Sermon given at Crystal Springs Congregation
By Steve Pomeroy February 16, 2020
“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.”
So begins our scripture text for this morning from the book of Deuteronomy, the 30th Chapter, the 15th through the 20th verses. This passage is recorded as the closing admonitions of Moses to the people of God just before their crossing of the Jordan River to begin their long-awaited adventures in the “promised land.” Moses goes on to share with them the blessings that will be theirs if they continue to turn their hearts and lives towards God and the difficulties that will be theirs if they fall away. I would encourage your own study of the entire passage and its message and meaning for you.
To me, in essence, Moses was preaching to the people a sermon on what we in Community of Christ today refer to as one of our Enduring Principles – Responsible Choices. In our language, God gives humans the ability to make choices about whom or what they will serve. Human choices contribute to good or evil in our lives and in the world. We are called to make responsible choices within the circumstances of our lives that contribute to the purposes of God.
In the context of the times and the journey of those who looked to Moses for prophetic leadership and had mumbled and stumbled through 40 years of the desert, Moses’ words – while perhaps sounding harsh to our ears – were likely necessary to penetrate the exultation of those who were about to claim the long-promised homeland in the name of Yahweh – the one, true God who had brought them to this time and place.
Moses was a moral giant, a spiritual giant. He is one of the five or six people in human civilization of the last three thousand years whose words have become the moral code of our civilization. Moses walked with God. Moses was on the mountaintop with God at Sinai. Moses experienced the holiness and sanctity of God and he knew God’s mind. Moses also knew the future. As he looked into the future and at the Israelites as they were about to go into the land of Canaan, into a land that Moses said had “detestable and disgusting moral practices,” into that land, knowing that they were going to be faced with immense moral ambiguity, Moses then said to his people: “Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, good and evil, blessings and curses. God is our witness. I say to you this day, choose life. Choose life and walk with God.”
On this momentous occasion then, Moses preaches a fiery message to his people, ending with one of the best big bring-it-home sermon lines of all time: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Actually, I think it was less of a sermon line than a toast. I envision Moses raising his glass and giving the great Jewish toast “l’chaim,” which means “to life!” Given what was at stake, I also can imagine Moses mumbling an aside, “And don’t mess it up!”
In Moses’s words, choose life meant, “Loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.” It did not mean worshipping the crazy idols or assimilating the ways of the Canaanites, the people who occupied the land where the children of Israel were headed. As Moses warned earlier in Deuteronomy, “You have seen their detestable things, their filthy idols of wood and stone, of silver and of gold. And it may be that there is among you…someone whose heart is already turning away.” In short, Moses was saying stay away from the idols and no one gets hurt!
This is good advice for us too. We may not have a giant golden cow in our house–or maybe you do, I don’t know–but we all have things that we idolize or covet or prioritize over God’s teachings, things such as money, power, youth, big houses, flat screen TVs, iPads, or compulsive habits. We all have our golden calf–things we think give us life and joy and sustenance. But Moses tells us that these things do not lead to life. In fact, they can lead us to turning our hearts from God and, unrepentantly, even to personal destruction.
Idols are powerful things. If we worship money, for example, we become greedy. If we worship power, we can become corrupt. If we worship another person, we can become co-dependent. If we worship ourselves, we can believe that no rules apply to us and integrity has no value. As we look around at our world, our nation, our communities, we see far too many examples that prove this is not “fake news.” As Ralph Waldo Emerson explained, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Deuteronomy, the host book for today’s text, literally means “second law”, but it is not a new law. Nor is it simply a rehash of the first law. It is a re-giving of the first law from Sinai, but something different is happening here. Deuteronomy does not simply repeat the Ten Commandments or the holiness codes – it seems to have an entirely different agenda. It’s not new, but it’s not a repeat.
Deuteronomy is interpretive. It is “preached law”. It’s the old law for a new context. Scholars generally agree that this new context has something to do with the exile, maybe before, maybe during, maybe right after, or maybe all three. It’s likely a composite work and may have different time periods that it speaks into. But at the same time, it utilizes this particular setting: Moses and the newly formed people of Israel on the fields of Moab just before crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy places the readers and hearers in this setting for the sake of remembering and tells the story in a way that bears significance for the present and the future.
The way that Deuteronomy uses an old story for a contemporary issue is reminiscent of a more modern work, The Crucible. For those of you who have read the play or seen a production of it, you will remember that The Crucible is about the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in the 1690’s. But it was written in 1953 as an allegory for McCarthyism; a time in which fear and paranoia around the Cold War ran so high that political figures accused and tried citizens for communism and treason based on little criteria or evidence. Arthur Miller wrote about the injustice of Salem in the past to shed light on a present injustice that he was witnessing, for the sake of a better future. The book of Deuteronomy is doing a similar thing.
Our passage today, though, is about the final choice within this larger recollection: will they choose life, or will they choose death; will they follow God’s law or their own; will they continue to turn towards God or turn away? But understanding this choice requires us to remember these multiple settings of Deuteronomy. The text is not telling us about a choice that was made once. In fact, it doesn’t even tell us what the response was. The text is telling us about a choice that we all have: those on the fields of Moab; those under the rule of Babylon or those returning to their homeland once again: those escaping persecution to found this nation; those who put in motion the cruel business of slavery; those who demean others and restrict their human rights; those who live in fear and short-sightedness – yes, even today, we have this same choice.
This might be difficult for us to understand, because as Christians, we like to talk about a certain “decision” that you make once to become a Christian and everything follows naturally after that. We even have competing doctrines about whether or not you can go back on that decision, or if that means you never really made the decision in the first place. We can argue about that until we’re blue in the face, but our text is talking about something different. The most important difference is that it’s not talking about an individual decision, and that plays out in two ways. The choice is not just mine, or Karolyn’s, or Tyler’s or Deborah’s. It’s not even just ours collectively in this room. We have our roles to play, of course, but this choice is corporate to the people of God and has corporate implications. Because the people of God do not just include those today or even those of yesterday. This passage calls us to see how our choices create a future for the next generations to come; are we handing down life, or death; blessing or curse? What is the legacy we are providing for those generations that are coming after us? Are we providing a context of life and relationship that will encourage their fuller vision of God in creation? Are we turning our hearts toward God so that theirs may reside there, choosing life as Moses proclaimed it?
Texts like these are repeated throughout history because we make these choices over and over again as people, losing our way and finding our roots again for the sake of a new future. We are blessed by a God that will always uphold the covenant generation after generation, even if it takes us a while to come around.
For twenty-nine chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks on and on about all the things the Hebrew people can and can’t do. The exact way to organize their courts, the particular way to make offerings on an altar, what food to eat, what festivals to celebrate. Reading them all with the intent to obey can seem tedious, restrictive, maybe even deadening to our modern ears. It seems to us, especially people of a culture that so highly values independence and freedom, that every opportunity to make choices in life is taken away by the law. Everything that might bring variety and diversity is already decided.
Yet on the other hand Moses insists, GOD insists, living according to the law of God is not mind numbing or deadening. It’s not a way to make uncreative, mindless robots out of God’s good creation. It’s the exact opposite. Following the law, choosing life, is a matter of the heart. Choosing life is about loving God. Choosing life is about turning our hearts to God and in doing so making the many choices that are laid before us in a life-giving, God directed way.
The law, God insists, exists to help us love God. It frees us to give our whole lives, body, soul, and spirit, indeed our hearts to God. It frees us to some extent from wondering, guessing what it is that God wants from a loving and obedient people. The law, in our Christian understanding, is what we are free to follow in gratitude for the new life we are given in Jesus our Christ. Choose life: God offers – choose me, as I have already chosen you.
The problem is that we get caught up in the details. Even before the early church slipped into its many controversies, Jesus was also weighing in on the subject. “I came not to abolish the law,” he explained “but to fulfill it.”
He takes away the temptation to say that the laws are gone, unnecessary, no longer useful to believers in him. But he also takes away the temptation to just slip through life doing the bare minimum. “You have heard it said…,” Jesus begins in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I say to you…” he continues. He broadens the law for a people who sometimes like to use the law to define what is good enough, even if what is good enough isn’t what is life-giving. He shows us that the law is not irrelevant; it needs to be reapplied and reinterpreted continually as cultures and human understanding changes.
Think of two sisters in the backseat of a car on a very long car ride. The invisible line has already been drawn down the middle of the car to keep them from touching each other. One too many “accidental” hits has happened in the past and the “no touching AT ALL” law has been invoked. What does the completely law abiding, but maybe not life choosing sibling do? She hovers her hands right over the line, not touching her sister, but just getting real close. “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.” The law has been followed. No rule has been broken. But is that good enough?
No, Jesus says. The law has been followed, but it hasn’t been fulfilled. Life has not been chosen. God’s laws aren’t about prohibiting every single bad behavior. God’s laws are about choosing life the way that God, our creator, has chosen to give life and bless life with God’s love. So, God’s laws call us to turn our lives and our actions in a life-giving, life-respecting direction. God’s desire is for us to let go of our nagging need to be in control. God’s desire is for us to stop drawing lines around what we know from our own experience and defining that and only that as right and good and acceptable. In giving the law to humankind, God asks us to turn our loyalties and our hearts over to the divine will, not human will, ours or anyone else’s. And that divine will is for us to love others as we have been loved.
The divine law isn’t about taking away diversity and restricting creativity; it is about encouraging expansive living, protecting all people in their quest to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind. God’s law is about choosing life for others as well as for ourselves through actions that respect all people as blessed creatures of the loving Creator. Choosing life is about choosing the way of the One who created all life, who sees all life, who loves all life, who forgives and renews all life. Choosing life is about trusting God whose view and vision is so much farther than our own, who could see beyond our imagination of what is right and fair and good enough. Choosing life is about facing the challenges before us with a sense of hope and courage because the one who creates order out of chaos can create life out of the most difficult situations.
This is the life God’s people are called to choose. Standing on the edge of the Promised Land, the people of God were filled with excitement and anticipation, certainly, but also fear and trepidation. The Promised Land was also a “Possessed” Land. It was not empty, sitting vacant waiting for the Hebrew people to come inhabit it again. Other people were living there, farming their own farms, worshipping their own gods, raising their own families. It would not be an easy transition for them at all. On the edge of any Promised Land there is anxiety about how we should enter unknown territory, worry and wonder about just where our journey will ultimately take us. On this edge God calls us to choose life, to choose God.
We all face our Promised and Possessed Lands in different ways. Our journeys bring us to different mountaintops, different cliffs from which we look over our unknown futures. Whether you’re looking out over the promising future of a new job or a new family or new opportunity in school or education, or whether you’re looking out over a land possessed by diagnoses and treatments for an unexpected illness, a land gripped by financial insecurity, or ravaged by wars of addiction and dependencies, the choice remains the same. Turn your heart to God. Put your trust in God’s gracious mercy, God’s guiding spirit, God’s ordering love. With complete dependence on the one who breathed life into the dust of the earth, who died and rose again for our sake, who moves through all of creation as wind over the water, choose life in God’s hands as your way forward. Turn your heart to God and you will be blessed. You will be blessed. Amen.