The Word This Weekend – February 16, 2020
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
[Moses said to the people:] Now look: I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that 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 and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
This Sunday, paired with the continuing words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, comes a reading from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (literally, “second giving of the Law”). This book, the fifth of the five books of Torah, presents the final sermon of Moses to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, after their 40 year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness.
A generation has passed, and nearly all those who had crossed the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh’s enslavement have died and been buried along the way. Their children, most of whom had never experienced the depths of the villainy endured under that time of oppression in Egypt, now stand at the gate to a new and promised life in the land Abraham had explored, into which Isaac had been born, where Jacob had sojourned and Joseph had been kidnapped and sold into slavery.
These centuries later, with the experiences of failure and wandering for over a generation, Moses now gives a final word of promise and warning to those who would set out on this new adventure: making a home in “the Land of Milk and Honey.”
In the reading we will hear this weekend, Moses caps off his various commands regarding worship, communal life and personal piety with these remarkable words:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that 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, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
So there it is, in sharpest relief. What is set before God’s people, on a mountain overlooking the expansive grandeur of the Holy Land, is life or death, blessing or curse. I’ve traveled to the traditional site of that ancient mountain, and peered down from what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, across the river to the land that encompasses the Dead Sea to the South, Galilee to the North, and the Mediterranean to the far West. Just imagine the soaring emotions of looking out on all that territory, and what it must have meant to those wanderers to be at the portal to a new and promising new life.
Death and life, blessing and curse. And a choice to be made.
For us as much as for them, such a promise and such a challenge still stands. What will be the choice we will make, looking out over the vistas of our own life? To any of us, aware of our received history and traditions, and inspired by what may lie ahead, the challenge is renewed and restated, as fresh and sharp as on that mountain long ago. And, as for them, the call to such a choice is made:
Now this choice may mean any number of things to us, depending on the life’s situations in which we may find ourselves, or the contours of our life’s sojourn. But I believe that a few pointers are there for us all, in the daunting challenge to opt for life instead of death, blessing instead of curse.
For if the summons to choose life can have any lasting meaning, I think that it means cherishing the gift of life in all its fullness and in all its dimensions. We value and enshrine the precious gift of life, beginning with its initiation in the mystery of love and family. We embrace the spark of life in every human soul, and stand watch over any threat to the eradication or cheapening of that life, whether at life’s beginning or at any moment along the way.
Moreover, to choose life means more than issues around conception, gestation and birth. It also means loving and affirming life for people in every corner and aspect of life’s course. For any of us who would assert their dedication to life at its outset must likewise dedicate ourselves to the preservation and cultivating of life all along the way.
For instance, when people are abused, mistreated or robbed of their dignity, we choose life when we intervene and advocate for justice and compassion for them. When people are dislocated or estranged by human greed, warring or greed, we choose life when we graciously and courageously provide asylum and rescue.
When people are dehumanized through poverty, oppression, imprisonment or callous disregard, we who follow the Lord of Life must see in them the face of the Savior, and the face of our very own kin (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
When people’s minds or spirits are darkened by evil doctrines of hatred, blame or intolerance, we choose life by entering the fray, engaging the hatred of degraded minds, speaking aloud and passionately the cause of viewing all this world’s inhabitants as one human family, each and every soul possessing that gift of life that must never be cheapened, minimized or denied.
And, by the way, this conviction to affirm the gift and blessing of life extends beyond the human family as well. We humans are not the only creatures on God’s block, and a commitment to life in all its fullness and possibilities means that we embrace all God’s creatures, and speak up forcefully on behalf of any creature subjected to cruelty, oppression or misery.
Tall order, this call to choose life, isn’t it? And there are many ruts and boulders along this life-affirming road. The culture of death and curse is powerful, alluring and ever-present. It sometimes appears as counter-intuitive to choose life over death as it is for the salmon to challenge the currents and dangers of swimming upstream to its breeding ground. Yet swim we must, no matter the force of societal currents or the ever-present dangers of fear, self-interest, or the gathering voices of hate and dehumanization.
Because it is our calling, and it is the divine summons upon our lives, if we would claim the fullness of the life we ourselves have been given by the One who breathes existence into clay and declares, “Live! Breathe! Choose life -- that you may live long and live well!”
So my friends, I hope to see you in the Gathering of Christ’s Life-lovers this weekend. To wash to the water of life, abide in the word of life, and feast at the table of life. To recognize anew our need of God’s grace, and celebrate in faith the provision of that grace in the benevolent love of the Christ, who declares in all boldness, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Join with us at Font, Word and Meal, as we prepare once more to foray out once more into the mission field, called once more to lives of blessedness, advocacy, compassion, peace and self-offering love -- all in obedience to the Christ who bids us follow in faith, and who promises, “In me you have life, and have it to the full!”
With You in God’s Good Work,