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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon

5th September 2004

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity XIII

'See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.'
Deut. 30.15

In old Westerns there often came a moment when the wagon train reached its destination having passed through all the many trials of the journey; Indians, disease, infighting, despair. There was a view through the mountains of the promised land leading to a pause for reflection as to what kind of future the people would make. It is no coincidence that the story of the American West is told with Biblical echoes. The pioneers drew particularly on the story of Moses and the Exodus and the journey to the Promised Land.
So when we read today's story from Deuteronomy it is not surprising that a mishmash of pictures come into our minds from half forgotten films.

Today's passage presents the threshold moment when the people of Israel could see over the River Jordan to the Promised Land. For Moses it was a time to hand over to Joshua as his life drew to its close. For the rest it was a time to consider the words of God given through Moses. Essentially they were presented with a choice between being blessed or cursed, between accepting God's will and rejecting it, between obeying his laws or disobeying, between worshipping the living God or bowing down to false God's. The choice would determine the future. Get it right by choosing the Lord God and all would go well, get it wrong and all would end in disaster.

For a people who believed that God willed everything and that bad things came as a punishment for wrongdoing things would have seen relatively clear-cut. For us with a New Testament understanding interpreted in the light of modern experience and reason things seem more problematic. After all we can choose the things of God but we know that things can still go wrong. The cross stands as a symbol of this paradox. Jesus obeyed the will of God and was crucified. For us the question is how do we know the will of God and how do we discern it in our lives?

The idea of a choice constantly set before us between life and death dating from all those centuries ago is still helpful. We know that human beings constantly choose death as we have been reminded again this week by the terrible events in Russia. We know that at an existential level there is much in our live in our own lives that is deadening and life denying. We can feel cursed rather than blessed, so how can we choose life.

Some Christians always talk about God's will in all the minutiae of their lives and see everything in terms of God's will. I remember being at a prayer meeting when some asked God to make the trains run on time at Euston so that people could make the event that followed. That seems rather silly. I'm not sure that even the Almighty can sort out our railways. As human beings we have been given free will. We have to sort out the details and the generalities of our lives for our selves. Otherwise we would be little more than figures on a celestial train set. But having said that I do believe God has a will for us and that our task as Christians is to discern it. How do we do this?

It is the work of prayer informed by the Christian tradition especially as it is found in the NT. In a prayer we will seek to be Christ like. To conform to his will is not easy as we can see from his stark call to discipleship in today's gospel with its call to renounce family ties, give up possessions, consider the cost and take up the cross. It requires the use of reason. We need to prayerfully think things through considering the consequences of a particular choice of action. It requires faith and trust. We have to move forward not knowing. But if we get it wrong our faith tells us there is always the possibility of forgiveness and a fresh start.

I'd like to end with a picture of the will of God that I find helpful. It is one of a series of open doorways in our lives that God invites us to walk through. We can refuse. If we do so constantly we will not receive the good things he wants to give us. But new doorways will always be there. If we find the courage and the faith to move forward then we too will be blessed.

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
loving the LORD your God,
obeying him, and holding fast to him;
for that means life to you and length of days,
so that you may live in the land
that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.


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Last updated 05/09/04 09:00 Author: David Shepherd