Sunday, April 4, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 30:11-20
Luke 30:1-12

I call heaven and earth to record against you this day that I have set before you life and

death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, so that both you and your descendants

may live.

Deuteronomy 30:19

In the early church, Easter was the principal festival--Christmas came along later. There

is a reason for this. What had launched the disciples on their missions was not Jesus'

birth but his resurrection. What had formed their own faith was not stories about Mary and

Joseph, about the shepherds and the wise men, but their own experience with their master.

The crucifixion had shaken that faith to the core. The resurrection had lifted it to a

whole new level. It had transformed the disciples from a stunned and bewildered band into

passionate bearers of the gospel, the good news.

The good news was not simply that Christ was risen. That had been good news to the

disciples, but it would mean little to people who had never known Jesus before the

crucifixion. The good news that affected them directly was the news of the forgiveness of

sins, of the kingdom of heaven.

Or again, the good news was not that death had been overcome. As someone has observed, the

death rate remained constant at one hundred percent. The good news was that death need not

be feared. It was deliverance from preoccupation with death, freedom to focus on living in

a new way. This would be the experience of the convert, the equivalent of the disciples'

experience of the resurrection. This would be the living presence of the Lord in the

convert's life. This would be what the convert would celebrate at Easter.

It is intriguing to see a parallel to this in our own times. There are more and more

people who have had what we call "near death experiences," people who have, by most

definitions, actually died, and have returned to life. By the testimony of the vast

majority of them, they do not tend to think a great deal about their immortality. They no

longer fear death, but they have no particular longing for it, either. The biggest change

is in their view of life here and now. Having encountered a being who understood them

through and through and loved them effortlessly and without reserve, they now see

themselves and their lives in terms of their own love and understanding. They have met in

person what our theology tries to tell us about--the marriage of the good and the true, of

love and wisdom, and that has become, in gospel terms, the pearl of great price.

That is simply another way of expressing the gospel that the apostles carried. It is the

core of the Lord's teaching. He was constantly trying to stir his disciples' minds into

action and stir their hearts into compassion. It was not enough simply to tell them to

love each other. There are too many different ideas about what love is. He needed to tell

them to love each other as he had loved them.

By his behavior, by the way he treated them and everyone he encountered, he defined love.

There was nothing particularly sentimental about it, certainly nothing spineless or

self-effacing. This love had courage and clarity, firmness of purpose and extraordinary

sensitivity. This love was capable of the ultimate self-sacrifice, but without any trace

of martyr complex. This love listened to others with full attentiveness, and responded in

unexpected ways. It could work miracles, it could tell stories, it could weep. it was so

human that it gave new depth and definition to the very word "human," saying to each of

us, "This is what you are intended to be. Love each other as I have loved you."

What we are talking about is the spiritual sense of the Easter story. Very simply put,

love is spiritual life, and lack of love is spiritual death. The Lord was able to rise

from the grave physically because he had so completely overcome death spiritually. By

becoming love itself, he had become life itself.

It would seem obvious that he did not come to deliver us from physical death. There have

been profoundly devoted Christian souls, souls who gave of themselves with a completeness,

a generosity that puts the rest of us to shame. They have died just as surely and

completely as everyone else. The difference is that while they were alive, they were

wonderfully alive. We need have no doubt as to their ongoing life in the spiritual world,

any more than we need doubt our own. That is not the point. We are not talking about time

and eternity, we are talking about quality, here and now.

Some years ago, an elderly member of one of our churches was prevailed upon by her doctor

to move from the house she had lived in all her married life into a nursing home. From a

medical point of view, this was the only thing to do. She was nearing ninety, had been

widowed for a number of years, lived alone, and was having more and more trouble taking

care of herself.

In fact, she died within months of the move, essentially from depression. What made sense

from a medical point of view was spiritual nonsense. From a spiritual point of view, the

purpose of the move was not to prolong her life, it was to prolong her days. In effect,

she was asked to exchange a short span of time in the surroundings she loved for a longer

span of time in surroundings that were without meaning for her. It is certainly arguable

that six months of contentment is better than any number of years of depression.

As soon as we take seriously the teaching that life is essentially love, we move out of

the numbers game, counting how many years we can eke out, and become engaged with

questions of quality. We can have some effect on the numbers--we can take care of

ourselves or not, for example--but we have no choice whatever as to the ultimate outcome.

To the materialist, the commandment to "choose life" makes no sense at all.

We have a great deal to say, though, about life in its spiritual sense. Whatever our

circumstances may be, we have choices as to how we will respond. Basically, we can try to

make things better, or we can try to advance our own interests. These two agendas are

often, though not always, in conflict with each other, and the ever-present question is

which we will put first. It is a question we face in favorable and unfavorable

circumstances alike.

For people in truly oppressive circumstances, this may seem a harsh doctrine, and it

should not be lightly or callously asserted. We must not minimize the difficulties that

face people from abusive homes or people in abject poverty, for example. But Victor

Frankl's testimony carries immense conviction. He was Jew who survived a Nazi

concentration camp. There can hardly be more cruel and dehumanizing situations than this,

there could hardly be less freedom, yet his observation was that his fellow prisoners were

still making fundamental choices. Some were wallowing in self-pity or hatred, some were

conniving for their own survival, while some were trying to be as helpful as they could to

other sufferers. They knew that they could face the gas chamber any day, yet it was still

possible to "choose life," and some did. Perhaps all a person could do might be to murmur

a word or offer a glance of concern, but to choose to do that apparently little thing

carried profound meaning.

On a much less dramatic scale, it is significant that recent decades have seen a

burgeoning of "support groups." These are groups of people facing similar difficulties.

They work because people can gain through their trials a kind of understanding that comes

in no other way. Yet it is obvious that not all people do gain from their trials. Some

become bitter and alienated. Clearly, the circumstances alone have not made people wiser

or made them bitter. The pivotal difference has been in the response to the circumstances,

in the choice of life or death.

In a way that Deuteronomy does not obviously intend, this choice between life and death is

quite literally a choice between blessing and cursing. Do we choose to use our lives to

bless others, or to curse them? What are we looking for as we start each day? What are we

looking for as we meet the people we live and work with?

There is bound to be some self-concern. Times when we do not care about being thought well

of are few and far between. But again, the formative choices come when that desire impels

us to shade the truth in our favor. Then there are times when our patience wears thin or

when the well of our sympathy seems to run dry, when we want to indulge ourselves in the

pleasures of self-righteousness or simply distance ourselves from someone in need. How do

we choose to respond--and even more importantly, how honest are we with ourselves? There

are clear indications in our theology that we do ourselves more damage by our

rationalizations of our sins than by the sins themselves.

If we look closely, we will discover that we rationalize our sins, that we make excuses

for ourselves, because we are afraid of condemnation. In a strange and ultimately

self-defeating way, we try to avoid the curse by convincing ourselves that it is a

blessing. As one writer put it, "Evil, be thou my good." It is a line that could have come

from Swedenborg's pen. he expressed the same though by saying that whatever we love, we

call good.

If the primary reason for our rationalizations is fear of condemnation, then, the gospel

strikes at the root of the problem. The gospel is the good news of forgiveness, the news

that whatever we may think of ourselves, the Lord loves us in the very practical sense of

wanting to bless us. This is the same Lord who knows us far better than we know ourselves,

far better than we can ever know ourselves. Not only is there no point to rationalizing,

there is no reason to rationalize. Ultimately, we are not deceiving anyone but ourselves.

In the incarnation, the Lord met life as we do. He saw things as we see them, felt them as

we feel them. This is central to our view of life, of scripture, and of the Divine. In the

kinds of circumstance we meet, and in fact under trials greater than we can imagine, he

chose life. The crucifixion is the great summary symbol of everything a heartless world

can inflict on us, and the resurrection is the great summary symbol of the Lord's choice

of life.

He came to preserve our ability to make that same choice. In the Sermon on the Mount, he

told us that he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. He

fulfilled them by filling them with new meaning, by taking those who would follow to a new

depth of understanding. The outward forms of the law and the prophets, the words

themselves, remained constant. They now became vehicles of what our theology calls a

spiritual sense, of spiritual meaning.

Imagine for a moment that it is the risen Christ who speaks the words from Deuteronomy

that are our text: "I call heaven and earth to record against you this day that I have set

before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life . . . ." Now they

refer not so much to the behavorial laws of Sinai as to the law of love. The Lord's whole

life was the word make flesh, the law and the prophets lived out on their deepest level.

That life provided us with a definition of life, and by contrast with a definition of

death. It provided us with a matchless image of blessing, and by contrast with a chilling

definition of cursing. Now, especially at Easter, he calls us to choose life.


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