In his final speech, Moses reminds his people one more time about the great law to love God with all their heart and mind and soul and strength. And then Moses says this: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”
That seems like an easy choice!
But choosing life, at least choosing life consistently, turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.
Partly the difficulty is that choosing life is not a one-time decision. In everything leading up to this passage, Moses is very clear that choosing life or death, blessings or curses, is something we do over and over again every single day as we go about our ordinary business, interacting with other people.
So, if a friend offers to tell me an embarrassing story about a mutual acquaintance, I have a choice. Do I gossip with my friend, or do I not? In that moment, do I choose death, or do I choose life?
When we watch a football game, when we drive our car, when we go to the store, when we get together with family and friends, when we take care of business, when we do whatever it is that we do, over and over again, consciously or not, we make choices. Do we choose to live as God calls us to live? Or do we choose to live by another standard? Do we choose life, or do we choose death?
That can sound a little stark. We may well prefer to look for a middle ground between saint and sinner, life and death. People often think to themselves something like this: “I am not perfect. After all, I am only human. But I am good enough, certainly no worse than the people around me.” That is my natural tendency.
But it won’t do. I doubt Moses would be impressed. Jesus certainly would not be.
As we heard in our gospel reading for last week, Jesus calls us the light of the world. “Good enough” is not a lot of light for a dark and blind world.
In our gospel reading for next week, in the last line that we will get from the Sermon on the Mount this year, Jesus says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Then there is our gospel reading for this week, Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ supplement to Moses’ final speech in Deuteronomy. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…. But I say to you” do not even be angry.
Now, life is complicated. Jesus himself got angry on at least one occasion, so anger is not always bad.
But we make a serious mistake if we jump from, “life is complicated” to “Jesus did not really mean what he said,” from “don’t even be angry” to “I can act like a jerk sometimes because everybody else does, too.”
As Christian people, as people called to follow Jesus, as people who commit ourselves to doing our best to live into the full stature of Christ and helping others to do the same, we are called to a lot more than good enough. We are called to choose life and love every time. We are called to lives of sacrifice and service, in the name of Jesus Christ.
This is a profoundly counter-cultural message.
In our culture, we are constantly bombarded with the message that we should put our own needs first, that we are the most important person in the world, that others should serve our needs.
Politicians pander to our worst instincts. Advertisers tell us that we can buy our way to happiness. Mass entertainment distracts us from the hard facts of life. Social media makes it possible to feel connected all the time without ever having to do the work of real human intimacy. A therapeutic culture tells us that our feelings always matter, no matter how exaggerated or self-centered they might be.
It is as if our culture has reversed John F. Kennedy’s great line. Now the message is, “Ask not what you can do for others. Ask rather what others can do for you.”
It is an incredibly seductive message. It is what we want to hear because it makes our natural tendency to selfishness seem right and good. And because we hear it over and over again in all kinds of different forms, it is an incredibly powerful message.
It is really, really important that we recognize that that message is, in the end, an invitation to choose death, not life.
Jesus invites us to a different way. Jesus invites us to choose life, which is to take the hard road of loving God and neighbor.
Jesus says, do not give in to anger and hatred and violence. Do not scapegoat the least among you. Do not seek always your own interests, but seek first the kingdom of God. Do not hate and fear other people, not even hardened sinners. After all, they are the ones Jesus came to save.
In all of this, Jesus calls us to stand apart from a culture of death. Jesus calls us to a higher standard. Jesus calls us to be different and better than our own worst instincts and the destructive messages of our culture. Jesus calls us to choose life, to love God and neighbor.
What would it take for us to do that? What would it take for us to turn away from our worst impulses and to stand against the toxic messages of our culture?
It begins with God’s grace, the grace we know in Jesus Christ, the grace that calls us to live as children of the light. That is God’s contribution.
Our contribution is to consciously reject the distorted value system we see all around us and to commit ourselves to the practices that lead to abundant life.
So we commit to regular prayer, and Bible study, and worship.
We commit to living together as brothers and sisters, sharing our gifts, receiving from each other what we need.
We commit to practicing forgiveness, and charity, and service, with each other and with all the people in our lives.
And, we need constant reminders and constant help, because we will continue to be bombarded with toxic messages that threaten to eat away at our values and our commitments, that encourage us to choose the way of death rather than life.
We will fail sometimes. We will choose sin and death sometimes.
But we can rely on God.
Jesus forgives sinners. Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, the people who know they need help and gather in Christ’s name to ask for it. Jesus calls us the light of the world, and Jesus promises to help us live like it. Jesus comes to give us life.
And so, on this day, I give thanks to God for the invitation to choose life, even when it is hard. I give thanks to God for the strength to resist the seductions of a culture of death. I give thanks to God for the grace to live as children of the light. And I pray that we can truly live the life that God calls us to live.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who makes true life possible. Amen.