Sermon / September 4th, 2016 / Deut 30:15-20 / A Fork in the Road / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text this morning is found in the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, chapter 30. I’m reading verses 15 and 16. Moses says to the people of Israel:
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. (N.I.V.)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Our sermon text this morning is about choices. When you think about it, we’re faced with all kinds of choices every day. Some are not that important: what to wear, how exactly to schedule our time, what to eat. Other choices, however, are very important. Some of the choices we make when we are young profoundly affect the rest of our lives. Where to go to school. What courses to take when we're there. Where to work. Where to live. Choices about marriage and family. All of these things can have a critical impact on the direction of our lives. A famous philosopher once said: "We are our choices." To a large degree, our choices make us what we are.
When I had my first look at this week’s Old Testament text and saw that it’s about critical choices in life, I just couldn't resist following up on a thought we heard at my retirement dinner last Sunday night. President Prachar had mentioned a comment from New York Yankee hall-of-famer Yogi Berra. He was talking about choices, and in his own unique, quirky way said:
"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
This morning’s Bible text is certainly about forks in the road and about which ones God wants us to take. I pray that God would bless our consideration of his Holy Word this day and I pray that he would guide us in the choices we have to make in life.
As the book of Deuteronomy begins, the people of Israel had just spent 40 years as nomads in the desert. Because of their disobedience, God had decreed that everyone above the age of 20 – with the exception of Joshua and Caleb – would die in the wilderness. Now that entire generation had passed away. Now a new generation stood before Moses. They were camped out in the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River. They were preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan. They had left behind the slavery of Egypt and they were looking forward to a new land – the land God had promised them.
In their long stint in the wilderness, several important events had occurred – events that reminded Israel that God was with them. In the wilderness, they had received the 10 Commandments. In the wilderness, they were reminded that they were God's covenant people, reminded that God had chosen them by His grace. At that time, the next major step in Israel’s faith journey was their entry into the promised land. The entire book of Deuteronomy is focused on this one special event. One pastor says:
The people of God stood before Moses, God’s prophet. Moses was saying goodbye to them, as he gave them his last sermon. Moses was now at the end of his life. He stood before the people and he gave them his farewell speech. His message went something like this:
Today, I’m giving you a choice – a choice between good and evil, between life and death, between blessing and cursing. God is my witness. I say to you: Choose life. Choose life. Love the Lord your God with heart and mind and soul and strength. Serve him. Obey him. Keep his laws. Be faithful to Him and it will go well for you in the promised land. Disobey Him and trouble will not be far away.
We need to remember that this choice was placed before the Israelites nearly 4000 years ago. Before they took possession of that new land – the land which God Himself had promised, the Lord renewed his covenant with them. And he used Moses to do it. God reminded the people of Israel about His deeds on their behalf. He reminded them how he had brought their parents out of slavery in Egypt. He reminded them how he had cared for them those 40 years in the wilderness. He reminded them that he was now about to keep his promise regarding a brand new land – a promise he had made to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Moses was now well on in years. He was ready to pass the baton of leadership to Joshua. Moses knew he couldn’t enter that new land. He had brought the people out of Egypt and had led them through the desert. But now he had come to the end of the road. As the people were preparing for this brand-new experience, Moses was concerned. He feared that they would become ensnared by forces in that new land that would enslave them all over again and separate them from their God.
So what’s at stake with the choices Moses talks about? The answer is simple. What's at stake? Everything. This isn't a choice between chocolate and vanilla. It isn't a choice between red and white wine. We’re talking here about life and death. In our text this morning, Moses is calling the people of Israel to recommit themselves to their relationship with the Lord. God’s covenant with His people was symbolized by circumcision. In and through that covenant, God had adopted Israel as his own beloved children. Throughout the history of Israel, terrible things happened when God's people drifted into unbelief.
Moses didn’t want the people of Israel to turn back to Egypt – either in a literal sense or in a spiritual sense. Egypt represented captivity. Egypt represented bondage and slavery. Moses didn’t want the people of Israel, when they moved into that new land, to become spiritual slaves just as they had been physical slaves in Egypt. Moses knew very well that, in that promised land, Israel would face many temptations. Many powerful forces would try to separate them from their Heavenly Father.
At that critical time, as the people faced that looming fork in the road, Moses told them that the key to avoiding spiritual slavery was to stay close to their God – to do things according to His will. Should they do that, they would experience life and peace – an abundant, wonderful, joyful life. Should they fail to do that, on the other hand, they would experience despair and trouble and separation from God. That was the stark and compelling choice the people of Israel faced that day. They were now close to the promised land. After a long delay, they were now ready to move into the land of Canaan. The stakes were very high.
As I mentioned a moment ago, our text this morning is about decisions – it’s about what we should do when we come to important forks in life’s road. As Lutherans, we know that we have to be very careful with the concepet of “choice” when it comes to spiritual things. As Lutherans, we know that on our own, before we know the Lord, we cannot choose him. On our own, without the enabling of Holy Spirit working through the means of grace – that is, through the Word and the Sacraments, we would default to choosing our own way or the world’s way. On our own, without God’s strength, we would not want to have anything to do with God. Jesus says, in John chapter 15, verse 16:
You didn’t choose me, I chose you … .
In the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, God says, through His prophet: (Isaiah 43:1)
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name … you are mine.
In Luther’s Small Catechism, in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, we read these words. Many of us memorized them:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in [choose] Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called [chosen] me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
So as Israel stood one day on the threshold of a new land, God commanded that His people choose Him and His way. He wants us to do the same. But how do we do that? How do we return to the Lord if we have drifted? We return to the Lord through his Word. We return to Him through the holy sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. We return to the Lord through his holy community called the church. As God’s people, and by His enabling, we turn away from other gods. We say “no” to whatever wants to draw us away from Him – from whatever seeks to take His place in our lives.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we heard Jesus say that He wants us to place Him first in our lives … even ahead of those who are closest to us in this earthly life. After all, He chose us to be His people. He chose to bear our sin. He chose to suffer our punishment on the cross, to die for us so that our sins might be forgiven. And then, God raised Him from the dead as victor over sin, death, and the devil. He rose from the dead to open the door to salvation and eternal life. Knowing that, and experiencing that, and by His gracious enabling, we now live for him. When you think about it, the Christian religion is a religion of life. For Christians, life is a key word. Jesus said,
I have come to give you life and give you life more abundantly. (John 10:10)
I am the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25)
In Christ, we
choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
In our text this morning, as we have seen, the nation of Israel came to a critical fork in the road. They didn't know it at the time, but they were standing at the juncture between the past and the future. What they would decide that day – and every day in the future – would literally shape their future – and their relationship with God. That day, they were facing two paths, one with the Lord and one without Him. One led to life and the other led to death and destruction. Our text this morning encourages us – all of us – to hold fast to the Lord. We are to love the Lord our God. We are to walk in his paths. We are to observe his commands and decrees. We are to maintain a strong relationship with Him – and with his people.
There are various paths we can take in life, but the path of life – in other words, the path of faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, is the path God wants us to take. One of the words for sin in the Old Testament means "to walk the wrong path" or "to go in the wrong direction." When you think about it, we “choose life” when we believe in Jesus Christ. As I mentioned a moment ago, we didn’t choose Christ – He chose us. By the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we allow Christ to have priority in our lives. And once faith has been sparked in our hearts, the Holy Spirit works to maintain it. He does that, as I say, through His Word, the Holy Scriptures. He does that by means of the Holy Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And He does that through the blessed Christian community called the church.
Our text this morning from Deuteronomy chapter 30 brings us to the high point of the entire book. Deuteronomy is, in a very real sense, Moses’ last will and testament. I’ve got a question for you this morning. Are we like Israel? Have we failed to live up to God’s will for us? Have we made wrong choices? The answer is yes to all those questions. But, like the people of Israel before us, we have God's word. And, like Israel, we let God's word inform us as we encounter new situations and face new challenges and new temptations. Consider the promises that you and I made on the day of our confirmation. When we were confirmed, we stood before God and His people, and we promised to remain faithful to him no matter what. But we haven’t always done that. Thankfully, our God is gracious, kind, and forgiving. Thankfully, God promises us a fresh start – this very day and every day.
The book of Deuteronomy is a book of instructions. It teaches God’s people how to live for Him. Every day. All the time. In every situation. Our text this morning doesn't talk about the end of the road – it talks about a fork in the road. It talks about endings, but it also talks about new beginnings. It talks about new possibilities made possible through repentance, through humility, through faith. In our text this morning, God wants us to remember that the choices we make in life have eternal consequences. One Christian writer says:
This text is about God's grace – it’s about God's willingness to offer us life and salvation. This blessed reality is made possible by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
God offers life – abundant life – to a broken and sinful world. The Gospel proclaims that God has loved us and offered us life in and through his son. All of us have choices to make in life. May God enable us to make choices in line with His will, as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts. May we always “choose life” in and through Jesus Christ. And may we always be willing to share that life with those around us. Amen.
And now, may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen.
Let’s Pray: Dear Heavenly Father – On this day, we renew our promise to serve you. On this day, we choose you and your ways over the ways of the self and the world. We choose, by your gracious enabling, to do your will. Be with us. Strengthen us. Encourage us. Keep us in the very center of your will. Forgive us when we stray. Grant us joy and peace as we appreciate the relationship we have with you and with your holy people. In Jesus, our Savior’s name, we pray. Amen.