Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37; I Corinthians 3:1-9
Theme: “Two ways diverged in a wood, and I?”: which way are you going to choose?
All these texts present a choice — God/Jesus’ way or way of the flesh/not God. The one path leads to life the other to death. The choice is stark. Choosing to walk God/Jesus’ way will put one out of step with the rest of the people around. For God/Jesus’ way leads to a counter-cultural lifestyle.
Second, this choice is not just individual, it is corporate. The community of faith chooses and helps its members choose. Within community individuals are formed into members of the counter-culture.
These two themes create an opportunity for the preacher to issue an invitation to their hearers to join a counter-cultural community; joining in walking towards maturity in Christ. The risk to the preacher is that the Matthew 5 material can end up dominating the sermon turning it into a Christian morals class. The preacher needs to keep the call to choose, to be converted, central to the sermon. This invitation to choose is issued not just to those outside the community of faith, but also to those inside the community. In fact, both the Deuteronomy and Corinthians passages are directed to those inside the community — and both are invitations to conversion. Each day the followers of Jesus are invited to choose again to follow Jesus’ counter-cultural way.
In Deuteronomy it is hard to miss the call to choose. The wise preacher will highlight the phrase “loving the Lord your God, walk in his ways” (vs. 16) as an important image for the one side of the choice. Yes the choice is about “commands, decrees and ordinances” but at its heart it is about walking God’s path, a path that leads to life.
The Psalm points out the choice to be made, picking up on the walking God’s way (vs. 1 & 3). Vs. 5 notes this is not a once for all choice, the psalmist prays that they would be steadfast in their choice to follow; having the commitment to keep on keeping on. This is a recommitment.
In I Corinthians Paul is inviting followers of Jesus to put aside the fleshy way and follow the spiritual way. His comments about them being infants living on spiritual milk is not a call to simply grow up, that is continue further down the path they are on (see Gordon Fee’s commentary). Paul is calling them to change their pattern of life to choose to live spiritual lives, lives lived in Jesus’ way. One sign of the shift from fleshly to spiritual will be the Corinthians no longer giving credit for their conversion and growth to human agents — Paul, Apollos — but giving the credit to God. A choice is presented, to whom will credit be given?
The Matthew passage provides some solid food, food that is tough to chew. Again the preacher should seek to present these as choices — having remembered the wrong done — do we go and seek reconciliation or do we stay and say it does not matter? Do we choose to speak appropriately about others, even when they irritate us, or do we choose to speak of others with contempt? Is our word, simple speech, enough to bind us, or do we need grand vows so that others believe us? These are all choices? Calling Christians to walking ever further along God’s ways.
The material regarding looking at another lustfully opens the door to a conversation about the objectification not only of women but also men. Phrases like “eye candy” are heard on the lips of both genders. Jesus invites the recognition of beauty, but without the dehumanization of the other through lust. For lust is about the desire to possess. Such a way of life is a choice. Here there is space for the community of faith to become an example of how to celebrate the beauty of creation and the goodness of sexuality while standing against the objectification that accompanies lust.
Jesus words here on divorce could take over the entire sermon, the preacher needs to decide how to handle it. To not even mention it will appear like avoidance of the issue. Noting that the material is there, and then indicating at some other time the issue will be addressed may be a reasonable way to handle this material. If the preacher feels the need to address divorce three things should be noted about this material: First, Jesus says divorce is not part of God’s plan for humanity. This opens the door for the preacher to note that divorce is painful and leaves all parties hurting. Pastorally the preacher can offer comfort in the midst of the pain that is divorce. Second, in Deut. 24:1 describes the easy way husbands could divorce wives by use of a certificate on the grounds of “finding something objectionable about her”. There was a division in rabbinic thought about what “something objectionable” meant — one side saying something as minor as dinner being burnt was legitimate grounds for divorce; the other side arguing that “something objectionable” meant sexual immorality. Jesus affirms the latter position. The invitation is to work at one’s marriage, to not see divorce as an easy way out. Again this needs to be said pastorally. Third, thought in Jesus’ day saw adultery being only against husbands/men. A wife harmed her husband when she had an affair. Men harmed the husband of the woman with whom they had an affair. The man’s wife was not a victim. Jesus indicates that wives too were harmed by adultery, wives could be victims. (For more on these matters, Frederick Dale Bruner’s Matthew commentary provides a succinct and helpful discussion.) Notice how the divorce section is 30% of this commentary, the preacher needs to figure out how to deal with the topic.
A sermon dealing with even some of the material in Matthew 5:21-37, may leave hearers feeling shame, experiencing guilt. An idea would be to move the prayer of confession and the assurance of pardon to come after the sermon. Such a move would remind worshippers that while we may make a choice to follow God, we often fail to live up to our choice and are in need of forgiveness; a forgiveness that comes to us from the grace of God. Such a move could allow worship leaders to give new depth to the prayer of confession and the assurance of pardon.
Robert Frost’s famous line, “Two ways diverged in a wood, and I, I took the less one travelled by, And that has made all the difference” is a way to describe the choice in Deuteronomy.
The person who is out of step may be marching to the beat of a drum they alone can hear. — Anonymous
“In the last resort, the matter came down to a decision that had to be made….The making of a decision, however, involved more than simple affirmation; it involved a whole way of life based upon that decision.” Peter Craigie
“At the core of the commandment against killing is the divine displeasure with all human contempt for other human beings. The real meaning of this command is “Don’t nurse hate.” The root of killing is contempt.” Frederick Dale Bruner
“Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say. Our unadorned word should be enough, “yes” or “no”. And when a monosyllable will do, why waste our breath by adding to it?”
- The Decision [It’s your decision who you will life for] V. Michael McKay
- We lay our broken world Anna Briggs
- Before I take the body of my Lord Bell/Maule
- God! When human bonds are broken Fred Kaan
- God whose giving knows no ending Robert Edwards
- I have decided to follow Jesus
- To God be the glory
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers;
and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you,
give us the help of your grace,
that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, contemporary wording)