Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Series A)
“Choose: Life or Death”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
February 12, 2017
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament Reading recorded in Deuteronomy 30:
15See, I have set before you today life and good and death and evil. 16What I am commanding you today is to love Yahweh, your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, and you will live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. 17But if your heart is turned away and you will not hear and are thrust away and you bow down to other gods and you serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long days in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and to take possession of it. 19I cause the heavens and the earth to bear witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So you choose life in order that you and your descendants shall live to love Yahweh your God, to hear His voice, and to cling to Him for He is your life and your length of days to dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob to give to you.
They story is told by Socrates of the young Hercules emerging from boyhood to manhood. He was pondering how to shape his life. Two women appeared before him, one voluptuous in form and luxurious in dress, the other severe and strict in appearance and clothed in a simple white garment. The name of the one was Pleasure; the name of the other was Virtue. Pleasure promised to lead young Hercules by the shortest road and without any work to the enjoyment of every pleasure. Virtue beckoned him along a path on which he would experience labors and suffering, but where alone he should find a beautiful and good life worthy of his strength. Which would you choose?
Choices are often difficult. The people of Israel were poised on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Their forty years of wilderness wandering was at an end. The covenant which God made with His people was re-read. “Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Keep the whole commandment that I command you today.’ . . . Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, . . . ‘You shall therefore obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today’” (Deut. 27:1, 9a, 10 ESV). Moses continued to charge the people, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:1-2 ESV). “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deut. 28:15 ESV).
Moses then listed the covenant blessings and the covenant curses for the people so that there would be no misunderstanding. He concludes by summarizing in our Old Testament lesson today, “See, I have set before you today life and good and death and evil. What I am commanding you today is to love Yahweh, your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, and you will live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart is turned away and you will not hear and are thrust away and you bow down to other gods and you serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long days in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and to take possession of it.”
The whole matter comes down to this pivotal moment for Israel. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So you choose life in order that you and your descendants shall live to love Yahweh your God, to hear His voice, and to cling to Him for He is your life and your length of days to dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob to give to you.” That choice seems like the logical, reasonable one, doesn’t it? Who would honestly choose death? Who would seriously prefer punishment over blessing? Yet, Israel chose punishment and death! The history of Israel is one of repeated violation of God’s covenant with them. Over and over again the Israelites thrust themselves away from Yahweh. They worshiped other gods and served them. The Israelites regularly failed to love the Lord and to love their neighbors, including each another! The choice between life and death was such an obviously easy one, and yet Israel blew it! How could this have happened?
God set before Israel (and us) clear alternatives: life, good; death, evil. The command is to choose life. But Israel did not. Nor do we. You see, when we receive this command to choose life, we find ourselves incapable of carrying out the order. Let me put it another way. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Never, ever allow any feeling, any desire, any object, or any person to come first in your life other than God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is the First Commandment, is it not? And yet, don’t you and I find ourselves incapable of always obeying that command? Why is that?
It is because both we and Israel have a condition. We are, by nature, corrupt. We are, by our natural condition with which we are conceived and born, sin’s servant and the devil’s captive. Our natures are perverted, “active only to do what is displeasing and contrary to God” (FC: SD, 7). Scripture says in Genesis 6:5, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” By our very nature as corrupt, sinful human beings, we are entirely dead to what is good (Eph. 2:5).
Because you and I are by nature sinful and unclean, we are incapable of ever choosing life. We, like Israel, cannot follow the Lord’s command. We can’t perfectly keep any of His commandments on our own. As with all of God’s Law, the “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots,” the command to choose life gives us knowledge of our sinful condition. As Luther wrote in his famous Bondage of the Will, “The words of the law are spoken, therefore, not to affirm the power of the will, but to enlighten blind reason and make it see that its own light is no light and that the virtue of the will is no virtue. ‘Through the law,’ says Paul, ‘comes knowledge of sin’ [Rom. 3:20]; he does not say the ‘abolition’ or ‘avoidance’ of sin. The whole meaning and purpose of the law is simply to furnish knowledge, and that of nothing but sin; it is not to reveal or confer any power. For this knowledge is not power, nor does it confer power, but it instructs and shows that there is no power there, and how great a weakness there is. For what else can the knowledge of sin be but the awareness of our own weakness and wickedness? . . . All that the law does, according to Paul, is to make sin known.”
Truly, this is so. The Lord says to have no other gods. I do not always have true fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The Lord says to love my neighbors. I don’t always show mercy. The Lord says to choose life and by my nature, I choose death because I willingly choose sin. By nature, I choose Pleasure over Virtue. Along with St. Paul, I must cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). That is your cry, too, O poor, miserable sinner. Who will rescue us from our sins? Who will save us from death?
The One who rescues and saves is a new Moses, a greater Moses. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17 ESV). As Moses shepherded Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness, so Jesus is the Good Shepherd who brings us out of slavery to sin and through the wilderness of death into eternal life. Jesus says, “I give [My sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish” (Jn. 10:28 ESV). Jesus Christ alone gives life to sinners. Sinners cannot choose life. Sinners cannot earn life. This life is the free gift of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8 ESV). Again, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:5-6 ESV).
It is Jesus Christ who kept all of the Law on behalf of sinners. As the sinless, holy Son of God, He chose life in obedience to the perfect Law of God. As a result of Christ’s perfect obedience, the Father credits us with Jesus’ holiness and perfect obedience. This means that because of Jesus’ perfect life as our substitute, God credits us with having kept His commandments exactly as He said.
For you, Jesus also chose death, even death on a cross. Since Jesus took upon Himself our sin and our guilt He also had to take our punishment of death and suffer the full wrath of God. He was made a curse for us, as Paul says in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13 ESV). Jesus died in your place and mine so that we are free from the curse and the punishment of sin. Therefore, because of Christ’s perfect life, death, and triumphant resurrection, you and I are gifted life through the forgiveness of all our sins.
Moses wrote in our text that God “is your life and your length of days.” Jesus, true God and true Man, says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our God and Savior is our life and our length of days. He has poured out His Holy Spirit upon us through Baptism and the preached Gospel Word. The Spirit delivers to us the gifts of Christ, forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. “Through the preaching of the Law, a person come to know his sins and God’s wrath. . . . Through the preaching of, and reflection on, the Holy Gospel about the gracious forgiveness of sins in Christ, a spark of faith is kindled in him. This faith accepts the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake and comforts itself with the Gospel promise. So the Holy Spirit (who does all this) is sent into the heart (Galatians 4:6)” (FC: SD, 54).
By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel and the Sacraments of Christ, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, you and I now desire to do the good that God commands. In the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit, we “delight in the law of God” (Rom. 2:7) and we do “good to such an extent and as long as [we are] moved by God’s Spirit, as Paul says in Romans 8:14, ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God’” (FC:SD 63-64).
With faith in Christ as a gift of God the Holy Spirit, with forgiveness of sins and eternal life as our present possessions, you and I are now able to love the Lord, our God, to walk in His ways, to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments by the Spirit’s power and grace at work in us through the Means of Grace in Word and Sacrament. God chose to give us this eternal life, instead of death, out of His great love and mercy for sinners. God in Christ has granted you life in abundance, a life lived by grace, with faith, where good works flow from a new heart and a new spirit since you are a new creation looking forward to resurrection life with God forever in a new heaven and earth. So be sure of this. God in Christ chose the good for you. He chose life for you. And “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 ESV). Amen.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33: Career of the Reformer III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 33 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 127.