Famous Last Words
Preached by Rev. Phil Woodson, Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church.
Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Resources: Bible (NRSV), Matthew Henry Commentary, Brian C. Jones – Professor Emeritus of Religion – Wartburg College, Richard Niell Donovan (2009)
The sermon today is going to focus on the reading from Deuteronomy. You can find it again on page 186 in your pew bibles. To help set the scene this morning I want to remind you that the book of Deuteronomy is the 5th book of the Bible and the final book of the Torah. At this point in God’s story it’s important to note that the entire generation of the Exodus has died. In Israel’s journey through the desert, the initial group of people who had walked through mountains of parted water had reproduced and made it most of the way – but they themselves were not allowed to accompany their children across the river. More on that in a minute.
So here in Deuteronomy, Moses is delivering a series of speeches that is calling the next generation – the people born after leaving Egypt – to be faithful to the covenant that God made with their parents and grandparents. And when you step back to just think about that – it’s nuts. It’s like asking me to pay the mortgage on some fancy house my parents bought before they died, having never seen it or lived in it. I’ve only heard them talk about it… and I’ve only heard them talk about it while wandering around in the desert, living in a tent, and eating the cotton candy that shows up on the ground every morning. I mean, here is an entirely new generation of people – we know that they’re less than 40 years old – and they’re being instructed by what is now the oldest living person in their group, who himself will not make it over into Jordan. Seriously, they’re under 40 and he’s 120 years old – And now, he’s going to sit them down and tell them all about how they’re supposed to live when they finally get where they’re going… I sure this is going to go over great… Spoiler Alert – It’s not. More info can be found in the middle of Chapter 31.
But in all seriousness, what’s happening between Moses and this new generation is a crucial piece of God’s story with Israel – and I think it invites us today to consider the relationship that we continue to have with God (or don’t) and the choices that we make – generationally, denominationally, communally, locally, or individually, etc… So let’s work in to this and circle back around to the now dead parents and grandparents. These are the Boomers of the Exodus story… They are the generations who almost ruined it for everyone so God had them all die off… I’m kidding, of course… everyone is terrible, even their kids (as I said, read chapter 31) But, the parents and grandparents died and did not get to see the land that was promised to Abraham because they disqualified themselves. Their choices, their words, and their actions were just so terrible that roughly the first four chapters of Deuteronomy are just Moses giving a recap of how awful everyone’s parents had been – how they did not trust God, how they gave way to fear, and how they denounced God’s goodness, grace, and provision – and they did all of this to the point where God just had to declare them evil (Deut. 1:34). God had brought them to precipice of something new, something blessed, and something holy – and they were too afraid of what they thought they saw on the other side – too afraid of what they thought might be, instead of what God said would be.
The sad truth though is that the Israelites who left Egypt were slaves. They were people who’d been trained for generations to keep their heads down and not make trouble. They’d become used to subservience and living in fear. Even with all that God had accomplished for them and with them… the roots of oppression wind and wrap themselves deep into human bodies… so deep that it takes multiple generations to overcome them and leave them behind. So deep that people would rather die than experience the goodness of God’s future. And I mean that literally. Cut to an earlier scene: “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land? Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. (Numbers 14)
And so, here is Moses. An advocate. An intermediary. A person who has literally spent time, nearly every week for the past forty years, trying to keep God the Almighty from just murdering everybody over their own disobedience, ignorance, and insolence… Here is Moses, having lived three lifetimes as a prince, a shepherd, and now a refugee leader – using his last days and final breaths to impart all of his divine understandings to the next generation. Moses sits them down and says, “You must be better than your parents and grandparents. You must be better than me.” He warns them of worshipping other gods – gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. “No more idols,” he says. “Love God,” he says. “Obey and follow these commandments, follow these laws” And then, kind of as his grand finale, in his final speech Moses tells them: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
My friends, Moses is forcing a decision. He says, “Today I set before you a choice. Life or Death. Blessings or Curses. Goodness or Evil. I implore you, here and now – today, where heaven and earth can witness, choose life!” “Today,” he says. There’s a something about Moses using that word “today.” There is a simultaneous urgency and finality to it. Today. Make a choice today. Y’all, I am of the mindset that today is a today – that today, we like the newest generations of the Israelites are caught up in a kairos moment in which God’s people, individually and collectively, are offered a choice. A choice that leads to life, prosperity, and the blessings of God – or a choice that leads to division, curses, and death. The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’ There’s that great scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda is training Luke Skywalker to use the force and Luke is trying to lift his X-wing up out the swamp, but just can’t do it. Yoda provides some more instruction and then, after expressing his frustration, Luke half-heartedly says “Ok, I’ll give it a try…” And you immediately see the little Yoda puppet’s eyes pop open and Yoda leans forward to say “No! Try not! – Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
These strident calls for a decision remind us that Jesus made was also known for making stark demands upon his followers. Decisions are required; we must choose and we must act. Now before I go Full-Southern-Baptist on everyone here – I would note that it is tempting to soften this up a little bit. To ease up on this whole choice and choosing business – and to focus instead on the journey or the process. After all, as Christians, we are often reminded that there is a New Covenant, a covenant of grace, that is embraced through faith, and that Jesus just loves everybody and wants us all to just be real cool with one another… But I’ll tell you, even Jesus can be uncompromising. Even Jesus gives everyone a heads up that those who would follow him must consider carefully the cost of discipleship. Today’s gospel reading from Matthew isn’t playing around either… Let your ‘Yes be Yes’ or your ‘No be No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Essentially, “make up your mind about who you are and whose you are – because when it comes to life and death there is no middle ground. Sorry Catholics.
So yes, today, there are some choices to be made. There are, of course, the existential, eternal, and eschatological choices. Like, do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you confess him as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? Then there are some choices that are like a step or two down from there – Like, will you take this person to be your husband, or your wife? Will you care for this child? Will you tend to the sick? Will you feed the hungry? And so on… These are choices that every person will face, every day – in big ways and in small ways. In fact, sometimes the small decisions are equally as important as the big ones, because those are where seeds are planted. And as I sort of hinted at earlier, we must be careful of what is taking root… Few of us will be tempted to rob a bank at gunpoint, but most of us would probably be tempted to take advantage of a clerk’s error in our favor at the cash register, right?
So this morning, today, I invite you to again consider the famous last words of a 120 year old man who is pleading with the people he loves – knowing that on the whole, they aren’t gonna listen – but hoping that some of them might still hear him, that some of them might make good choices… See, it has been set before you today – life and prosperity, death and adversity. Will you disqualify yourselves from receiving God’s blessings? Will you doubt God? Will you give way to fear of the unknown? Will you forget God’s goodness, grace, and provision? Or will you lean in to the promises of God? Will you love God, walk in God’s ways, observe God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances? Will you renounce all spiritual forces of wickedness, and reject the evil powers of this world? Will you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression – and work to untangle and uproot them in all aspects of our shared life? Because these are the things that lead to life. So let your ‘Yes be Yes’ and your ‘No be No’ – let heaven and earth witness the choices that have been set before you – life and death, blessings and curses – and choose life. For the love of God, choose life. Amen.