Rewards for Obedience

June 25, 2017

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Preached by Canon Mark Collison using Deuteronomy 11.1-15 at Evensong on Sunday 25th June 2017, the Second after Trinity.

On the occassions I’ve been in London recently I’ve seen the impact of the recent terror attacks is evident on the bridges across the Thames. Concrete blocks and steel crash barriers prevent cars mounting the pavement and mowing down pedestrians. We question the world views of people for whom every vehicle potentially becomes a weapon of mass destruction, terror and murder. When last weekend we remember the anniversary of MP Jo Cox, who was shot and killed in cold blood for supporting the Remain campaign in the referendum, the words of her maiden speech continue to echo through our society: ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’

Our country is crying out for a vision that unites us, that heals the divisions between rich and poor, between nationals and immigrants, between those of faith and those with secular beliefs. What vision of life is going to captivate us?

Curiously, our lectionary readings give us three alternative visions of living a godly life – but they are three deeply contrasting visions.

The first vision of life, from Deuteronomy, is a wealth and prosperity vision for living. If you love God, and obey his commandments, God will bless you with material riches.

‘Keep this entire commandment I am commanding you today, that you may have strength and live long in the land… If you will only heed his every commandment[b] that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then he[c] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he[d]will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.’

Is that your philosophy on life? If you keep your nose clean, do the right thing, pay your respects to God and be decent to other people, then God will bless you?  It’s an attractive, if rather naïve, way of living.

The problem is that it makes no allowances for things going wrong: where is God if you loose your job, or a major illness comes along? Also, who decides what’s ‘Good’ and ‘Right’? We can all too easily deceive ourselves, justifying our own behaviour making ourselves both judge and jury, thereby replacing God’s righteousness with our own ego.

The second vision for life is rather more despondent. Psalm 49 gives us a perhaps more realistic view of life more in line with the book of Ecclesiastes and Job: which can be summarised by asking, ‘What’s the point?’

Why is it, the psalmist laments, that the evil prosper just as much as the righteous? This is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen in the book of Deuteronomy. The wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, die together – you can’t escape the inevitability of death. Even the rich can’t buy their way out of death, and after they die, they can’t take their wealth with them. The Psalmist says,

‘no ransom avails for one’s life,[a]
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.’

I wonder if this is how you feel on a bad day? The Psalmist expresses the kind of hopelessness that we all feel at some point in our lives, and perhaps for some us living with depression, the whole of life is lived under a cloud when we only sometimes see glimpses of light shining through. For those of us who live life in such a struggle, the only hope we have is in the afterlife. So the psalmist trusts that God will rescue his soul from the power of Sheol. If this life doesn’t hold out much hope, then maybe the next will be better.

Our final vision for life comes from this curious chapter towards the end of the Acts of the Apostles. The apostle Paul is in the midst of a juridical hearing. He has been accused of serious charges of disturbing the peace, deserving death because of his belief that Jesus rose from the dead and through his resurrection fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures. He has appealed for his case to be heard in Rome by the Emperor Nero and is travelling there under armed guard.

Paul is not experiencing the blessings of righteous life. He would claim he has obeyed the law, in every respect, zealous of keeping the commandments, but he is hardly living the life of luxiourious blessing. The Deuteronomic vision for life doesn’t seem to working out too well for him.

But neither is Paul living under a cloud of despondency. Despite the wind and the weather and the armed guard, Paul is portrayed as being filled with purpose and destiny. He has his friends with him for support, his Greek friend Aristarchus, and the doctor and author of the book of Acts, Luke. The Roman centurion, Julius, under whose responsibility Paul sits, obviously respects Paul, and gives him considerable freedom to meet with friends and to discuss their travel plans. Paul is concerned for the wellbeing of the ship and its passengers. He receives a word of knowledge of God, that warns that continuing their journey so late in the autumn will result in a heavy loss. But the ship’s pilot, the owner and Julius the centurion, think they can beat the winds.

Paul, it appears, is on a mission. His life has been utterly transformed by his encounters with the risen Jesus Christ. His Jewish faith has been both affirmed but also turned upside down, as he realises that Jesus is the fulfilment of the law, and the conquerer of death. The first vision of Deuteronomy is transformed by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Blessing does come through obedience to the law, but it is through Christ’s obedience to the law, and not ours.

The second vision of Psalm 49 is transformed by the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. The ransom that avails for one’s life, the only price that can be given to God for one’s life, is Jesus’s life. And so the inevitability of death is transformed, so that not only do we have an afterlife to look forward to that will be better than what we have now, we also have our destiny to fulfil on this side of the grave. Life is not some never never land of glorious blessing, flowing with milk and honey, but it is frought with shipwreck, dangerous seas and injustice. But in the midst of such trials and tribulations, God has a purpose and plan for you.

Paul’s achievement in reaching Rome, and building up the combined Jewish and Gentile church there, is creating a new humanity. He shows how the forgiveness Christ demonstrated on the cross creates a new world order that dissolves the frictions that divide families, communities, faiths and nations. This is why he was sent to Rome: this was his mission.  Given that the centurion, Julius, is mentioned by name, it’s possible he could have well converted to the Christian faith, and was personally known to the first readers of Acts. It’s a small demonstration that Paul was onto something which changed world history.

Jo Cox was part of this same mission. Her call to overcome that which can divide, is a prophetic call, and one that can only be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As we Christ’s people demonstrate the unity that overcomes division we share that unity and inspire others to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ means that forgiveness is possible, humanity is reconciled and more in common becomes life worth living for. A