Tuesday, March 8, 2011

choose life

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. 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.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Mark’s, Rosenberg. My name is John Newton, and I just began working as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means that I have the privilege of thinking and praying about how all of God’s people can be formed into the image of Jesus Christ. That is, after all, what faith should so – form us into people filled with Jesus’ love, mercy, and compassion – into people filled with His life. Formation is about life. The Bible is about life. Salvation is about eternal life. In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses pleads with the Israelites: “choose life.” Even Jesus describes his mission by saying, “I’ve come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” This plea in Deuteronomy to “choose life” brings to mind a couple of questions I want to wrestle with this morning: Is embracing the life that God offers us hard or is it easy? Is God’s bar of salvation high or is it low?

Now, people in Moses’ day thought that finding a new life was hard. There was a myth that everybody would have known about at this time – an ancient myth in every culture about an epic story of humans seeking life from the gods. The myth went something like this: Only the gods hold the key to life, but the gods are hard to find. They lived up in heaven or beyond the sea and trying to find these gods was incredibly dangerous. But across these myths, in every culture, a daring hero built a tower to the sky or crossed a great sea to wrestle life from the gods. The real story behind these myths, the logic that drove them, was that something as precious as eternal life had to be earned. Sure, one could find eternal life but first he had to prove himself worthy. This is the myth that everyone believed in Moses’ day: finding life was hard and only the worthy could attain it.

Now, the Israelites knew about this myth, and they may have started to believe this myth, especially after forty years of wandering in the desert, which is the background of our reading from Deuteronomy. They would have known, for example, the story of Gilgamesh, who courageously crossed the sea to bring back the secret of eternal life from the gods. And so I imagine they started to wonder – “Moses is great, but it’s been forty years, we may need someone like Gilgamesh to go to heaven to get life for us.” So, Moses corrects them, “Look – the life that God offers isn’t that hard and it’s not that far away. It’s not in heaven,” he says, “You don’t have to scale a wall to get it. It’s not across the ocean,” he says, “You don’t need to cross the sea. The life God offers is very near. And so choose life.” But I’m not sure the Israelites got it because what Moses was saying was so easy it was hard.

Now, there’s a story from II Kings that illustrates this perfectly – the story of Naaman, a Syrian general diagnosed with a terminal case of leprosy. Naaman is desperate, and so when he gets word that the God of Israel can heal, he sets out on an epic, Gilgamesh like quest, which leads him to the house of Elisha. Well, Elisha doesn’t even answer the door – his intern does, and here’s a paraphrase of what the intern says. “Go wash in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be healed, it’s just that easy.” Well, Naaman gets furious – absolutely furious – and this is what his servants tell him. “If you had been asked to do something difficult, you would have done it. So why not do something so easy?” You see, what’s difficult for Naaman is the simplicity of what’s being asked because Naaman, in his own eyes, is a great man, and he came ready to prove it. You see Naaman thinks he’s on one of those epic quests seeking life from the God of Israel, and Naaman came ready to earn that life – to climb to heaven to get it, to cross the sea to find it. But what Elisha tells him to do is something a child could do. Wash in the Jordan? What God, he wonders, has a bar of salvation so low? The life God offered Naaman was so easy it was hard.

You see what makes faith hard isn’t the law but grace – the bar of salvation is so low, it is so low, that in order to crawl under it we have to drop everything, which is what Naaman couldn’t do. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “grace is free, but it certainly isn’t cheap.” And just so there’s no confusion, God has always related to His people on the basis of grace – grace isn’t a New Testament innovation, it’s how God has always worked. And so this morning Moses isn’t saying that if you keep the Law you’ll have life. After all, God didn’t give Israel the law and then save them. No, first God saved them, He bound Himself to Israel and made an irrevocable promise, and only then did he give them a blueprint on how to live. God has always related to His people on the basis of grace, the life He gives has always been a gift, but there is something about God’s terms that threaten us. After all, God didn’t save Israel because they were worthy. No, God chose Israel because by all human standards they were the least worthy.

God doesn’t give us life because we’re worthy – that’s the ancient myth. God gives us life because He’s good, because we’re not worthy; because apart from Him we have absolutely no worth. And that may sound simple, but admitting it and living it – that’s hard, because salvation by grace is a deathblow to our ego. It shatters the illusion that we’re in control of our life, or that God owes us anything, or that we have any kind of claim on God at all. To put it differently, if everything is a gift – if apart from God we really have no value – then is there anything He can’t ask of us?

Now, I want to tell you why all of this is relevant. The ancient Israelites were tempted to buy into a myth that said life had to be earned or achieved or that life was rewarded only to heroic people at the end of some epic quest. This myth is still alive and far too often our hearts buy into it. You see, we may say that God loves us and that in Christ He delights is us, but then we go and make our life about some other quest – some quest to find meaning outside of God. In the words of Moses, “we bow down to other gods and serve them” – the gods of money and success and approval and sex; a million different gods we think will give us life. I’m sure you’ve seen the first Rocky movie. It’s the night before the big fight and Adrianne doesn’t want him to go through with it, but this is what Rocky tells her. “I’m a nobody. I really don’t care if this guy splits open my head ‘cause all I want to do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, I’m going to know for the first time in my life I’m not just another bum.” Going the distance with Creed, that was Rocky’s quest, where he thought he’d find life. What’s yours?

You see whether embracing the life that God offers us is hard or easy – well, that all depends on how we answer the question, whose quest is it? It is ours? Is life, meaning, value, salvation, forgiveness something we have to achieve? Is it our courage and our effort and our performance that matter? Is our life ultimately about our quest to know we’re not a bum? Or, is our life found in Jesus’ quest for us? You see, that’s the difference between that ancient myth we’ve been talking about and the Gospel. The myth says we’ve got to climb up to heaven. The Gospel says Jesus climbed down. The myth says we’ve got to get life from the gods. The Gospel says God wants to give life to us. The myth is about us going the distance. The Gospel is about Jesus Christ going the distance – all the way to a cross – to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Which one of these two very different stories are we living?

The last verse of our reading from Deuteronomy says “love the Lord your God for that means to you life,” but after doing some research it’s become clear we have a pretty poor translation. This is how America’s leading Hebrew scholar, and just about every other Bible, translates this last verse. “Love the Lord your God, heed his voice, cling to him, for He is your life.” Jesus said, “I came that they might have life.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus is here. He wants to form us into people filled with his love, mercy, and compassion – into people filled with His life. The hardest thing about embracing that life is how easy it actually is. Jesus’ bar of salvation is so low we have to drop everything and cling to Him alone to crawl under it.

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