A sermon preached on September 8, 2013 based upon Deuteronomy 30:15 -20.
The words we just heard come as the rousing finale of a speech given by Moses to the Hebrew people as they are about to enter the promised land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. If you want things to go well, he tells them, choose today moving forward to live for God.
Scholars tell us that these words don’t really come from that historic moment. They were composed hundreds of years later, after things had already gone very badly for the Hebrew people. So placing the words here is like going back in time to try and tell your younger self not to make the mistakes you have made in the subsequent decades of your life. There is that thought of, if we could have just made some better choices, how much better things would have turned out!
Or perhaps the words are written in an attempt to convince themselves that if they can just make the right choices moving forward — if they can just manage to live the right kind of life, one God will approve of, then, well everything will turn out well in the future. We won’t have to suffer.
It’s a form of what is known as the “prosperity Gospel.” The words can seem delusional. Listen again:
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
Oh, if life were that simple, that clear cut.
In one sense, this is precisely the kind of thinking that Jesus shot down when people asked him the Galileans Herod had slaughtered. Comforting as it might be to think otherwise, they weren’t worse sinners than the rest of you. Bad things happen to good people all the time – the prime example being Jesus himself getting crucified.
But it seems to me there is another way to hear these words that have been placed on the lips of Moses. It is a call embrace the freedom that is our most distinctive attribute – the quality that makes it possible to describe us as having been made in the image and likeness of God.
God is free. In God’s freedom, God chose us, giving us life. God didn’t have to, but that’s what God chose to do. The question is, will we embrace our freedom to choose God back? Real love only happens where there is freedom.
The kind of love I’m talking about is a kind that my dog Pearl, loving though she may be, is incapable of. She has no choice in her love; her instincts lead her to love the people who care for her.
But we have choices to make, and that is in underlying message of Moses’ rousing finale. That might seem like a matter of stating the obvious, but oftentimes the choices before us are the very things we fail to acknowledge.
To put it another way, we make our decisions by default. We choose not to choose. We choose a path because we don’t acknowledge that there is any other possible path.
Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi was on to something. I’ve talked before about my experience of getting lost in the woods as the sun was setting. The reason I got lost was that I came to a fork and I didn’t notice it. I was functioning on auto-pilot and I followed the more obvious of the two paths – essentially a continuation of the one I was already on. There was a choice to be made, but I didn’t acknowledge it, and the result was I got lost, spending several anxious hours thrashing about finding my way out of the dark woods.
Much of life is lived on the level of routine, of habit, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Take brushing our teeth, for instance. It wouldn’t be a good thing to confront a fork in the road every time we should be brushing out teeth. Hopefully, by habit, we just do it.
But much of the routine and habit of life isn’t good. We get stuck in ruts, or worse — down right destructive patterns of behavior.
It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It takes some conscious self-examination to notice our ruts. Some of our habits are so mundane that it doesn’t occur to us that there are any choices involved at all. Where, for instance, do our thoughts go when our minds are not otherwise occupied? If we pay attention, we often find they go directly to worry, or resentments, or complaining, or simply wishing we were somewhere other than where we are. They go places that diminish our lives.
Some times the circumstances of our lives can seem to take away any significant freedom of choice. But Victor Frankl, having survived a Nazi concentration camp, came to recognize that this is never truly the case:
“He who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given sent of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The prisoners who could embrace to this last of freedom freedoms also recognized that it was a freedom that found it’s truest expression in offering oneself in love — doing what one could to encourage his fellow captives.
CS Lewis argued that people often don’t grasp what is at stake when it comes to the choices of our lives. He said that people think it is a matter of making right choices so that God will reward us. Instead, Lewis describes the process of making choices this way:
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality [Touchstone Books, 1996].)
But if truth be told, there come times in life when we truly do come up against our own powerlessness to make choices different from what we’re accustomed to making. We start down a path with freely made choices. Maybe some people start out making the choice of turning to a drink when they need to relax, and somewhere along the way a point is reached where the choice is no longer there whether to take a drink or not to relax. Or maybe we’re in a relationship with a significant other, and for whatever reason we choose regularly not to put in the effort involved in effectively communicating in that relationship, and a day comes when the relationship is so damaged that we’re powerless to fix it.
The Apostle Paul described this very experience when he wrote: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15,19) He’s talking about the power of sin – a kind of self-destructive compulsion that on our own we can’t overcome.
In times such as these, our freedom has in a sense shrunk to a point where it almost seems to have altogether disappeared. But there is still freedom, and at such times freedom is expressed in the choice to reach out for help. To God. To a friend. In AA they emphasize the importance of giving one’s sponsor a call at those times where the power to resist the pull of drink has disappeared. The freedom remains to reach out for help.
On the most basic level, the choice presented before us on the lips of Moses is not about following rules – it’s about choosing life itself. God gives us life – will we embrace the gift?
There is a story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus comes upon a man who is unable to walk. He’s been sitting next to a pool of water for 38 years that was believed to have healing powers – that when the water rippled, it was believed an angel had descended ready to give a blessing to the first person who entered the water.
Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be healed?” On the surface it sounds like an odd question. Why else would he be sitting by this pool so long? But the man doesn’t answer the question; instead he talks about how somebody else always beats him into the pool.
The question needs to be addressed? Do we want to be healed? We can be divided inside ourselves. The smaller, diminished life that has become so familiar to us can seem in some ways preferable to the abundant life Jesus wants to offer us. We have to work our way to a place where we can say definitively, “Yes, I want to be healed! I want LIFE!”
In Star Wars, when Yoda tells Luke Skywalker to do something, and Luke answers half-heartedly that he will “try,” Yoda responds by saying. “No. Try not. Do. Or not. There is no try.”
The divided self must become united in its desire for fullness of life.
I often quote Rachel Naomi Remen, the medical doctor who has spent the second half of her life working with the spiritual dimension of health with patients dealing with serious illness.
She talks about in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” how her grandfather, a rabbi, taught here the meaning of “L’Chiam:” “To life.” As the glass of sweet wine was raised, the blessing was said that celebrated life itself. To a happy life? Rachel asked her grandfather. No, simply life itself, he responded. Life, with all its many struggles, is good, and needs to be embraced.
She writes how as the years passed she has come to realize that it isn’t so much a matter of celebrating life, as it is a matter of uncovering within oneself the will to live. Sometimes it takes a confrontation with serious illness to come in touch with the depth of one’s will to live, which had otherwise gotten buried when we lost our ways with paths unconsciously chosen that lead us into the darkness.
The words placed on Moses’ lips before entering the promised land were actually composed after the promised land has been lost. Sadly, how often that is the case. We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.
We are living in the promised land. Choose this day to embrace the gift of life itself. These are the good old days. Say yes to them now before it is too late.