The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
“Life and Death”
February 12, 2017
Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Peace to you from God our Father from His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
I once had a boss who had an interesting view on St. Valentine’s Day. The rest of us were talking about what we were doing for our wives and girlfriends on Valentine’s Day, and he, quite seriously, said that since he was already married to his wife, he didn’t need to do anything and didn’t intend to do anything for her on Valentine’s Day. For him, cards and gifts and flowers and dates were not about expressing his love for someone or seeking to make her happy. They were simply good works meant to earn her hand in marriage and, now that that had been accomplished, they were now completely unnecessary.
There’s probably no one here who can’t spot the error in his thinking, and even if we ever did think that way and blew off Valentine’s Day once, the repercussions would have been so severe that we would never make that mistake again. Those of us guys who are fortunate enough to be married to wonderful women that we love know that the whole point is this: if she was wonderful enough to marry, then she is worth loving today and she is worth spending time with and getting to know better and better. Making her happy and expressing our love for her sure ought to be very high on our list of priorities. As a matter of fact, calling it a priority is almost an insult. It ought to be our joy to do those things.
If we understand that, then we should also very easily understand why it is wrong thinking and horrible theology to say that, since we are forgiven and saved by the grace of Christ alone, and we need to do nothing for ourselves to earn God’s love, then we are free to hold on to our ticket to heaven and do whatever we want with our lives, and we can sin freely so that grace may abound. Just because Christ freely saves us entirely by His work does not mean that we do not have to cooperate with His grace in our lives. Ooh, I went ahead and did it, I used that word that can get you called a heretic by Lutherans – I used the word “cooperate.” It is true that we in no way cooperate in our salvation. That is entirely the work of Christ. It was accomplished in His death upon the cross and His resurrection from the dead on the third day 2000 years before any of us were born. It was delivered to us freely in the waters of Baptism, which for many of us came on a day when we were just little babies drooling on ourselves or even sleeping our way through our Baptism. Our salvation is entirely His doing. But He calls us as His children to cooperate with Him now that we are His redeemed people. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, the real question for Christians is, what are we going to do, now that we don’t have to do anything?
Husbands, you are going to be married when you go to bed on Tuesday night whether you do anything for your wives for Valentine’s Day or not. And Christians, you are going to still be Christians when you go to bed tonight whether you seek with all your heart to serve your Lord today or if you blow Him off all day. But what is the appropriate order of things? How should things be? Where there is love and relationship, there must also be devotion. And just as a husband who repeatedly blows off opportunities like Valentine’s Day will soon find himself in a cold and meaningless marriage and may very well one day reap what he has sown and find himself without a marriage at all, a child of God who repeatedly blows off opportunities to cooperate with the Lord and live within His will and express his love and devotion to God will soon find himself in a cold and meaningless faith and may very well one day reap what he has sown and find himself without a faith at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a very pointed and direct question for Christians who complained to him that they felt like they had lost their faith. He would ask them, “In what area of your life are you being disobedient?”
Hebrews 6 gives us these sobering words:
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.”
Our Old Testament lesson today is taken from the final sermon that Moses gave before he died. It is important to remember that he was speaking to a redeemed people, a people doubly redeemed, if you can call it that. The Lord had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with mighty signs and wonders such as the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea and provision of bread and meat and water in the wilderness. He had given them His precious and beautiful law, He put up with all their griping and whining, and He did not forsake them when they faithlessly refused to enter the Promised Land. He instead told them that, though they themselves would not go in, their children would be heirs of the promise and they would enter into the Land some 40 years later.
It is to these children of the promise, a people freely redeemed by the Lord simply because He freely chose to cast His eyes in their direction and love them with an everlasting love, it is to these people that Moses is preaching his final, great farewell sermon in our text. They are on the doorstep of the Land of Israel, the Land freely promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they are about to enter and inherit the promise in all its fullness. They need to earn nothing. They already have the free love and unconditional covenant of the Lord. It is to these people that Moses puts the question, “What are you going to do, now that you don’t have to do anything at all?”
I set before you two paths, one is life and prosperity, the other is death and destruction. I command you to love the Lord your God, to be obedient to Him, to keep His commands; then you will live and increase. But if your heart turns away, if you serve other gods, you will be destroyed.
It is important to note that there are two choices, and also to note that there are only two choices. What Scripture doesn’t say is often just as important as what Scripture does say. There is no third path given; no option for fence-sitting; no choice about letting others argue about the choice while I go my own way and do my own thing. And there is no diversifying your portfolio and betting 70 percent on one choice and 30 percent on the other. There is either life, or there is death; there is no in-between. Nor is there an option for postponing the choice. There is no, let me live my life when I am young and I’ll worry about God later on when I am old; no appointing of committees to examine the issue for two years; no choice about waiting for some kind of consensus of opinion and then following the crowd. I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. You have been redeemed, you have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, you have everything that you need to make the choice right now, today, and to live out that choice.
Life and death. Those are the two choices set before the people of God. This is worth talking about on St. Valentine’s Day, because the fullest, most mature way that the Scriptures speak of the relationship between the Lord and His people is as the marriage relationship between Christ our Bridegroom and us, His Church, His holy and beloved bride. In fact, every Christian marriage is a picture of and a testament to that one, eternal, most sacred marriage. That’s why, although their definition of a sacrament is different from ours, there is a small element of truth in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology of Christian marriage as a sacrament of the church. We are married to Christ. And just as my boss from years ago was thinking about it all wrong when he decided that he needed to do nothing for his poor wife on Valentine’s Day, we the bride of Christ are getting things horribly backwards if we cry out, “Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of the work of Christ alone, and now I’m in and I can do whatever I want.” If you really are justified, then deep down what you want is the same thing that Christ wants. He is yours and you are His, and you love Him and spend time with Him and devote yourself to finding out what He wants and then doing it with all your might. And He has not left us in the dark about what He wants. He gave us this, the Bible. But how many of us pick this up and read it?
You can choose life, life in the sense that the Gospel according to St. John describes it, life that comes from God through Christ, life that comes from staying as close as possible to Christ the ultimate source of all life. Or you can choose death, death that comes from being separated from the source of life, death that comes from wandering away from Christ and doing your own thing. Choose today life or death. Now that Christ has done all the work, now that you don’t have to do anything, what are you going to do? The only appropriate response is the response of Moses’ successor Joshua, who was given the same call a short time after our text and cried out, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Now, as St. Paul reminds us in his great indictment in Romans 7, deep down we want to respond like Joshua, but we are still simultaneously saints and sinners who struggle with the choice between life and death every day. That’s why the catechism reminds us that we need to repent daily and drown the old Adam as we recall our baptism and renew that relationship every day. It is common for Christians to have days when we are cold to the Lord and distracted by the things of this world. It is not at all uncommon for Christians to have months or years or even decades like that, times when we choose the ways of death, the ways of self-centeredness and our will and the ways of dividing ourselves away from the source of all life. That’s why the call goes out daily. The point is not to feel bad for your wanderings. The point is to hear the call today and choose life for yourself today.
And the Holy Spirit is faithful to continue to extend that call out to us daily because of what Christ has done for us and won for us. Given the choice, He made the choice to choose death upon the cross: physical death, and also the spiritual death of separation from the love of the Father, a physical and spiritual death that we have so richly earned but which now have no hold on us because Christ, the source of all life itself, willingly took them upon Himself and swallowed them up. That’s why His resurrection from the dead on the third day is so important. That’s why we worship each Sunday as a celebration of Easter. Death had every right to claim us as its own, but Christ’s victory over the grave destroyed death forever, so that He could offer us life, life to its fullest, life at its richest, eternal life with God that will never, ever end.
It is life that is offered to you as Christ absolves you of all of your sin. It is life given in water and the word that you can lay claim to each and every day as you remember and rejoice in your Baptism. It is life offered to you from the holy table, the life-giving feast of the body and blood of Christ broken and shed for you. Here you find forgiveness. Here you are given life. And here you are given the faith and the strength that you need to choose the ways of life for yourself as you live out there in that big, bad, confusing world.
It is worth noting within this context and during this week who St. Valentine was. Many of the details of his life are debated, but this is what we know: St. Valentine was a priest in Rome in the late third century, when the church was under great persecution during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius the Second. Valentine was arrested, beaten, imprisoned and finally beheaded on February 14 in the year 270 because he would neither deny nor walk away from his faith. There are at least two reasons why St. Valentine came to be associated with love. The first is that it is believed that the chief reason he was arrested was that he continued to perform Christian marriages in secret even when they had been banned by the empire because they wanted to promote Roman, pagan marriage. The second reason is that he penned notes of Christian love to fellow believers from his prison cell and signed them, “From your Valentine.” Under persecution and the threat of martyrdom, Valentine continued to preach Christ and love and he chose the path of life.
Remember that this week as you do whatever it is that you do on St. Valentine’s Day. Remember to stay close to the Lord and to seek His will and do it and to choose the path of life daily. And remember especially the gift of eternal life that Christ has given us that so strengthened and inspired St. Valentine and that so richly blesses each of us. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
“Life and Death”
2/12/17 Rev. Richard Bellas
St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL