SCRIPTURE – Deut. 30:11-20
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 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, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Have It Your Way
Feb. 13, 2011
For Valentine’s Day, Leigh and I went to a frozen yogurt place last night – I know what you’re thinking, “How romantic!” Hey, the laundrymat was closed! At this place you serve yourself the yogurt and then put your own toppings on. They have more than a dozen flavors of yogurt and a ton of different toppings. The hardest part about going there is choosing what you want. And therein lies on of the complexities of our society today. We have more choice at our disposal than anyone else at any other time in history.
God bless free will, right? God did an awesome thing when God gave humans the freedom to decide for themselves. We are not mindless automatons pledging robotic allegiance to our Creator. We have been given the ability by God to choose, including the ability to choose not to believe in God. But this freedom comes with responsibility and at least two potential dangers. The first danger that comes with this freedom is that we end up making so many choices that we can’t tell the important ones from the not-so-important ones. And the second danger is that we don’t acknowledge there are consequences for each decision we make, big or small.
The fact is that it is our human nature to abuse this freedom of choice, like when I loaded up my frozen yogurt with nuts and chocolate chips and M&Ms and Reese’s Cups and marshmallows. When given a choice, we don’t always choose wisely. I wonder if that’s why God took choice away from the Israelites as they were wandering through the desert trying to make it to the Promised Land. God didn’t overwhelm them with a buffet of foods every day. God simply said, “You can eat whatever you want, as long as it is manna.” By removing frivolous choices, it helped the Israelites focus in on the choices that were most important.
Not that it helped them much. After all, they were still the Israelites, which is to say they were still hard-headed and human, prone to the same lapses of judgment and mindless behaviors over and over and over again. You would think 10 plagues and a parted sea would leave quite an impression on someone. But while their sandals were still wet from walking on the sea floor, the Israelites started complaining about Moses and God and the dry heat and the lack of sunscreen. They said they would rather be back in slavery than led to die in the desert.
So Moses, displaying infinitely more patience than you or I could ever show, leads these nit-pickers and back-seat drivers for 40 years, all the while trying to be their guide, their advocate, their coach, their security guard, and their pastor. And now, on the cusp of the Promised Land that has been promised to them, Moses addresses his congregation one last time.
The book of Deuteronomy is basically a collection of Moses’ last words to these people with whom he has spent the last 40 years. It’s a grand, sweeping recollection as Moses recounts the history of the Israelites and then proceeds to restate the laws given to him by God on Mt. Sinai. In a sense, Moses is trying to help the Israelites remember how they got to where they are and the purpose for all they had been through.
It’s a bit like what we do each Sunday, isn’t it? We gather together to sing songs and hear scripture and tell stories to remind us of who we are and the One who created and called us. It’s easy to forget those essential truths when you’re busy wandering around in the desert or navigating the slushy Lexington roads. Whether you’re dealing with cranky Israelites or cranky toddlers, worried about collecting your daily manna or making it to the grocery store in time for dinner, sometimes it’s easy to forget the essence of why we live and breathe. The book of Deuteronomy is a Post-it Note to the Israelites, keeping in front of them that they are, first and foremost, the chosen people of God, called to be a city on a hill for the nations around them.
By the time we get to Chapter 30, Moses has just about exhausted everything he has to say. He has sweated and cried and danced for joy and slumped in agony for 40 years, and he’s coming to the end of his final words in his final sermon. So he wants to give the Israelites one last chance to sign their name on the dotted line and fully enter into this covenant with God. Moses lays out the terms, putting it in contractual language that would have been familiar to the Israelites. In order for an agreement to be struck in those times, witnesses were required. So Moses says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” And then Moses calls for the sale: “Choose life.”
That two-word statement is basically what Moses has been building toward for 29 chapters. He is asking for a total commitment from the Israelites, asking them to give their whole heart and soul and mind and strength to God. This is not something you just drift into; this is not the kind of thing you inadvertently stumble upon. I was talking to a former church member who was always a little obtuse and I asked him how things were going. He said, “Well, I woke up the other day and found myself engaged.”
Being engaged is not something that happens while you’re asleep. I think you pretty much have to be an active participant in the creation of the engagement. That’s what Moses is saying to the Israelites here. You can’t just go along assuming you’re in relationship with God or wishfully hoping you are. There is an intentional decision involved. It’s like the joke about what it takes to make a breakfast of ham and eggs: for the chicken it’s an inconvenience but for the pig it’s a commitment.
Moses is asking the Israelites to make that kind of commitment, to give their lives to God. And he lays out the contractual terms as simply as possible. If you follow God, you will live. If you don’t follow God, you will perish. This is not a plea or a threat; it’s a statement of fact. If you walk out a second-story window, you’ll fall. If you cut your hand, you’ll bleed. If you turn away from God, you’ll perish.
The Israelites should know this. They’ve been doing it for years. The fact that they turned away from God and toward a golden calf is part of the reason it’s taken them 40 years to get to this place. All of us have turned away from God at some point in our lives, whether for a split second or a decade. We have waxed and waned in our commitment to God, in our prayer life, in our worship attendance. We do that because God has given us the freedom to do that, and we don’t always choose wisely.
You see, like the Israelites, we have been given the ability to choose where we put our loyalties and our time and our money. We have been told, like the old Burger King commercial, “Have It Your Way.” What Moses is encouraging the Israelites to do is to make their way God’s way, to align themselves with their Deliverer so that they and their descendants may live, loving God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for as Moses says, “That means life to you.”
What means life to us? What decisions do we make each day to “choose life” and to make our ways God’s ways? Maybe it’s time alone in the morning to read or pray; maybe is time spent in nature, surrounding ourselves with God’s creation; maybe it’s time spent serving someone else or sharing God’s love. Whatever it is, each day the choice Moses put in front of the Israelites is the choice that’s put in front of us, a choice between life and death, a choice between blessings and cursings. I don’t think I have to go down the list of what those things are. We know in our hearts what it is that blesses us and what it is that curses us. We know what choices we make that give life and what choices we make that hasten spiritual, if not physical, death. The truth of the matter is that sometimes it’s easier to choose the easy god, the comfortable god, the controllable god, the self-serving god, the pleasurable god. There are plenty of other gods to which we bow down and serve. Those are the gods of death. We’re not ignorant; we know that we’re doing it and we know there are consequences, no matter how much we try to talk ourselves out of it. We know when we choose death. My goal is not to make you feel guilty when you choose wrongly.
Instead, I take this passage as a simple reminder that each and every day we are awake and alive, we face this choice. And we won’t always make the right one, will we? Sometimes we will say or do things that separate us from God. Sometimes we might feel like God is far off, and that we have made so many bad choices that there’s no hope of ever being reconciled with God. But Moses says if we choose life, God will find us and bring us back. No matter how many wrong choices we have made, it’s never too late to make the right one. No matter how many times we choose death, whether it’s once or a hundred times, God never gives up on us, always putting the choice before us again. It’s never too late to choose life so that we may live.
That, more than anything, is what I believe God wants for us. God wants us to live. God wants us to enjoy the blessings of being in God’s favor. God wants our love and obedience and loyalty and joy. Each day God wants us to wake up and choose God all over again. Just doing it once was not enough. Every day we need to find the courage and the strength to say to God, “Have it your way.” That’s hard, because God’s plan for our lives is not always our idea of a good time. And yet, over and over again we learn that when we try to have it our way, we perish.
So the choice is before us again. Life and prosperity, death and adversity. If we follow the commandments and guidance of God, we will live. If we don’t pay attention to God and try to do life on our own, we will perish. That’s the facts. Notice, we never hear from the Israelites what they choose to do. There’s never a decision given. Instead, Moses’ choice is left hanging out there, waiting to be answered.