One could wish that this Lectionary passage began a few verses earlier because there is delicious imagery starting in verse 11 where Moses says (in essence) to the people of Israel, “Hey, folks, this stuff God is saying to you through me about life in the Promised Land ain’t rocket science. You don’t have to travel to the far side of the moon to snag this wisdom nor do you have to travel over the ocean to the ends of the earth to get it. In fact, the choice you face is being delivered to you on a silver platter. It’s within reach. Stretch out your hand and grab it!”
“Now Choose Life” Moses will say in verse 19. But verses 11-14 make it clear that it’s not that tough of a choice.
It’s really rather simple, Moses says. Because God loves you, he has given you the gift of the Law, which is your Owner’s Manual for life in this creation.
You don’t have to do trial and error to figure out what practices make for life and what ones create pain and bitterness and ultimately a kind of living death (if not, sometimes, actual death itself). So now choose life! Take the good paths, make into a habit the practices that God has told you in advance will build up your neighbors, shore up your marriage, strengthen your families, and promote shalom in which all can flourish and thrive in God’s good world. You don’t have to guess blind. God has shown you what is right. Consult the manual and do it!
It is as though God had created big neon signs with bright yellow arrows pointing straight at the things that make for a good and happy life. There was (and is) no missing it!
Even so . . . the clarity with which one could access the truth about what is life-affirming and what is life-extinguishing has seldom in history been sufficient to ensure that life would actually be chosen. For ever so long now, human beings have been notorious for choosing death and so producing mayhem and unhappiness. Moses knew what we know, what most every parent knows: simply showing people the better way to live is no guarantee that they will take that path.
It is a story repeated a thousand times (maybe a million times) every day. The same middle aged man who has witnessed altogether too many friends ruin their lives and the lives of their children by running after a younger woman nevertheless convinces himself that in his case, going after that really cute co-worker (who is 25 years younger than the wife back home) will work out, will bring happiness to all. He’s just sure of it. And the junk food that is bad for other people’s health won’t be so bad for you. And greed only wrecks some people’s relationships but it will work to your advantage (and anyway you will keep it in check). And the very thing you have for so long warned other people about avoiding is something you will surely be able to handle and so you do it anyway.
Bad choices ricochet down the corridors of time and it seems that no amount of morality tales, fair warnings, counter-examples, or sound advice from trusted counselors are ever enough to wave us off from making spectacularly bad choices. Nine times out of ten it really is not rocket science to understand which course of action will be prudent and which one will prove disastrous but just knowing that is not necessarily sufficient. People choose death all the time.
In the case of Deuteronomy 30, God is warning not only against the natural consequences of making bad choices but of also the covenant consequences. Because it is God’s covenantal love that drove him to want to reveal to his beloved people the rules and patterns that would be like guardrails to keep them out of the ditch and from falling into ravines. It was divine love that motivated God to show people where danger lies in life, not so very different from the parental love that motivates a good father to tell his child to stay away from scorpions and to not stick a fork into an electrical outlet.
Of course, everyone makes mistakes. Kids do, too. Sometimes it’s not enough to believe mom about not eating raw cookie dough and so they do it anyway and end up with a bellyache. It happens. But when this becomes a sustained pattern—when a child shows contempt for parental advice and limit-setting out of the firm (albeit mistaken) belief that mom and dad are just out to ruin your fun in life—well, then the reaction from the parents is as often heartbreak as anger. But the fact remains: such high-handed disregard for the rules, for the advice that leads to happiness and shalom, fractures a key relationship in life. It amounts to love spurned, love rejected. And this has consequences.
Christians know they have been saved by grace, not by works. We don’t follow the rules and toe the divine line in order to curry favor with God or work our own way to heaven. God’s giving us the Law is itself a grace, of course. It is a gift. But although we are not saved by coloring inside God’s lines and walking along only God’s paths, neither can we be saved if we live our lives with callous disregard to what God reveals to us by his grace. After all, if we tell God to take a hike when he is giving us the grace of his Law to keep us whole and safe, we are very likely to take a similar attitude when God next comes to us in order to offer up the grace of his beloved Son’s atoning blood.
When you reject God’s grace in one form, the other one too often follows and the result of that is now what it has forever been: death.
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 step ladder 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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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2023
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Commentary