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Choices, Choices

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 13, 2011.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8

Those of you who are sports fans will appreciate the story of a college football team whose starting quarterback was injured.  The number two quarterback had not even dressed out because he was sick.  This left only a freshman quarterback who also did the team’s punting but had absolutely no game experience as a college quarterback.  The coach, however, had no choice but to throw him into the fray.

It was first down.  The ball was resting on the team’s own three yard line.  The coach’s main thought was to get his team away from the goal line so they would have room to punt out of danger.

The coach said to the third string quarterback, “Son, I want you to hand-off to Jones, our big fullback for the next two plays, let him run into the middle of the line and get us a few yards.  Then, on the third play, I want you to punt.”

The young quarterback did as he was instructed.  On the first play he handed off to Jones, but almost miraculously Jones found a hole off tackle and ran fifty yards.  The young quarterback called the same play again and once more, miracle of miracles, the hole was there again.  This time Jones ran forty-five yards.  The fans were going crazy.  The ball was on the opponents’ two yard line–six feet short of the goal line.  Confidently the team lined up quickly and the young quarterback received the snap, stepped back and punted the football into the stands.

As the team came off the field, the coach angrily grabbed the young quarterback and asked, “What in the world were you thinking about when you called that last play?”  The quarterback answered blankly, “I was thinking what a dumb coach we have.”

I defense of that very quarterback, many coaches today do not want even their experienced quarterbacks making their own decisions.  I understand that few if any quarterbacks in professional football today call their own plays.  Most of the plays are all sent in from the bench.

Now obviously we are not here this morning to talk football.  But this football story reminds us of an important truth about our relationship with God.  God has paid us the ultimate compliment.  He allows us to make our own decisions.  He permits us to call our own plays.

Anthropologists and other students of the human species have defined human beings in a number of ways.  Unlike other earthly creatures, humans have the ability to reason, to fashion and use tools and instruments, to be aware of themselves, and to love.  But without a doubt, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of human beings is their ability to choose.

Certainly, the Bible makes it clear that human beings, created in the image of God, are choice-makers.  You will remember that in the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to sustain their lives.  But in the middle of the garden, God planted a tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  From that moment on, paradise became complicated because Adam and Eve were confronted by a choice.  They could heed God’s instructions and live forever in paradise, or they could eat of the forbidden fruit and die.  They chose wrongly, paradise was lost, and they did indeed die.

This morning’s scripture passage finds the nation of Israel camped in the plains of Moab on the edge of the Promise Land of Canaan. Because of a tragic series of terrible choices, it’s taken the Israelites forty torturous years of wandering through the wilderness to get there, but now they’re almost home.  Just before his death, Moses delivers a farewell address to his fellow Israelites.  In his sermon, which occupies most of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reviews the demands of the sacred covenant made with Yahweh in their summit conference on Mt. Sinai forty years earlier. 

As he concludes his masterful sermon, Moses reminds God’s chosen people that once again they are confronted with a profoundly important choice.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” says Moses.  “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…then you shall live….But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them…you shall perish….

“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.”

What Moses is saying may surprise us—God in his infinite grace gave us his law, his precepts to guide us so we might make life-giving rather than life- ending  choices.  But wait a minute—I thought as a New Testament Christian that the Old Testament Law was a cumbersome, life-draining burden that Jesus came to overthrow.  Didn’t Jesus come to free us from the very law that got him into trouble when he chose to heal people on the Sabbath? I’m not bond by the law, am I?  I’m saved by grace, not by works of the law, right?   

And besides, truth be told I don’t like to be told what I can and cannot do,  even by the Bible.  Surely I don’t have to obey laws thousands of years old!  Surely a gracious God wouldn’t expect Christ-followers to be subject to the law of Moses!

Or would he?  As it turns out, the Old Testament law has gotten a bad rap in many a New Testament church.  That’s why many Christ-followers don’t know what to make of Psalm 119 which reads,

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

       who walk in the law of the Lord.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,

       who seek him with their whole heart. 

If those words about the law don’t get your attention, listen to these stanzas in Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

       the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

       Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb (vv. 7-8a, 10).  No wonder the Psalmist can say with a straight face,

I will delight in your statutes;

       I will not forget your word (Psalm 119:16).    

I thought the law, the commandments of God were a burden to humanity that depleted rather than revived our souls.  Not so, says the Psalmist, who believes that apart from the principles and precepts of God we have no life. 

Does the New Testament support this affirming approach to God’s law?  Doesn’t the Apostle Paul say in Romans 10:4 that Christ is the end of the law, and we are justified by faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Yes.  But before we dismiss Deuteronomy let me remind you that this Old Testament book is quoted over 80 times in the New Testament.  And let me remind you that Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy extensively. 

When the Devil invites Jesus to end his fast in the wilderness by turning stones into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 when he says, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word (or precept) that proceeds from the mouth of God.  There it is again—the idea that our very life hinges on the word or the statements of God.  And when Jesus is asked to summarize the law, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (along with Leviticus 19:18) when he says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here’s the thing.  Jesus did not reject the Torah, the law.  As he says in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus came not to abolish the law but fulfill it.  Jesus did not reject the law, but legalism, or the belief that if you slavishly obeyed the law, you could earn God’s favor.  Jesus resisted not the precepts of God’s word, but the principle that the law mattered more than God, more than people, more than life itself. 

Jesus understood that God gave the Ten Commandments, for example, to bless and protect our lives, not to end them.  Someone has said that we do not break the Ten Commandments so much as we break ourselves against them.  When we choose to ignore fundamental commandments like these—don’t worship and serve other gods; honor the Sabbath day; honor your father and mother; don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or lie or covet—our lives inevitably travel into dark and destructive places.  Our souls are damaged, and drained of the life God gives us.   

How do we develop a desire to not only follow God’s life-giving law, but delight in it?  That kind of loving, joyful obedience requires a complete transformation of our hearts.  Moses says as much when he declares in Deuteronomy 30:6 that The Lord your God will circumcise your heart…so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, in  order that you may live.  Only God can give us this kind of willing heart.  And this kind of heart circumcision only comes through an intentional process of spiritual formation. 

See, when we become intimate with God, and the Son of God, through the Holy Spirit, our love and trust for God grow so much that we find ourselves wanting, actually wanting to submit our lives to God and his commandments.  Obeying God is not the battle it used to be.  Now, more times than not, it’s a joy.  It’s a delight. It’s like eating honey from a honeycomb.   And that kind of transformation can happen when we give God the time and space through a variety of spiritual practices to circumcise our hearts.

Now the truth is, our situation is considerably different from the Old Testament Israelites because we have something Moses and his people could only dream about.  It’s better even than the Promised Land of Canaan.  It’s the promised Messiah, Jesus, the Christ. 

Years ago Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, was teaching at a minister’s conference.  A pastor asked Dallas what he thought the human issue was, irrespective of church life or religion, that Jesus came to address.  Dallas Willard offered the following answer—Jesus came to respond our universal need to know how to live well.  He came to show us that it is in relying on Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, that we can best live in the universe as it really is. 

That’s why Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that (you) may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

Today and everyday we have a fundamental choice, a choice that trumps all other choices, a choice that shapes the rest of this life and all of eternity.  What will we do about Jesus?

On this day God has set before us life and death.  On this day, God is saying to you and to me, “Choose life.  Choose Jesus.”