a sermon on Deuteronomy 30:11-20 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
At some point in recent months, I came to a startling realization about myself. As I listened carefully to myself speak, as I observed what I said to others along the way, I noticed something that gave me pause: apparently I like telling people what to do. Now this may come as no surprise to some of you—after all, I’ve been pastor here for ten years, so it is inevitable that I have told every one of you what to do at one point or another!
But I was startled and surprised by all this mostly when I realized how I seem to leave every conversation with some sort of imperative sentence. “Email me with the details.” “Let me know how it goes tomorrow.” “Call me later.” “Have a good trip.” “Take care.” In English grammar, we tend to use imperative sentences like these to tell someone what to do: “Take out the garbage.” “Call the plumber.” “Stop hitting your brother.” Somehow these seem a little more intense than those parting words that I catch myself saying all the time, but they are so very similar in grammatical structure that I sometimes wonder if they really feel any different, if my parting words intended to be gentle and graceful come across as more forceful and demanding. I don’t think I am saying all this so much because I like to tell people what to do—I just hope that others leave our encounters with a word of hope, a statement that has movement and motion for what is ahead in life, words of direction for the time and space ahead.
Words of direction like this are very common in the life of faith. The Bible is filled with passages where its writers try to tell us what to do, whether it be in the list of “Thou shalt not”s of the Ten Commandments, among the extensive holiness and purity laws of the Old Testament, or even in the New Testament’s suggestions of different ways of life for the early church. When it is at its best, the Bible’s words of direction are not so much laws laid out for us to follow but invitations for God’s people to lead the world into a new and different way of life. Each week, we embody this important tradition in our worship as we close with a charge and benediction, with words that remind us of how we are called to live out our faith in the world and that share God’s blessing in our lives.
Our two readings today show us two important examples of these parting words of direction from the history of Israel and the life of the early church. First, we heard the conclusion of Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites from the book of Deuteronomy. Moses had led the people out of Egypt, through the waters of the sea, into the wilderness, and to the edge of the promised land. As Joshua prepared to take over leadership of the final steps of the journey, Moses offered them these final words of hope and direction. These instructions were very clear and simple: choose life. The Israelites had chosen life before: they had found a way to survive the horrid conditions of their enslavement in Egypt, they found hope in God to carry them through a difficult journey in the wilderness, and they welcomed God’s commandments as they slowly but surely embraced the covenant of Sinai.
However, in this momentous time, as they approached the beginning of a radically different day in their life together, Moses reminded them that they needed to keep choosing life in the days ahead. For the Israelites, this meant recommitting themselves to the things that had sustained them in the wilderness: loving the Lord, walking in God’s ways, observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, and holding fast to God’s presence in their midst. Moses knew that other temptations would quickly swirl around them, that the religious practice of their new neighbors would loom large over them, that they would be distracted from attention to God by the challenges and possibilities of life in this new place, and so he reminded them from the very beginning to choose the way of life in God. As the promise of the promised land was revealed, as Moses’ leadership of the people came to an end, these words of direction gave them hope for the transformation that lie ahead.
The early church picked up on this tradition of offering such parting words of direction, too. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is actually considered by most scholars to be the oldest surviving writing in our New Testament, so these words of direction in our second reading give us a glimpse of how the early church understood their call to new life just twenty-five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In that moment, many believers thought that the end of time was very near. The gospel message was so imperative to them because they understood that Christ would be returning soon—if not in a year or two, almost certainly within their lifetimes. Some people took this as permission to live in total freedom, maybe to sit around and do nothing but wait, maybe to act without concern for any earthly consequences, maybe even to be angry with one another, because the things of this world would not matter when Jesus returned.
So when Paul closed his letter to the church with this string of imperatives, he gave them a very different direction for their life together. Even after nearly two thousand years, even when we no longer think that the end of things might come as soon as tomorrow, these words of direction give us an understanding of the ethic of life that we are called to live. Paul’s commands here are an incredible litany of transformational life that has stood the test of time and still are remarkable words of direction for us. Show respect and love to one another. Encourage those who struggle to find a different way. Be patient with everyone. “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”
Sometimes I wonder if the church had lived like Paul suggested all these years, if our actions had been clear enough for others to see and follow, then maybe the end of things would have come by now after all. No matter how much we might wish that things had already come to an end, regardless of how much has changed in our worldview and our belief since those early days of the church, Paul’s words of direction here can still shape our own lives in this changing age as we seek to live in hope, peace, and love with one another.
Each week, as we close worship in words of charge and blessing, we continue in this tradition of sharing words of direction for our lives. I certainly don’t think that I belong in a class anywhere near Moses and Paul in coming up with such words, so thankfully their words can often stand in for my own—and make me feel a little less like I am annoyingly telling everyone what to do once again! The words of direction that close our worship sometimes need to be specific to where we are as a congregation, maybe lifting up a part of the sermon, maybe even reusing a line of the last hymn, maybe fitting a particular time or moment in the church year. Other times, we need to hear something more familiar from scripture, perhaps something like these words from 1 Thessalonians, to remind us of the long line of faithful Christians who have sought to live in this way of hope, peace, and love. These words certainly call each of us individually to act in a new way, but they also call us as a community to live as God’s people, to seek the well-being of all God’s creation, to embody the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ with everyone we meet.
Ultimately, I think that the specific words of direction that we share with one another as our worship comes to an end matter less than the fact that we share them at all. When we offer any words of hope and promise to one another, we are given a reminder of how God calls us to live in new ways in our daily lives, to be God’s transformed and transformative people each and every day in our world that so very much needs new life. So each week, as we hear these words of direction, and each day, as we share these words of hope with one another, may God strengthen us to live in love, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and live in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that is with us today, tomorrow, and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.