By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 12, 2023
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 (ESV)
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
Today we have our reading from Deuteronomy. This book is that last book of the Pentateuch, or the last of the five books of Torah. Torah in Hebrew can mean different things. We usually think of Torah as the Law, but there are other meanings. Another word that can be used when translating Torah is directive. I know that this might be mincing words, but there are slight differences. When we think of law, certain images come to mind. Some of us might get the image of the police, a courtroom, maybe even a job. But what comes to mind when we consider the word directive? It comes across in our minds just a bit less harsh, a bit less scary. The reality of the two words is that there is not much difference. They both carry authority, they both give direction. It is just one usually has prescribed consequences.
Image if we were to go to Ikea, and we make a purchase of one of their products. We open the box only to find that there is some assembly required. We are in luck because there is a booklet included that has directions. We know what we are doing, we look at the pieces and we begin to put in screws and anchors. We continue for a while only to find that all of a sudden there is a piece that we cannot seem to get in. What will we do? We open that booklet and we consult the directions. We begin to take things apart and we begin to put this product together step by step, piece by piece. This the concept of directives. It gives a clear and concise method to get the desired results.
What would happen if that little booklet was considered Law instead of directives? This is how I want us to consider Torah today. There is a point where the directions listed in the Ikea package do become law. This is when something goes wrong and we call customer service to demand a replacement. They could examine our construction and determine that the directions were not followed and therefore they are not to be held liable for whatever failure may have occurred. When the directives are not followed, we are responsible for the consequences. We do not face a fine or a potential jail term when we overlook step five in the directions, but we also cannot accuse Ikea of a defective product.
We often look at scripture from the perspective of legality. This is not wrong because there are consequences to actions. But how does this affect our relationship with God?
Deuteronomy is in many ways a reteaching of God’s directives. The word Deuteronomy is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and literally means copy or second law. When we read the other four books of Torah, we read about how we got to this place. Genesis speaks of creation and God’s purpose and mission for life. It continues to speak of human failure. But there is hope in Genesis because God does not give up on humanity even though it grieves him. We are deceived in the Garden of Eden by the serpent, or if we look at the word for serpent it could be translated as shining one or burning one. The word is like serpent because of the burning pain one receives when a person is bitten by a venomous snake. But these serpents of ancient days were often used to depict the ferocious power of God’s throne guards so in many ancient religious beliefs, the Serpent takes on a supernatural form. Adam and Eve were not just deceived by a snake, they were deceived by a shining one. They were deceived by a supernatural being that they believed to be a servant of the Most High God, but this servant was in rebellion and by its deception we skipped a step in the directions of God and faced the consequence of death. The curse of Adam is not original sin, but death. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are told, and the wage of sin is death.
Genesis continues. Humanity failed yet God does not give up. Two more times humanity rises and falls, the result of these failings were the flood and the confusion of the languages. And even through these failures, God remains true. God does not give up on humanity, instead God calls out of the nations of the earth one man through which God will reverse the failures of the Kingdoms of Men and restore what was once lost. From this point the Torah leaves the nations behind and focuses on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From this point on God’s revelation comes not to all people but his directives are given to one nation, Israel. And Israel is given the task of being the light to the nations. They are given this task not because they are great in themselves, but because God chose to restore all people, all tribes, and all nations through them.
Genesis begins the story. Exodus continues the story. Leviticus, the book we often skip, we regard as being filled with a myriad of laws, but if we consider the teachings within those directives, we might be able to see them not as law, but as a conversation between a teacher and a student. Then there is the book of Numbers. The title of the book is a bit misleading, because it is not about math, but is instead, this book takes us from the mountain where God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, to the banks of the Jordan where they will soon enter the land promised to them.
The first five books of scripture are not merely law, but teaching. They teach us true humanity and direct us to live with and within creation. They direct us. And Deuteronomy is, in many ways, Moses retelling Israel their story, it is Moses encouraging the people of Israel to remember what they experienced and carry that into the next stage of life. Deuteronomy is the commencement address. You were once children in primary school, you moved on to secondary school and now that you are an adult you will face challenges and struggles. Remember what you were taught and embrace life.
In today’s reading Moses tells the people, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” I find this verse interesting. Moses does not say I set before you today right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Instead, he says life and good, death and evil. We can interpret it as right and wrong, but does this really tell the whole story?
Life is a state of being, but it is more than being alive, it is a process. It is thriving. Death is also a state of being and a process. Death is the opposite of life both in the state of being and in the process. If life is thriving, death is withering. I rested on this verse a bit as I approached interacted with these words in prayer. And I considered these states and processes. I reflected on my own life, as I must come to grip with the reality that I am now encouraged by my doctor to watch what I eat. Am I still part of life or am I withering?
I am thankful that I have the background that I have. I grew up on a farm, I know livestock and plants. I know that the young heifers are full of life and energy. They are this weird mix of a calf and an adult cow still wanting to play and yet big enough to cause damage. They are full of life; they are thriving and yet their offspring are rarely the most desirable. Then there are the old cows, sometimes they are barely able to move. They look as if in any moment they just might fall over and break, yet these old cows will often produce wonderful offspring. We look at them as being at death’s door yet they thrive.
As we age, thriving takes on different forms. We might not have the energy we once had when we were teenagers, but that does not diminish our value. We often contribute more than we ever could. Moses begins this section not by saying I set before you right and wrong, but he says life and death. Thriving and withering. It is as if he is telling them, we have embarked on a journey together and now it is time for you to take the lead. If you continue as I have taught you, you will thrive, but if you are distracted and walk a different path, you will begin to wither.
Moses continues, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God , by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
If you obey the commandments. After is sat in prayer, contemplating the state of my life. I then began to reflect on the commandments. Throughout the Torah there are six hundred and thirteen laws or commandments. As I sat and considered all these laws, I mind was drawn back to a memory from when Kristy was in school. Kristy, as many of you know, is an artist. And artists often look at things in ways that people like me do not. When Kristy was in school many of her classmates were in their studios working on various things. During the studio time of their day I would often spend time with Kristy and her friends. We would talk and laugh. But I remember one of Kristy’s friends was working and I walked by and stopped. I was drawn into this work of art, captivated by it. It was a chair, a large formal chair. A chair that you might see sitting at the front of a church. And this ceremonial chair was covered with cones made from pages of a book, little spikes all over it. This friend, knew who I was and my back ground, she knew that I was a pastor, and she got a bit nervous when I took notice of her art. And I began to ask questions. She had cut pages out of the bible and curled them into these spike and glued them onto this chair, a chair that many members of the clergy would sit upon on a Sunday morning. I loved it. If I had money at the time I would have offered to purchase the chair from her but I was broke. This chair captivated my attention, and I remember asking her which book of scripture she used and begged her to tell me Leviticus. And I asked her how many spikes she had glued on, and she asked me why it mattered. This piece of art, a piece of art that was created to express the negative aspects of religion became a touchpoint where we could have a conversation. I encouraged her to try to get as close to six hundred and thirteen spikes as she could because that is how many laws there are in scripture. And we laughed.
I mention this chair because it looked horrific. It looked like a seat of torture, and yet there was beauty in it. Life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…
We can use scripture as an instrument as death instead of life. This is why I encourage you to look at scripture as directives instead of law. It is not that I am encouraging you to sin, or to disregard the commandments but I want you to learn and be encouraged by them instead of tortured. If you were to look through the six hundred and thirteen laws, at first you might become overwhelmed. But there is beauty in them. They teach us how to live our lives together. They encourage us to live our lives in balance with nature and with our neighbors. The law, no, the teachings of God if we read them from the mindset of life instead of death can allow us to thrive.
I would love at this moment to go through each of these laws, all of them and explore them. But unfortunately, my son would like to eat sometime today so I will have to leave that for later. We know many of the laws though, we see them blasted all over social media. But have we actually stopped to consider what God is telling us through them? You might be surprised that most of the laws are not actually about sin. You might think of the kosher dietary laws because that is usually a group that we all remember because we do not follow them, but did you know that even though these were part of the law, it was not a sin? Uncleanness was not sin, but exactly what it sounds like health and hygiene. Most of the six hundred and thirteen laws of scripture are the equivalent of the CDC asking us to wash our hands during flu season.
But then there are some laws that seem more important than others. When we think of the law or the commandments what are the first things that come to mind. If you have been to church for any amount of time or if you are a fan of Charlton Heston then the Ten Commandments is the answer. I took a class when I was studying for my master’s degree that explored the ten commandments in depth. To most of us we look at these as a bunch of rules that tell us what we should not do. And yes, that is true, but there is a beauty to them. It might surprise you but the commandments, those ten commandments start a conversation, one that Jesus himself continued in his sermon on the mount. The command not to murder goes beyond the taking of a life, but it speaks to honoring and protecting life. And this is not simply life as the pro-life proponents might say, but life as Moses speaks in today’s passage. The command to not murder is a directive to engage in all the things that will encourage growth. We should not kill, but there are more steps involved, we should protect. We should protect because the person next to us as annoying as they might be, is a bearer of God’s Image. And to take their life is to say to God that we do not respect what was pronounces very good.
As Moses urges us to obey the commandments, he is telling us to stop focusing on ourselves and our own pleasures and passions, but to use those passions to promote continued growth within our communities. “Then you shall live and multiply.” When Jesus was being tested by the various religious leaders, he was asked what the most important commandment is. Jesus replied and said that We should love God with everything we are and all that we have. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. He went on to say that all the law and the prophets are built upon this. All the law hinges on that one teaching. Do not murder, because it is not loving your neighbor as yourself. How should we love our neighbor then? We to start, don’t kill them. But the next step is to encourage them. But how should we encourage them? This takes many forms, and it depends on who they are.
Moses urges us to obey the commandments and we will thrive, but he explains something else too. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. Consider the command that Jesus gave us. What happens when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves? What happens when a husband does not love his wife as Christ loves the church? What happens when we fail to regard those around us better than we do ourselves? We begin to see things differently. They never give me what I want. They never do the things that I want to do. My needs are not fulfilled. And the list goes on. We begin to argue, we begin to fight. We begin to take people to court demanding that we get what we deserve. This is not always wrong, but is it thriving? Is it promoting life? It sounds a bit shriveled, dry, and dead. It sounds a bit like a chair of spikes instead of a love seat.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”
Imagine, Moses standing on a hill above the valley of the Jordan. Imagine the entire camp of Israel looking at the lush land below. They are peering into their future, a land flowing with milk and honey. A future filled with hope and security. And their leader stands before them with possibility as a backdrop, and he says set before you is life and death, blessing and curse. You get to choose one as you journey forward. You can choose Life or death. Thriving or withering. Blessing or curse.
We can look at the Torah as God’s law or we can look at it as his directives. They both have authority, but they have a different approach. One dictates and the other converses. One discourages and the other encourages. One brings death and the other promotes life. Paul speaks about the law in his letter to the Romans. He says that he would not have known what it is to covet apart from the law, but once he knew that law, sin seized the opportunity and produced in him all kinds of covetousness. And he says, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” How can the commandment promise life but instead bring death?
We choose. Will we encourage, or be consumed with fulfilling our own desires? Will we demand, or will we bless? Close your eyes for a moment and look over the valley that is the promised land. The future, your future is right there within your grasp. Israel walked into that promised land. They claimed it and took possession of it. And they almost immediately turned from the God that brought them out of the land of slavery. They cycled through blessings and curses and have their entire history. And the prophets cried out that it is not sacrifices but justice that God desires. So quickly we turn what is beautiful into something of torture. And why? We are deceived, and we are misguided. We want to be right so badly, that we forget to live. And suddenly a chair that brought rest, becomes a throne of pain. We are standing on the hill overlooking the promised land of our future. Each of us will walk into that land, but we will each have a different experience.
Shortly after Moses spoke these words to Israel, he turned to his friend Joshua and said, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in… Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Moses then turned to all of Israel with Joshua at his side and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers…It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
We are looking over the hilltop into the future. What will our future hold? Life or death, blessing or curse, thriving or withering. The choice is ours. While we were still enemies of God, Paul tell us, Christ died for us. While we were living under the dominion of deception, Christ, God incarnate, took on human flesh, lived a complete human life and took our penalty. He suffered injustice, ridicule and shame, for us and with us. And he did it so that we could walk into our future without fear. Because God so loved the world that he gave his only unique son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Eventually each of us will pass beyond the veil of life, and meet death, but that does not mean we cease. We can thrive even as we die. We can be an encouragement, even as we breathe our last breath.
As we leave this meeting for worship, as we move back out into our community and our homes, we are taking steps into that future we have just gazed upon in our mind’s eye. We go into that land with everything we need for the future we have chosen. That does not mean that we can conjure up the power to claim the riches of the world as a blessing for ourselves. No. that is not what Life with God is about. We have everything we need to live the life we choose. We can leave here today, as an instrument of God’s blessing to others, or we can exit these doors and embody the curse. Which will you choose. Will you love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others? Or will you walk into that future set before you with fear?
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