February 16, 2014

On Choosing Life

Passage: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Service Type:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.

Journalist Joseph Brean recently (Jan 15, 2014) reported on a new survey of 166 scientists and intellectuals, asking which ideas ought to be “retired” from science, not quite because they are wrong, but because they are old and ineffective. “Unlike rock stars,” wrote Brean, “scientific ideas do not usually burn out. They fade away and outlast their usefulness.” Candidates for retirement include foundational ideas from across the spectrum of human inquiry. The list includes: common sense, free will, human nature, “information overload,” statistical significance, artificial intelligence and the idea that the Big Bang was the beginning of time. Brean also noted that many of these ideas proposed as candidates for retirement still seem new to the layman, or at least current.

Just when you thought you finally had things figured out it all changes; the ground moves from under our feet, so to speak. It isn’t just scientific ideas that fade away and outlast their usefulness. It precisely what many people feel is happening to them personally. And it is what many people feel about what they have to offer to others—we are outlasting our usefulness.

Every parent wants to give their child the best advice possible for steering a happy course in life. You know the things I mean; ideas on how to make choices for a fulfilling life. How to choose friends and ultimately a spouse. Axioms like, “I have found that the harder I worked the luckier I became.” Put first things first. But have these ideas also outlasted their usefulness?

We would love to give our children and grandchildren all the benefit of our experience so they would have a leg up, so they wouldn’t have to experience the bruising and hurts of our own stumbling. Alas, it appears that each generation of children feels that the advice of their parents has already outlasted its usefulness simply because it is their parent uttering the advice.

The book of Deuteronomy—one of the five older testament books known as the “law”, (Torah)—is something akin to a last will and testament. Moses has lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and through the forty years of wilderness wandering. They are now encamped on the east side of the Jordan River poised to enter the land promised them by God. Moses will not be going into the land with them so he makes his final appeal to follow the law given them by God. He wants a good future for them and in driving home his appeal he makes this final admonition. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. … Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

The path of life and prosperity is to be found in loving God, obeying God, and clinging to him, said Moses. Is Moses advice an idea that has long outlived its usefulness? The events spoken of in this text from Deuteronomy (30:15-20) occurred about 3500 years ago. About 1400 years after that Jesus appears on the scene and he embraces these things fully. According to the Gospels, Jesus is the one Jew who fulfils completely their destiny to be God’s covenant partner. And Jesus lives Moses’ axiom to the full; Jesus loves completely the one he calls the Father, he obeys perfectly the will of God, and in his darkest hours when all others have abandoned him he clings completely to Father. Jesus chooses life and calls his followers to do the same. For every believer who has made this choice she has found its relevance as fresh for the present hour as it was for every generation that preceded us.

Choose life! This is how the Bible frames the nature of what is most profound for life. In our era happiness is often offered up as the prize. A news story at the beginning of January reported that social scientists, after 40 years of research, attribute happiness to three major sources: genes, events, and values. In ancient Greece, the Stoic philosophers, spoke about pursuing the good life and pretty much boiled this down to: Pursue virtue; do good to those around you; and avoid causing harm.

Pursuing happiness, living the good life, and choosing life on the surface seem different ways of talking of the same thing. However, the internal logic of each makes them quite different. I invite you to think with me about choosing life. You will note that choosing life is, at its core, about relationship with God. The logic is imbedded in the nature of our existence because God is the life giver. The Apostle John wrote of Jesus; “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) Choosing life is fleshed-out in a trinity of imperatives—as Christians we would enumerate them this way—loving Jesus, obeying him, and holding fast to him.

1. First on loving Jesus (or God). Jesus called it the greatest commandment and it is found in this same book of Deuteronomy (6:5)—clearly Moses has it in mind as he calls Israel to choose life. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

In our Western culture we are so deluged with the idea of love as romantic love that we almost think of love exclusively in these terms. So the idea of that command and love belong in the same sentence sounds counter-intuitive to us. And yet we find within ourselves that capacity to reserve some of our worst behaviour for the very one we say we love romantically the most! Apparently the romantic part of loving someone isn’t as compelling of consistency for our best behaviour as we sometimes think—thus we would do well to contemplate the place of command in all of this.

Consider that love for our Saviour—and indeed love in general—calls every human faculty into play. With all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. In the Deuteronomy text the word Jesus cites as “mind” also means “strength”—with all your strength implying every aspect of your humanity. Indeed there is an emotional piece to love but often we find that the deeper resonances of the emotional part follows these other aspects of human faculty dedicated to a relationship of love. Many of you would be able to say, along with many others, that after years of marriage you love your spouse in the emotional sense more than ever. Yes, the journey has included that wonderful early days of falling in love; what you have found is that out of the dedication over the years of all of our human faculties to fostering this relationship a somehow deeper and more abiding emotional aspect of love emerges.

Think about loving the Saviour with all your mind. The Apostle Paul prayed this prayer for the church; “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19) Indeed, the love of Christ is beyond knowledge but we can comprehend some aspects of its grandeur; to love Christ is, after all, to love the very one who is love.

I have found over the course of my life that as I have engaged in the study of scripture—in endeavoring to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ—that this emotional side of love for Christ has deepened. I find that texts of scripture and lines from hymns and songs of the church glow with a warmth that reaches to the deepest resonances of the heart. This past Christmas I was introduced to the musical group Pentatonix and their rendition of the song “The Drummer Boy.” I have heard this song sung over the years but for some reason this year it gripped my heart in a new way. I played it so many times I’m sure our Office Administrator Sally was sick of hearing it. It’s the line “I played my best for him” that touches so deeply in a new way such that I can hardly voice the words. That is what I want to be able to say of Jesus; I played my best for him.

When our children grow up we worry about who they will love. In some measure no one can love them in the way a parent does and some parents make the mistake of thinking this means no one is ever really good enough for them. I invite you to consider this reflection; to teach your children to love Jesus, to model love for Jesus before them, is a love you can feel very secure about. Jesus loves them more than a parent does and you can be sure that if they love Jesus it is in fact to choose life!

Whenever I think of love for Jesus my mind is drawn to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where he asked Peter that simple but all-determining question—do you love me? We know this story as the restoration of the Apostle Peter after his heart-breaking denial of Jesus at the time when Jesus most needed a friend. Do you love me, asked Jesus? The first two times Jesus used that strong work for love, (agape). Peter can only say, I’m fond of you (philios). He knows better than to profess too much as he had before the denial. When Jesus asks Peter a third time, do you love me, he uses Peter’s weaker word for love. Can you at least say you’re fond of me? Peter is hurt, “you know all things Jesus, and you know I can at least say that,” replies Peter. After each question and answer Jesus tells Peter, feed my sheep. He gives Peter a commission. It tells me that though my love for my Savour wavers, even if the best I can say is to express fondness, Jesus has something for me to do. He does not discard me but takes me as his own.

It is our Saviour’s grip on us that is dependable; it is our Saviour’s love of us that does not waver. The gospel follows the logic of love for God is love.

2. Secondly, consider obedience to him. We sometimes think of obedience in terms of those parental words ringing in our ears—do what you are told! Obedience is pictured as an unthinking response to a command. Sometimes like some military drills that are done simply to instill a chain of command in the mind of the soldier. The Biblical picture is much different. The commands of God are covered promises—they lead to life. They are freedom; being freed up to perform at one’s best for that which is truly life-giving.

Too often we make the mistake of thinking that God's laws are like speed limit signs—they are just arbitrary hoops God has decided people should jump through. But as the people of God, we need to know that God's laws are like gravity—God gave us these guidelines and rules as a kind of owner's manual for life on earth. These rules describe the way things simply are. All in all, you will be far better off in life if you respect the law of gravity—when dealing with hammers, ladders, staircases, and the edges of cliffs. So also with God's law for the Israelites: God wanted his people to be safe, healthy, and well.

Nowhere does God say, “I’ll do the thinking you do the obeying,” as if obedience requires no thought. The Hebrew word obedience means listen—to listen with a view to obeying. Observe how Jesus though deeply about the laws of God. “You have heard it said “you shall not commit adultery”, but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is consistent with what he said elsewhere; that out of the human heart evil comes.

But there is another side implied here in all God’s laws. Paul put it well in his Philippian letter: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”. (Philippians 4:8) The command also shows us what to pursue. Obedience to Jesus opens us to the wonders of life’s possibilities for good, for blessing. And since we know that love and obedience are linked, and love is endless, so are these possibilities.

A member of our church wanted to learn the craft of making furniture. He found a company called Thomas Moser Furniture who have a “Customer in Residence” programme. In essence, you spend a few days (holiday) with an expert in the field and learn what you can about the craft. This man told showed me a beautiful desk and side table he built as part of that programme. On the last day as he was completing the table drawer his building mentor said—we only have an hour left so you watch as I do the final touches. The mentor proceeded to remove the drawer shave a little here and there until it fit perfectly—he removed and replaced the drawer touching up various places on the drawer sixty times until he was satisfied.

I think this a good parable for obedience of our Saviour. The author of life knows something about what life is designed best to do. As we learn from him we are inspired to put our hands to many things that are commendable and excellent calling on our best efforts form the whole of our human faculties.

3. Finally, on holding fast to him. The word translated “hold fast” has the idea of clinging to someone or something. It is the same word that is used in Genesis of marriage; a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife. Marriage is the metaphor used most often in scripture of faith in God; God is pictured as the bridegroom and Israel the bride; in the New Testament the church is pictured as the Bride of Christ. Only God can be God in your life. Holding fast to Jesus implies an allegiance to him as Lord, only he will have this place.

But clinging or holding fast also points us in the direction of our need for Jesus’s help in all of this; what he commands he enables in us and supports. He also carries us in those times when we feel helpless. A pastor named Kyle Idleman tells this story: “when we moved into our current house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office. As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help. So together we started sliding it across the floor. He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along. After a few minutes, my son stopped pushing, looked up at me, and said, "Dad, you're in my way." We are so prone like this little boy to think it is all up to us. Holding fast to our Saviour is to acknowledge that he is the enabler.

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.