Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8
As massive protests finally ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the news filled with the joyous exclamations of Egyptian people and supporters of democracy around the world. The Associated Press noted that “from London to Gaza City to Seoul” people were celebrating the largely peaceful revolution. But there was also that persistent question: What kind of government will replace Mubarak’s regime? Witnesses to a threshold moment for the people of Egypt, we watch and wonder. There is the potential for a new way of life, in which regular people have a voice. But there is also the potential for yet one more dictatorship to succeed the old. What choices will be made in the next days and weeks? And, in the long run, will those choices matter?
Watching Egypt at the threshold of democracy, we celebrate again the power of the people’s choice in our own country. We are a people who value choice as a “staple of the American dream,” one commentator notes, and “[M]ore choice is always the preferred value.” Yet even as we celebrate, we realize that unlimited choice turns out to be incredibly demanding. We must be constantly discerning which option among many will lead to the “good life” for us as individuals or a community. Which choices really matter? Paper or plastic? Organic or conventional? Nissan or Ford? Presbyterian or Faith Center? Sunday worship or sleep in? And how do we go about making good decisions in any of these matters? Inundated with information that is always mixed with liberal measures of “buzz” and “spin,” it seems impossible to find a reliable guide.
Our choices can be so endless, and our information so conflicting, sometimes we just refuse to commit ourselves. Such abdication of responsible choice is rooted in despair, yet lack-of-commitment has become a valid option in our society. Priding ourselves on our autonomy, we actually have a diminished sense of accountability. Our choices seem to matter little, to God or to anyone else, as our lack of accountability blinds us to the impact of our lives, ultimately disempowering us. Brett Younger sums it up well: “Most of our decisions do not seem important, but life and death are before us every day. We choose death when we ignore God and choose anything inferior. Death is a slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter. Modern life is impoverished with a lack of purpose. We rush to meet deadlines that are insignificant and bow before ideas that are not worthy.”
Our readings this morning confront us right at the threshold of choice, boldly asserting both that our choices are, indeed, of life and death significance. We are accountable for ourselves and for our world. Yet the good news is that God has provided everything we need to choose well. And when we fail to choose well, as we often do, God graciously makes it possible for us to return to the true life in him.
In Deuteronomy, we stand with the people of Israel in the wilderness at the edge of the Jordan River. God has delivered them from the sufferings of slavery under an earlier Egyptian dictator, Pharaoh. Moses has led them through forty desert years to this boundary time and place. They have overcome many dangers, and they have been formed as God’s people, yet a new challenge awaits. Moses warns them, that they will encounter many temptations to forget God and abandon God’s ways upon entering the Promised Land. Reviewing God’s mighty acts on their behalf, reiterating God’s commandments, Moses urges them to accept and live out the covenant God has graciously made with them. God is giving them everything they need yet ultimately the choice to flourish is theirs. The time has come to choose. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” Moses tells them. “Choose life, that you and your children may live!”
Moses explains that choosing life means obeying God’s commandments, and this introduces some tension for us. We like the initial sound of “choosing life,” but the few of us get excited about “obedience.” It sounds like a summons to again submit to a tyrant’s demands. But where the God of Israel is concerned, obedience means much more than simply “doing as one is told.” For God is not a tyrant but a deliverer who chose to love Israel when they were the least of peoples. Israel’s obedience is the loving response to the God who first loved them. It summons them, not to mindless submission, but to deep listening, a wholehearted seeking of the ways God’s word invites them to live out God’s purposes.
Further, it turns out that the commandments God gives are not a “to-do” list so much as they are a “to-be” list. They are meant to form us “to be” in loving relationships with God and with our neighbors, for mutual love is what covenant is all about. Walter Brueggemann notes that “covenantal obedience,” as taught in Deuteronomy, includes the following: “sharing feasts with the hungry, canceling debts the poor cannot pay, organizing government to guard against excessive wealth, sharing hospitality with runaway slaves, not charging interest on loans in the covenant community, paying hired hands promptly what they earn, leaving the residue of harvest for the disadvantaged, and limiting punishment in order to protect human dignity.”
Specific behaviors result from God’s commands, but the bigger picture of covenant obedience is “essentially a different valuing of social reality, refusing to reduce social relations to power, force, greed, and brutality.” And it follows that the natural consequences of such covenant relationships will be life-giving and prosperity-enhancing, for the whole community. On the other hand, to turn away from God and to serve others is the way of death and destruction. In practical reality, obedience to foreign gods means acceptance of perspectives and practices that contradict covenant relationships. “Perishing” comes about, not because God is waiting to hit the “smite button” every time someone disobeys, but as a natural result of relational patterns which engender fear, anger, hate, and diminishment of fellow human beings.
With these understandings of covenant obedience, we might better appreciate of Psalm 119, an elaborate song praising the instructions God provides in the commandments. “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart.”
Christians have often viewed the Torah, God’s instructions, as a burden, but in verse after verse—we only read the first eight of 176—the Psalmist “expresses the Israelites’ joy at the perfect guidance the Torah provides.” Rather than constricting their freedom, the Israelites saw God’s commandments as empowering them to make far-reaching, life-giving choices for themselves and their people. Rather than a list of burdensome demands they could never fulfill, the Israelites saw God’s commandments as a gift.
“The Ninety-Nine Acre Field,” a brief reflection Margaret Silf writes in the book the Women of Wisdom have been reading, begins with a young man contemplating plowing a 99-acre field, double the size of any field he’s worked in before. He’s a bit overwhelmed, but an older plowman mentors him in the work. Reflecting later upon what he learned, Silf writes,
“he still knows that a ninety-nine-acre field is a very big field to plow, just as he remembers the old plowman’s wisdom on how to accomplish this task…The first furrow has to be perfectly straight because it sets the course for every furrow after it. To achieve that perfect straightness, you had to look into the far distance, between the heads of the two horses, and fix your gaze on a landmark at the farther edge: a tree, a rock, or perhaps a cluster of bushes. The secret of the straight furrow was to keep your sights always on that chosen landmark and plough toward it. If you let your attention wander for long to the immediate surroundings, or to the horses or the plough in your hand, you would soon lose the focus, and the furrow would start to wander…”
At the edge of the Promised Land, the time has come for choosing. Yet Israel’s history bears out, we do not choose only once. Our wanderings off-course lead us into destructive patterns and find us exiled from the homeland where life can flourish. Charles Cousar points out, “ancient Israel was under no illusion about the ability of individual men and women, or of the community of faith as a whole, to attain moral perfection…To be sure, the mark was often missed (as it is missed by modern people of the faith community), but the mark remained: the only true guide for worship and conduct in a difficult world.”
It turns out that God’s gift of the commandments was a gift, even when it seemed far off. Sighting that mark in the distance made it possible for Israel to return again and again to the straight furrow of God’s ways. As Christians in our day and time, we face the same choice, life or death, blessings and curses. We follow the One who said he came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. As Silf reflects, Jesus is the One who makes that first perfectly straight furrow, “the Way that follows [God’s] dream.”
Jesus is the One who is also the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. We know that God has never and will never utterly forsake us. For no matter how far off-course we get, no matter how blurry our focus becomes on the way of life God has chosen for us, in Jesus Christ, we have a way back home.
Wherever you stand right now, my friends, it is a threshold. The life that is truly life has been made abundantly available to you by God in Jesus Christ. The choice is always open, the first and last choice that really matters. The choice is yours. Choose life.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h2WH6Nd0n9X8CSpLpRQleIk_4bvQ?docId=33e590bdbf1740ddb048c74291dcb2d5 (Associated Press, Feb. 12, 2011, London).
 Andrew Foster Connors, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 338.
 Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 343.
 Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching Year A, WJK, 138.
 Brueggemann, Ibid.
 Brueggemann, Ibid.
 Kevin A. Wilson, “Exegetical Perspective on Psalm 119:1-8,” Feasting on the Word, 345.
 Margaret Silf, Compass Points, 96-97.
 Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year A, 140.
 Margaret Silf, Ibid.