Choose life - Deuteronomy 30:11-20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 30th July 2006.

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One afternoon at a prestigious university the teaching staff gathered for their weekly meeting. A professor of archaeology brought with him a lamp recently unearthed in the Middle East. It was reported to contain a genie, who, when the lamp was rubbed would appear and grant just one wish. The chaplain, not wanting to miss a chance for advancement, grabbed the lamp and stroked it. Suddenly the genie appeared. The phantom made him an offer, a choice of three rewards: wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the chaplain chose wisdom. "Done!" said the genie and disappeared in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. All heads turned toward the chaplain, who sat surrounded by a faint halo of light. After a while, one of his colleagues, wanting to hear a jewel of wisdom, whispered, "Say something. What wise insight do you now have?" The chaplain sighed and said with great wisdom, "I should have taken the money."

            Well we might not realise it, but you and I make hundreds of choices everyday, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. Some of course are pretty irrelevant, and it seems in today’s world we are faced with an ever growing dazzling array of choices. Just go into any supermarket, and we’re overwhelmed by choice in every area. Go into a coffee shop and you’ll be asked a whole serious of baffling questions. Short or tall, latte or cappuccino, milk or cream, drink in or take away! And I just wanted a cup of coffee! Of course, some choices are very serious and are hard to make. Should I take this job? What should I do with my elderly and infirm parents? Where should I send the children to school? Those are tough choices which require a great deal of wisdom.

            But there is one choice that is so important it puts all these in the shade. One choice which if we answer wrongly, will have consequences for us for the rest of eternity. It’s the choice to go God’s way or not, to love the Lord or not. And it’s the choice that Moses puts before his hearers and readers in Deuteronomy 30, to choose life or death. Moses is now coming to the end of his long sermon that he’s been giving as the people are on the verge of the promised land. If you remember, he’s been reminding them of everything they need to do when they get into the Promised Land. Because if they forget then they will be like their forefathers who forgot God and died in the desert. And God had judged the previous generation and made them wander in the desert for forty years because they disobeyed God and chose not to walk in his ways. So now Moses puts the same choice before the people of God. As they are about to set foot in the land God has given them, will they remain faithful? Will they choose to walk in God’s ways? Will they in short choose life?

            And as we sit here some 3,500 years later, this same choice has a powerful relevance to us. Because for us Christians, the lessons that Moses teaches his people in these verses are extremely important for us to take to heart. For we too are on a journey, a  journey which is taking us towards the promised land, God’s new kingdom, his renewed heaven and earth. And if we are to press on to the end, then these choices that Moses teaches us here are to made by us every day of our lives. Because the decision to go God’s way and love him is not one we just make at the start of the Christian life. It’s a decision we take daily, to keep walking with him and being faithful as he is faithful in keeping us. And if we make the wrong decisions, then the consequences for us can be just as serious. So what choices does Moses command us to make:  

1) Choose Clarity not Confusion

2) Choose Love not Slavery

3) Choose Life not Death

 

1) Choose Clarity not Confusion

So the first choice Moses puts before us is choose clarity not confusion. And we see that in verses 11-14. So let’s read from verse 11: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 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 we may obey it?" 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 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.’” Now the point that Moses is making here is that the command that God is giving the people is crystal clear. And they can do it. “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” It’s not that the people were earning God’s favour or their ticket to heaven by good deeds. Rather he’s saying that the truth is freely available and accessible and they can have it. All they need to do is obey God and trust in him. So verse 12, 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 it 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?" It’s not that you have to go in a rocket ship to heaven to find the truth. Nor do you need to go to some distant land across the seas on a pilgrimage or hunt for the ultimate experience to find the truth about God. No, he’s saying. It’s here right in front of you. Verse 14: “No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” The word of God, the command of God has been clearly revealed to the people. Moses has spoken the Word of God to the people. It’s in their mouths, because they themselves have been speaking it to one another. And it’s in their hearts because they have heard it and begun to accept it. The point is, God is not asking them to do something difficult or confusing. It’s not something only the intelligent can understand, or the really wise, or only the great spiritual gurus of our time. The Word of God is crystal clear. It’s a message that can be grasped. What they need to do is do it. They need to be obedient.

            Now what’s interesting for us as New Testament believers is that the apostle Paul uses these verses to explain about the message of Jesus. So if you would go to just one cross reference this evening in Romans 10. And have a look at verses 5-9: “Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) "or 'Who will descend into the deep?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul’s point here is that the ultimate word of God is to be found in Jesus. The fulfilment of this word that Moses talked about is in Christ. And again it’s not something we go in search of in the heavens, nor to the depths of hell. Rather it’s near and clear. That if we believe in Jesus that he is the Lord, then we will be saved.

            You see both Moses and Paul are saying the same thing. That God’s word is actually very simple. You don’t need a degree to understand it. You don’t need fifty years of spiritual searching to find it. You don’t need to go to this, that or the other spiritual place to find it. It’s plain and accessible to us in Jesus. And that actually should be something very encouraging to us. God’s Word is fundamentally clear. It means anyone can understand it and be saved. It doesn’t matter about education, background, culture, language, intelligence. No the word of God is crystal clear and is near in Jesus. Now of course we need to balance this truth with the fact that in order to understand the truth of the gospel, God needs to be at work in our hearts. That’s true. No-one can be saved without God first working in our hearts, because we are naturally blind to the truth. But let us not lose sight of this wonderful truth. That the word of God is clear and straightforward. Sometimes I wonder if we rely too much on our own intellect and powers of argument and deduction to seek to win our friends for Christ. We try and argue them into the kingdom. Yes, there is a place for reasoned argument, and we should strive to be better defenders and speakers for the gospel. But let us never lose sight of the simple truth that the gospel is plain for all to see if God so wills it. And it’s through this crystal clear simple gospel that thousands are being saved across the world.

            I was reminded of this just this week during the Holiday Club at Riverside. We’ve been looking at some of the stories that Jesus told and one day we were looking at the parable of the prodigal sons. And all throughout the week, our memory verse has been Psalm 145 v 8: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” And this little boy who was no more than 6 or 7 said that the memory verse summed up what God was like in the parable of the prodigal son. It was a wonderful insight into the way God works. He has given us his word in wonderful simple clarity, that even a child can understand it. As Paul says “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God stronger than man’s strength. So let me ask you: Do you have confidence that the word of God can save lives? Do you think it’s clear enough for people to understand it and be saved? Well both Moses and Paul says it is. And we need to keep holding onto that precious truth with confidence- that the Word is clear and understandable when God is at work. Otherwise we will lose all confidence in our evangelism and teaching. No, remember at it’s heart, the gospel is a simple message about a rescue and a relationship. And in a world where so much is often unclear, God commands us to trust in his crystal clear message about Jesus. To choose clarity not confusion.

2) Choose Love not Slavery

But if he has made it clear, then there is all the more responsibility on us to do what the Word of God says. And that brings us onto the next choice. Choose love not slavery. Because in verses 15-18, God commands his people to choose between loving him and going his ways, or following false gods, and going their way. In other words, to choose between love and slavery.

a) Choose Love……

Let’s look first at the positive, which is choose love. Verse 16: “ See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God…” Now it may slightly surprise us to discover here that love is commanded. We are given a command to love God. How can that be? Surely you cannot command someone to love someone else can you? Well this is precisely where we need to suspend our culture-shaped understanding of love and adopt a Biblical understanding of love. You see if love were simply based on feelings, then it would be very hard to command us to love someone we may not love all the time. But when love is more than feelings, then it makes sense. Love in the Bible, you see, is about actions and obedience. Take marriage for example. Now I guess all of us husbands here would say that we love our wives with our feelings. We have deeply held feelings for our wives. So why is it then that the Bible commands us husbands to love our wives? Precisely because love is more than feelings. Even in marriage your feelings may go up and down. One day you might be in the doghouse for something you have done (more often than not you don’t know what you’ve done!), and you might feel pretty fed up with your wife or husband. But the Bible tells us to love our wives. Husbands are to be loving and self sacrificial to their wives whether they feel like it or not. Because love is more than feelings. And if you think about it it’s obvious isn’t it? A husband worth his salt is not going to lounge around on the sofa and say “I love you darling” whilst ignoring his wife and making her do everything. That is patently unloving. His words and feelings will be backed up by action. So we need to be reminded, indeed commanded to do that because that is our obligation in marriage. That is the nature of the vows we have taken. But if it were all based on feelings, then I guess at the first whiff of trouble, we’d be tempted to jack in it all in! So it is with God. God commands us to love him precisely because love is more than feelings. Love involves action and obedience. Do you remember what Jesus says in John’s gospel? “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” And the godly Christian will show his or her love for God by obeying him.

            So what does it mean in practice to love God? Moses tells us in verse 16: “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.” Loving God means doing what he says, walking in his ways, obeying him. And of course in order to understand what he says we must read his Word. So let me ask you very simply if obedience to God is your top priority. Do you make it your aim to obey God each day that God gives you. For you see the Christian who truly loves the Lord will be aiming to make it his aim to obey his Lord in every area of life. What will it mean to be an obedient husband or wife? What will it mean to be an obedient employer or employee? What will it mean to be an obedient son or daughter? What will it mean to be an obedient driver? What will it mean to be an obedient holiday maker? These aren’t questions of slavish obedience. These are questions of love. Because you and I claim to love the Lord we’ll want to be obedient to him in every area of life. And that means if there are areas of our lives where we are not being obedient, then fundamentally we are not loving God. If we say one thing with our lips, that we love the Lord, and another with our lives, then it’s not love. Just like the husband who says I love you and never does anything to please his wife. It’s a living lie. You see what it comes down to is whether each day we are making that conscious choice to love God or not. Because loving someone is a conscious decision. It involves not just the heart, but the will and our actions.

            This week I came across this true story which captures the heart of this point. A few years ago a man was waiting for a friend at the airport. As he was straining to locate his friend among the passengers leaving the plane, he noticed a man coming toward him carrying two light bags. The man stopped right next to him to greet his family who’d turned up to welcome him. First he took his youngest son (maybe six years old) and they gave each other a long, loving hug. As they separated enough to look in each other's face, the father said, "It's so good to see you, son. I missed you so much!" His son smiled somewhat shyly, averted his eyes and replied softly, "Me, too, Dad!" Then the man stood up, gazed in the eyes of his oldest son (maybe nine or ten) and while cupping his son's face in his hands said, "You're already quite the young man. I love you very much, Zac!" They too hugged a most loving, tender hug. Then the man said: "I've saved the best till last," and proceeded to give his wife a long, passionate kiss. He gazed into her eyes for several seconds and then silently mouthed, "I love you so much!" They stared at each other's eyes, beaming big smiles at one another, while holding both hands. They looked like newlyweds, but it was obvious by the age of their kids that they couldn't possibly be. Well the bystander was by amazed by the wonderful display of unconditional love not more than an arm's length away from him. So he blurted out: "Wow! How long have you two been married?" "Twelve years,” the man replied, without breaking his gaze from his lovely wife's face. "Well, then, how long have you been away?" the bystander asked. "Two whole days!" came the reply. “Two days?” The bystander was stunned. He’d assumed they’d been away weeks, if not months, by the passionate embraces between the family. Almost offhandedly, the bystander said, "I hope my marriage is still that passionate after twelve years!" The man suddenly stopped smiling. He turned round, looked the bystander straight in the eye, and with a forcefulness that burned right into his soul, he said something that left the bystander a different person. He said, "Don't hope, friend ... decide… decide!" With that, he and his family turned and strode away together.

            Do you see? Love is a choice. It’s a choice we make in our human relationships and it’s a choice we make in our relationship with God. And the choice is seen in practical daily living. Obedience is the fruit of love.

b) …. Not slavery - And notice what the negative is. Positively we’re to choose love. Negatively to avoid idolatry, which time and again, the Bible makes clear is slavery. That’s the implication in verse 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, 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.” Love you see can never be neutral. Something will always captivate our hearts. The question is who or what? Will it be the living God and him alone. Or will it be something else. Our modern culture is cluttered full of competing gods, anything from sport to DIY. And the sad thing is that more often than not they are good gifts but just given then wrong place in our lives. Moses says, if you choose to go the way of false religion, idolatry and not the Lord, then you’re choosing slavery not freedom or love, and ultimately destruction. Because there is only room for one No. 1. And it’s God himself. So let me urge you today: Decide to love God. Make a choice to love him and obey him. Make that choice every day, and you will not slide into idolatry. Choose love not idolatry.

3) Choose Life not Death

But there’s one final choice that we need to see. And it’s the bluntest of them all. Choose life not death. Because what we have not yet noticed is the serious nature of this choice. You see this is not a choice about what socks to wear, or whether to go to Brid or Scarborough for the day. It’s not even a choice about what career to have or whether to marry. All those choices pale into insignificance when we see this choice for what it is. Because in this passage, God reveals very clearly the consequences of this choice. Verse 15: “See I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” That’s the choice. And the choice we decide to follow determines our eternal destinies. Life or death. Blessing or destruction. In following God there is great blessing. And in not, only destruction. And so Moses makes one last appeal in verse 19: “This day I call heaven and 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 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.”

            Now for the people of Israel it meant life in the land and many years of fruitfulness, so long as they were faithful to the covenant. And for us, choosing life, trusting in God’s provision fulfilled in Jesus, it means eternal life with God in his kingdom. But the question is which do we want? As the Americans say, it’s a no brainer. Of course we want to choose life. But it’s only as we see the context of our decision, that we can understand what we’re deciding. Because this is very serious. We’re not playing games here. Our response to God and his Son Jesus Christ has eternal consequences. It’s not that by choosing to love God and obey him we somehow earn the right to heaven. No, we trust in what he has done for us through Jesus on the cross. But let’s be clear. This is the most important decision we can ever make. And as such we should treat our faith in God very seriously indeed. It’s no hobby, no whimsical choice. We are choosing life over death. And let me say, if you have not yet made your mind up over Jesus Christ, then what holds you back? Is it lack of evidence and answers to questions. Well, we can help you. But if it’s fear or simply laziness or even pride, can I urge you to see how serious this is. It’s about life and death. Choose life says Moses.

            And the great thing is that when we do choose life, when we do put our lives into the hands of the living God, then all this world’s fears and pains suddenly take on a different perspective. Because we realise that we are serving a new master, and we have a new destiny. We know, as Moses says, that the Lord is our life. So as we finish, let me tell you about one man who choose life and never regretted it.

His name was David Livingstone. Livingstone was the great explorer of the 19th century, but his expeditions were no mere secular adventures. He wrote in his diary in 1852: “Viewed in relation to my calling, the end of the geographical feat is only the beginning of the enterprise.” The great object, he said, was to “bring unknown nations into the sympathies of the Christian world” and thus to introduce them to the gospel. He prayed: “Lord I beseech thee, accept me, and use me a little for thy glory.” That passion and love for the Lord led him to Africa, where he eventually died. Before he went he said this to a group of students in Cambridge on 4th December 1857: “For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice…. ?…. Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is empathically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering or danger may make us pause, but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in a for us. I never made a sacrifice!” Could you or I say such words? When you are consumed with love for God which covers all your heart, soul and strength, then no sacrifice will be too great in serving your God and King. And for us to aspire to such hope and service, then we too need to make the right choice. To choose clarity not confusion. To choose love not slavery. And to choose life and not death.

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