Last Sunday we looked at the war commands of chapter 7. I suggested that this passage is an example of indirect speech, where the writer says one thing and means another—a kind of metaphorical call to war against all other spiritual authorities in our lives, rather than a call to kill all of our human enemies.
Someone listening to me may have thought: That’s a really useful idea! Now I can get around any passage of Scripture I don’t like! All I have to do is say that it really means something else! How convenient ….
Of course, I do not believe that we can reinterpret Scripture for our own convenience. You should always be able to find clues in the text that tell you to read for the hidden meaning. The biggest clue is that the passage contradicts the rest of Scripture. Many passages in the OT call us to trust God rather than fight, and the teachings of Jesus lead us in the way of peace; so it makes sense that Moses was talking about something else other than killing the people around them.
Most Scripture is more straightforward. It says what it means, and often we can hear it clearly. Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses makes clear the point of the whole book, is like that. These verses are not indirect or confusing. In them Moses speaks clearly: Obey God, and choose life. Disobey God and receive death.
So we turn to Deuteronomy 30 and hear words that express Moses’ heart and deepest desire. This passage comes as part of the conclusion of Moses’ sermon to the Children of Israel, waiting to enter the Promised Land. In these verses he states the core of his message to the Israelites. Here, summarized in these 10 verses, is what he wants them to know and what he wants them to do, and here Moses speaks also to us.
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 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.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 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.
19 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 20 and 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 fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This call to choose life is what he has been getting at throughout the rest of the book. In the first chapters he reminds the Children of Israel what has led up to this point. The previous generation had come to this same point of entering the land, and they failed at this final step. As a result they spent 40 years wandering in the desert, until they died. Now the next generation, their children, face the same opportunity.
Moses reminds them of the Ten Words given at Sinai (chapter 5), which guide their lives as the People of God. He gives them the Shema (chapter 6), the great declaration of God’s internal unity, with the call to love God and to love the family of God. Then the war passage (chapter 7) we looked at last week comes as a commentary on the first of the Ten Words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.”
In chapters 11 to 26, Moses restates some of the core laws that form God’s people as they enter the land. Finally in chapter 27 the action moves back to Moses’ sermon, with instructions on how to renew the covenant between God and God’s People. So we come to the passage we just read.
Listen to the flow of these verses.
“The Word.” Verses 11-14: Moses states that these commands (“what I am commanding you”—“this word”) are not some fancy ideal that they cannot live up to, but rather they are the very presence of God, which lives within them. This sentence is particularly important: “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.”
Consider other uses of this term, “the word”. In Genesis 1, God speaks, and creation comes into being. John refers to this creative word in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … Through the Word all things were made; without the Word nothing was made that has been made.” I believe that these commandments—this word in their mouths and in their hearts—echo this creative word of God, which becomes the very presence of God. This statement also prefigures Jeremiah 31: 33, “This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Lie and Death. Verses 15-16: This word contains “life and prosperity”. Outside of this word lies “death and destruction”. The essence of this word is to “love God” and to “walk in obedience to God”. This statement sounds to me remarkably like the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all people, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commands.”
“Destruction.” Verses 17-18: Worshipping other gods leads to destruction. This idea is one we may struggle with; the reality of judgment is unpalatable to our minds. But here is another way to think about it. There’s a song popular in contemporary worship named “Great are you, Lord”, with these words: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, So we pour out our praise, We pour out our praise.” The song refers to physical air, but we might say with equal truth that God is the atmosphere, the air that we need to live spiritually, fully. God is indeed our very life. Then the choice to live apart from God must lead to death. We can no more live without faith in God than we can breathe without air.
If someone decides to live in a vacuum, we do not blame the air for failing to give him/her life. If someone decides to live without food, we do not blame the food for allowing him/her to die of starvation. What we call “God’s judgment” is the inevitable consequence of trying to live without God. It is not something God wants to do. As Ezekiel 33: 10-11 puts it, Son of man, say to the Israelites, “This is what you are saying: ‘Our offences and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?’” Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”
Choose life! Verses 19-20 repeat the call to choose life and live in and for God. Moses was pleading with the Children of Israel to worship God alone—repeating again the First of the Ten Words, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Living with the Passage Today
The message of the passage is clear: Choose life, which means, choose to love and obey God. Walk with God. The laws in chapters 11 to 26 give some idea of what this life looks like. Here are three simple ideas that come through these laws.
1. One sees the fundamental importance of equity. There are various laws that emphasize the fact that all people in Israel stand equal before God. In a Christian understanding we say that everyone is equal t the foot of the cross, but here we see that such equality goes back to God’s relationship with the Children of Israel. Equality is basic to being God’s People.
2. One sees also the fundamental importance of caring for marginalized people. The Law of Levirate Marriage in chapter 25 is just one of many examples. In this law a childless widow, who had no political or economic power in Israel, is given specific legal rights to ensure that she has the ability to care for herself. She stands here for marginalized people everywhere. Caring for the marginalized and hurting of the world is basic to being God’s People.
3. Thirdly, one sees the fundamental importance of holiness—holiness in the sense of recognizing God’s purity and power, and adjusting our lives to allow God’s purity and power to flow through us. This is the point of many laws emphasizing “cleanness” in ways that don’t make sense to us. It’s a bit like trimming our sail to the wind, allowing God to take us where God wants us to go. Being holy and devoted to God is basic to being God’s People.
Each of these themes could be the full subject of another sermon, and I won’t try to spell them out more fully today. For today I emphasize that these points are response to God’s grace, not ideas that we must somehow work out well enough to earn God’s love. Moses speaks to us as he spoke to the Children of Israel: Choose life! Love God! Follow God! We are at a very different place in our corporate life than the Children of Israel were. They spent 40 years waiting for the older generation to die. We have come through a painful time in which many of our younger people have left. Many of us are the older generation, but Moses still speaks: “Choose life!”
Last Thursday I sat at a table with several other people at lunch. We were talking about hope and believing in God. It was a hard conversation, because many people see reasons in our world not to hope. One man talked about his divorce—about 25 years ago. He reached a point in which he asked God what he was supposed to do. He wondered if God was even there. He told us how he heard God speak to him, “Can you be faithful for 40 years, and then spend an eternity of joy with me?” He was then 30, and the number 40 meant “to the end of your life.” He replied, “Yes.” The darkness of that moment lifted. The pain and loneliness remained, but he found he had strength to live. He told us that he had to cry out for help each day, and hear God’s voice each day, and receive new strength each day. The 25 years since then have brought him a new family, and he admitted that sometimes now he forgets to renew that explicit willingness to serve God, but it hasn’t gone away. He chose life, and God gave him life.
As we talked around the table, one of the others recalled a phrase from Juergen Moltmann, in which Moltmann refers to the “crucified God.” [Born in 1926, Moltmann is a German theologian who was drafted into the German army at age 18, surrendered at the first chance he got, and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. There he lost his secular faith in Nietzsche and found faith and life in Christ.] As someone has said, God is a cross-shaped God. I think that means that we find God where there is suffering and pain. We learn to hope in God in those places of our lives where we cannot hope in ourselves. That is the place we are in now. We cannot bring new life to our church through any program or efforts of our own. Only God can give us new life, and Moses would say to us: Choose life! Love God! Walk with God!
This truth is one of the reasons I asked us to do our prayer rock exercise last week. Loving God often finds its first real expression in loving each other. So I wanted to see us praying for each other, demonstrating our love for each other in a tangible, concrete way.
Such love has the power to unlock life in amazing ways. I think of Greg Ogden. He has described the power of what he calls micro-groups to transform lives. He was in a group of three men who met weekly for over a year for prayer and study. One of them, a young man, was ready to leave his job and go out to see the world. Greg suggested to him that he try a short-term mission trip first. He did, and found a meaning to life that he had been lacking in working on Christ’s behalf. Soon after he returned home he met a young woman, and they got married. Then he was found to have cancer, which a few years later took his life. Greg met some of this young man’s high school friends coming out of his hospital room as he lay near death. All they could talk about was the spirit of love and courage that radiated out of him as he lay there—completely unlike what they had expected. The love that these three men experienced in their small group led to a transformed life, which in turn flowed from the dying man to his high school friends. There is power in God’s love beyond anything that we can possibly understand. (See here this site for the story, or Ogden’s book, Transforming Discipleship, pages 9-14.)
This is no promise that when we choose life our congregation all past hurts will disappear, but there is the promise that we will prosper and grow. I don’t know what that “growth” will look like, but I know that choosing to love God and walk with God is the path of hope. We walk together loving God and loving each other, caring for the hurting and marginalized, seeking God’s will and way every day, and God gives us life, fuller and better than we can ever imagine.
5 February 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church
Deuteronomy 30: 11-20