Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Who has ever heard a commencement address (show of hands)? Now, how many have heard a really inspiring, rousing commencement address? Finally, who has listened to an address and simply desired for it to be over? Yeah, I hear you! Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, is giving a commencement speech, of sorts. What does a commencement address do? It acknowledges the accomplishments of the graduates (Israel), reminds them of the challenges (past and future), and, finally, sends them out into the world. Moses’ work with Israel, like teachers with their students, is over and it is now up to them to live into the promises of God, even as they plan to go into the Promised Land. He is telling them that they have choices – blessings or curses, life or death. We know what Moses hopes:
“[T]hat you will choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying Him, and holding onto Him ...”
Moses tells the people of Israel, who he brought up out of the Land of Egypt, that he is not going over the Jordan with them and they must develop leaders. He will die on the mountain from which he speaks. What does it mean to choose life with God as our way of life? Living with God at the center of who we claim, as humans, to be? We should dwell in this question for a while …
Jesus has begun, in chapter 5, the first of five great teachings He will offer in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 5-7 is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest, richest and most challenging set of teachings.
Jesus has just come out of the wilderness. In Chapter 4, after His Baptism, Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. Jesus prevails but it is in the wilderness that he begins to be more firmly shaped in his identity as Messiah. He comes out of the wilderness, calls His disciples, and then begins to teach them and the crowds on a mountain near the sea. Jesus, like a long commencement of salvation, is preparing His followers, shaping them to be sent out into the world as people who have chosen God and because of and through their calling, they might lead others to be formed by Jesus as well.
The disciples are gaining a new identity, if you will, as they learn from Jesus and experience, ultimately, the full measure of His life and saving witness. The Sermon on the Mount does not have easy sayings. We look at the teachings of today. You have heard it said in ancient times, you shall do no murder. But I say to you, you shall not be angry at another. Jesus will go on, throughout the Sermon on the Mount, to challenge his disciples and others to see Him as the fulfillment of the law, the commandment, to love one another. They learn the path, they learn how to pray, and they learn how to love and empty themselves of the world to fully embrace the promise of Jesus. Their new identity is not fisherman, tax collector, Zealot, etc. They are now disciples of Jesus.
And it is very often in the wilderness that we find ourselves transformed into some new creation. We don’t see, as Jesus did, the wilderness, a place in our lives where loss, isolation, and pain form us whether we want them to or not. Christ is giving us the opportunity to choose a life where even the wilderness places will create in us a new identity where we see Jesus’ saving grace even more clearly.
Max Cleland’s story came to mind for me. He served as a one term U.S. Senator from Georgia. In 1968 he was a captain in the U.S. Army and commander of a contingent of signal corps in Vietnam, during the siege of Khe San. Cleland’s commanding officer ordered him to set up a signal on an adjacent, treeless hill. Cleland took two enlisted men with him and a helicopter carried them to said hill. After jumping out of the helicopter, a few feet off the ground, the men turned to watch the chopper as it ascended. Cleland saw a grenade lying in the grass and, as he reached down to pick it up, noticed that the pin was out. U.S. grenades at that time had very straight pins and could too easily separate themselves from the grenade. Veterans learned to bend the pin, so that the grenade would stay put, but one of the young enlisted men with Cleland had forgotten; it was his grenade that did the damage.
Cleland was eventually evacuated back to the U.S. and would recover, but his right arm was amputated mid-forearm and both of his legs were amputated above the knee. Cleland could have chosen death: a life of depression, despair and bitterness and who would have blamed him? But he chose a life of service, in spite of his injuries, serving in the Georgia state legislature, then the U.S. Senate, the secretary of the VA, and engaged in many other areas of service.
Cleland would not have chosen to lose his legs and arm. Yet the situation did not break him, even though it did define him and gave his life a purpose. He wrote a book in the 1980’s called Strong in the Broken Places, which steals from Hemingway’s line from For Whom the Bell Tolls: all are broken but some grow stronger in the broken places. Max Cleland chose life, shaped by tragedy and loss and pain but God’s blessedness (as he understands it) made him a witness of Christ’s love that others might follow and be drawn to.
Choose life. Jesus gives us a challenging pathway to knowing Him and being drawn into life with Him. He would give us a new identity, a new purpose, a new hope grounded in His light and love. Jesus teaches us and won’t let us go but prepares us to go out into the world and be instruments of His good news, His life, His love. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you…and by your love everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Jesus teaches us the way of loving, the way of discipline and grace. We can choose life and know that Christ will be in this life with us a life that may be challenging and ask a lot of us but is filled with immeasurable purpose, grace, and hope. We will stumble, and we will fall, even when we come into the land of promise, knowing Christ. But choosing life means that we will always choose the path of Jesus and not death.