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Sermon: Epiphany

Date Preached: Sunday 13th February 2011

Bible Reference: Matthew Chapter 5, verses 21-37

Now I know I sometimes make some mistakes in the ‘pews news’ leaflet, but I thought you might want to be reminded of some more interesting ones that a friend sent me this week

The sermon this morning: 'Jesus Walks on the Water.'

The sermon tonight: 'Searching for Jesus.'
Ladies, don't forget the rummage sale. It's a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house.

Bring your husbands. 
Don't let worry kill you off -

let the Church help. 
Miss Charlene Mason sang 'I will not pass this way again,'

giving obvious pleasure to the congregation. 
The Rector will preach his farewell message after which the choir will sing:

'Break Forth Into Joy.' 
Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in the church.

So ends a friendship that began in their school days. 
At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be 'What Is Hell?'

Come early and listen to our choir practice. 
The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. 

They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon. 
Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the Presbyterian Church. 

Please use the large double doors at the side entrance. 
(and finally) The Assistant Curate unveiled the church's new tithing campaign slogan last Sunday: 'I Upped My Pledge -

Up Yours!

Choices, choices – we seem to be faced with so many in our ultimate consumer society. Although they are rather arranged for us, in quite a powerful way aren’t they? So it’s which supermarket chain you shop at, rather than whether to shop there at all? (and there’s probably not terribly much to distinguish between them  - it’s mostly all about them being in convenient reach for us – which means they get everywhere). But, in contrast, today’s readings are all about a real choice with real and important consequences.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the supposedly worldly-wise and often trotted out philosophy that “I can do anything so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” If you weren’t aware, such an idea has its roots in romanticism and existentialism – where everything is seen as relative and there are no absolute standards – and no-one’s really going to hurt anybody, because we’re all rather essentially good. Hmmm!? – Perhaps slightly idealistic, don’t you think? And then there’s the other view: that we naturally think that, as long as we are ‘acting from the heart’, what we do outwardly, doesn’t matter too much. Mind you, the statement ‘his heart’s in the right place’ is usually said as an excuse for bad behviour – and it’s applied very selectively anyway - surely there’s no-one who would excuse murder on the grounds that it was sincerely meant (as Tom Wright points out).

What matters, Jesus says, is not so much that you don’t commit murder, adultery and the rest, but that your heart is right. God has always been looking for an obedience which goes right through a person, like the writing through a stick of rock; something that results in integrity, a connection, between heart and action; your thinking and your behaviour. I love those shadow cartoons where someone is speaking softly and patiently to another person - and on the wall behind is the shadow depicting what the person is really feeling (the real motive) – like Norman Bates in the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ wielding a huge carving knife!!

So these verses tell us we need to steer well away from any romantic notion of Jesus as some kind of 60s hippy preaching love, sex, drugs and rock & roll. The ‘all you need is love..’ kind of Jesus.  If anything, Jesus takes the prohibitions of the Jewish moral law and makes them even harder to obey. He not only condemns the acts themselves, but also the attitude that makes the acts possible. What he’s saying is that it’s anger that leads to murder, and lust that leads to adultery.

So his direction to deal ruthlessly with the first signs of lust, by plucking out eyes and cutting off hands are deliberate exaggerations (like the idea of leaving an animal at the altar for a week, while you go off to be reconciled to someone with whom you’ve fallen out). But they make the point very forcibly. Don’t suppose that Jesus meant you must never feel the impulse of lust when you look at someone attractive. What he commands us to avoid is the gaze, and the lustful imagination that follow the initial impulse. (Good advice that would get us out of all sorts of problems). But it’s because this passage sounds like a fanatical rant that many Christians have roundly ignored it.

But it’s also not about getting embroiled in endless debates about what is precisely allowed and what’s not. It’s far more important to think about how we’re called as Christians to be light in a dark world. (So..) Better to think before we speak. Better to learn the lesson that when speaking, ‘less is often more’. And if something you’re tempted to say isn’t true, or kind, or helpful, or necessary – then it’s better not to say it at all.

Jesus isn’t just giving us moral commands here, he’s unveiling a whole new way of being human. It’s saying that the truly mature, serious disciple of Jesus will be someone for whom it is no longer an effort to keep the commandments – you’ll do so because you have a deep desire to do so – because you love him. As Jesus said himself in John’s gospel: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commands.

(As I said at the beginning) This is about real choices though. It’s not sufficient to say “but we thought we were supposed to do what comes naturally. That just won’t do. Not to choose; to ‘go with the flow’, whether that be external pressures (everybody does it, why shouldn’t I?) actually is still to make a choice – you’re simply choosing to disobey God in favour of acting like all the rest. In the church in Corinth this resulted in personality cults, a sure sign of spiritual immaturity. 

Part of growing up as Christians is to realize that Jesus faces us with tough choices – because he knows what’s best for us. He certainly doesn’t say “ If you follow me, just go with the flow and take your cue from what everyone else is doing”. (What is it that he says to anyone who wants to follow him?) “...take up your cross and follow me..”

But we stand no chance at all of doing this through our own will power or good intentions. We need to pray for what Tom Wright calls ‘that change of heart, that total reform and redirection from within’ – because that kind of obedience can only come from a second nature – which is that gracious gift of God when we give our lives to Jesus and learn to depend on the indwelling strength of his Spirit. That, according to Deuteronomy and Jesus is the way of life – and the best choice we can possible make!

So perhaps (as Jane Williams says) the reading from Deuteronomy is actually the key to all of

 today’s readings. The commandments are given to Israel as a source of life, the source of the knowledge of God, who gives life. They teach God’s people how to live in God’s world.

The Church – this church – God’s people, are called to grow beyond what comes naturally to humanity – and to embrace instead what comes as the fruit of the Spirit and faith, trust in Jesus Christ. And that fruit is?

love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control.

It’s no wonder such attributes look strange in a world hell-bent on destruction; that teaches us to be utterly self-obsessed. But this is what Jesus invites us to.

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