Doing what God wants

As they do in many churches we base our services each Sunday on the readings set down in the Lectionary.  By doing this we get to think about the major themes of our faith systematically over about three years.  Each Sunday the lectionary gives us a collect or prayer and readings from the old and new testaments and psalms to base our thoughts on. Together the readings are on a theme or a subject for each Sunday.

This week the general theme of the readings is about the need to do what God wants, to follow his commandments.

The Old Testament reading is from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and it records the words of Moses to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the promised land.  After 40 years of leading the people wandering around the desert they were about to enter the land promised to them - the land flowing with milk and honey. But they were to do this without Moses who was about to die.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 

Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. 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.”

That’s not hard to understand.  Moses is saying to the people that there’s two options and here are the options. 

Option 1 is to obey God’s commandments.  That means loving the Lord who is your God. Doing things his way.  Doing what you are told. The consequence of following this option is fruitfulness, long life and the blessing of God on you and on the land God is giving you.

Option 2 is to turn away from God. Find other things more important or attractive to you than serving God. That means making something else your god rather than the one, true God.  And there is a consequence of taking this option. If they take this option God told them, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”

The people were left in no doubt that God meant what he said because he called on heaven and earth to be witnesses to the options he was setting before them. With heaven and earth as his witnesses God committed himself to the people, urging them to commit themselves to God. At the same time God was committing himself to blessing them or of letting them perish, which are the consequences of their choices. And so were the people also committed to their choices and their options!

Read on in the Bible and you will find that time and again so many of the people were led astray and so many of them suffered the consequences.

So what’s changed?  Here we are in our own form of promised land and the options God sets are the same as they ever were.

Option 1 is for us to obey God’s commandments; to love the Lord our God. That comes with the consequence of God’s blessing on us.

Option 2 is to find things more important to us than God is. That comes with the consequence of loss, of wandering and going astray.

I think a lot of people are unhappy with Options 1 and 2 and go looking for Options 3 and 5 or would like to negotiate an Option 7.5 or even a Plan B.  Sorry, but it’s Option 1 or Option 2.

Moses knew what was best for the people so he urged them, “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.” Of course, that’s what we are urged to do, too.

The reading from the psalms picks up on this.

Psalm 119:1-8

Happy are they whose way is blameless,  who walk in the law of the Lord!

Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!

Who never do any wrong, but always walk in his ways.

You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them.

Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes!

Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments.

I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, when I have learned your righteous judgments.

I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.

Here the psalmist acknowledges something experience has taught him. Do what God wants and find peace and happiness, especially if you do so with all your heart.

God hasn’t set before us his teaching for us to be casual about following it.  Seek God with all your heart. How about a bit of enthusiasm here!! No holding back. No half-heartedness but rather warm blooded keeping of God’s instructions! Seriously, consistently paying attention to the Bible’s teaching. Living lives which can be called blameless. Being people who will not be put to shame either before people or before God.

When God checks up on me we will I be put to shame?

When God checks up on you we will you be put to shame?

Generations later the Apostle Paul put a lot of time, prayer and effort into the Christian congregation in Corinth, as did another preacher called Apollos.

But when we read the letters Paul wrote to them we find that they, too failed to follow the teaching God had called on them to follow. He wrote to them to say,

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?

How disappointing! How shameful! How lazy! How wasteful! How typical!

They had the privilege of the great Apostle Paul visit them, spend extensive time with them but clearly they had not shown full-blooded attention to what they had learned even when Paul was there on the spot.

He had to talk to them in the simplest of terms, as if they were children who lived off milk but were unable to eat solid food. And when he wrote to them some time later they had not changed! You can almost hear Paul saying, oh please grow up!

I can imagine how it was.  For a start, Paul often preached for too long.  And he was so thrilled with all the wonderful things he had learned but they had other things on their minds. Their thinking was on things that appealed to them much more than Paul’s deep and often complicated teaching.

Their minds were too involved with scandals and party politics to want to understand what he wanted to teach them. They were mindlessly following Option 2, not Option 1. 

As Paul described it they were living according to human inclinations, not as spiritual people “whose way is blameless,  who walk in the law of the Lord!” As described in the psalm.

You can’t say they were wholeheartedly following the teachings of Jesus that Paul had been passing on to them. Paul wrote, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”

They just weren’t ready to seriously respond to the message of Jesus, God in the flesh, Jesus who had died for them, offering salvation and eternal life.  It seems that to do so required more intellectual effort and practical application than they could manage, let alone making physical efforts to live according to Jesus’ teaching.

It’s not that it’s all to hard, it’s just that they couldn’t be bothered. Let’s not get too religious.

Like most people they were skimming along through life keeping their thinking and commitment pretty much at the surface level.

After all, they weren’t going around murdering people.  They weren’t committing adultery. Well, there were some tensions between people and some unreliability but not quite cheating.  You can imagine how they rationalised their behaviour.  Generally speaking we’re good people, aren’t we?

And that’s where the reading from Matthew’s gospel comes in.  Here Jesus acknowledges the 10 commandments and then goes on to explain how shallow people’s understanding has been. 

Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council;

… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

What sort of people are we? What are sort of people do you know?  What are your neighbours  like? Your family? Not bad  people, are they? Good enough for Jesus?

If you have a look at what Jesus said you would come to the conclusion that the whole lot of us are murderous adulterers at least! I don’t want to seem judgemental and nor do I want to offend anyone but I don’t believe there is anyone here who can honestly claim to have lived all their lives according to these extremely high standards that Jesus sets.

I am much better off if you are only angry with me rather than you go so far as to murder me but if you are angry with me or someone else, said Jesus, you are just as much liable to judgement as if you had actually murdered them. It’s even more than that: just insulting someone gives you something to answer for.

The Marriage Act of Australia calls on those to be married to make only one promise which is to be united to exclusion of all others for life.  In other words, when you get married in Australia love is never mentioned in the law but adultery is banned. Faithfulness, loyalty is the requirement, the promise made at marriage.

If you lust after someone else then you have committed adultery and that, according to Jesus, is the only grounds for divorce.

 This is so important to Jesus that he uses some pretty extreme language. When the woman Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. There is an attractiveness about whatever tempts us so Jesus said that if whatever tempts you looks good to you then don’t look.  He uses the dramatic words, “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out”.

With language like that you are left in no doubt that Jesus wants us to take our faith, our relationship with him very seriously indeed.

It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body go into hell,” Jesus said.

If you stop and think about God’s commandments to us and read them in the light of Jesus’ teaching here you inevitably come to the conclusion that you have failed to keep them. Indeed you continue to break some of them frequently.

That’s why we have an opportunity for confession during our services.  We need to be honest here and be prepared to admit to God that we are sinners by nature, by default and by action.

Is there no way out of this bind?  There certainly is!

First we need to admit that we have been too casual about our commitment to Jesus, to God.  We are no better at being his people than the Israelites who failed him when they entered the promised land. Too many of them failed to follow Option 1 which is to obey God’s commandments; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. That brings the consequence of God’s blessing on us.

We need to learn the lesson of the psalmist: Happy are they whose way is blameless,  who walk in the law of the Lord! Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts!

Let’s be grown up Christian adults and move on from baby level thinking and behaviour.  The world around us thinks of God in trivial, shallow arguments and understanding but we can see how things really are and can see the emptiness in the world’s simplistic, self-centred approach.

God’s standards, expectations and commands are so much deeper and significant than the world knows.  But we know it because Jesus has explained it to us. But we also know that his expectations are so much deeper and important than the world believes.

Then, as we confess our failure to faithfully follow Jesus he forgives us and not only forgives us but cleanses us so that we are once again fit for the kingdom of heaven.

Then he gives us his Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and helps us to redirect from it and then enables us to live for him.

This is called grace, the freely given enabling power of the Spirit of Jesus to live as he wants us.

In other words, while today’s readings lay heavy responsibility on us, indeed more responsibility than we can manage, we end with encouragement and blessing and are drawn once more to praise our loving Lord who understands us so well, died to bring us forgiveness and empowers us to live for him.

We know from life’s experience that if we are to live according to Jesus’ standards we desperately need to help of his Holy Spirit and so need to pray the prayer called the Collect for the day.

Here we first acknowledge the greatness and goodness of God, then ask him to hear our prayer because we know we can’t properly serve him on our own and we so much need his help to get things right, to do what’s right. 

We really want to keep his commandments, we really want to serve him, to please him but we can’t do it on our own.

So we ask for his grace, his undeserved favour, to enable us not only do what God wants but to have the desire to do so and the strength to do it.

And, as with all prayer, we approach God our Father because Jesus told us to so we do so with Jesus’ authority.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


1428 Modified: 19-08-2023
© Poweringon 2000-2024#306