Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Commentary

I’m not sure God cares much whether we choose, for example, to eat oatmeal or fresh fruit for breakfast.  However, God does very deeply care, in some cases even more than we naturally do, about some of our choices.

This might provide Deuteronomy 30’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore with worshipers and students what human choices God cares about.  What sorts of human choices might God be indifferent about?  How can we know the difference between the choices that God does and does not care about?

Moses talks about making a fundamental choice in a Deuteronomy 30 that’s probably the end of his farewell message to the people of Israel.  He has brought the Hebrews as far as he can.  They stand on the doorstep to the land of promise toward which they’ve been meandering from Egypt for the past forty years.

Moses and Israel have learned a lot about choices.  Along their way through the wilderness both have made volumes of choices.  Some of them have been good ones; more than a few have proven fatal.  In fact, one of those choices has extended Israel’s trip by nearly a whole generation.  One of Moses’ own choices has resulted in God’s barring of him from entering the land of promise.

At Canaan’s entrance, Moses says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (19).  It’s the only place in the Old Testament where human beings are the subjects of the verb behar (“choose”).  Almost always God does the choosing.

Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim notes that while Moses originally spoke this to the Hebrews who were preparing to enter the land of promise, it was also probably delivered to 6th century Hebrews whom God had driven into Babylonian exile.  Their future was no less certain than their ancestors’.  The 6th century Hebrews had also made a series of disastrous choices that had landed them far from the land of promise.  Their response to God’s offer of life and death would be no less formative than their ancestors’ responses had been.

Fretheim notes that it’s important to recognize that this call to choose comes in the context of God’s already having redeemed God’s Israelite people.  God has already graciously given them life.  So, in a sense, God invites them to respond to God’s choosing and redeeming work in Israel’s life by “leaning into” that life, by fully receiving the life God has already given her.

How can Israel most fully choose the life God has already given her?  God has given her the gift of the Law, what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls her “Owner’s Manual” for life not only in the land of promise, but throughout the creation.

What does the kind of “life” that God calls Israel to choose look like?  For not just Israel, but all those whom God has redeemed it looks a lot like Deuteronomy 30:16: “To love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”

Real life, in other words, looks like a life lived in a faithful relationship with Yahweh.  It gratefully chooses to receive the life God gives by living by God’s purposes.  Israel can choose life by doing things like worshiping no other gods, speaking the truth in love, fostering healthy relationships and being content with what God has graciously given her.

Yet as Fretheim notes, the kind of life that God graciously grants God’s Israelite people is more than physical life.  In fact, in one sense, one’s heart may beat vigorously in the chest of a person who’s essentially dead because she doesn’t live according to God’s good purposes.  True life is found in health in every part of the human person.

Of course, Israel has repeatedly shown that it’s more natural and, thus, easier to choose death than life.  Verses 17 and following aren’t, after all, just about choices.  They also reflect Israel’s sad history.  There Moses says, “If your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.”  Persistent disobedience is, in other words, the way of death.

It’s a way that’s, sadly, well trodden.  It’s the way of the husband who chooses to be intimate with someone to whom he’s not married.  It’s the way of the child who deliberately dishonors both God and her parents.  It’s the way of powerful corporations that choose profits over advancing their customers’ well-being.  It’s the way of both big and small nations that choose soldiers and guns over bread and butter for their citizens.

But it’s not the way of life.  It’s the way of death that has a thousand children.  Shattered familial and other relationships.  Broken neighborhoods and workplaces.  Warring ethnic groups and nations.  All may seem and in fact be quite lively.  But all are in a real sense dead.

Of course, as Hoezee vigorously reminds Deuteronomy 30’s preachers and teachers, obeying God’s commands saves none of us.  We are saved by grace alone that we receive with faith in Jesus Christ.  We don’t walk in God’s ways in order to convince God to bless us physically and materially.   We walk in God’s ways in order to express our gratitude for God’s mighty acts of redemption.

Yet though keeping God’s commands, decrees and laws, doesn’t save us, we aren’t saved if we stubbornly and permanently refuse to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves.  It’s not just that true human flourishing is found only in faithful obedience to God’s commands and purposes.

It’s also that the Holy Spirit uses such obedience to shape us more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, in whom we have life, both now and forevermore.  After all, in verses 19 and 20 Moses calls Israel to “choose life, so that … you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  It’s almost as if Moses suggests that choosing life will produce greater obedience.

Of course, Deuteronomy doesn’t not report whether Israel “chooses life” or “death.”  It remains, says Fretheim open-ended.  But that seems appropriate.  After all, the question remains open-ended in the 21st century, for all who read, as well as even preach and teach the words of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.

Illustration Idea (from a February, 2014  Sermon Commentary)

As Frederick Buechner and others have observed, the word “law” can be used a couple of different ways. Sometimes a law reflects the way someone decides things should be. So the sign that tells you to drive 55 MPH on a certain stretch of highway is the law, but it’s rather arbitrary. Maybe it used to be 45 MPH and maybe someday a Department of Transportation committee will decide to move it up to 65 MPH. Similarly, if you own a patch of forest, it’s up to you whether or not to grant access to hunters. You can post either a “No Trespassing/No Hunting” sign along your fence line or a sign that says, “Hunters Allowed with Permission.” It’s up to you, and either way it is, as it were, the law for your property. Speed limit and trespassing signs are “law” in the sense of how we decide things should be.

But there is another kind of law that you can detect when someone speaks of “the law of gravity” or “the second law of thermodynamics.” This sense of law does not suggest how things could or should be in a given situation but how things very simply are in all situations. You may disobey the law of gravity if you want — you could even decide you don’t believe that particular law. But that attitude won’t help you if you lose your balance at the top of a stepladder or drop a hammer while it’s over top of your left foot.

Too often we make the mistake of thinking that God’s laws are like speed limit signs — they are just arbitrary hoops God has decided people should jump through. But as the people of God, we need to know that God’s laws are like gravity — God gave us these guidelines and rules as a kind of owner’s manual for life on earth. These rules describe the way things simply are. All in all, you will be far better off in life if you respect the law of gravity — when dealing with hammers, ladders, staircases, and the edges of cliffs, it’s a really good idea to know that gravity is not a law that depends on circumstances to take effect. So also with God’s law for the Israelites: God wanted his people to be safe, healthy, and well. But God knew that for shalom to come, it would come best and easiest and the most quickly when people followed the owner’s guide for life in the Promised Land.


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