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The collect for today opens with the words, “Holy and righteous God, you set before us life and death”. This prayer sets the tone for today’s collection of readings, which are, literally, a matter of life and death. We are presented in the scriptures with two options – life and death – and invited to choose one. Let’s run through them swiftly together.
1 Corinthians 5:12-20. In this passage, Paul defends the importance of believing in the resurrection of the dead in general, and the resurrection of Christ in particular. If there is no resurrection, Paul argues, then there is no hope for us of a life after death. And if that is the case, our believing in Christ is to be pitied. Paul is impassioned in making his argument. You can hear, as you read, that this is for him, a make or break in the Christian faith – it is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
Luke 6:17-26. Here, Jesus presents a series of blessings and woes, each comprising three verses. The blessings remind us of his beatitudes in Matthew 5, and speak of God’s favour on those who are vulnerable and marginalised, and those who suffer for the sake of Christ – they will be raised up. The woes are dire warnings against those who laud their wealth and power over others, who bask if their own accomplishments and who are self-sufficient – they will be brought low. Jesus is not afraid to divide the world into good and bad, blessed and cursed – it is a matter of life and death.
Jeremiah 17:5-10. Jeremiah echoes Jesus’ curses and woes. “Cursed is the one” he says, who trusts in human things and who turns away from God. That person will be like a dry shrub in a salty uninhabited wasteland. Jeremiah’s words here are clear and uncompromising. By contrast, “blessed is the one” who trust in God, for they will be like a tree, with its roots in a river, who is able to withstand challenges and be green and fruitful – it is a matter of life and death.
Psalm 1. The Psalmist replicates Jeremiah’s imagery of a “blessed one” who does not keep company with the wicked, but rather who spends time with God. This one is like a tree planted by a river. The ready water strengths and protects the tree, so that it is always fruitful. By contrast, the wicked are like chaff, who have no roots and blown away by the wind. Their way leads to destruction – it is a matter of life and death.
These four readings all say the same thing – there is a path of life and a path of death. The path of life involves maintaining fellowship with God and God’s people, and living in accordance with God’s values. The path of death involves relying on oneself, disregarding God and placing too much hope in how others perceive one. The consequences of these two paths are a matter of life and death.
All too often, we stray onto the path of death. Sometimes we do so quite consciously and deliberately – we turn from God and we choose to think or act in ways that we know are ungodly. Other times, we just stray there, quite unintentionally, as if drawn there. Roman Catholic theologians call this ‘original sin’ and Calvinists call it ‘total depravity’ or sometimes ‘pervasive depravity’. It relates to the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 – that our hearts, created by God for good, incline towards evil. If we are not watchful and careful, we all too easily drift onto the path of death, by turning from God towards sin.
We must be far more alert, awake and vigilant regarding our heart and our actions. We must be far more deliberate and intentional in what we choose. If we drift through life without thinking, we are at great risk of drifting onto the path of death. Rather, we need to be conscious and thoughtful about life. We must choose, repeatedly, even continuously, to follow the path of life, the path of blessing, the path of Christ.
Moses speaks strongly to his people about this shortly before they exit the wilderness. It is worth reading in full: Deuteronomy 30:15-20a:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 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. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.