Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, Matthew 5:21-37, I Corinthians 3:1-9
When I was in the early years of high school two English musicians who went by the collective name of Wham! were the popular band. George Michael and (does anyone remember?) Andrew Ridgley danced about singing “wake me up before you go-go” while wearing oversized tee-shirts bearing the slogan “Choose Life”. Of course we would all choose life: given the choice, life sure beats the alternative. In a similar way the Scottish film Trainspotting directed its viewers to choose life. Get a job, get a life, and stay out of the drug scene. Choose life and actively engage with the way that leads to life. Don’t follow the path that leads to despair and death. Trainspotting then goes on to show what the way of death looks like; it makes for rather grim viewing.
Two of today’s readings are taken directly from the great sermons of the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy and the Sermon on the Mount. It makes it hard as preacher to know what to leave out; can I really improve on the spoken words of Moses and Jesus? Well no, I can’t. All I can do is summarise what was said so that this message is done and dusted in fifteen minutes, and that is has particular cultural and social relevance to the people of Kingscote in February 2014.
The particular passage we have from Deuteronomy is the last words of Moses’ long sermon. After reciting the entire book of Deuteronomy up to this point Moses steps down and the Bible text shifts to narrative and the account of how Joshua is appointed to be the successor of Moses. So today’s passage is the conclusion of the Conclusion, or as Rev Rob says “as I begin to conclude”. These six verses are the last things Moses says and he says them in summary of all that has gone before and to make clear the declaration of his key point. Moses has reminded Israel of the story of the goings on in Egypt, the Exodus out of Egypt forty years ago, and the covenant made at Sinai soon after. So where is this all leading, what is the key point? Choose Life. The whole book of Deuteronomy, “the Second Law” which is what Deuteronomy means, can be summed up in those two words. Choose Life.
At this point in their history the Hebrew people are the brink of a new way of life. They are moving from a generation of refugees totally dependent upon God for navigation, food and water, and preservation in a hostile environment in to a new country where there will be opportunity to settle permanently and take up farming, industry and trade. At this special moment in their history Moses takes time to remind the People of God that the God of the people cannot be forgotten. There will no longer be a cloud of smoke and fire, there will be n more manna from Heaven, or water from rocks, but there will still be the covenant of worship and guardianship. God’s people once delivered safely in to God’s land cannot live without God: that is not how it works at all.
God offers the nation a clear choice. Life and prosperity, or death and adversity. God says to them “the choice is yours”, and Moses makes clear that the choice is obvious.
The question confronts us as it confronted the Hebrews, how do we choose life? Moses says “easy, just love God: walk with God and obey what you’ve been commanded and advised,” and the Psalmist adds to this saying “hold fast to what you believe”. We know who God is, and what we have been commanded and advised because Moses has just spent twenty-nine and a half chapters telling us. In fact just prior to our reading this morning, in verses 11-14, Moses says “this is not hard, this is not rocket surgery people, God has made it simple and clear what is expected of you.” God has promised to maintain you, your family, and your land if you follow the idiot-proof path. The blessings of God rest on those who give themselves to wise living, so be people of integrity and you will be blessed. If you move beyond God’s instructions you’ll be on your own in a dangerous world and you won’t last long, and the blessings will go to your enemies. You’ve just walked through a desert, you know what it’s like on the wrong side of the Jordan, so don’t go there because to reject God’s love and wisdom is to actively choose death and adversity. Knowing all that you do you can make a wise, informed decision. Choose the way of God described to you and things will go well. Refuse to listen, turn to other sources of meaning and hope, and it will not end well for you. God says quite clearly, the choice is yours, but please choose life. God cannot choose for you but God’s advice is clear, God wants you to choose life.
That is the choice all are free to make, and God will not interfere if that is the way you choose. God will not curse you if you disobey; it’s just that God will not rescue you when you fall over. The smoke and fire and manna and water are gone, if you return to your own ways you will starve, thirst, and die of exposure. That’s nobody’s fault but your own.
But does “choose life” always mean “choose adventure”? Were Wham! on the right track with their bouncing disco style life? Does “choose life” ever mean “choose adventure” at all? We Christians like the idea of a life of stepping out of the boat, but perhaps that isn’t God’s idea at all. Perhaps Jesus wants us to stay where we are and serve in the place that he has put us. Moses’ injunction was to choose to do the basics well, love God, love your neighbours, manage your household and raise your children. Learn the lesson of Trainspotting, don’t presume God has called us to be Walter Mitty types, jumping into helicopters and out of them again, or escaping a volcano on a skateboard; as exciting as that sounds. Of course we are aware that God has and does call some people to that sort of faith, but the words of Moses, Jesus, and the Psalmist are the words of quiet faithfulness. Rather than “wake me up before you go-go” the better life is to “stay here and love me faithfully.”
Psalm 119 calls those who choose the faithful, God-directed life fortunate. We might just as easily call them “happy and to be envied”, because who in seeing a fortunate person doesn’t want to be like them? I do, I’d like to be fortunate and to be thought of as being fortunate. These people are blessed and other people will look towards them and ask why things go so well for them. This is the purpose of our lives as Christians, so that those who look at us from outside a working relationship with God will wonder why things work so well for us. We may not be prosperous in materialistic ways, but we are seen to do life well. The world’s rich might just as easily be grumpy and sad as living it up on their yachts: think of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet with a sense of purpose lit by God anyone can be prosperous in life if they find enjoyment in peace, love, and company. Again, think of Scrooge but after the ghosts have come. Many laughed to see this alteration in him, writes Dickens. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. Isn’t that lovely? I think it is. And I am sure that his ability to keep Christmas well had nothing to do with the size of the turkey he sent around to the Cratchitt house every year, but with the rediscovery of laughter and joy in the company of family and friends and the wisdom to spend a day at dinner and games instead of at the office. This is what Christian life is supposed to look like. Quiet. Confident. Fulfilling. Free.
This is the context for what Paul and Jesus each say on interpersonal relationships. The world will not see Christians living a life of blessing and worthy of envy if we are fighting amongst each other. Manage your anger says Jesus. He doesn’t say, “don’t get angry”, just be kind in your disagreements and apologise if you mess up. Control your natural human desire for intimacy and love, focus them only on the one you have promised to cherish. When you look at a man or woman with lust be certain he or she is always and only the one who wears your ring. And when you give your word, keep your word, be that in marriage or in court. Don’t make false promises, don’t be contradictory or deceptive, don’t take sides needlessly, and don’t get into petty competition amongst yourselves. Jesus asks, “do you really think being argumentative and unfaithful is a constructive way to live?” We all know how to be kind; is it really so hard to play nicely?
In shaping scripture differently Jesus might direct us not to be “of the world but not in it”, acting like the most spoiled and spiteful people of the world outside our walls while building spats around points of doctrine and theology which mean nothing to those people. Belong only to Jesus, not some other charismatic person. Belong only to Jesus especially when that same charismatic person calls you on it. If Paul belongs to Christ how can any of us belong to Paul? When it’s Paul saying such things then we are foolish if we don’t take notice, even those of us who claim to belong to Apollos. Belong only to your wife or husband, don’t go looking for meaning beyond the one God has given you, and unless he or she has gone past you stay in that relationship. Life goes better if lived in friendship with your neighbours, your partner, your children, and your colleagues. Once again, this is not rocket surgery, and once again we see Paul and Moses speaking fifteen centuries apart saying the same thing, the thing Jesus says too.
Choose life. Live well. Be content with what you have while always looking to follow God more closely and love God more dearly. Don’t go chasing stars or dollars, and in the words of Bill and Ted “be excellent to each other”. Choose life, the world is looking to us for direction and will follow us toward God if we are humble enough to point the way simply by doing as we have been told, loving as we have been loved.