A box of burning hot coals

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, FEBRUARY 12th, 2017

Quick straw poll: who has heard of the Book of Leviticus? Good. Who has heard of the Epistle to the Romans? Good. 

OK, bit more difficult. Who has heard of the Book of Obadiah? Not many. Who has heard of the First Letter of Peter? Maybe a few more.

The story of the Bel and the Dragon (an extra part of the Book of Daniel)

And now a few curve-balls. Who has heard of the First Book of Esdras?  How about Bel and the Dragon?

In fairness, those last two were indeed very hard, because we almost never hear readings from them, yet they are in the Bible. That is to say, if you are in the Episcopal or Roman Catholic traditions, they are in the Bible. If you are in the Protestant traditions, they aren’t, and if you are in the eastern Orthodox traditions, then, well… it depends.

Don’t you like how everything in the church is so clear-cut?

Why all this discussion about these hidden books of the Bible? Because we had a rare sighting of one this morning. More elusive even than the lesser-spotted woodpecker, the Book of Sirach is a member of this hidden section of the Bible. As was mentioned in the explanation before our first reading, this hidden section of our Bible is known as The Apocrypha which, literally, is Greek for ‘Things Hidden Away’. ἀποκρύπτειν. Apokryptein. From where, incidentally we also get the words ‘crypt’ (a hidden place) and ‘cryptography’, literally, hidden writing.

All very interesting. But now let’s turn our attention to that first reading. 

As was mentioned before, the writer is careful to explain that we have been given freedom by God, and this includes, therefore, the knowledge of good and evil, and the ability to make a conscious choice between the two. The writer sets it out as a rather obvious choice: if you had, set out in front of you, a container full of burning hot coals and a container full of lovely clear water and you were told that you could plunge your hand into just one of them, which one would you choose?

If it sounds like an absolute no-brainer, then that’s because it is, isn’t it? A no-brainer is called a no-brainer, of course, because the choice is so obvious that even a person without a brain would be able to make it. 

So, God gives us the freedom to make the choice. We can choose. We can choose between (a) things that will hurt and destroy us or (b) things that will help and nurture us. 

It ought to be a no-brainer, right? 

Well, if it were such a no-brainer, then there would have been no need for the Book of Sirach, or no need for this sermon or, for that matter, no need for any sermons at all.

This morning’s reading from the Book of Sirach was one of two options for the first reading. Partly because not all Bibles are printed with the hidden section… the alternative reading was from the Book of Deuteronomy. Essentially, it it is a slightly more elaborated version of the reading we had from the Book of Sirach. In it, Moses, speaking to the people of Israel just as they were about to enter the Promised Land, sets out the kind of behavior that God is expecting of them in their new life in their new country. Moses lays out the binary choice that the people have: they can choose between life and prosperity on the one hand, or death and adversity on the other. Let me read it to you:

'Moses Views the Promised Land', an engraving by Gerard Jollain from 1670

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 […]. 

The way it reads it almost feels slightly comical to me. It’s like Moses is standing there in his pulpit with two boxes, one marked ‘Nothing good can ever come of the stuff in here’ and the other one marked ‘everything you’ll ever need and want is in here’. And then at the very end of his sermon, Moses picks up the ‘good’ box and with one of those massive foam pointy fingers that you get at ball games, with the words, ‘pick this box’ printed on it in giant letters lit up in neon, points it very unambiguously at the ‘good’ box and holds up a placard in his other hand that says, ‘this is a massive clue as to which box you should pick’…. 

So, if the choice is that obvious, and God is giving us a massive clue about which one to pick for our own good, why are we even having this conversation?

First of all, let’s address the question of free-will. And when I say that we will address it, what I mean is that I will simply make a comment about it, since to even partially address the question of free will would require an entire life time of theological study. But suffice it to say, for now, that I believe that God’s love is the most perfect love that it is possible to find. As our society gears itself up for the heavily commercialized feast-day of St. Valentine this coming Tuesday, it is worth considering what true love really does consist of. The purest love is one that does not expect anything in return; the purest love does not place any conditions or requirements on the person being loved. God’s love is the purest love there is, 100% pure, because it allows absolutely for the possibility that we will not love God in return. Most of us know what it is like to experience unrequited love. Some people have the sad experience of loving a son or a daughter and having that love rejected or ignored. I believe, as do many Christians, that God always loves each one of his children and that he must grieve when that love is not returned. Indeed, we know from some of the parables that Jesus told what that must be like for God – just think of the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd searches and searches for the one lost sheep even when the other ninety-nine are in the fold; or the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the Father weeps with joy when the son he thought lost returns home. 

A detail from 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682)

That sheep was able to stray away. The prodigal son could wander from the pathway. And we, even with the options set before us, can pick the wrong box. And to be allowed to do so is the most loving thing God can do. Sure, God could have created us so that we didn’t have to make that choice. He could have created a world where evil didn’t exist, only good, and therefore we didn’t have any choice except to love God. And all we would be would be automatons. And there you have the essential philosophical conundrum: you can only know the presence of love if you allow for the possibility of the absence of love; and you can’t define good without evil.

And so God allows for the possibility of there being more than one box in front of us. And he let’s us get on with it. And we choose one box or the other. Or, if truth be told, we have a good rummage through both boxes in the course of our lives. In the words of Sirach, there is the container of burning hot coals, and there is the container of lovely clear water. And sometimes we put our hands in one, and sometimes we put our hands in the other, and sometimes we put our hands in one because we’ve just put our hands in the other. Because we know that if we’ve burned ourselves with bad, we can seek the salve and healing that God offers us with the beautifully soothing water.

But, even though we can choose the bad box, why do we, when the choice seems so much of a no-brainer.

Well, the reality of the matter is that the situations we are faced with on a daily basis are rarely as binary – as cut and dried – as the choices given to us in Sirach or Deuteronomy. In reality most of the situations we face are a big old mix of choices – rather than one simple choice, we have multiple, simultaneous layers of choice all jumbled together, but where each one will have an effect on the others. So, sometimes, when we try to do the right thing: try to make the right choice, it can be horribly confusing to really know what is the right thing, and even though we try, sometimes it just doesn’t work out right.

And other times, we just don’t have enough information about a choice, or we disagree with others, or with society about whether something is indeed a bad thing or not.

And sometimes, we convince ourselves that something is the right thing even if we know, deep down – or, even, not so deep down – that it isn’t really the right thing, even though we try to justify to ourselves that it is because we want it to be.

And sometimes, we make the choice because, although we know full well that it’s wrong, we are selfish and we don’t care, or we’re lazy and it’s too much like hard work.

In the face of all that, how do we choose the right thing? How do we make the right choices? All we can do is try. But we have to try, and trying is often hard, and often demanding. And although doing the right thing in the short term might make us feel less content, in the long term it will make us much more content – as well as the others around us being much more content. And for those times when we get it wrong? Well, we just learn from our mistakes, and we remember that God always has a big container of lovely, soothing water right beside us wherever we go.

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