Last year on July 20th the United States commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the first lunar landing. On that day in 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Several would follow him on successive trips. He said some infamous words that day. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Sending a man to the moon is still revered as one of the greatest achievement of civilization. It is seen as the pinnacle of a successive number of journeys over the course of history. In the ancient world, it was a monumental thing to travel many hundreds, if not thousands of miles over land by foot, horse or camel. With the advent of ship building, travelling the seas and oceans became the next great journey. Today, exploring the depths of the oceans and hiking the peaks of the seven continents, the tallest of which is Mount Everest, are still one of the greatest goals a person can achieve. Within our human psyche is a dream or belief that with our combined efforts, through science and technology, will help us push beyond the current limits of exploration to an every expanding realm of human presence and rule. Around the time of the first lunar landing, the popular television show “Star Trek” began with the same narration of Captain Kirk, “Space: the final frontier.” That show became more popular in syndication and it spun off several shows by similar names and themes leading up to the popular “Star Wars” movies. All of these capture our imagination because of our yearning for something more, something beyond our current state of existence.
In today’s epistle reading, Romans 10:1-10, appointed for the 5th Sunday of Matthew, St. Paul says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (v.6) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (v.7). He is quoting Moses from the Book of Deuteronomy 30:12-13 who was trying to reassure the Israelites in the wilderness after leading them out of slavery in Egypt. During that time, God was seeking to establish a covenant between Himself and Jewish people. Given through Moses, God’s basic message was, “Israel, I will be your God if you be My people and follow my commandments.” In other words, “I will lead you, guide you, protect you and bless you if you trust Me, follow Me and bless Me.” Because of their difficult experiences in the wilderness, the Israelites complained to and resisted Moses. They doubted God’s love and care for them. This doubting caused them to seek after the false Gods of neighboring peoples like the Moabites. However, God the Lord continued to give the Israelites opportunities for repentance. Listen, as Moses delivers God’s word to them:
7“Also the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command you today. 9The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, 10if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Dt.30:7-10)
Moses, knowing tendency of his people to complain and doubt, immediately reassures the Israelites.
11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” (Dt.30:11-13)
I would submit that we are no different than the ancient Israelites. They were looking for someone else and someplace else for salvation. Our drive to explore the seas and the stars is an expression of our search for something beyond and greater than ourselves. The seas and the stars are not bad or evil and neither is the exploration of them. However, it is plainly evident that mankind’s greatest technical achievements have done little to reduce basic human suffering. We still have starving, homeless people. We still have crime, murder and war. We still have neglect and abuse of children and vulnerable adults.
Even in our own personal lives, we often look outside of ourselves for salvation in more prestigious jobs, nicer cars, bigger houses, and just having more stuff. Everything and anything can become an idol for us. As we ascend the heights of material achievement, our life can be falling apart. Our spouse has everything except our healthy intimacy. Our children have everything except quality time and attention. We spend lots of time with our friends, yet we still feel a deep loneliness. And then we complain and doubt when things don’t go the way we want.
So what’s the answer? Moses tells the Jewish people:
14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. 15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If 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. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I 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. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
When Moses says, “the word is very near to you,” by ‘word’ he means God. For the ancient Israelites, God’s word is God Himself. St. Paul picks up on this of course and tells the people of Rome that Jesus Christ has come from heaven because He is the Son and Word of God. We don’t need to go up to heaven and in fact, we cannot--certainly not under our own power. St. Paul warns of this in today’s passage: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God's righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Jesus Christ has already descended into the abyss of hell to rescue the dead and destroy the bondage of sin and death itself. We don’t need to search the depth of the seas and if we do, we are not going to find what we are ultimately looking for—that is God Himself. Because Christ became incarnate, taking on human flesh, He has redeemed and sanctified human nature. Because we have been baptized and chrismated, we have been united to Christ and have been filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s why Moses and St. Paul say, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (Rom.10:8; Dt.30:14). That is why Christ says, “The kingdom of heaven is within you” (Luke 17:21). Space is not the final frontier. Rather, the depths of the human heart is the final frontier that must be explored.
St. Paul goes on to say, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10:9). In other words, when we were baptized and chrismated, Christ became incarnate in each on of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as the demons possessed the two Gadarenes in today’s gospel (Matthew 8:28 – 9:1), Jesus seeks to possess us. However, He will not do it against our will. We must welcome Christ and willingly submit to Him. When the demons possess us like the Gadarenes, “We become so fierce that no one could pass that way (Mt.8:28). Let Christ possess our hearts and live on our lips so that when people come into our presence, they may not experience our own ego with all its complaints and doubts, but that they may experience God Himself. This is the witness of the Saints and Martyrs. Amen!