I’ve spoken before about a children’s book series that Peyton liked when she was little. It was called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” At the end of every chapter, the reader can choose between various directions the story can take. Since you get to choose every time you come to the end of a chapter, the stories have lots of possible outcomes.
It occurred to me that our passage for today, and in fact the whole book of Deuteronomy, would make a great “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. Because the entire book is about choices—choices made in the past and choices to be made in the future. But, there are two big differences between Deuteronomy and the stories Peyton used to read. One is that the author of Deuteronomy gives us the same two choices for every turning point. We can choose life, or we can choose death.
The second difference is in the meaning of the word “choose.” In the Bible, that word refers to a kind of choosing that’s very different from the kind of choosing we do when we come to the end of a book chapter or line up at a buffet. It’s different than picking a favorite team or a new paint color for the kitchen. It’s different than opting for one job over another, one house over another, or one flavor of ice cream over another.
In the Bible, the word “choose” represents something much deeper. Choices aren’t made just to obtain something, but to accomplish a specific goal or a purpose. Careful planning and consideration go into choosing, because choosing means making a commitment. It means entering into a covenant relationship with what—or whom—is chosen.
Deuteronomy is largely a book of law. When it was first translated from Hebrew into Greek, it was given the name we know it by, which means “Second Law.” It’s not a new set of laws but a collection and review of the laws which had already been given to the Israelites, including the Ten Commandments: laws that govern the life of the Jewish people in all its aspects—legal, political, social, and religious.
But it’s much more than simply a legal reference book. Its Hebrew name means “words” or “speech,” which is appropriate since the whole book is actually Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites. He’s nearing the end of his life, and the people are poised to enter the Promised Land which he will never set foot in. He’s led these people for more than forty years, through good times and bad times and very bad times, and this is his last opportunity to equip them for the journey they will undertake without him.
He begins by recounting their history, starting with their days at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments—twice. He reminds them of how they could have entered the Promised Land decades earlier but had chosen to rely on the fearful reports of some panicky spies rather on God’s word. He takes them through the consequences of that choice: forty years of wandering in the wilderness until all the original escapees from Egypt had died off. He recalls (somewhat bitterly, I imagine) that it’s on account of them that he won’t be allowed to enter the Promised Land himself. “You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of Egypt until you came to this place,” he tells them.
Moses in Deuteronomy has some pretty low expectations of his people. He knows too well how fickle and fearful they can be. He knows how easily they ignore the laws that would help them live as the covenant people they’d been chosen to be. He knows how quickly they can forget who they are and whose they are. In fact, he’s pretty sure that, even as he’s speaking, there are individuals and families and whole tribes whose hearts are already turning away from God—already replacing God with lower-case gods. Or, they’re complacently sure that their status as the chosen people means they can freely do whatever they want with no negative consequences. As far as Moses is concerned, it’s not a matter of “if” they’ll be unfaithful. It’s only a matter of when and how.
It’s generally accepted that Deuteronomy was written down sometime after the year 586 BCE, after Jerusalem had fallen, after the temple had been destroyed and many of the Jewish people had been taken into exile in Babylon. Some theologians maintain that what was written down is a record of what Moses said to the Israelites as they prepared to cross the Jordan. But, more scholars believe that the words attributed to Moses were actually composed during the Babylonian exile.
If this is the case, it was written to help the Jewish people deal with their new reality, using Moses as a spokesperson and the end of his life as the setting. It was written by and for people who were living with the consequences of the same kinds of bad choices their ancestors had made. They had ignored the laws that would have ensured a strong and united nation. Worship had been reduced to grandstanding rather than heartfelt reverence. The rich and the powerful had taken advantage of the poor and the vulnerable, assuming they were too big to fail. The people had committed themselves to human rulers rather than God. The authors wanted to remind the exiles of where they’d been, to refocus them on the law that had been given to them, and to renew the hope that was still theirs.
Like the Israelites, the exiles were living in a kind of wilderness, all because they had chosen to forget the Lord their God. And so, the authors addressed the questions that the exile prompted: “What choices did we make that led to the exile we’re in? Is there any hope for us? Can we become what God called us and chose us to be, and how?”
Those are questions we may well ask of ourselves. We might ask them of ourselves as a nation. How did we come to be a country so divided—by politics and religion and income and race? What choices have we made in the past that led to our situation today? Is there hope for us to be what we have the potential to be—the potential so many lived and died to secure? What choices—what commitments—should we make in the future to ensure that we will be a beacon of justice and compassion and freedom and hope in the world?
We might ask those questions of our denomination. How did we get to where we are now, where anger and resentment take center stage in the midst of theological differences, and concerns about property overshadow concerns about people? What choices did we make that led us to where we are today? Is there hope for us to be the Church? What choices do we need to make in the future to be the body birthed by the Spirit to carry on Christ’s work in the world?
Especially, we might ask those questions of ourselves. What choices have I made that have led me into a “wilderness time”? It’s so easy to make some lower-case god the center of our lives. It’s easy to ignore what the Lord commanded and Jesus modeled. It’s easy to choose fear over trust, convenience over obedience, complacency over repentance. If we feel a distance between God and us, it’s not because God has moved away from us. It’s because we’ve chosen idols to take the place that God should occupy in our lives.
When we find ourselves in that kind of exile, we may wonder, “Is there hope for me?” The answer is “yes.” It’s the answer embodied in Moses’ words in Deuteronomy, whether those words were addressed to the Israelites on the plains of Moab or to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Regardless of their failures in the past, at each new turning point in their lives, they had an opportunity to choose what direction their story would take. We have the same opportunity and the same choice. We can choose between life and death.
Moses describes this choice in various ways. It’s the choice between life or death. It’s the choice between prosperity or adversity. It’s the choice between blessing or curses. It’s the choice between entering into what God has promised or looking at it fearfully from afar. But, these all boil down to one choice: the choice between turning away from God or loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, and souls, and might. We can’t have both. It’s one or the other.
The Israelites had seen what their death-dealing choices had brought about. So had the Jewish exiles in Babylon. So can we. The choice to turn away from God brings about the death. It brings about the death of true security, because we can’t fully trust anything or anyone but God to have our best interests at heart. It brings about the death of contentment—because the world only offers us junk food for our souls and keeps us dissatisfied and hungry for more. It brings about the death of community, because focusing on our own needs—real or imagined—disconnects us from others. The choice to turn away from God brings about the death of confidence, because unless we are holding fast to God, we will know only fear about what the future holds.
But, Moses also paints a picture of what choosing life looks like. It means no more wandering in a wilderness. It means accepting the abundant life God has promised. It means living long and prosperous lives. It means that future generations will carry on what we have begun.
Moses is clear that choosing life means choosing God. And, choosing life in God also means choosing a lifestyle. It means committing ourselves to living by God’s commandments and ordinances. These are the tools God has given us to order our lives. If we choose to observe them, we will live in a way that protects us from all those dangers that can trip us up—idol worship, taking God for granted, fear of the unknown, the self-centered focus that grows into discontent and disregard for others. God’s commandments are the guard rails that keep us walking in God’s ways.
God has made these commandments readily available to us. They’re not specialized knowledge that only certain people have access to. Moses reminds his people of this a few verses before our passage: “Surely this commandment…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 heaven 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.”
But simply following the law for the law’s sake isn’t the key to enjoying an abundant life. That’s simply the outward expression of our fundamental choice to give our whole heart to God, to have a heart whose sole aim is to please God in all things. It’s the expression of our choice to hold fast to God—to live with God. That’s what it means to choose life, because fully human life is only possible when we live with God. Living apart from God is nothing less than death.
When I read passages like the one for today, though, I always wonder about people who do live godly lives—people who love God and strive to live according to God’s commandments, but all too often suffer hardships in their lives. They long for children but don’t have them. They live with the burden of constant poverty. They suffer in body and mind. “Where are the blessings of prosperity and long life for them?” I wonder. Maybe you wonder the same thing.
The key is that Moses wasn’t speaking to his people as individuals. He was speaking to them as a community—a community of faith. Even though individuals may suffer from life’s trials, if the community as a whole makes a commitment to God and to living according to God’s life-giving commandments, the community as a body will prosper. That prosperity may take a form other than simple material wealth or physical health. That prosperity is characterized by a happiness that goes beyond pleasure and results from leading a moral life. Choosing life means choosing spiritually and ethically whole and healthy lives, according to God’s commandments. That leads to whole and healthy communities, which last from one generation to another.
If you are moved to read or re-read Deuteronomy for yourself, you’ll find that Moses includes some commandments that seem very strange to our ears. Does choosing God and God’s way require that we follow every commandment? Are we to actually take our disobedient sons down to the intersection of Providence and Waterville Streets and allow the Village Council members to stone them to death, as it’s written in Chapter 21? Do we have to give up our ham loaf dinners, as it’s written in Chapter 14?
Of course, the answer is “no.” The law as it is written in Scripture was written for a particular people in a particular time and place, whether that was for the Israelites or the Babylonian exiles. It covered everything—legal, social, political, and religious. We live in a different context, and we have to determine which laws God would have us follow here and now.
To decide whether a law is one that we should follow, we use the choice between life and death as a guide, and we choose the ones that are life-giving. If a law will make the community stronger and healthier, then that law is meant for us. If a law encourages the growth of love and justice and mercy and hope in the world, that law is meant for us. If a law will help us grow closer to God and to our neighbors, that law is meant for us.
Over the years, I’ve taught all ages in Sunday School. Many years ago, I taught a High School Sunday School class. As I got to know the students, I realized something about their lives that was very different from mine when I was that age. When I was growing up, there were certain distinct turning points where we made choices about who our friends would be—like when you entered junior high or high school or college or the military. When you chose your friends, you also chose a lifestyle. You were either one of the kids who didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs or skip school, and so on, or you were one of the kids who did. The choices we made went pretty much unchallenged until the next major turning point.
But, I realized that the students in my class were making those choices on nearly a daily basis. They were surrounded by peers who had different values and backgrounds and expectations than theirs, and they intermixed freely. So, on any given day, my students had to choose who and what they would place at the center of their lives.
We’re in the same boat. We live in a world that offers us a smorgasbord of things we can commit ourselves to. Every day, we are challenged to make a choice about how we will live and whom we will serve. Every day, we are challenged anew to choose between life and death.
But as you’re making your decision, remember one last thing. You’re not the only one who’s doing some choosing. God chooses, too, and what God chooses is us. God is making a commitment, too, and what God is committing to is us. God is entering into a covenant, too, and the people God enters into covenant with is us.
Moses told the Israelites, “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” Jesus told his disciples, “I have chosen you out of the world.” Paul reminds us, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, and destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
Every day, we have a choice to make. We can choose death, or we can choose life, loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We can choose death, or we can choose life, obeying God and holding fast to him. Every day, we have the opportunity to choose life—life with our God who has already chosen us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young