Wednesday, March 18, 2015

MEMO to self: Choose life


This day I call heaven and earth to serve as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing.  Now choose life that both you and your seed may live.  Deuteronomy 30:19

IT is easy to understand why Jesus says what He says to us in today's gospel lesson.  If the bar to be His disciples is set so high that we need to hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, and even our own lives; and to choose the shame of the cross as He Himself did, that will take a lot of convincing.  It isn't the stuff of church signs, nor will you see people lined up at the door anxious to join up for such a life.  The number will always be small.

It is harder to understand the sermon Moses delivered to God's Old Testament people fourteen centuries earlier.  In it he preaches God's Word in the simplest possible manner.  He speaks to them like a Dutch Uncle.  He goes to great lengths to explain in the plainest terms how storied their lives will be if they remain faithful to their Lord, if they observe His judgments and obey His statutes, and on the other hand, how miserable their existence if they do not; if they worship other gods and reject God's Word and God's ways as so many do (both inside and outside of church) so freely today.  No one could have walked away from the sermon that morning asking what did Moses mean? for it was as clear as crystal, and what sane person would choose anything else?

Moses was no fool.  He spent the first forty years of his life in Egypt, in the courts of world culture and of world power, and the next forty in the desert seminary of Midian, which was about as far away from his former life as a man could ever get.  In Egypt he became a man of the world, but in the desert he became a man of God; a theologian who knew just how irrational and illogical people can be, how they can talk themselves into the most inane courses of action and make the most insane choices, how people will regularly cut off their nose to spite their face.  Moses knew all this so after outlining the two ways a person can follow in life -- and there are only two: the way of life and the way of death, the way of the cross, and all the others -- after carefully explaining both ways to them he says these two startling words:  Choose life!

Why would he say that?  Is there any question?  Isn't it what people call today a "no-brainer?"  If you set food before a starving man, will he not choose to eat?  If you set serenity before a woman whose life is entangled in drama, will she not choose peace?  But Moses, like Jesus, knew the stuff that people are made of, so he tells his hearers, choose life.

This should come as no surprise to Christians.  St. Paul states in Romans 8:7 that the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God and will not submit to His laws.  Our catechism recognizes the same when we say in the Third Article, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him..."  which is why it is impossible to do what the Christian Radio crowd is always urging us to do: to make a decision for Christ.  Moses' people could not do it, and neither can we.  Instead, it is God's gracious Word, choose life, that awakens us from spiritual death and works saving faith within us.

There is another reason also that Moses said the words he said, namely, that the way of life is not obvious.  We learn from both our Lord's words and example that we must die to find life:  die to sin, die to self, and finally close our eyelids in death before we can hear the words this day you will be with Me in paradise.  We learn that to obtain true and lasting glory, which will never make us ashamed, never leave us and never forsake us, that we must find it through the shame of the cross.

The Lord's followers could not in any way, shape or form comprehend how Jesus, dead on the cross, could lead to any good, but His temporary suffering and death avert our permanent suffering and death.  His cross deletes our sins and releases us from the judgment that would otherwise be due to us on their account.  This is the love of God, "that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."  We did not perish for our own sins as would have been just, but Jesus did in our stead, and now they are gone and God remembers them no more!  We need not think or worry that the Almighty is our enemy or that He is out to get us, but we learn from His Word instead that He is our dear Father and we are His dear children, who loves us and will bless us always.  As the Psalmist says, "Many are the afflictions of the Righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all."  We are those people, afflicted by the forces of sin, death and the devil; righteous before God by faith and delivered from them all by the Savior that God appointed.

It is not obvious that the things we suffer in this world will finally work for our blessing, but St. Paul insists that "all things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose."  We are those people, called to Christ for time and eternity by the blessings of holy baptism, kept safe by the power of His Word and Sacraments.  Therefore we can be confident as we bear the heavy crosses of life that "nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  In the words of Moses, which are the words of God, Choose life!  Choose the cross!  Amen.

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