Saint Mark UMC
Sunday, February 13, 2011
15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If 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. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I 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. 19I 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, 20loving 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.
Today I stand in the pulpit, not just as a preacher. Today I stand next to Moses, who is speaking to the Israelites for one of the last times. Today, I stand as a mother whose only daughter is being engrafted into the covenant God made with God’s own people. Today, I come to this text as one who is choosing life for her. I am choosing to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and slavery to sin and death. Today, my family and I are choosing life.
A wise woman once wrote of preaching, in any text we are to write what we see and what we believe. That wise woman is Anna Carter Florence, and she is one of Sloan’s Godparents (and will be here at the 11:15 service!). In this text, the words, “Choose Life!” are all that I see. They leap off the page at me, demanding that I grapple with the sternness of this command. “Choose life!” Moses writes, and you and your descendents will live. In this verse, we learn that God has given us options, and we have the power to choose which path we take. Will it be life and blessings? Or death and curses?
If what I see in this text is the choice God has given us, then what I see in the world backs it up. On Friday Mubarak resigned as President of Egypt after 18 days of civil unrest and fled Cairo. Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had stepped down and that the Egyptian military would assume control of the nation's affairs in the short term. Jubilant celebrations broke out in Cairo at the news. Yesterday, Jim Wallis wrote a letter on the Sojourners blog to the young Egyptian protestors, encouraging them in their efforts and exhorting them, saying, “Don’t turn the ‘transition’ to democracy over to the managers, who have avoided democracy for the sake of their stability for a long time now.” In Egypt, we have witnessed what has happened when an entire nation chooses life over death: life which came with a cost, life that overturned stability for the sake of true living. In their actions, the Egyptians have done something virtually unthinkable: they chose freedom, but doing so was not without risk.
In our text today, we hear the climax of Moses’ final speech to those who have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. This is the culmination of the Covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab. He begins by reminding them of what they have seen the Lord do for them during their time in the wilderness, that “the clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out;” (Deut. 29:5) Moses speaks to the trials, signs and wonders they have witnessed, and he addresses all who have been waiting for this time. All have been gathered to hear- the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officials, the men, the children, the women, the aliens, the servants – ALL have gathered to hear the promise that God is making with each of them. This is a mark of the social and generational inclusiveness of Israel’s covenant community. No one is “out.” All who have ears to hear and eyes to see are invited to receive the promise from God, in order that all may be established as God’s people, and that God would be God of all.
But this promise is not just for those who have experienced the wandering in the wilderness. God speaks through Moses saying that this covenant is being made, “not only with you who stand here with us today, but also with those who are not here” (Deut. 29:14-15). In all ways, God is seeking to underscore the importance of the covenant that God will be our God and we will be God’s people. This is a promise for the ages, for in God, we have no need. In God, we can put our trust. In God, there is true love and acceptance and salvation.
But the Israelites, who are the first to abandon their end of the deal, see the worst of God’s wrath. They have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, and they live in the stories of their ancestors. No longer is the Lord God a protective creator, a loving Father, but God is to the Israelites a punitive master. It appears as though God has commanded something (to be loved above all other gods) that is too difficult for them to honor. The stubborn refusal of the Israelites to trust in a God who provided for them in the wilderness for decades has become a story of unrequited love. God seems to behave like a lover who has been wounded, whose wrath has been provoked and who has uprooted the very people God once covenanted to protect.
So Moses lays out the choice to the Israelites in stark terms. I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life, which is to love and serve God. The invitation in this speech is for all who have ears to hear – a message of inclusion to all people to live in love with God their creator, that all creation might be saved. God offers us this message through the lips of a leader who has remained faithful through the worst of conditions. Through the bleakness of their enslavement, the desolate wilderness time and the rebellious acts of the Israelites, Moses stood as the intermediary between God in heaven and the people on earth. The man who heard the voice in the burning bush did not turn away from the flames and heat, but stood in the presence of God. This man now makes his final plea for the people to choose life that they and their descendents may live, so that they may live in the land flowing with milk and honey (31:20). This land was not just for those who had wandered, but for all who had come before – the ancestors of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But here’s the thing: Moses himself will not see the Promised Land. “When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: ‘I am now a hundred and twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, “You shall not cross over this Jordan.” The Lord your God himself will cross over before you.” (Ch. 31, v. 1-3). The promise was always for the Israelites, for those who had survived the exile and those born in its memory. When Moses says, “Choose life!” He says so with the knowledge of his own death. He knows that once he dies, the people will continue to forsake the God who has pursued them relentlessly with promises of care and a land of endless plenty. They have left Egypt – a land of slavery – and crossed the Jordan into a land of freedom. Moses passes his mantle to Joshua, and relinquishes the power to speak. In dying, Moses finds life in the culmination of his faithful life. He performed signs and wonders in Egypt, against Pharaoh, and in the sight of all Israel. His eyes saw the Promised Land, but he never crossed the Jordan, the river of promise.
The Jordan River separates the people from a choice of life and death. Choose death and adversity, and you will stay in Egypt – a land of slavery. But cross over the Jordan River, where all of God’s promises will come to be fulfilled in Christ Jesus through the waters of baptism, and you will have life – life eternal, life flowing with milk and honey, life filled with love for God and neighbor. This choice holds the promise of the greatest gift – that all who might choose life will have it in Christ. We repeat the actions given to us by John the Baptist each time we administer the water on the head of a child, we say “yes” to life. We make our own choice to cross over the River Jordan and into the Promised Land, lived out in the faithful community. Today, as we baptize a child –my daughter - in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the water placed on her head will unite all of us into one covenant, made by God to the Israelites.
As Moses began his speech, he reminded the hearers that the promise from God was for all in time - for their ancestors and their descendents. For us, and our children and our children’s children. So, let us choose life. Let us be reminded of our baptism, which began in the Jordan River – the river of promise – and is the mark of the life we have in Christ. Today, we live in a world where slavery and injustice are still prevalent forces, but we have witnessed to a nation that has chosen to find its identity not in bondage, but in freedom.
Today, I stand beside Moses because I do not know what will happen in the future of my daughter or sons. I stand before you and make promises to raise her to grow in faith and love of Christ, I boldly denounce the spiritual forces of wickedness through my own faith in Christ, and I know that all of this is foolishness without the covenant that God made first. For God has already chosen life for us. In the ultimate paradox, Christ died that we might live, and have eternal life. All we must do is choose it.
Today, you are invited to make a promise to my daughter. I do not know how long we will be with you. I am a pastor in an itinerant system, and though my hope is to grow old and gray with you, I do know now the way the Spirit moves. But you are making promises to her, to raise her up and teach her. Your children are covenanting to pray for her when she is sick. What I see in this text is the invitation for the community to choose to live by keeping their promises. Remember, Saint Mark, that before you came to take these vows for my child, someone made them for you. You are living out the promises that were made for you simply by being here and promising to do the same for Sloan. In baptism, we enact our faith to believe what God has said: that eternal life is for all. This covenant connects God, the community of faith and the person being baptized so that we may choose to respond to what we see with what we believe.
Moses says to the people, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s command to love the Lord your God, then you shall live.” This is the epitome of health. We have a choice in life. We may choose that which destroys, or that which sustains. Today, as a congregation, we are electing to choose life and to witness that choice for this little girl, making promises only a community of faith, living in the grace of Christ could fulfill. But, the God who initiated this covenant is eternal and faithful and will enable us to keep it in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For you, little one,
the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation,
and the Lord God made covenants with God’s people.
It was for you that the Word of God became flesh
and lived among us,
full of grace and truth.
For you, Sloan, Jesus Christ suffered death
crying out at the end, "It is finished!"
For you Christ triumphed over death,
rose in newness of life,
and ascended to rule over all.
All of this was done for you, little one,
though you do not know any of this yet.
But we will continue to tell you this good news
until it becomes your own.
And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled:
"We love because God first loved us." - PCUSA Office of Theology and Worship