Choosing Life as a People
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, February 16, 2014
A day when a snowstorm prevents people from making it to church might not seem to be the ideal time to raise the issue of global warming. But as far as I can understand the science, it is the slight rise in temperatures (especially in the artic) that has changed the movement of the jet stream and produced more extreme weather events: colder colds and hotter hots, and floods in some areas and droughts in others, and more storms in both winter and summer. Of course there is wide variation in weather, and many of you can remember worse winters, but “climate” is the word that describes temperatures, winds, and precipitation over a very long period of time. And the conclusion of the great majority of scientists is that the climate is slowly changing as the result of burning fossil fuels and adding vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
I agreed to be one of the thousands of preachers raising the issue of our stewardship of the climate today as part of the “National Preach-in on Climate Change,” as you see in the bulletin insert. But I am not going to spend time going over the statistics or trying to fill your head with facts. Instead, I am going to stick to the Old Testament lectionary reading assigned for today from Deuteronomy, because it seems to me to speak to our situation.
Deuteronomy is not a book you learn about in Sunday School—or even much in sermons—because it doesn’t really have stories. But it was the book of Hebrew scripture most quoted by Jesus. I love it because it’s all preaching: three sermons given by Moses at the end of his life, just before the people of Israel cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. The book got its name from the Greek for “second law,” because some of the basics of the Ten Commandments and key principles like loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength are underlined in these sermons. Deuteronomy functions as the hinge between the stories of the Exodus and the wilderness and the stories of the conquest of Canaan.
But what biblical scholars have shown us is that this book is not really words that come from the mouth of Moses. The book was probably written—or at least collected—much later, after Israel had fallen on hard times, defeated by other nations and depopulated like Syria today. Theologically, Deuteronomy is more like a hinge between the books of history and the work of the prophets, and it has connections to Jeremiah in particular. The situation of the book’s original audience is that their nation has lost the Promised Land that God gave them—for all practical purposes—and they have to wonder why. Deuteronomy doesn’t pull any punches. The preacher knows why all this happened: it was because the nation stopped loving and obeying God and went after the gods and cultural norms of the surrounding nations. Yahweh, the Lord who brought them out of Egypt, had made a covenant with them at Sinai which Moses reiterated just before they went into the land. The covenant always included an element of choice and consequence. If you are true to the covenant with God, you will endure in the land and flourish. If you choose to go your own way, your time in the land will be cut short and the blessings will be withdrawn.
So if the scholars are right, Moses here is declaring what the people in the time of defeat and exile needed to hear, but he says it as a word to the nation centuries earlier. It is a kind of thinking a nation does after it loses a war. The Japanese rethink the whole idea of worshiping the emperor and become a secular nation. The Germans renounce anti-Semitism and their history of violence and feeling superior. But sometimes, we know, nations do not rethink but become entrenched in the lost cause, as in the case of the Confederacy in our own history. In Israel’s case, there were clearly people who read the world differently than Moses; they were saying that the lesson of history is that the gods of other nations are stronger than the God of Israel. Some were saying that their God had abandoned them to historical forces and was no longer on their side. But the message of Deuteronomy is not only that the nation made the wrong choice centuries ago when it moved away from the Torah, but also that the nation has a choice today.
You heard those dramatic words from chapter 30 read earlier. This is the climax of Moses’ long sermon and the high point of the whole book. It all boils down to this, he says: If you choose to love God and live in the way God has commanded you, you will live and prosper in the Promised Land. If you choose not to listen to God and stop loving God, you will die and you won’t live long in the Promised Land. The big finish is in verse 19: “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.”
Two things strike me about this passage. The first is that there are some things God will not do for us. God will not make the choice for us, even if our life is at stake. He won’t make a choice for an individual, and he won’t make a choice for a nation or a culture. Those of us who are influenced by Reformed doctrine like to make God very big and man very small—and there’s some wisdom in that, not only in terms of theology but our relationship to the created world. We are very small. But that does not mean that God is the Decider, that God has everything worked out and it’s going to run according to his plan no matter what. God has left huge questions in the hands of humans. We can choose whether the human race will live or die. We can choose to love God or not. We can choose the way of peace and wholeness or the way of war and self-destruction.
We all learn this in relation to our children, don’t we? There are choices we cannot make for them. In fact, there are very few choices we can make for them after they are babies. God has chosen to treat us as his children and not his slaves or his robots. If you choose to ruin your life with selfishness or addiction or greed, God is not going to stop you. He is going to let you experience the consequences of your choices, all right—what amount to automatic “curses” rather than blessings. Ultimately he is not going to stop you if you choose a path that leads to death. It is a terrible freedom we have.
But the same thing is true, Deuteronomy says, about nations and whole civilizations. God places before us the way of life and the way of death. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…and it has made all the difference.” The way of life, as Jesus repeated, is to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself. A society can choose to live according to that way of life. I don’t mean that it enforces a state religion but that it operates with appropriate humility toward God and God’s principles, that it operates on the basis of the common good rather than individual greed, that it understands that it is a steward of this earth rather than the owner. But many societies have chosen to follow their own path. They may call it the pursuit of happiness; they may call it freedom; but if it is based on that love of money which Paul called the root of all evil, it will be a society piercing itself with many pains. As Jesus said, you cannot serve God and Money. One path leads to life, and the other leads to death.
God—who loves us and has created us free—will not stop us from choosing the path of death. Some Christians argue that climate change must be a hoax and a scare tactic, because it violates their understanding of the sovereignty of God. God is almighty, and God has established the order of nature with its seasons and its rains. God would not let human beings mess up the earth. God will find someway to bring the earth back to the way it was. Perhaps, I’d say, someday, God will bring his kingdom to earth in power and renew the whole creation and get rid of all the damage sin has done. But for now, God has left the choice up to us. If we choose to pollute our air and water, God is not going to filter it for us. If we choose to push our atmosphere out of the balance it has lived in for millennia, God is not going to stop us.
So the first thing that strikes me about Deuteronomy 30 is that we have a real choice between life and death. But the second thing that strikes me is that the choice is placed before the nation as a whole. Many Americans don’t like the idea of corporate guilt or responsibility for bad choices by our leaders, but the whole story of Israel from Deuteronomy through the history books that end with Chronicles is all about corporate guilt. It is all about the fact that God called his people—as a whole people—to live in a relationship with him and operate according to his principles of justice and mutual care, and they did not. Consequently, God brought repeated punishments upon them and finally they lost the land itself so that their nation effectively died.
There are choices that we have to make as a people—as a nation, or as modern industrial civilization, or as the developed world, or even as the human race. When it comes to the matter of climate change, there are small things that each of us can do, I will grant you. It is a good thing to reduce your carbon footprint as the church has done. Replace light bulbs and appliances. Get electricity from solar and wind. It makes a small incremental difference. But the big choices we have to make as a whole society. Moses spoke to the whole people and placed before them life and death; he did not give an invitation and ask individuals to commit themselves to Yahweh and to personal holiness. Somehow the whole people had to choose. If you read the history of Israel, the biblical writers put most of the blame on the kings because they set the tone and led the whole nation away from God. In the end, though, the judgment falls on the whole people.
In our day we privilege individual choice over communal decisions—so much so that we have a derogatory term for people deciding as a group. We call it “groupthink”—that phenomenon that happens when people have such close relationships that they begin to think alike and ignore dissenting opinions. We want people to decide for themselves, and that is a core value for Baptists from the beginning. Maybe you can tell that I spent my childhood in Japan when I say that groupthink isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it allows a society to function as a community. I think what we often lose sight of when we read the Old Testament is that it is calling on us to make decisions as a large group of people—not necessarily the modern nation-state, but perhaps as tribes or peoples, ethnic groups, and perhaps as larger empires that span many nations. Even in the New Testament, Jesus talks in Matthew 25 about how he will judge the nations according to whether they lived by his principles of caring for the poor—some have chosen the way of life and some have chosen the way of death.
If I say that our nation has to make choices about carbon use and its effect on climate change, some will say that I have become political. Individual choice is religion, but national choice is politics. You are hard pressed to say that from the Bible. Since we live in a democracy, we can do more than pray for the king to make wise choices about the climate. We can pray for our President and Senators and Congressmen to be sure, but we can also write them letters. We can sign petitions. We can try to get people elected who put priority on reducing the rate of climate change over increasing the rate of profit.
In Deuteronomy 30, you have a passage written by people at the time of the exile who have seen their nation destroyed, the soil ravaged and made unproductive. In their imagination, they go back to the time of Moses when people first settled the land. Knowing the end of the story of Israel—that it goes down the road to death—they still have Moses say (or perhaps they remember him saying) that the people once had a choice. They think back to this moment centuries earlier when the land of promise lay before them, before their choices ruined everything. And it is as if the later generations—even centuries later—are going back to these settlers and pleading with them: Please choose life! Don’t choose death! Can’t you see that if you wander away from seeing yourselves as stewards of God’s land the nation will die?
If we do not choose to make radical changes in our way of life—our way of consuming goods and using humans and using up the earth—can you imagine people from the year 2525 coming back to preach to us in 2014, at this critical moment before it is too late? Hear what later generations are saying, and what God himself is saying: Choose life!
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