A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
June 30, 2023 at Holy Communion
Deuteronomy 30:11–20, Romans 8:12–17, Matthew 7:15–21
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 30:19). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
I will always be grateful to my mother for teaching me to be picky about movies. I remember seeing my mom watch trailers and look up reviews before we rented a movie. She was discerning whether a movie was telling a story worth thinking about, or whether it was simply playing to our worst instincts: the exhilaration that comes from participating in violence, the titillation of sexual enticement, curiosity into the morbid and the obscene. They weren’t exactly “forbidden”—she wasn’t a legalist—but my mother taught me that movies in the second category were just not worth watching. They leave us feeling ill-at-ease, and they leave us with disturbing images which are difficult to forget. They form our habits of imagination and desire for things which are no good for us.
Our collect, the prayer for the day, says, “O God, whose never-failing providence orders all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” In this mixed-up world, created by God to be a blessing but distorted by human error, some things are profitable for us, and some things are hurtful; we need to discern which are which.
The difference between profitable and hurtful things is where they lead. Profitable things lead to life and flourishing, but hurtful things lead to death. The Christian faith is a pilgrimage out the land of death in which we live, a death we bring upon ourselves by eating ashes instead of true bread and drinking poison instead of spiritual wine. Our destination is Sion, the kingdom of light and life, as we heard in our introit psalm, “beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 48:1). To get there we need to learn, by God’s grace, to “refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:15).
This is the choice which the Prophet Moses sets before us, and very plainly: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil … blessing and curse” (v 15, 19). The way of life is to love the Lord God, and to live in his way by keep the commandments, and its reward is to receive the promised inheritance, enjoying quiet peace and flourishing in the kingdom of the Lord and in the fellowship of the faithful (v 16). The way of death is hardness of heart and idolatry, and its consequence is exile, a return to godless wandering through the world which ends in death (v 17–18). The application is obvious: “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days” (v 19–20).
In St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he says it this way: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). We choose the way of life because we have received the Spirit of God, who teaches us that we are children of God, and who frees us from the slavery of living for the things of this world (v 14–16). And if we live in the Spirit as children of God, then we also will, like the Israelites our ancestors, will receive the promised inheritance: a kingdom of glory over which Jesus our brother and co-inheritor reigns as God and Lord (v 17).
And in our Gospel we have this same teaching as a warning. “Not everyone who says to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of the Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). There are those who seem to be sheep of Christ’s flock but are in fact ravenous wolves who devour them, leading them astray for their own ends (v 15). We need to be aware of this both to make decisions about whom to trust, but also to avoid this hypocrisy in ourselves. How can we tell the good from the bad? By their deeds, by the fruit that grows on their tree (v 16–18). The way of life is the one which bears fruit in deeds of holiness and love, but the way of death bears bad fruit. These branches will, in the end, be pruned from the vine and burned (v 19).
The meaning of all this for us is to bear good fruit, to live in the Spirit, to love the Lord God and keeping the commandments. In short, “Be good!” But of course we know that we should be good. So what do our readings give us today which we did not already know? They invite us to consider right and wrong choices not as abstract obligations descending from heaven, letting us know what God likes and dislikes, but as ways of life which have consequences. It is for our own sake that we should choose the good and reject the evil, because we want life rather than death.
This is the spirit behind one of my favourite passages in the psalms, which we read just last week: “Who among you loves life and desires long life to enjoy prosperity? Keep your tongue from evil-speaking and your lips from lying words. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:12–14). Life and flourishing, the whole of blessedness, consists in an having a simple and honest heart which seeks peace and forsakes evil. We forsake evil things not because God dislikes them, but because they kill us.
The key to making the choice for the blessing over the curse is to hear, consider, and believe what God tells us. He doesn’t leave it up to chance: he teaches in his word what leads to life and what leads to death. It is on us to believe and obey. It involves our reason, by which we understand what the consequences of our actions are, and our will, by which we follow through on what we understand to be right. And we must understand how different this is from the way most people act most of the time. We act on impulse, immediate feeling, instead of on careful, reasonable reflection and consistent follow-through.
If obedience is up to us, there is also divine help. We pray: we pray that God would put away hurtful things from us, and give us good things. But, more than that, God “spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us” (Psalm 23:5). He invites us into blessedness. He has prepared a seat for us at the banquet of the kingdom, where he will set before us rich food, even the very flesh of the Lamb of God slain before the world was made. Choosing blessing, goodness, and life starts by choosing the good things offered here, at this altar.