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Epiphany 6, Yr A, 13.02.11
Deut 30.15-20: choose life
Ps 119.1-8: acrostic (aleph)- longest psalm; read Christ for Law

1 Cor 3.1-9: God gave the increase 
Mt 5.21-37: Let your yes be yes (Torah requires an oath) (1456)

The Fourth Sunday before Lent
Lord of the hosts of heaven, our salvation and our strength, without you we are lost:
guard us from all that harms or hurts and raise us when we fall; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

          Let us look at today’s readings to see what relevance they may have for us in our journey with Christ.  

          Our reading from Deuteronomy sets out two paths: a way of life and blessings and a way of death and curses, with the invitation to choose life – what we might call a combination of the carrot and the stick.  This demand to make a clear choice was highly appropriate in a period when  Israel ’s prophetic leaders were still striving to bring the people to an uncompromising worship and service of Yahweh.  Perhaps with the many enticing alternatives on offer today for our attention and allegiance such a clear note might not go amiss.  I think we can detect a similar view in our Collect, the prayer for today when it speaks of guarding us from all that harms or hurts us.

          Now let’s look at today’s psalm.  Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the book, and it is an acrostic with 22 sections, each one based on one letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In each section every line in the Hebrew is headed by the same letter of the alphabet, aleph, beth, gimel. daleth, and so on.  This morning we have had the first section, so all the lines begin with the letter aleph.  The entire psalm is a meditation on what we call the Law, which is an unfortunate term for what the Jews call the Torah, that is, the five books of Moses.  The term Torah was translated by the Greek term nomos and then later by the Latin word lex, both of which mean ‘law’.  What is unfortunate about the term ‘law’ is that for us it tends to have negative overtones of  being restrictive and limiting, whereas the Hebrew term Torah means rather the way in which to go, guidance.

          Now, we have a guide, Jesus, who embodies God’s love; so, as disciples of Jesus I would suggest that when we use such psalms as 119 we take all the precepts and commandments as being concerned with the love that is the very being of Jesus and of his Father.  This way, instead of tending to feel legalistic and rule-bound, this psalm can be a means of leading us into a deeper sense of God’s love as embodied in Jesus.

          With regard to our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians it is worth reminding ourselves that the church at Corinth was being upset by factions, with some claiming to have special relationships with, for example, Paul or Apollos, and others claiming to have special knowledge.  So Paul is arguing for unity, for equality of members, and that they all have the knowledge that really matters.  Paul builds up to spelling out this central knowledge at the very middle of the letter in chapter 8 when he says ‘There is one God, the Father. From whom are all things and we unto him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him, but this knowledge is not in everyone’ (8.6).  God our Father is our source and goal, and Jesus is his agent and we come to the Father through him.  This, in short, is the basis of our life in Christ.

          Our gospel reading is one of our series from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus calls us to go beyond all rule-keeping by entering into deeper dependence upon God and his love.          Matthew has very carefully given the Sermon a Pentecost setting, the feast that had come to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai .  This is why Matthew makes his setting match the story of God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai .  Jesus sees the crowds, and leaving them down below, he goes up on a mountain.  He then assumes the standard teaching position, that is, he sits, and the disciples, like Moses, come up to him to receive his teaching.

          Matthew has begun his gospel with the words from Genesis chapter 5, ‘The Book of the generations of Adam’.  Instead Matthew has ‘The Book of the generations of Jesus’, that is, he is the true Adam, the God-intended human being, who is then called the Christ, the Son of David, and the Son of Abraham. Later Matthew has Jesus echo the prophet Micah when he says that the deep things of the law are justice, mercy and faith.

          So, beginning with the Beatitudes, Matthew then structures Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon in terms of the faith of Abraham, followed by the wise mercy and righteousness traditionally ascribed to David, and finally what we may call the reconciling power of the Christ that brings true justice. 

          Today’s section starts with Christ-like reconciliation and then moves on to the merciful righteousness of David. It is in this second part that we have heard Jesus talking about what we may call ‘voidable oaths’, that is, oaths which some rabbis said could be set aside.  For example, a rich man might in the heat of the moment declare his wealth to be corban, meaning ‘devoted’, which would mean that at his death it would pass to the temple.  Later he might regret having done so, and that is why the rabbis discussed how serious must an oath be before it could not be set aside.  In each case Jesus relates the basis of each oath, whether it be heaven or earth or the temple, directly to God, so, he says, in effect, that whatever one might swear by belongs to God, and therefore cannot be voided.  Then he undercuts the whole argument by saying there should be no oaths, but only a simple yes or no.   And this, incidentally, sets aside a clear passage of the Torah which requires an oath.   All through the sermon Jesus is calling for our total dependence upon God’s love as the only way that the call of the Sermon can be fulfilled in us.

          The back of last Sunday’s pew sheet said that today is the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, but today’s sheet says it is the Fourth Sunday before Lent.  When Common Worship was first devised, this was indeed to be the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.  But since then an alternative set of Collects has been written.  We have been using these collects for several years, and when they wrote these the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany disappeared and the Fourth Sunday before Lent took its place.

          So, like it or not, we are being warned that Lent is approaching.  And Lent is a time when we traditionally tighten up our discipline.  Discipline can be either liberating or stultifying.  Much of our discipline is habitual.  And these habits often form part of our sense of identity. 

          A striking example in the United States that I know of is how many religiously unobservant Jews have affirmed their Jewishness by taking up observance of the dietary laws, including the need to have two sets of dishes and two refrigerators for keeping all meat and dairy products apart from each other.

          Sometimes our habitual way of doing things can be at cross purposes with the way that others do things.  I once began to teach our grandson James how to tie the laces on his shoes, doing it my habitual way, placing the right lace over the left one when starting.  But I had to stop when I found that our son Tom was teaching him the opposite way to make a bow by crossing the left lace over the right one.  

          Sometimes we may have annoying little habits.  When I was a young lad I had a friend named Fred Herza.   Fred had the habit of twisting his forelock like this.  Finally, his mother was so fed up with this that one summer she had his head shaved in the hopes of breaking his habit.

          But more seriously, our habits may prevent us from looking anew and more radically at how we live, even how we live out the gospel.   

          Today just for variety, I have donned the full eucharistic vestments, and it is worth noting that basically the chasuble and the stole are simply carry-overs from the street dress of what we may call the middle class in the Roman Empire , so that we might say that old habits die hard.

          Therefore, as we approach Lent, I would suggest that we all take time to look at ourselves and our habits to see if there are any areas that we might change in order to deepen our response to the radical call of Deuteronomy, the devotion of the psalm, Paul’s call to unity in Christ, and our Lord’s invitation in the Sermon on the Mount.