Choose Life

78427565_e9b13992db_nDecisions. Decisions. What to choose? I am always glad when my wife is close at hand when I get dressed. How I knew what ties went with what shirts before I was married, I do not know. Decisions, decisions. Yet while I stress over ties, the world unravels. Decisions must be made by world leaders on how to deal with terrorism. Our current conundrum has arisen due to a complex interweaving of history, politics, economics, and yes, religion. Such complexity makes rocket science seem like a grade school project. I am glad I am not a world leader. You should be glad I am not a world leader too. Thankfully, not every decision in life is so hard to make or so mired in complexity. Let’s take a moment to think on one from Deuteronomy 30.

As God’s people stand ready to enter the Promised Land, and as Moses gets ready to say his final goodbyes, he makes a call to commitment to the Lord. He begins with this:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Bible scholars tell us that the expression translated “not too hard,” could be translated as “not too mysterious,” “hard to understand,” or “incomprehensible.” In other words: this is not rocket science. Nor is it kept hidden. God’s people need not go on a search in heaven or across the sea for the answers to big questions like “who is God?”, “who are we?”, and “what is expected of us?”. God has revealed it. In fact “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” if indeed they were listening back in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 when He said “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them.” God has revealed enough of Himself, His purposes, His covenant, and His expectations that His people ought not to be confused. As they stand ready to enter the Promised Land, it is crystal clear who God is, who they are, and what is required of them.

Moses goes on lay out the possible consequences of the decision he is calling them to:

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 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. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 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. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Deuteronomy 30:15-19a

This ought to be an easy decision to make. Life, or death? Again, this is not rocket science. And so comes the call to make a decision:

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 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. Deuteronomy 30:19-20

While some translations have “for that,” i.e. the act of choosing God, loving and obeying Him, “means life to you”, another possible translation is “For the Lord is your life”, as the NIV has it. Either way, God’s people are called upon to choose the Lord, to choose to obey His law, to choose life. All these go together. Given the consequences this was an easy decision to make.

People sometimes refer to the afterlife as “The Promised Land” and of death as “crossing the river” which of course alludes back to the Jordan river which lay between God’s people and the Promised Land. There is a decision that needs to be made by every person before making that journey, before crossing that river, crossing over from this life to the next. Just as God’s revelation was clear to His people in Deuteronomy, so too it is clear today. There is a clarity to the Gospel, of the good news of right relationship with God. In fact this is part of what Paul is getting at when he refers to our passage from Deuteronomy:

. . . the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven? ’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss? ’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:5-9

In other words, salvation is not something impossible for us to attain, like going up “into heaven . . .to bring Christ down” or going down “into the abyss . . .to bring Christ up from the dead.” Those are examples of things we of course can not do. In fact salvation is not even something we do. It is something God does for us in and through Jesus Christ. God “is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (Romans 10:12-13 NRSV) Our part is to call upon God, to trust Him, to repent from our sins and turn to Him in Christ. It was for us that Jesus chose death. Our part is to choose life.

The consequence of our decision is clear:

11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:11-15

It is not hard to figure out what to do when confronted with the consequence of God. It is not hard to figure out what to do when confronted with the love of God. It is not hard to figure out what to do when confronted with the grace of God, the holiness of God, the justice of God, the power of God, the reality of God, the evidence for God, the Word of God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God. We have the opportunity, one we don’t even deserve, to make a decision: to choose life.

Did you notice when the call to decision was made for God’s people in the days of Moses? It was before they crossed over the Jordan. Did you notice from God’s Word in Revelation that the book of life is opened to be read from rather than written in? No angel will stand with pen in hand waiting for you to make your choice. Now is the time to make that decision. Now is the time to choose life.

(Unless stated otherwise all scripture references are taken from the NRSV. photo credit: Another fork in the road via photopin (license))

A Funny Thing Did Not Happen on the Way to Worship an Idol

14446762625_2a4916da1c_nAll religions are equal, right? Some say that they are equally bad, but many claim that they are all equally good. They all lead to the same morals. They all deserve respect. To say otherwise you will risk being labelled as intolerant. The prevailing mood of accommodation of all religions indiscriminately is a far cry from what God called his people to in Deuteronomy 12:

When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” Deuteronomy 12:29-30

For those who think all religions promote the same moral values, the next verse is very important:

You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31

As God’s people prepare to enter the Promised Land they are warned that messing around with Canaan’s god’s would make a real mess of things. God had given the law to His people as a gift of grace, as a set of ethics that would lead the obedient to be a light in a dark world. Idolatry would cause God’s people to plunge into darkness themselves. Our twenty-first century living blinds us to some of the atrocious things that happened in the name of religion in the ancient world including child sacrifice. The Law given to God’s people pointed to a better way. In leading God’s people away from God, idolatry would lead people away from God’s best for them; the godly, good, and wise way of life. Clearly, not all religions are equal and we should be grateful that many immoral religions have faded into obscurity.

Idolatry still leads people away from God’s best. Remembering that idolatry is loving anyone or anything more than God, consider the idolatry of Adolf Hitler who loved Social Darwinism more than God. Social Darwinism is what happens when you apply the principles of Darwinism, namely the survival of, or “natural selection” of, the strong to a society. Evolution demands that the “weak”, like the Jews according to some, really ought to be eliminated. Hitler was not a crazy man, but a quite intelligent man who was unfortunately informed more by his idolatry than by God’s way. Had Hitler been influenced by the very people he sought to destroy he would have realized the implications of all humanity created in the image of God and history books would now tell a very different story.

Another example of idolatry leading people away from God’s best for them can be readily seen in ISIS. ISIS has a morality problem. ISIS seeks to build a religious state, a caliphate, through violence. Islam has a fundamentalist problem. When people who call themselves Christian turn to violence in the name of Christianity, we point them back to Jesus and the call to emulate him in the way of the cross. When people turn to a violent expression of Islam, the moderate Muslim has trouble calling them to emulate Mohammed. They are convinced they already are. When a Christian wants to create a Christian state, we point them to the teaching of Jesus who said “Go therefore and make disciples,” and not “Go therefore and make a Christian nation.” When a militant Muslim wants to support the creation of a religious state, a caliphate, the moderate Muslim has trouble sending them back to the teaching and example of Mohammed. They are convinced they have already gone there. Islam is idolatry that is keeping people away from God’s best for them. As a Christian I am called to love the Muslim. I am not called to like Islam.

But someone may object that the very passage from Deuteronomy we began with has God’s people creating a religious state though violence. That is a very good objection and one which demands a response. First, consider that God was establishing a nation for the purpose of keeping his promise of blessings for all nations (Genesis 12:1-13). Second, consider that those times and places were very different from our own, being more like the tribalism that we have seen in places like Rwanda, than like the nation states we are comfortably used to. Third, consider that the inhabitants of Canaan were ripe for God’s judgement. They were no better than the people who experienced the flood in Noah’s day. Fourth, consider that this was a one time event. The command to take Canaan was not a command to be dusted off whenever God’s people feel like taking territory. Yes, we do have in Deuteronomy a people called to create a religious state and yes, violence was to be involved. But this was one step, a necessary step, on the journey to the cross where God Himself would suffer violence to bring salvation to sinful people. This was one step on a long road to blessing.

So which should we be following today? The prevailing mood validating all religions as equal, or the Biblical call to religious purity and evangelism of people we see as lost? In leading people away from God, idolatry leads people away from God’s best for them. That includes the godly ethics he longs for people to enjoy. But there is more; idolatry leads people away from God’s very best for them in leading them away from his salvation. Idols can never rescue us from the effects of sin. Jesus does. Atheism does not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Islam can not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Hinduism, Buddhism, and everyotherism cannot rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Even the Christian religion, when it is just religion for the sake of religiosity does not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Jesus said  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

We can and should affirm religious pluralism in our nation, to a point. A religion that demands something like child sacrifice would be clearly very far from Canadian values. So religious freedom does have its limits. But as Jesus followers we are called to religious purity. Are we not to respect the religions and world-views of other people then? As followers of Jesus we recognize these views for what they are: idolatry which leads people away from God’s best. How can we respect that? But as for the people who hold these views, who follow these idols, we are to go far beyond respect, to love. And if we love them, we will want them to know Jesus, His way of life, His way of salvation. We will want want them to experience the very best He has for them.

All scripture references are from the NRSV
photo credit: Sacrifice via photopin (license)

Human Achievement. Forgotten God.

(For those who have already read my blog post this week: This is similar but reworked for our local newspaper, so it is basically a shrunken shrunk sermon!)

We have travelled a great distance, so far, in fact, that for some God remains only as a distant memory. We have achieved so much. And we have forgotten God. We celebrate a wealth of innovation. Just look at the advances in medicine, technology, communications, transportation and the like. Just look at the human innovation that surrounds us. Fast cars, warm homes, incredible and incredibly connected computers, high flying aircraft, far ranging spacecraft, is anything impossible for us? Is faith in God at all still relevant to us?

Of course some people cannot see all the innovation that surrounds them as their stares are transfixed at one human innovation in front of them. Yes, I am referring to the smartphone. And yes, I feel rather naked without mine. As someone who began gaming on an Atari 2600 and computing with a Commodore 64, the iPhone is an excellent example of human ingenuity. Look at us, is there anything we cannot do?

There was once a people who were in danger of a similar line of thought. They were once oppressed slaves in the land of Egypt, but were soon to be living in a good land with all the wealth that such land would bring. They might say “look how far we have come, is anything impossible for us?” And to this people, God says through Moses:

. . . when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, . . . Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth . . . (Deuteronomy 8:13,14,17,18 NRSV)

For the people to take credit for how far they had come would be akin to my generation taking credit for the Allied victory in World War Two. Our generation, like very other generation remembers those who won the victory. To do otherwise would be the height of arrogance. And how arrogant can we be when with self-congratulatory tone we intone on the wealth of human invention and innovation, yet forget God “who gives you power to get wealth.” It is God who gives us the resources to work with, the hands to work the resources, the minds to work the hands, and the hearts to keep the minds working. Is anything impossible for us? The question ought to be “is anything possible without God?”

To be so self-congratulatory while forgetting God is an attempt to steal God’s glory. Even in matters of salvation we are prone to wanting to steal God’s glory. We think we can be good enough that God will have to accept us when we die. “Yes, He is holy, but I can be holy too.” Actually no. We can no more be good enough before God based on our own righteousness than the Israelites could cross the Red Sea by their own miracle working. We depend on God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ. We cannot steal God’s glory. We must remember Him. There are many fine churches in our area which will help you do that.