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Choose Life

Thomas J Parlette

“Choose Life”

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

2/12/17

 

Once upon a time there was a college football team who lost their starting quarterback to an injury. Unfortunately, the night before their big game, the back up quarterback had come down with a terrible case of the flu – so late in the game, the coaches had to turn to their third string quarterback, a freshman who had no game experience but had been handling the punting duty. The coach had no choice, he had to put the freshman in the game. Luckily it was deep into the fourth quarter, they had a comfortable lead and all they needed to do was run out the clock. The coach called the young quarterback up from the bench.

“Ok, the ball is on our own 5 yard line – I want you to give the ball to our fullback and run the ball twice, just to get us a few yards – then I want you to punt. You understand?” The young quarterback nodded his head and went into the game.

And he did just what he had been instructed to do – he handed off to their powerful fullback, who broke through the line and went for 40 yards. The quarterback called the same play – again it went for big yardage, 52 yards all the way down to the 3 yard line. It was first down and goal to go – and the young quarterback lined up, took the snap and punted the ball into the stands.

On the sideline, the coach went crazy. “What were you thinking?” he screamed as the young quarterback came off the field.

“I was thinking we must have the dumbest coach in the world.”(1)

After all, the young quarterback was just following orders. It never occurred to him to do anything other than what his coach told him to do. He was accustomed to taking orders, following directions – not making decisions.

In today’s passage from Deuteronomy, Moses reminds us that that is not the way it is for us and our life of faith. Moses approaches Israel with the assumption that God allows us to make our own decisions. But while the choices are left to us, the consequences are always up to God.

This passage comes towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy. These words are right in the middle of Moses’ final address to Israel. The wandering nation had spent 40 years in the wilderness and now they stand at the threshold of the promised land. Soon they will enter into the land God promised them so many years ago.

But Moses will not be going with them. He knows that – God told Moses himself. Moses knows that his days are coming to an end. So, in these, his final days, lays out the future for Israel, in pretty stark terms. “Listen up,” he says. “Here’s the deal.” You have a choice to make – “I have set before you life and prosperity – or death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord, by loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you will live and you will be blessed. But if you don’t, if you turn away, if you serve other Gods, you will perish. Your choice. Life and blessings. Or death and curses. Up to you. There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is no gray area. There is no third option. It’s God’s way – or the other way. It’s as simple as that.

There are two important words that Moses uses here. The first one is “Obey.” That is key if you want God’s blessings. You must obey God’s commandments. You, O Israel – as a nation – you must follow the Lord’s ways. Obeying God’s commandments means that the people are to love God whole-heartedly and exclusively. They are to walk in God’s ways – which are ways of justice, righteousness and kindness – as we’ve heard before from Micah. They are to offer compassion and grace. A nation that turns from God’s way will not last long. They will perish.

The noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once did a survey of the nations who were the “Super Powers” of the Old Testament. He looked at the history of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. He found that the first three – Egypt, Assyria and Babylon – each turned away from God’s commandments, each in their own way, and this led to their downfall. Only the Persians, whose leader, King Cyrus, was once thought to be a candidate for the title of Messiah because he released the Jewish people and let them return to their homeland – only the Persians thrived as an Old Testament Super Power of a nation. Bruggemann concluded that “Where Yahweh is not obeyed, a decisive break occurs in every individual life and in the life of every community or state. No power can live defiantly in the face of Yahweh’s sovereignty.”(2)

So choose now – obey God’s ways, or perish.

The other important word here in Moses’ challenge is “Love.” Moses says that choosing life and choosing blessing means that the people will love God – and also love each other. It should always be noted when we talk about love in the Bible – especially the Old Testament – that love is always an action, not simply a feeling.

Earlier in his address, Moses said that obeying God’s commandments and loving the Lord your God included actions like canceling the debts of the poor, pushing government to guard against excessive wealth, limiting punishment to protect human dignity, offering hospitality to refugees, paying employees fairly and leaving part for the harvest for those who need it. Those were concrete actions of love. These are the ways to choose life.(3)

Moses urges the people to make the right choice. Choose life. Choose blessing. The right choice means blessings for the entire community, for the entire nation, not just for some. The right choice means a home not just for God’s people but for resident aliens as well. The right choice means economic policies that leave enough for everyone. The right choice means an equitable distribution of resources. The right choice means life – and this is what God desires for us. Life.(4)

We have the same choice before us – maybe even more so these days. We have the same choice to choose to obey God’s commands and love the Lord our God – to follow God’s ways and not the ways of greed and hate and fear that the world would teach us. You can make that choice in so many ways, large and small, every day. You can choose to learn things you thought you would never need to learn about. Meet people you never thought you’d meet. Enjoy simple things. Play with children. Laugh often, long and loud. Cry when it’s time to cry. Be patient with your own imperfections as well as the imperfections of others. Walk around the block. Say hello to your neighbors. Invite a stranger to lunch. Read a book of poetry. Quit doing what is not worth your time. Give money to a cause you care about. Stop arguing. Learn to listen. Apologize to someone, even if it was mostly their fault. Forgive someone, even if they don’t deserve it. Have patience. Stop having patience when it is time to tell the truth. Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope. Share God’s love with someone who had forgotten it. Delight in God’s good gifts. See that all life is holy. Open your heart to the Spirit. Search for something deeper and better than your own comfort. Live in the joy beneath it all. Let God make your life wonderful. See Christ in all the people around you – whether they call themselves Christian or not.(5)In all these ways, we can choose life and blessing.

There was once a rabbi who was sitting with his students one evening, watching the stars appear in the heavens, one by one. “Tell me this,” asked the teacher. “How can we know when the night is ended and the day had begun.

One eager young student jumped right in, “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you can look off across the pasture and tell which animal is a dog, and which is a sheep.”

“The teacher said nothing, he just gazed off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” asked the student.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” said the teacher.

“Let me try,” said another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then what is the right answer?” demanded the students. “Please, rabbi, answer your own question.”

The wise old teacher looked out over the eager young faces and said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and see a brother or a sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”(6)

Moses reminds us, you have a choice to make. Follow God’s way or the other way. Obey God’s commands and love the Lord your God, or follow other gods. The choice is ours. But the consequences are always up to God. Choose God and God’s ways, and we will receive blessings. Go the other way, and you will perish.

Now is the time to choose prosperity. Now is the time to choose blessing. Now is the time to choose life.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, p38.

2.    Andrew Foster Conners, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p342

3.    Brett Younger, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p341

4.    Andrew Foster Conners, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p342

5.    Brett Younger, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p343.

6.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.1, p52.