Choose life

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming today. I hope you’re doing well!

Today we’re going to finish up the series we’ve been doing for the last three months, about famous characters from the Old Testament. Actually, this isn’t so much a character today. It’s an idea or a message.

You all know about Moses. The baby in the basket. The guy at the burning bush. The guy with all the plagues in Egypt. The guy who couldn’t find his way home for 40 years, because he forgot the road map.

Maybe that’s unfair. Moses thought he knew where he was going, but everybody in the back of the bus kept starting fights and complaining about the food. He kept having to stop the bus and straighten things out.

Moses finally asked God for some rules to live by, which helped – except people have been ignoring the ten rules, ever since.

The section we’re going to read this morning is from the book of Deuteronomy, which almost nobody ever reads. The name “Deuteronomy” means “the second law”, because in many ways it’s an amplification of what God originally said to Israel. It’s full of all kinds of picky details and obscure rules. Do this. Don’t do that.

Most people fall asleep reading Deuteronomy, because a lot of it is really boring. But today’s reading really wakes us back up again.

As we start today’s reading, Moses told the people, “I’m 120 years old now. I can’t get around the way I used to. The Lord told me, ‘You’re not going to cross on over Jordan with the rest of the people into the Promised Land’. These are your last instructions.”

And then, this is what Moses said.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you, take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations.

You and your children will return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today. Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.

Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors.

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. You will again obey the Lord and follow all his commands I am giving you today.

Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land.

The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law, and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now, what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It’s not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”

Nor is what I’m commanding you beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and so that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:1-20

What does it mean for us to be God’s people? What should we be doing every day? How should we live?

What this morning’s reading says to us is, “It’s not all that hard to figure out.” The commandment of God is not too hard for us. It isn’t far off. It’s not a matter for long training or special education. We’re not talking about rocket science here.

There is no need for visions of angels in order for us to know what to do. There is no need for divine messengers. We don’t need horoscopes.

As Moses says, “It isn’t up in heaven, so that you should all stand around and say, `Well, gee, who’s going to go up to heaven, and bring us the word, so that we can hear it, and do it?’” It’s not off in space, and it isn’t buried in some library, and it’s not some place off in Washington. We don’t need to wait for somebody else to bring us the word. It’s already here.

Moses says, “The word is very near to you; it’s in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

This is also very similar to the things Jesus used to say: “The kingdom of God is at hand; the kingdom is very near; the kingdom of God is within you . . .”

So, what does God require of us? What are we supposed to be doing now? Not last year, not two generations ago, not what the early Friends did. What does God want us to do, today?

First point: We have come through times we couldn’t even imagine two years ago. We have seen things which none of us ever even thought we’d see. COVID. Shortages. Job losses. Hospitals overwhelmed. Conflicts.

We have survived. And we should be thankful. We should be thankful, to the bottom of our hearts, for the rest of our days, that we made it.

But then what? We’re coming into a different world now. What should we be doing? Should we go back, to the way things used to be? I’m not sure how that’s going to happen.

We need to re-build so many things. We need to help each other, to get our confidence back, to get our mojo back, as a church, as a community, as a nation.

How do we begin such a job? Where do we start?

We start by being thankful. We thank God for each new day that we’re still here. We thank God for every Sunday we can still come to worship.

We thank God for every person who comes here. And we thank God for every opportunity there is to fellowship.

Don’t complain about what used to be. Thank God for where we are, right now. And then look around you, for what’s possible for us to do today, in this new world that’s all around us.

There are plenty of things we can do in mission and service. Our schools are hurting. There are divisions we can try and heal.

We have a church to build, and people to help. There are hungry people, and Jesus told us to feed them. There are lonely people, and Jesus told us to call on them, and bring them hope, and share his love.

If we want to know what God wants, all we have to do is listen. Part of what it means to be a church, gathered together under God, is that we are a group of people who listen.

We don’t just go charging ahead and do whatever we want to do, on our own. We stop, and we listen to God. Even if we have old programs, things which we love and want to get going again, we need to look and see if those are still the things God wants us to be doing now.

Think about what it says today in Deuteronomy: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, keeping God’s statutes, following God’s decisions, then you shall live . . .”

I want you to notice those are all action words there. Loving. Walking. Keeping. Following. Those are action words.

Then it says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and so that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to those who came before you.”

There are more action words in there. Loving. Listening. Holding fast. And especially choosing. The word which sums up God’s commandment here is choosing.

Part of what it means to be a church, is that a church is a group of people who choose to follow God in the present day. A church is a group which makes active choices, and then follows them up.

A healthy church doesn’t just let time go by, and stick to a dead tradition. A healthy church listens to God, and tries to figure out what the next thing is.

One of the hallmarks of a healthy church is that we ask what God wants us to be doing. If we never ask that question, if we just go with the flow, we’re headed for the grave. The handwriting is on the wall already.

To be alive is to make choices. And to be healthy, is to choose life.

You all know that already. We choose to eat healthy, instead of junk food. We choose to stretch our minds and exercise our bodies, and not just turn into couch potatoes.

We choose to have joy in our families, and to share our love with them. We choose to think clearly, and not just repeat some dumb idea that everybody else is saying.

I have been studying churches for three-quarters of my life. I have visited churches in many different parts of the world. And one of the most important factors in whether a church is healthy or not, is what choices they are making, and whether those choices are to live.

Take an example: if we have a Sunday school, because we’ve always had a Sunday school, and because we’ve got a closet full of old Sunday school stuff lying around, then having a Sunday school isn’t a choice. It’s inertia.

But if we have a Sunday school, because we have teachers who love children, and children who want to come, and because we have people who are longing for fellowship and who are longing to grow spiritually, then we’ll have it, and nobody will be able to stop us.

Choosing life doesn’t always mean doing more. A lot of the time, choosing life actually means doing less, and living more.

If you feel closest to God when you’re outdoors, breathing the air and taking joy in God’s world, then I say, do that a lot more! Going to the beach. Running. Hunting. Whatever it is. Do that as much as you can, and take joy and pleasure in it.

But then, I want you to come to church, and tell us all how you felt God near you. Share that experience and that joy.

If you need to spend time with your family, I’m not going to say no. Your family is a gift. Put your family first! But remember that you have a bigger family, too, and that bigger family needs you.

  • Your family needs you to hold them, and tickle them, and sit down at the table and give thanks with them.
  • Your family needs you to hold back, and listen to them, and share your wisdom with them.
  • Your family needs you to help straighten them out, and grow up, and forgive them when they mess up, and help them feel proud and accepted again.

Those things are all part of what it means to choose life.

I have made many, many mistakes in my life. Usually, my mistakes have been when I didn’t listen, when I acted without thinking, when I did the same old thing that didn’t work before.

My mistakes have been when I listened to my fears instead of my faith, when I paid attention to my prejudices instead of the other person’s point of view, or when I just wasn’t patient enough to let God show me a better way.

But the biggest mistakes of all have happened when I didn’t choose life. That invitation for friendship that I didn’t respond to. That opportunity to forgive that I didn’t seize and build on. That open door that I didn’t poke my head inside. Do you all know what I mean?

“Choosing life” here in our meeting, it can mean lot of things. It can mean welcoming newcomers, and opening our hearts to them, and listening to what’s in their heart.

It can mean choosing to be honest, instead of being just conventional or polite, when we talk with each other.

Choosing life can mean how we handle conflicts. Do we brush things under the rug, or do we take the painful path to truth and reconciliation? That’s choosing life.

Let me share with you another famous passage from the book of Deuteronomy. It’s one which every Jew knows by heart. It says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might . . .”

And remember the second part of that commandment, the part that Jesus said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . .”

Doing that is choosing life. It’s meant to be filled with love. It’s meant to be something which we can talk about with our children, and say, “We’re doing it this way, because God’s life and love and joy are important to us.”

This year, in our life together, we have lots of decisions to make. We’ll have meetings for business. We’ll have decisions each week about whether to speak up during open worship. We’ll have people we meet, and opportunities to serve.

I hope that whatever we do, we will wait for God’s presence, and listen to what God is saying, and choose life.

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