Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:20 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It seems like a strange request for Moses to make: choose life! Of course we would choose life! Why wouldn’t we? Who would choose death? Some people do, of course, for various reasons: they think that what they call their “life” is not going to improve, and they want to be free of the burdens they cannot seem to escape. Or they are suffering so much that death seems preferable to this kind of life. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. All things being equal, absent various circumstances or struggles, everyone would choose life. We may have certain conditions for what we think is a life worth living, but if those are satisfied, then we will always choose life.
And yet Moses seems to think that “choosing life” may not be as automatic as we would expect. He seems to think that there is a good possibility that Israel might choose death instead. Actually, it’s not really a question of abstract possibility. There is evidence already that Israel would choose evil and death, instead of the blessed good and life that God gives. And Moses is not alone in this suspicion. Both Paul and Jesus think so, too. Paul has given them life in Jesus, and they keep choosing Paul or Apollos. Paul gives them the unity of the Spirit and they choose the divisions of the flesh.
Jesus, too, cuts past all the external ideas about keeping the Law of God to the very heart of the problem. He is the surgeon who knows that if He doesn’t cut past the mess of damaged tissue to the source of the infection, nothing can be healed. The problem is not merely in the physical taking of life, but in the source of murder in the hatred that comes from the heart. The problem is not merely in the adulterous action, the fornication, the pornography. It’s in the source of adultery, which lies in the lust of the heart. Unlike most systems of morality, which think that the outward action creates the person, so that if you do good actions, you will be a good person and if you do evil actions you will be an evil person, Jesus says that we do good or evil actions because we are either good or evil. If you want good fruit, first make the tree good.
The way to choosing life for Jesus is to cut out, or cut off, that which chooses death. If your eye looks at and desires to have the person whom God has not given to you in marriage (just as Eve looked at and desired the fruit which was not given them to eat), then choosing life means cutting out your eye. If your hand takes what is not yours to take, such as the goods or life of another person, which God has given, then choose life by cutting off your hand. Better to live without an eye or a hand, then die with both.
“I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth, the life and the death I have set before you, the blessing and the curse; so choose life; therefore, you will live, and your offspring [as well:] to love Yahweh your God and hear His voice and cleave to Him” (Deuteronomy 30:20).
Yes, it is incredibly strange that anyone would choose death and evil over life and good. But that is exactly what people do. It is what Israel did. God Himself said to Moses, “After you die, this people will rise up and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land they are entering, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant…then I will forsake them and hide My face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil they have done, because they have turned to other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:16-18). And God tells them that both the blessing and the curse, which He has set before them, will come upon them. It is strange that people would choose death, but the dead man is as the dead man does.
We think anyone would choose life over death, but those are just abstractions. We define life as good, or as worthwhile, or we measure its quality, based on our own criteria. If life seems good to me, I will choose it, but if it seems evil to me, I will not. But that’s not right at all. God is not telling us to choose life in the abstract, while we choose death in the abstract. We’ve somehow never gotten around to asking the primary and most important question: what is life? It seems like Moses answers that question in verse 16, with the blessing of God and living long in the land. But that is only the good outcome of having life. It is not until verse 20 that we actually find out what it means to be blessed, to have life, to live long: “He is your life and the length of your days” that you may dwell on the earth that Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to give you.
That is why death and evil and curse are connected directly to other gods, to other goods, to other definitions of life. Because it’s not as if the other gods don’t promise life. There were fertility gods that promised life in terms of fertility for crops, fertility for the land, fertility for the womb. There were gods that promised life in the defeat of enemies. Of course, we’ve got our own gods that promise life, that promise happiness, success, love. And for religious people, we have false gods that promise that you will live forever if you can at least get on the plus-side of doing more good than evil. As long as you don’t do anything really bad, like murder or adultery—well, we seem to think you can do a little adultery—you’ll probably make it to heaven, whatever you think that is.
But life is not anything other than Yahweh, your God, who chose you in Jesus Christ. There is no life other than Him. He is your life and your length of days—then comes living long in the land according to the promise. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. It is not some generic “life” that Moses tells Israel and us to choose; life is God and God alone. And this is what it means to choose death: to choose something or someone other than Yahweh. Which is, of course, what sinners always do, what our sinful flesh always would do. We can’t imagine cutting out—cutting off—what we view as our very life. Not to mention the fact that gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand isn’t going to stop a single sin. Anger and lust and every other sinful desire is in your heart and in your mind. Good luck cutting those out and still being alive.
But that’s getting closer to the point. You cannot have any life, your days are cut short, exactly by sin. We think it’s the opposite: we can’t imagine living without this or that sin, especially if everyone around us approves of it. We can’t imagine living without our bitterness, our anger, our lust, our alcohol, our sinful relationships. But choosing sin over God and His Word is choosing death. The only way our sinful choosing can end is in God forsaking us, because we have forsaken Him. Go ask your gods for help, if you do not want Me, He says. But they will only fail you every time. There is no life in them. To cling to them is to cling to death and to become like them.
And what is the result? “Many evils and troubles will come upon [you], so that [you] will say in that day, ‘have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” We cast God out, we forsake our only Life, we find no happiness, and then we wonder where He has gone. He hides His face.
But for your sake He hides His face in plain sight, in the figure of the Man crowned with thorns. “My God, My God,” Jesus prays, “why have You forsaken Me?” It’s a strange command Moses gives, to choose life; stranger that we would choose death instead of life. But far stranger still that the Father would forsake the innocent Son instead of those who choose against Him. Far stranger that He hides His face from the beloved One. For us who chose death, Jesus chooses death. Since we will not kill our idols, the true God lets Himself be killed. And in His flesh, in His life, in His death, He cleaves Himself to us. For this reason, the Man left His heavenly Father and His earthly mother and joins Himself to a sinful bride, in order to purify her of all her idolatries, all her anger, all her lust; to purify you and me so that we will be holy members of Christ, belonging to Him forever. And since you have been joined to His death in baptism, He has put to death in you what you never would have cut out yourself. You who have been baptized are now dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ. Now He is your life; throw away all the death-dealing things that are opposed to His voice and word. He is your length of days, into eternal life; do not cling to the dying things of this age. He alone will be your joy, even in the midst of your suffering or your despair. He is your life, especially when you think death might be the only way out. The idols, the death, the evil, the curse have been assumed by Jesus on your behalf. Jesus says that we must not swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or our own head, but God swears by Himself that He will restore His perishing people. I am the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus says. I am holding fast to you; hear My voice, eat My Body and My Blood, and hold fast to Me. And I will be your life forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/10/23