Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Almighty God, you search us and know us: may we rely on you in strength and rest on you in weakness, now and in all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
God our creator, you feed your children with the true manna, the living bread from heaven: let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage until we come to that place where hunger and thirst are no more; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes
and I shall keep it to the end.
34 Give me understanding and I shall keep your law;
I shall keep it with my whole heart.
35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for therein is my delight.
36 Incline my heart to your testimonies
and not to unjust gain.
37 Turn away my eyes lest they gaze on vanities;
O give me life in your ways.
38 Confirm to your servant your promise,
which stands for all who fear you.
39 Turn away the reproach which I dread,
because your judgements are good.
40 Behold, I long for your commandments;
in your righteousness give me life.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 13
The prophet utters these words, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but I do in that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”
The death of the wicked – that is something everyone understands, isn’t it? All those bullies, the enemies of the state, the sinners who flout the law – these are the people we say are deserving of punishment. I bet at some point we have wished them all ill, perhaps we even anticipated with glee their demise. But why? Why do we fall into such an expectation for those we don’t like? After all, God speaks to us saying that there is no pleasure in the death of the wicked – and if God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, why should we? According to Ezekiel, God wants even the wicked to live – if they change their ways, he hopes that the wicked may be judged good because of their righteous deeds they will do.
So much of the OT tells of the absolute power of God in the condemnation of the wicked, much of the time the punishment resulting in the demise of the wicked. The wicked have been defined by the ancient Law, the Torah, and even the prophets have been known to utter threats of destruction over the enemies of God and his agents. All through any legalist system, the ultimate punishment is held out over us all – death awaits us, if we transgress. Stoning and banishing are common penalties for many infractions in the OT. Even today we have the same bloodthirsty attitude toward so many of our contemporaries who contravene the accepted norms of behaviour. How often have we watched the crowds outside of the courts as they wait for sentence to be passed on a malefactor? How often has the crowd bayed for blood when some sort of mercy has been shown on a convicted felon?
However, that is not how we ought to behave, is it? Aren’t we asked to imitate Christ, the perfect man who loved even those who crucified him? All are exhorted to take no delight in the death of a sinner. Our God speaks to his people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The cross stands at the centre of history, dividing the Old from the New. With the Christ-Event, everything changes for us. In universal terms, the old ways of the lex talonis, where an eye was exacted as compensation for an eye, have been superceded. No longer does the legal framework of the law of death surround our lives. No, now there is an absolute freedom in the lex caritatis, the law by which we love God and one another. When Christ walked the world, the chaos was transformed into a cosmos. Life was imbued with value and meaning – love validates existence. Such a reality was anticipated in the OT, but it was incarnate in Jesus Christ.
In our lesson, Paul explicitly speaks of love of neighbour. He exhorts us to live in the new light, not the old darkness. The light is where we find Christ in the world, where there is the regard for others, where there is love. Paul’s whole message is about that transforming of existence from the flesh to the life of the spirit. In our lesson this morning we hear about the old ways and the new one. Paul wants us to live in that pure light, that light which blinded him on the road to Damascus, that life of the Spirit which is so very different to the old way of the flesh, where we descend into an anarchy of desires.
The words quoted by Matthew speak about how love works in difficult circumstances. When there are moments of hurt and pain, when people live in sin and affect others adversely, we are to go with friends to dissuade the sinner from that dreadful path. The gentle persuasion of love is the new path, not the harsh punishment of retribution and revenge. After all, don’t we all know that the big stick only falls on our own heads when we try to wield it?
The question for us is this – how do we fulfill the new law and act in the full wakefulness of a loving life? This is a question which we need to address every day. We should be able to do it on the big issues – turning around global warming and making black lives matter – but we need to do so in the everyday, the little things – improving another’s day by being pleasant or doing a good deed for its own sake. – There are so many things we can do, but do we do them? I know that I often do not. How often have I passed by that litter on the road? I should have picked it up to make the environment a little cleaner for everyone. I confess that I have failed in the little things, so what chance is there that I can get it right in the big things?
That is when the delegation from the great congregation arrives. They come to talk with us about what is right and good, but more importantly to support us in our weakest moments. Too often we don’t recognise when they come, as often they come quietly and insignificantly – the odd phone call, the passing conversation, the wave as they run by. You know, those moments that no one notices. That is the time of clarity and light, the everyday being with one another in our selves, when we do show what love means.
That is the problem for us. We have lived in the old ways too long, anticipating the destruction the law wreaks in our lives, that law of the crowd which delights in the consternation and even the destruction of another’s life. We need to change our ways, just as Paul says. We need to reconcile everyone individually one to another, an unending task. With six billion people on the planet, we really have to get a move on if global disaster is not to occur.
Perhaps this pandemic is our wake up call. Perhaps covid-19 is telling us “now [is] the moment for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” We might have glimpsed this message during lockdown, but now it is the time to live out the reality which we know to be true – that reality which came very clear when we were in isolation, when the chattering of the crowd was silenced and we could think for ourselves. Unfortunately the crowd is back now, demanding our attention. The anonymous crowd is determining just how I ought to live by taking all my choices away again, those choices that were presented to me when I was isolated and alone. I, like you, came to revel in the world in which what I loved was there around me, my family and friends, the simpler life when the delegation of love from the congregation arrived and I made my own choice to love God and my neighbour as I love myself.