If I had to sum up in one phrase the essential theme of the two readings this morning, it would simply be ‘choices and priorities’, so that’s the title and theme I have chosen for today. Choices and Priorities.
In our first reading, Moses is coming to the end of his long life, having led the Israelites for 40 years across the Sinai desert, they are now on the verge of entering Canaan, the land that God had promised them. God is not going to allow Moses to cross the Jordan into Canaan himself, but he will climb Mount Nebo, and from that vantage point he will see right across the plain, and laid out in front of him, stretching to the sea, is this fertile land that God has promised them – a land which the Old Testament poetically describes as ‘flowing with milk and honey’. It will bring material riches, but with that will come the temptations common to any materialistically rich society, then as now: – we think we are self-sufficient, that we have no need of God, and that the good times will last forever. There will also be the strong temptation to be seduced to worship false gods – in our case what we simply categorise as ‘Mammon’, and in the case of the Israelites, the local Canaanite gods whom they believed to be responsible for ensuring a good harvest and material prosperity.
And so Moses calls the people together before he dies, and issues a challenge and warning in the strongest possible terms. It is the choice, he says, between life and death, blessing and curse, prosperity and destruction. If they will love the Lord their God with all their heart, and worship and serve him alone, they will be blessed and prosper. But if, in their prosperity, they forget the Lord who brought them there and begin to rely on their own strength and fall into the false worship of the land they inhabit, they will reap the bitter fruit of that way of life, which will lead them to destruction. They are called to choose – to determine their priorities – there is a way that leads to life, and there is a way that leads to death.
We ourselves live in a country and culture which has largely forgotten God, and believes that what matters most is material well-being, and relies on its own strength and wisdom. Moses’ challenge and call to choose could have been spoken by any 21st century prophet – and we should take heed. A society that fails to put God first, and follow the two great commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves, is inevitably heading for disaster. The call to obey those two great commandments which we rehearse at the start of every Communion Service can seem like a formality. But it is, in fact, a ringing call to remember our calling – and to restate our choice and priority – to worship God alone and to walk daily in his commandments – to choose life and not death.
In our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus issues a similar challenge – he calls for our total focused allegiance and trust in him, whatever the cost.
We have at this point just to pause briefly to understand the use of the word ‘hate’ in verse 26.... The language is Greek but the thought is Hebrew (or its very close relative, Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke). It is a language which expresses itself in vivid contrasts and, for those of you who like grammar, a language which does not have a passive tense, so every contrast appears to us overstated and extreme. It is a way of making a point very strongly, without taking the verb in its full literal sense.
Jesus is calling for total allegiance to himself, and this will often bring conflict which can penetrate even into close family bonds. We would express the thought in English perhaps something like this. ‘If you hear my call and choose to follow me even to death, the result may be a rift even in close family relationships’. Some of us will have experienced that for ourselves, and currently many are experiencing it only too painfully in Muslim communities.
Now we need to put this saying of Jesus into context. Jesus is not in the least like the kindly guru with long hair, cuddling children and feeding birds, as he is sometimes portrayed. If you come to the church hall to watch the showing of the 1964 film by Pasolini ‘The Gospel according to St Matthew’ on Monday evening 28th October, you will see a very different Jesus from that Victorian-type parody.
Jesus came in the great tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who were called by God to pronounce God’s condemnation on Israel both in its social injustice and in its religious institutions. But if the people would hear the message and heed the call, then God would be merciful.
Jesus came with the good news of the advent of God’s Kingdom in himself, calling people to repent and believe the good news. But he came with a new covenant which would replace the old religious order, and therefore from day one of his ministry – and while we read how ordinary people heard him gladly – those who represented the status quo and the religious organisations both feared and loathed him and it wasn’t long before they began to plot his death.
Jesus was therefore inevitably a divisive figure – you either heard him gladly and followed him with complete loyalty, or you were totally opposed to him and wanted to silence and destroy him. And that division could strike at the heart even of friends and family. It was, of course, not Jesus’ intention that this should be so, but it was inevitable.
Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem where he knows full well that the powers that oppose him will triumph, and he will be the subject of a show trial and an arbitrary and cruel death sentence. The pressure is on, and the tension is rising with every day that passes. We have to try and imagine the experience of this last terrible journey on Jesus, resolutely making his way towards a horrific climax, and the urgency of his call to the crowds travelling with him. ‘Make up your minds!’ is his call. If you decide to believe in me and be my disciple, be aware of the cost – the cost to yourself, and possibly also to those around you. To believe in me and be my disciple is the way to life and true fulfilment. But sit down and count the cost, because it could cost you everything – even your life.
Even as I speak, Christians in Syria, Egypt and other parts of the world are dying terrible deaths for their faith in Christ. He has never promised an easy option. How great is the pressure to convert to Islam when you live as a Christian in Syria where fanatical Muslim rebels have come across from Iran; how great is the pressure to take the easy option and convert to Islam when you are part of the Coptic Christian Church in those parts of Egypt under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For us, how easy quietly to disguise our Christian identity when we want discretely to be absorbed into secular British life. How hard for those especially in public life, whether celebrities, captains of industry or armed forces, politicians or others in the public eye, to admit to a true Christian faith, when they know they will be quietly, if not publicly, mocked, and their words and actions closely observed so that any slip or action perceived to be out of line with the media’s warped view of Christianity, can be pounced on. There is no bar to being a full-hearted Christian in Britain today, but it can come with a cost, and – as Jesus predicted – lead to division within families as with work colleagues, friends or neighbours.
So, as I suggested at the start, it comes down to choices and priorities. Moses issued a clear and urgent challenge. So did Jesus. As Moses’ successor Joshua was to restate that challenge later: ‘Choose you this day whom you will serve...’ (Joshua 24: 15)
The commentator William Barclay writes of a man meeting a University professor. When he heard the professor’s name, the man said: “Oh, my friend Tom was one of your students” – to which the professor replied: “Tom attended my lectures, but he was never one of my students.”
There are many, many people who profess Christianity and attend Church, but they are not real disciples. The challenge “Choose you this day whom you will serve” is the call from Jesus to commit your life to him totally and whatever the cost. Count the cost, and then make the decision. If you say ‘Yes’ to that call and challenge, the result will be life, not death; a blessing not a curse; fulfilment not frustration; a new life, not a slightly mended old one. Jesus is no man’s debtor. He is the bringer of good news. He comes to set us free. Believe it – and say yes to his call.
Joshua ended his challenge “Choose you this day whom you will serve..” with a clear commitment of his own: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”.
In today’s world, this is not a game, it has consequences. How will you answer Jesus’ call to be his disciple – whatever the cost – not just in name, but in reality and in truth, in life and in death? Listen to his call, count the cost, and say Yes. Perhaps as you come up to communion or for a blessing this morning, you will just quietly and prayerfully say ‘yes’ to Jesus.
1. Both readings call us to stark choices and big commitments which set the disciple of Jesus apart from others. How do you view this? How far do you see your Christian faith as setting you apart from normal worldly values and ways of life, or as integral to the normal British way of life? Do you think the relationship between the two has changed over the course of your lifetime?
2. We have become a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. Do you have experience (directly or indirectly) of Christian faith causing division within a family or community? Do you see any possible solution?
3. How can we best respond to the suffering of Christians and others in the Middle East in the face of the situation in Syria, Egypt and parts of Africa such as Nigeria?