(a sermon for February 12, 2017, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
The older I get, the more convinced I have become that so much of “life as we know it” is made up of an unending series of choices and their consequences!
Understand, this isn’t any new discovery on my part; I remember, for instance, being thirteen years old and trying to figure out what to do with some money that was burning a hole in my pocket. And of course, there was a choice to be made, and the choice was clear: whether to do the mature thing and put that money safely in the little savings account I’d just opened at the local bank, or to do the fun thing and go out and blow it all on whatever the “cool” thing was at the moment; not an easy decision when you’re thirteen, but there were consequences either way! Or, then there was the time when I was sixteen and agonized for weeks whether I should bolster my courage and ask the girl I had this crush on to the Winter Carnival Dance, knowing full well that to do so was to risk getting shot down in flames (By the way, I did… and, alas, I was… but that’s sometimes the inevitable result of the choices we make!).
And that was only the beginning! But you know what I’m talking about here; life is filled with choices: some difficult, to be sure, and inevitably fraught with trouble; but a great many others that are crystal clear and are life-affirming in the choosing. Education, vocation, marriage and family, geography, philosophy and, might I add, faith (!); from the moment you and I set out on life’s journey – and continuing on from year to year and “from season to changing season” – we are confronted by a multitude of choices that will not only determine the course of that journey, but will ultimately shape us as well.
Granted, not all our decisions are so momentous and life-changing; honestly, most of our choices are the kind of everyday, routine, even automatic decisions that are part and parcel of daily life. Moreover, there are choices before us that really aren’t choices at all, because we already know that there is only one clear, correct and, dare I say, moral way to choose; the kind of things that build up community and make us part of a civilized, and hopefully compassionate society. So truly, many of the decisions we make in this life are relatively easy ones, in part because we already understand the consequences involved, and we’ve already clear on which pathway we’re meant to travel.
But then there are other choices that aren’t so easy; ones that can actually cause us some amount of struggle and pain. These often come at those moments when we’ll find ourselves at an unmarked crossroad of our lives and living, and we have to decide which way to go. If you’ve been there – and I suspect most of us have – then you know that these are the decisions that tear the very core of our being.
Remember those famous words of Robert Frost’s poem, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both…?” (from “The Road Not Taken”) For me, that was always the quintessential evocation of how some choices have a way of affecting the entirety of life; and trust me, back when I was a young man trying to figure out my way in the world, I found great power (and no small amount of comfort) in Frost’s assertion that “somewhere ages and ages hence,” he could say “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” For me, the beauty of that poem wasn’t even an assumption that “the road not taken” was somehow the one decision that led to all success and good fortune; but rather it was the truth that in all the uncertainties that life has to offer, there’s a choice to be made as to which road to travel, and it’s how we choose that makes all the difference moving forward!
But the question is – the question always is (!) – how do we choose? How do we really know which way to go, which road “diverged in the yellow wood” we’re supposed to travel? Are we supposed to play it safe and stay on the well-marked pathways of life? Or are we meant to take the leap of faith in forging new trails of our own? More to the point of our lives, what do we do when the choices aren’t so clear cut, or correct, or so readily moral or ethical to our sensibilities; which way do we go when the way ahead seems murky at best?
That is what our text for this morning is all about.
As we pick up this Old Testament story from Deuteronomy, it’s late in the life of Moses; in a time when he himself knew that he would not be crossing over the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses is an old man at this point; but even as he’s about to step aside with Joshua becoming his successor, he is deeply concerned for the fate of Israel moving forward. It’s not so much a concern regarding God’s continued presence and providence unto his people – for that had been proven again and again – but rather it’s a concern about how Israel would respond to their God, especially given their lapses of faith in the past.
Moses, you see, recognized that the people of Israel were again at a crossroads and that there was a choice to be made, the consequences of which amounted to their whole future. And so now, here’s this man who once thought of himself as lacking eloquence and actually sought to deflect the very call of God by claiming that he was too “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) now gathering up all of God’s people and fairly well roaring at them, “…today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days.”
This is your choice, a choice between “life and prosperity” or “death and adversity.” “Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God… [but] refuse to listen obediently, and willfully go off to serve and worship other gods, you will most certainly die.” [The Message] There’s a choice to be made, so choose… choose life!
There is nothing at all murky or uncertain about that!
Now Moses’ message to the people of Israel might seem far removed from the kind of garden variety life choices you and I face along the way, and I’ll admit, it’s tempting to dismiss the Old Testament language of judgment as the “hellfire and brimstone” rantings of an earlier time. But what we need to remember here is that at the heart of Moses’ words is not judgment, but the opportunity to choose wisely and faithfully; and that has everything to do with our lives here and now! What Moses is saying here is that God’s people need to commit – with heart and soul and body – to a vibrant relationship with this God in whom they live and move and have their being. And you see, the choice is as clear to us as it was for them: we may choose to honor the covenant our ancestors have made with God and have carried through the generations; or we can choose to break that covenant by faithlessness, in the worship of idols, or by negligence of God. We can choose life, or we can choose death; it’s up to us, and it’s our choice to make. But we need to choose.
Life, of course, is defined by much more than the evidence of a beating heart; likewise, death cannot ever simply be described as the cessation of physical life. It’s possible to experience a spiritual or emotional death, living and breathing but nonetheless feeling cut off from love and fellowship and everything else that makes life matter. Likewise, what’s that saying about how life shouldn’t be measured in the number of breaths you take, but rather in the moments that take your breath away? The point is that the difference between life and death is also the difference between fulfillment and emptiness, movement and stagnancy, liberation and servitude; it’s in that context that Moses says to the people of God, and to you and me, “Choose life,” life as God has created it and intends for it to be in all of its wonder and opportunity, and “loving the LORD your God” in the midst of it all, “obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
Holding fast to God… that’s the best choice of all! It’s walking with God in all things; it’s finding wonder and strength and wholeness in even the most mysterious and utterly uncertain parts of our existence, simply because God is in the midst of it. It’s embracing a sense of wholeness and peace in the midst of confusing times in a conflicted world, all because we know God has already given us the hope and strength we need for the way. It’s the freedom to cast off the burdens of guilt, and sorrow, and regret, and sin that cause us die a thousand deaths every single day, and to walk in forgiveness and new life. It’s ever and always walking in the company of God, for “that means life to you and length of days.”
Of course, it needs to be said here that holding fast to God and choosing life in him does with it some amount of responsibility; and that, if we’re being honest, can make the way ahead challenging. Did you ever hear the story of the little boy who had expected a toy for his birthday from his favorite uncle, but instead got a sweater? After his birthday, his mother prompted him to write a thank-you note, which read, “Dear Uncle George, Thank you for the sweater. It’s what I always wanted, but not very much. Love, Jimmy.”
We are called to choose life; and life is what we always want, but sometimes not very much! And that’s because while life is always the good choice, the Godly choice, it is not always (if ever!) the easy choice. Indeed, choosing life over death often requires profound sacrifice, great courage, the willingness to be isolated from conventional and popular culture, and the ability to stand strong and even smile amid adversity. It stands for life lived with a higher standard under a greater allegiance; and it represents a commitment to God’s purposes in all things, in all places and at all times, now and forever.
Indeed, life can often be the more difficult choice… but it the choice that carries with it the very fullness of our existence.
So now there’s life and death, blessings and curses… even now they are set before you and before me.
What will we choose, beloved?
What will we choose?
I pray that we will always choose life.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry