Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil.
With those stark words, the people of Israel are prepared for their crossing over into the Promised Land. This is what Moses tells them: “Love the Lord your God and walk in his ways, keep his commandments, decrees and laws.” When they do that, God will bless them as they enter the land.
In other words, there’s no room for half-heartedness; what Moses is really saying is this: If you’re not fully up for this, then just stay this side of the river, or wander off back into the wilderness. If you’re going to cross the river to claim what God has promised, you’ve got to be committed with all your heart to his service and to the keeping of his commands.
I was reading the other day on the sports pages about a star player who’d been dropped for the big game. Why aren’t you playing him, the manager was asked: he’s the best player you’ve got. I can’t play him, was the reply: He’s not in the right frame of mind. He can’t give me the commitment I need. It isn’t how good he is, it’s whether he can play as part of the team.
I think I was a bit like that at school. I was an able pupil, good at most subjects, I got good marks, I could pick things up quickly. And yet I was the despair of many of my teachers, because my mind was so often elsewhere. I’d be gazing out of the window and not really engaging with things at all.
Ability isn’t enough, without commitment. You need to be on-side, you need to be part of the team. You need to turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. If you can’t do that, don’t bother - isn’t that what Moses was saying?
And Jesus says some really hard things in our Gospel, doesn’t he? “Unless you hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, you can’t be my disciple.” That really jars, doesn’t it? We have to hate our own kith and kin? What sort of a Christian would that make us - hating our own nearest and dearest? Doesn’t God want us to be loving and dutiful, as parents, as partners, as siblings?
Of course he does; and if you do happen to be having problems with your parents, your children, your brothers, sisters, or even your friends, sorry, you do not have permission to hate them as a Christian duty! Jesus is saying the same sort of thing as Moses: this is about commitment. What Jesus tells us is that we shouldn’t place anything above our allegiance to God, and our commitment to serve him; not even our duty to our own families. To be a dutiful parent, child, sibling, to be a good citizen or friend or member of the community member - these things follow from our duty to God, they don’t take precedence over it.
Those other duties are still important; none of us should act badly, spitefully or uncaringly to those who have a right to expect us to treat them with love; but not even the closest relationship, not even our love of our own life, should be allowed to stand in the way of the first call upon us: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. I think it was William Ruskin who said: “He who gives God but second place in his life, gives him no place.”
Moses says: Don’t cross the river unless you’re wholehearted in your desire to serve the God who is giving you this land. Don’t come with me, says Jesus, unless you’re seriously ready to put what my Father asks of you first before everything else. In other words, religion doesn’t make a good hobby, not if you’re being real about it. True religion requires the gift of your deepest and truest self. We’re to offer to God “ourselves, our souls and bodies” - and to hold nothing back.
Such self-offering isn’t just about what we do here, it’s not only about being committed to church. When Jesus says “Take up your cross” that’s a lifestyle choice, and a lifelong commitment. The place and power of the cross in our lives will be revealed in more than being part of the church and present here for this hour on a Sunday. In some ways, dare I say, that’s the least important bit. Our use of time, our allocation of money, our care for others and the welcome we offer, our care for the world and our thought for the environment, the moral standards to which we aspire, our readiness not only to speak but also to live the truth: these are the vital outward expressions of true inward commitment.
Religious zeal can easily be perverted and misused by unscrupulous faith leaders who use the power they have for their own ends. That’s a feature of cults, of religious extremism, and even the mainstream churches aren’t totally immune. We see it of course in other faiths too, and to me, extremism anywhere is abhorrent. But there’ll always be those who set themselves up in God’s place, to misappropriate the enthusiasm and desire of those whose only aim at the start was to serve.
Jesus knew that: many will claim my name, he told his followers; many will try and lead people in the wrong direction, and, yes, some people will get fooled. We need to be on our guard, we need to test what we’re told and taught: the only true way for us is the way of the cross. We know that God is love, and that in his love he seeks peace and healing and understanding, forgiveness and compassion and justice. So any word that leads us away from those things, is not the word of God, however plausibly it’s preached. We know what God wants of us, as Paul reminds us, for we have the mind of Christ. And in Philippians chapter 2 verse 6 he writes that Jesus was by his very nature God, and yet he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.” There’s the test we should apply, whether we’re looking inwardly at our own selves, or reflecting on the teaching others give us.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, with all your mind and strength; and the second part of the summary of the law will then naturally follow: and love your neighbour as yourself. Our true love for God is bound to be revealed in our care for others, in our readiness to give and to serve in every aspect of our daily lives. In our daily lives in which again and again, that crucial question is posed: are you up for this, or are you not? Will you cross the river? Choose, life and good, or death and evil. All that matters is this, as we come to kneel at the table set by our Servant King, whose mark is the cross: are we people of the cross, or are we not? Are we committed to him, are we his full-time disciples, or are we just playing at it? This man wants first place in my life, or no place: will I do that - will I make my best stab at it, anyway? And will you?