Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
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.
So there were these ancient Jews living in captivity. I don’t know how many there were, or what their names were, but let’s say there were two (there were probably more) and call them Rachel and Eli.
Like most people in unhappy situations, Rachel and Eli had questions – questions like “How did this happen,” “How can I fix it,” and “How can I keep this from happening again?” And like most people with those questions, they started digging through their history looking for clues.
They would have found that their ancestors worshiped a lot of idols, and read about King David and Solomon, who worshiped the God Rachel and Eli worshiped, Yahweh. They would have found that King Rehoboam made some bad decisions and split the kingdom, and his servant Jeroboam, who took the Northern half of the Kingdom, made some worse decisions and set up two golden calves for worship.
Then in 721 BCE, the Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Worship Yahweh, Rachel and Eli would have concluded, you get David and Solomon. Worship other gods, you get captured by Assyrians.
80 years later in 640 BCE, (I know, I’m skipping ahead a little), King Amon of the surviving Southern Kingdom worshiped other gods. His servants assassinated him, and his 8-year-old son Josiah became king in his place. It seems that the refugees from the Northern Kingdom managed to get hold of King Josiah and convince him to outlaw the worship of other gods, and make worship of Yahweh the only worship allowed.
When he was 26, Josiah had the priests dig through the rubble and renovate the house of Yahweh. While they were digging through it, they found a copy of some of the older parts of Deuteronomy. Today we’re not quite sure where it came from, but Josiah read it and was horrified. It seemed his predecessors had used the “Thou shalt not’s” in the law book as more of a to-do list.
So Josiah sent a message to the prophetess Huldah, asking if there was any hope for him and for his kingdom. The Huldah said, “Sorry, bud. God says vengeance is still coming. On the bright side, because you decided to listen the law, vengeance won’t come while you’re alive.” Long live the king, right?
Except he didn’t. Pharaoh Neco, King of Egypt, launched an attack on the Assyrians. For whatever reason, Josiah decided his little army should test their strength out against Pharaoh. Pharaoh said “My fight isn’t with you,” but Josiah fought Pharaoh anyway, and he got shot by an archer and died. And he was pretty much the last of the Southern Kings to worship Yahweh. Twenty-three years later, the Southern Kingdom had joined the Northern Kingdom in exile, which got Rachel and Eli to where they were now.
It was so obvious: Rachel and Eli’s ancestors were not hauled off into exile during Josiah’s reign, even though Assyria was powerful, because Josiah worshiped God and God protected him. The worship of other gods was what got Rachel and Eli’s parents dragged off to this foreign land.
Now, maybe Rachel and Eli didn’t understand complex geopolitical stuff, but they could sure understand correlation: When people worshiped God, good things happened. When they didn’t, bad things happened. They hadn’t learned that correlation isn’t causation, that just because two things happen near the same time doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second.
So Rachel and Eli, or whoever they were, added an appendix to Deuteronomy, maybe even to the same copy Josiah’s priests found in the temple, about blessings and curses. History was more of an art than a science, and God having Moses say a thing that was obviously true made perfect sense, so historians think they added a few notes and speeches about blessings and curses and God telling them to choose life, because wasn’t it obvious?
Rachel and Eli finally had their answers:
How did this happen if Yahweh is more powerful than the other gods? Our ancestors worshiped the other gods.
How can we fix it and prevent it from happening again? We will worship Yahweh and follow his laws.
So in 2008, I was reading Deuteronomy. I read the whole book in one night. I had gone through a traumatic breakup the previous December and I was hoping for answers to the same questions Rachel and Eli had: How did this happen, how can I fix it, and how can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?
And, like Rachel and Eli and Josiah, I read Deuteronomy. I read the laws, and they (mostly) made sense. For ancient middle easterners, anyway. I read the end that Rachel and Eli, or whoever they were, tacked on.
The answer was obvious: The reason sad things had happened to me was the same reason sad things had happened to Israel: God gave us good rules, and we broke them. I didn’t think I had to follow all the rules in Deuteronomy, but I did have the sense that God had rules. Not in a legalistic sense, but I thought, “God has principles that I’m supposed to follow, and I didn’t follow them.”
Because there it was, in black and white: God gives good rules, we follow them, we live. If we don’t, bad things happen. Simple as that.
How’s that expression go? “For every difficult and complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, easily understood, and wrong?”
Because before that breakup happened, I had been very careful about doing whatever I thought it was God wanted me to do. That hadn’t stopped it.
Before the Southern Kingdom got deported to Assyria, Josiah had done all of the things. Rachel and Eli thought it was because it wasn’t enough, but I have another idea, one I borrowed from Jesus: maybe because that’s not how things work. Maybe Jesus was right when he said God makes the rain fall on the evil and the good.
Maybe Jesus was right when he said “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Rachel and Eli associated life with safety, like the one-talent man in Jesus’ parable. If I hide this money, he thought, it’ll be safe. If I hide in these rules, thought the Deuteronomist, I’ll be safe. If I hide in religion, I thought, I’ll be safe… But no: it turns out if you hide your life in following the rules, if you take no risks, you wind up at the end of the story safe on the outside but dead on the inside; you didn’t lose the money, but you have nothing. You’ve played it safe, and that’s why you’re sorry.
But if you don’t choose life by careful religious observance, or rule-following, how do you choose life?
I think I have an answer: life chases you down until you do.
When I reading Deuteronomy, I was working at a computer repair company. I knew my life wasn’t right because I wasn’t doing what I believed in. I woke up every morning and drove to work, and every morning I asked myself, “Why? Why am I doing this?” I left that job to work at a camp, which is to say, I gave up security to choose life. When I left that camp at the end of that first summer, I wrote a blog post and I titled it after that quote from the movie WALL-E where the computer is trying to keep everyone on the spaceship alive and the captain says, “I don’t want to survive, I want to LIVE.” And man shall not live by bread alone, so I didn’t try to get my old job back. I went to college.
And when I graduated from college, I got another job, delivering prescriptions, but it wasn’t life, so that nagging feeling followed me until I quit and Kristen and I moved to Colorado and I became a teacher. That didn’t work out either, and I got another job, and that nagging feeling followed me that what I was doing wasn’t life, until I found myself at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I found myself here in this pulpit. I found myself alive again. Most people aren’t called to pulpits, but if you are, the Holy Spirit won’t leave you alone until you’re in one.
Some people are called to life in called to social work, called to practicing law, called to installing solar panels, called to teaching, called to parenting, called to all sorts of beautiful things.
Rachel and Eli were called to write this addendum onto Deuteronomy. They were inspired by the God when they wrote, “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.”
“Life and death.” Death is an option. If, when life comes knocking, you say no to it enough, you can make your life a sort of living death, even if you think you’re following the Bible.
My dad, who drew boxes around the “if”s and “then”s in Deuteronomy, trying to find and follow the formula for the good life, ignored Jesus’ words in John 5:39, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify on behalf of me.” My dad lives alone. His obsession with being right has isolated him from everyone. He thought he was choosing life and prosperity, but it looks an awful lot like death and adversity to me.
Following rules to stay safe is not the same as choosing life. Staying safe and choosing life are sometimes incompatible.
When Jesus came, he got in trouble because he didn’t follow the rules about the Sabbath. He chose life, and even when they killed him God raised him up from the dead. God chose life, and God chooses life and sustains our lives every single day.
The abolitionists didn’t worry about whether wicked preachers could make a case from the Bible for slavery; they knew what was right, and the Spirit of God chased them down until this entire country chose life. Ish.
The civil rights advocates didn’t stay safe or follow the rules; they were attacked with dogs and water cannons. Rosa Parks took a risk and sat in the front of that bus because she was too tired of having death forced on her. She chose life.
I’ve heard way too many stories from LGBTQ Christians who thought because of a few verses in the Bible that God wanted them to live a life that became for them a kind of living death, and I’ve heard incredible stories of when they took the risk and listened to that constant nagging that something is wrong and finally chose to live as who they really are – they chose life.
Nine folks from Waverly heard about Mama Arlene and Urukundo Village and hopped a plane to Rwanda. They chose life.
Bob and Amy went on that trip and the Spirit of God said “This is it,” and they’re selling their home and their cars and moving there for a year to work with Mama Arlene at Urukundo Village. Who does that? People who choose life.
Choosing life isn’t about following rules. It’s isn’t about staying safe, but it’s also not even necessarily about leaving – though for some people, like my mom in 2009, it is about leaving an abusive situation that feels safe and going into the unknown where Jesus waits for you to choose life.
Choosing life is about listening to that nagging feeling that something is wrong and following the spirit of God into life.
May we all be granted the courage and the freedom to choose life.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Obviously just because we have a nagging feeling doesn’t mean we’re called to do it or that it’ll be lifegiving. Murder, cheating on your spouse, obviously that’s not choosing life, and I don’t really need to say it but if I don’t I’ll probably get in trouble. Sometimes that nagging is the holy spirit, but if somebody’s gonna get hurt, it’s probably not.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.