12 February 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Third Sunday before Lent
Canon Simon Cowling
Deuteronomy 30. 15-end; Matthew 5. 21-37
Some plague the people with sermons that are too long; for the faculty of listening is a tender thing, and soon becomes weary and satiated.
Well that is what Martin Luther had to say about preachers who outstay their welcome in the pulpit; so I am not sure what he would have had to say about Moses’s final sermon before his death. The people of Israel are gathered on the banks of the river Jordan, poised to enter into the Promised Land. At the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, we are told, ‘Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan (and) undertook to expound this law as follows’. Thirty chapters later the people of Israel are still poised to enter the Promised Land and Moses is still speaking, still expounding the law – a sermon that would have taken between two and a half and three hours to deliver. To all intents and purposes, however, the verses we have heard this morning are really a summary of the previous twenty-nine chapters, what one writer has called a ‘rousing rhetorical climax’. Moses has set out at length the requirements of the law of God to the people of Israel. Now it is decision time for them: to choose the law of God means to choose life and length of days in the land that God had promised to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to turn away from this law means the opposite. Blessing or curse, life or death. That is the choice. Faced with such a choice, who would not choose blessing and life? Led by Moses’s successor, Joshua, the people of Israel will soon cross the Jordan, choosing to trust the promises of God.
As scripture records, this choice of blessing and life did not mean that all was subsequently milk and honey for God’s people. The succeeding story of the people of Israel was not straightforward. Periods of fierce faithfulness to monotheism, to the worship of the one true God, were punctuated by flirtations with idolatry, with the worship of other gods; trust in the providence and covenant faithfulness of God was undermined by the ravages of invaders – Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans among them; commitment to God’s justice was compromised by an increasing imbalance between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the so-called clean and the so-called unclean. Yet throughout the whole of this story scripture records how God’s people are called back, again and again, into God’s covenant of grace: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, says the prophet Hosea; Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord, says the writer of Lamentations; Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate says the prophet Joel. Return, return, return. Come back to where you belong; come home; return to the ‘devotion of your youth’ as God says through the prophet Jeremiah.
This persistent theme in the Old Testament is both a cause of, and consequence of, an ever-present yearning for the return to and restoration of a relationship with God that lies deep within Jewish spirituality. And it is a theme that Christianity inherited and reshaped. In and through Jesus, the image of the invisible God and the very embodiment of God’s creative word, all human beings are invited to recover what we have lost because of the rupture of our relationship with God; because of our idolatrous belief in human self-sufficiency. We are invited to be reunited with the source of light and life.
Hidden within much church music in the Middle Ages was a single chant around which composers wove elaborate polyphonic lines of music. This single chant was called a cantus firmus – literally ‘a fixed song’. We might think of the long section from the Sermon on the Mount that we have heard in today’s Gospel reading as a section of medieval polyphony. Jesus gives a radical and challenging reinterpretation of aspects of Jewish Law. He deals with anger, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths – all with an elaborate interplay of expectations past and present: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times: but I say to you….. These are the polyphonic lines of music. But the cantus firmus, the fixed song, that lies at the heart of today’s Gospel reading, at the heart of the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, at the heart of all Jesus’s teaching, is God’s invitation to us, God’s longing for us, to return to him, to return to the ‘love we had at first’ as the writer of Revelation puts it. The details of Jesus’s new teaching on anger, adultery, divorce and oaths give us a glimpse of God’s coming kingdom of heaven, an indication of the high dignity of our calling as those who are loved by God. The underlying cantus firmus, on the other hand, the fixed song of God’s invitation to us to return to him and to participate as citizens of that coming kingdom, is what gives us a continuing confidence that we can live up to our high calling; that we can resist the idolatries of our present age, trust in God’s continuing faithfulness, and strive for a justice that reflects God’s kingdom. If our resistance is at times weak, our trust at times brittle, and our striving at times half-hearted, we need only to listen out for the divine cantus firmus, God’s eternal and unchanging song of invitation that flows through the eternity of his creation and calls us home.