The temptation, when we lift these passages out of their larger story, is to embrace self-sufficiency. If we just try harder, we can do what God says in the law; if we try even harder, we can do what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but my track record of just trying harder is not so great.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

 

Do or Do Not. There Is No Try.

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

These passages are enough to make you feel exhausted, aren’t they? 

When lifted from their context, both of these passages, in both Deuteronomy and Matthew, sound like moralist exhortations. In Deuteronomy, “do God’s law and live, abandon it and die.”  In Matthew, Jesus says, “You  have heard it said don’t do this, but I call you to an even higher standard, an impossible standard even.” 

The temptation, when we lift these passages out of their larger story, is to embrace self-sufficiency. If we just try harder, we can do what God says in the law; if we try even harder, we can do what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount. 

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my track record of just trying harder is not so great. 

Here’s an analogy for those who have ever been involved in an athletic competition. While running a distance race, one can try harder and harder to run faster and faster. At some point, however, very soon, the limits of trying harder run into the reality of the runner’s training and genetics. If one has done the training to run eight-minute miles over the course of a marathon, then focus and effort during the race will lead to running a pace of eight minutes per mile, perhaps a wee bit faster in the last mile through a combination of smart pacing and sheer determination. No amount of determination, however, will result in someone with average human genetic potential and eight-minute-per-mile training to run at Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2-hour marathon pace, just under 4 minutes and 34 seconds per mile. 

Taken out of context, Jesus’ admonition not to be angry, not to feel lust, not to divorce, not to break a promise, ever, not to retaliate against someone who treats you unjustly, and to love your enemies – well, it’s all just too much. For an honest human being, it feels like Jesus is telling broken down injured middle-aged runners that, if they want to live in the kingdom of God, they have to go out and run a world-record marathon. Every day. 

By the time Jesus gets to the conclusion of this section of the sermon, we shouldn’t be so surprised when he tells us:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

I know, we could parse that word “perfect” all morning long, tracing it back to the Greek and the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and we might be able to make a case that Jesus didn’t really mean “perfect” in the way we say “perfect.” 

But, there’s no getting away from the clear sense of the text:  Jesus calls for his followers to live in a world that is not yet fully realized. Jesus calls us to do what we cannot do. 

Fortunately, the story of the Bible is not about what human beings can do. It is the story of what God is doing. 

I spend a lot of time, maybe too much, reading and listening to the news, and I am drawn to the stories of refugees, perhaps because that’s the story of my own ancestors generations ago. Most refugees tell a story of their own powerlessness. Caught in the crossfire of conflict, they describe how their spouses, sons, sisters, or daughters were kidnapped or murdered by gunfire or bombings. As they describe the conflicts in their countries of origin between drug cartels, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Syrian rebels, Syrian government forces, NATO, and the U.S., the question that hangs over everything is, “Who is in charge? Who holds the power here?” 

It takes a theological worldview, however, to see the true nature of power. 

There is, to those of us who read the Bible, something familiar in the stories of refugees, about breaking the chains of oppression and escaping to a land of promise. Today’s reading from Deuteronomy comes in the context of the story of a people who have escaped the oppression of Egypt and now stand at the edge of the Jordan river. They stand at the precipice of freedom. After 210 years in slavery and forty years in the wilderness the people realized that it was God, and not themselves, who won their freedom. 

Most great adventure stories tell of a hero who reaches way down deep within herself or himself and, through sheer determination, finds the ability to do the impossible. George Lucas, however, in his Star Wars epic, draws from the biblical epic. 

Luke Skywalker, given an impossible mission, tells his mentor Yoda, “I will try.” Yoda responds, “Do or do not. There is no try.” 

Luke flies off into a flurry of dangerous special effects and reaches deep down within himself and finds . . . it’s not enough. He’s as good as dead. He feels like a slightly above-average marathoner trying to run at world-record pace. He cannot do what needs to be done until he lets go and lets The Force, the power outside himself, take over. 

That’s closer to the story the Bible tells. Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead. They were old and they had no heir. God sends a laughable message, and Isaac is born. Years later, the grandson of Isaac, Joseph, is as good as dead. He’s in a pit, under the threat of death, and then sold into slavery. His story is the story of God leading him from slavery to freedom and power to rescue the Hebrew people from famine. When a Pharaoh in Egypt arises who does not remember Joseph, oppresses the people, enslaves them, and decrees death to the firstborn, God raises up Moses to lead the Hebrew people into the wilderness, give them the law, and give them a land. 

And so it goes. Again and again, the world brings oppression and death, and God brings freedom and life. And again and again, the world looks at freedom movements and puts a human name on the power that brought it about:  It was Moses, it was Cyrus of Persia, the Maccabees, Constantine, John Calvin, George Washington, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, and  Bishop Desmond Tutu. 

Because the Bible was written in a pre-scientific age, it may sound to us as if God acted with wonder and power back then, but now God has changed, quit acting in the world, or at least taken on a more subtle modus operandi. God, however, has not changed. Only our view of God and the world has changed. Let’s remember that when God liberated the people from the grip of Pharaoh, about 3200 years ago, Pharaoh and his cabinet did not see it as the power of God; that was a distinctly Hebrew view. When God sent Cyrus of Persia to overthrow Babylon and bring the Jewish people out of exile and back for another chance in the Promised Land, the Babylonians and Persians did not see that as the power of God. They saw it as the power of King Cyrus. 

At first, this call of Moses to the people of God, before they cross the Jordan, seems superfluous. Why does Moses even need to tell them, “Choose life?”  It’s so obvious, it’s wired into us by nature, that we would rather choose life than death. 

There is something more going on, however. “Choose life,” here, is a call to remember. When it seems that self-sufficiency, victory by our own power, is the only path to freedom, remember. Remember that God is loose in the world. We do not have to make life. We do not have to create freedom. We only choose to be part of what God is doing. 

There is a spiritual, a song that rose from the suffering and oppression of slavery in our own nation, in which the history of freedom compresses into a one-line chorus,

“Pharaoh’s Army got drowned-ed, Oh, Mary don’t you weep.” 

Drawing together the image of Lazarus’ sister Mary standing at her brother’s tomb as Jesus calls him from death to life, the song leads us through a history of God’s liberating work in the world: 

If I could I surely would Stand on the rock where Moses stood.

Chorus: Pharaoh's army got drownded Oh Mary don't you weep.

Mary wore three links of chain Every link was Jesus' name.

Chorus: Pharaoh’s army got drownded Oh Mary don't you weep.

God told Moses what to do To lead the Hebrew children through.

Chorus: Pharaoh’s army got drownded Oh Mary don't you weep.

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore Smotin' the water with a two by four.

Chorus: Pharaoh’s army got drownded Oh Mary don't you weep.

Mary wore three links of chain Every link was freedoms name.

Chorus: Pharaoh’s army got drownded Oh Mary don't you weep. 

The beauty and power of the lyrics come from the faith that God is not bound by time. The events of the Exodus, the raising of Lazarus from death to life, the escape of African American slaves into freedom, the migration, and the struggle for civil rights all come together in a moment of God’s time, without any separation. Same God. Same mission. 

A few years ago, a suicide bomber killed twenty-three worshipers in the Coptic Christian Church in Alexandria, injured ninety-seven, and damaged the church building. 

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’ eve, solidarity between Muslims and Coptic Christians reached an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one. (http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/3365.aspx)

The Coptic Christmas comes after our New Year’s Eve, and on that night, thousands and thousands of Muslim Egyptians crowded into the churches for the Christmas services, serving as human shields for their Christian brothers and sisters. 

It was a reminder, for those of us who read the Bible, that the Kingdom of God does not exist by the power of Christians, but by the power of Christ. The Egyptian nation caught a glimpse, a foretaste of what the prophet Isaiah said, 

2 In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2) 

When we feel like broken down middle-aged or older men and women, required to run a world record marathon every day, when the ways of the Kingdom of God seem impossible, we remember:  It is not us, it is God who is bringing in the Kingdom. 

He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
  they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)