Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Commentary
This is one hard text to preach. On the one hand, it seems so simple that it doesn’t even need a sermon. I mean, what more can we say about a text that is this straightforward. On the other hand, its simple straightforward message is so demanding and absolute that it will be unpalatable for many modern listeners, literally unbelievable for folks caught in the thrall of post-modern relativism. Its “either/or” choice and its “or else” consequences are a message many will not tolerate. Indeed, many preachers will have to decide if they themselves actually believe these simple, hard words before they begin their sermon preparation.
This sermon (for that is exactly what it is) is preached to people on the brink, of the literal Jordan River originally and of figurative Jordan Rivers throughout history. The historic setting pictured in the text is the end of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and the beginning of their conquest of the Promised Land. As they pitch camp on the plains of Moab on the eastern bank of the Jordan, Moses summarizes the covenant arrangement between Yahweh and Israel. Before they cross over Jordan, he reminds them of the terms of the covenant God has made with them. Our text is the dramatic climax of Moses’ long sermon, raising the central question. Will they follow Torah or not?
The final author of the book of Deuteronomy was also speaking to people on the brink of the Jordan, people in danger of going back over the Jordan into Exile. After centuries of Israel’s disobedience, God was about to send them out of the very land God had promised to give them. Re-preaching Moses’ old sermon was a way of giving them one last chance at life and prosperity. “You have a choice, a great big simple choice.”
If we are to preach on this text to Christian audiences (or at least non-Jewish people), we must assume the kind of continuity with Israel that runs through the New Testament (for example, Paul’s bold claims in Galatians 3:7 that “those who believe are children of Abraham” and in Galatians 6:16 that we are “the Israel of God.”) Their story is our story. Like them we stand at the brink, facing life or death, prosperity or destruction, blessing or curse. In every age, in all lands, in each life, we are faced with a great big simple choice. Moses is preaching to us here.
The sermon has two major positive points: “now choose life” and “for the Lord is your life.” Choose the Lord and you choose life. Simple, upbeat, good news. Until we are confronted with the alternatives. If you don’t choose the Lord, you choose death. Robert Jenson summarizes it memorably when he speaks of “the appalling clarity of the demanded decision” and “the equally appalling absoluteness of the decision’s consequences.”
“For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws…. But 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….” That’s what all the commands and decrees and laws of the previous chapters of Deuteronomy and the rest of Torah amount to—love God and God alone. The detailed laws simply spell out what that love looks like in the nitty gritty of daily life. They tell us what it means in practical terms to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.
This is what Jenson means by the “appalling clarity of the demanded decision.” “The people can obey Torah or not obey it; no mediating possibility is offered…. They can worship the Lord or they can worship something else; what they cannot do is worship the Lord and something else….”
However, “Israel’s whole history between Exodus and Exile can be construed as an extended effort to be more sensible about this matter. The rule of that history could have been formulated:
‘Yahweh, to be sure, is our God, but who is to say there is not something true and valuable in the gods of our neighbors, in the Baalim and Asherah and the host of heaven? And if there is, surely we should give them their due honor. Surely, in religious matters it is wiser to be inclusive than exclusive.”
It doesn’t take a theological genius to see that this implicit rule of Israel’s idolaters is “the explicit dogma of late modernity and has gained power also in the church.” Jenson speaks with the power and bluntness of an Old Testament prophet: “And it is a desperate falsehood. Either God is the only God or there is nothing but the little gods and goddesses.” Moses insists, and so must we, that “the Lord is your life.” There are many competitors for his throne, many who promise life, but only Yahweh is able to give the life that is life indeed.
That is a strong claim, but it at least sounds like Good News; there is Someone who can give us life in this death-ruled world. But our text also contains what Jenson calls the “appalling absoluteness of the decision’s consequences… polar and immediate opposites: obeying is life, good and blessing, and not obeying is death, evil and curse.”
Yes, God wants us to choose life. That’s the point of the sermon: “now choose life so that you and your children may live….” But to underline the extreme importance of making the right choice, God lays out the consequences of making the wrong choice. Again, Jenson puts it better than I ever could. The text doesn’t present us with a choice in the ordinary sense of the world—”not a choice between alternative means to a good end or for the lesser of two evils… with this choice we have nothing to choose. There is only an obedience which is perfectly obvious in itself, or the mystery of iniquity, of our factual ability deliberately to choose our own destruction.” To put it simply, we can choose to live by choosing Yahweh, or we can choose to die by rejecting Yahweh as the only God. That is the “appalling absoluteness of the decision’s consequences.”
King Josiah understood this very clearly. According to II Kings 22:11, when he heard Moses’ sermon in the late days of Israel’s monarchy, he tore his clothing in grief and terror, because he realized that Israel had already chosen its own death. Death had been coming for a long time; indeed, Israel was already dead. And that may be the conclusion you and your congregation may come to as well. We are dead people walking, because we have made the wrong choice in the most fundamental way.
But thanks be to God, we have another choice than tearing our clothes in grief and terror. We can hope for resurrection. By the grace of God, Israel was able to return to the Land of Promise, but they continued to make wrong choices, as do we all. Torah is still out there. In fact, it is in here, in our hearts, as God promised Jeremiah (chapter 31). But our hope is not in Torah; it is in the true Israelite who fulfilled it completely, “the Lord who is our life,” who is, in fact, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
The Apostle Peter, the great Denier of the Lord, was talking about the one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he wrote, “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…. (I Peter 1:3)”
We are nearing the end of Epiphany and standing on the brink of Lent. As we lean into that time of remembering all the Lord has done to save us from our appalling choices, we get another glimpse of the glory of the Lord. This simple text with its stark choices and stunning consequences points us to the glorious Good News that God has done for us what we have not done for ourselves—obeyed Torah and opened for us the way into the Promised Land where we will live, not many years, but eternally.
Now the question put to us by this text is, will we choose to live the life that is sheer gift by trusting and obeying the God who has saved us? Worship God and live. Or divide our loyalties and experience death, even as we live by grace. That’s not really a choice at all, is it? Preach it simple, straight, and strong. “Now choose life…. For the Lord is your life….”
Frank Stockton’s classic short story, “The Lady and the Tiger,” is a perfect example of the murkiness of so many choices in a world where evil is so strong. A cruel king, a star-crossed lover and his jealous girlfriend, and two doors concealing a beautiful woman or a ferocious tiger. Which to choose? Whom to believe? What will be the consequences when the man finally has to choose? In a world filled with moral grayness, our text is a refreshing or jarring exception.
An example of the moral complexity of our world is the way the words of our text have been claimed by opposite sides of the great abortion controversy. Our text urges us to “choose life,” but one side of the debate is “pro-choice” and the other is “pro-life.”
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