Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 16, 2014, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Sermon Theme: “Life or Death? Whose Choice Is It?”
(Sources: Anderson’s Preaching Workbook, Cycle A; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 24, Part 1, Series A)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
The story, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrates the difficulty of making choices when the person, in this case, Alice, doesn’t know where she wants to go.
Alice was treading the path through the forest in Wonderland when it divided in two different directions. As she stood there wondering what to do, the Cheshire Cat suddenly appeared in the crotch of a tree. Alice asked him which path she should choose.
“Where do you want to go?” asked the cat.
“I don’t know,” said Alice.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Our sermon text from Deuteronomy raises the question about choices. The setting of our text is the land of Moab. There Moses addresses the Israelites as they are about to cross over the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. During their forty years in the wilderness, the generation born in slavery in Egypt has died and a new generation has been born into the covenant God has made with the people through Moses.
In a covenant renewal ceremony for the entire gathered people, Moses reminds this new generation of their history, the Law, and the promises God has made to them. And then he confronts them with a crucial choice which they must make that day. The choice is life, which flows from obedience to the Lord, or death which follows disobedience. They were about to enter a land where the inhabitants served other gods. Before they find themselves tempted by these gods, they must choose the Lord of their life. To choose the only true God now would protect them from the danger of choosing false gods later on. It’s a life or death choice.
Moses reminds the people that following God’s laws and keeping the covenant are necessary to live peaceably in the land, and that the exile they have experienced is the consequence of disobedience.
Before our text begins, Moses has said to them: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today [to obey God’s law] is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to haven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Moses understood the people of Israel only too well. When they come face to face with the choice of obeying the Ten Commandments or enjoying the lifestyle of the pagan inhabitants of the Promised Land, they could easily conclude, ‘Why bother with the Law?’
From your perspective, you’re probably thinking, ‘It’s a no-brainer; on the one hand, there is life and blessings, and, on the other, death and curses. Why would anyone think long about this one?’ No one intentionally chooses death, do they? Well, not usually.
What happens is people choose that which appears to be life enhancing, but is really a death trap. Drugs, for example, seem to be a real life enhancer. They make you feel good, but once you are hooked, it is hard to choose life again. To bow down to the god of Mammon (money) seems like an attractive thing to do, but once prostrate, you may never be able to stand tall again.
That is why Moses urged the people to choose now, this very day, to serve God, before they are lured into the service of the gods of death.
You know, we live in a society much like the Canaanite civilization that the Israelites entered once they crossed the river. Canaanites worshipped fertility gods and goddesses, and many people in our society today try to find ultimate fulfillment and pleasure in sexual license. Wine, women and song all day long may seem like “the life,” but ultimately it is death.
It was a great idea for Moses to ask the people to choose ahead of time, before they cross the river. We get sucked into the way of death when we fail to acknowledge and serve the Lord of life.
Sometimes I think we human beings are incredibly stupid! It’s one thing to make a bad decision out of ignorance or necessity, but it’s something else when you know better.
My father did not choose to die from the pulmonary ravages of emphysema, but he did choose to smoke two packs a day of unfiltered Camel cigarettes most of his life, and he did choose to continue to smoke a pack a day after his doctor told him if he gave up smoking, he would add ten years to his life, and that people with emphysema must not smoke. In a sense, then, he did choose death.
A teenager does not choose to become a drug addict and to die of an overdose. But he does choose to get high once in a while with his friends. And when the once in a while turns into all of the time, he chooses not to give up the highs and chooses to continue. Later, he chooses not to go into rehab, but to remain in the slavery of addiction. In a sense, then, he chooses the destruction of real meaning in his life which is a kind of death, or even death itself.
In the situation with my father, it did not mean “eternal” death, just “temporal” death, because he had a strong faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In the example of teenagers being tempted into drug abuse, dying of an overdose might not mean “eternal” death, as well as temporal death, –it depends on his faith.
But in our text, Moses was talking about “eternal” death versus “eternal” life. He wants his people to choose eternal life. Yet there are requirements. Here’s what he says is required: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
And he also adds that if you worship false gods, you will perish. There were numerous fertility cults worshipping fertility gods and goddesses in Canaan when Moses lived. In today’s world, Hindus have too many gods to count. Buddhists have only one god, but he surely is hard to find. Most Americans today are more likely to be lured away from the true God by the gods of money, sexual licentiousness, and drug dependency.
The Good News in all this, which comes through Deuteronomy and the rest of the Bible, is God will accomplish that which He requires.
How will He do this? God changes the hearts of men to do his will by continually and repeatedly loving them in the midst of their sinfulness and rejection, that is, by showing mercy, grace, and forgiveness to a rebellious people. Time and again, before this point in history and for many centuries to come, God will circumcise the hearts of His people by displaying His abundant grace and mercy.
This assurance Moses receives when God calls him back to Mount Sinai to chisel new tablets of stone after he’s broken the original ones over Israel’s worshiping the golden calf. Here’s what it says in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord passed before Moses and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’”
God ultimately reveals the reason behind His mercy and grace for a rebellious people when He sends His only Son to die on the cross. Jesus’ atonement for the sins of all people is the reason we are delivered from God’s just punishment. As Romans 5:9 says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
The love with which Christ Himself loved us and willingly went to the cross is the love that compels us to love Him in return and to love others.
The power God gives to us to chose life and obey His Commandments is near us; it is in our mouths and in our hearts. The grace and mercy that bring about such a change in our hearts is offered to us through the Word and Sacraments, which deliver Jesus Christ and His forgiveness to us. These, God’s Means of Grace, not our choice really, do enable us to live faithfully in obedience to Him.
And that is how we are able to choose life over death. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.