soured getting in the way. The souring of a relationship to the extent that it ends in murder is so obviously wrong that it cannot be accommodated or endured but, Jesus says, we put up with all sorts of soured relationships which divert us from our path to God. Our angers, our jealousies, the things we do wrong to each other, all affect our ability to serve God. They sap our energies; they distract us and ultimately lead us away from our Creator. Jesus says – if you are in that kind of situation, do something about it. He does not say what in detail, because he knows that no situation is beyond our own ability to address. It is all a matter of the choices we have made. His instruction is to make the right choice, to choose the way of God.
Deuteronomy forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of the people of Israel, standing on the banks of the Jordan. And their shoes fit remarkably well. It reminds us that we are on a journey with God, that every day we can choose whether we move forward or stay where we are, and, if we move, which way we go. Do we go on the way of God or do we go on our own way? One way lies blessing, the power of life itself to expand and flourish in all ways. The other way lies the rejection of blessing, literally separation from God.
Moses said: This day I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life. The Lord is your life.