Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
The nation is divided. Competing narratives emerge as people search the past and draw from it threads to weave a narrative that shapes both present and future. There’s an attempt to stamp out dissent, to centralise power, and to delegitimise opposition.
Not the past week in British politics, but the situation in which the book of Deuteronomy was written.
The book of Deuteronomy recounts many of the same events as the book of the Exodus – indeed, its very name means ‘second law’. This is another account of the formative events in Israel’s history – the escape from slavery in Egypt, the time in the wilderness, and the giving of the law. It’s written mostly in the form of a speech by Moses to the gathered people of Israel, poised on the threshold of the promised land. It’s written to remind Israel of their identity.
And it’s written by those who have learnt what it means to have that identity tested. Deuteronomy dates from a significantly later period than the events it describes: it was written not after the exodus but after the exile, when the people had been scattered and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. It’s to a people trying to make sense of an uncertain world, and of their place within it, that the book is addressed.
And they’re presented with a rather stark choice: life or death, blessings or curses. For the authors of Deuteronomy there’s no comfortable middle ground where you can muddle along as if ultimate questions of existence and identity don’t really matter. There is either life lived in response to the law and God’s election of his people, or there is life lived in disobedience to it. For a people called to be holy to the Lord their God, the call and the covenant change everything. There is no part of life which is kept back, or which God doesn’t care about, or which is outside the reach of his holiness and love and goodness.
This is about lives lived in response to the fierce grace of God. And not all the Israelites are sure they want this. Moses speaks to a people who are unsure, wavering, wondering where to put their trust. And it’s not hard to understand why they might prevaricate: they’ve been through exile and captivity. They’ve seen the temple destroyed, the land laid waste. They’ve experienced first hand the power of their enemies and they know that life is precarious. So some sought to preserve themselves and their community by making alliances with other, stronger nations. Some were tempted to idolatry, to seeing if their fortunes might fare better with the gods of other nations. Others became nostalgic, misremembering the ‘good old days’ of captivity in Egypt, and preferring the certainty of that life to the unpredictability of living with the fierce grace of God.
Moses, in Deuteronomy, calls them to a different sort of remembering. By recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, by remembering his mercy to his people in bringing them out of slavery, in sustaining them in the wilderness, and leading them to the promised land, Moses reminds the people that God is trustworthy. To those whose remembrance of the past makes them fearful of the future, and tempted to throw in their lot with other nations and gods, Moses reiterates God’s covenant faithfulness, and the blessing of life lived with him. And to those who grow nostalgic for the past, and for the fleshpots of Egypt, those who prefer a life of captivity to the wild freedom of God, Moses encourages an attitude of trust, not fear.
‘Choose life’, he exhorts them, ‘loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.’ For the authors of Deuteronomy, you don’t stake the future on your own political ability, on the reliability of other nations, on the dubious powers of other gods, or on the beguiling familiarity of captivity to sin or to other powers. You stake your future on God, and on his covenant faithfulness.
There is a choice to be made, couched in hyperbole in the reading we heard, but that’s because critical issues of life and identity are at stake. And Moses’ call is for the people to make the right choice, to trust in the grace and mercy of God, loving him not because they are fearful of what will happen if they don’t, but because he first loved and called them. And that call is a call to life – to being in relationship with God, loving him and being loved by him. And that matters not just for them, God’s own beloved people, but for the whole world. For God chooses Israel for a purpose: through this improbable, puny, fickle people he will make his name known throughout the world. Through them others will come to know his glory, and share his life. So it’s not just for themselves that the people are exhorted to choose life; it’s so that God’s purposes may be fulfilled. Their holiness is to draw others to God; his life, made visible in their life, is to give life to others, too.
This is a demanding call. And Moses knows it, which is why he spends so long recounting God’s faithfulness, reminding the people of who and whose they are. ‘Choose life’ he exhorts them – for actually the alternative can seem quite tempting. The path of death doesn’t always come looking perilous and marked with warning signs of skulls and crossbones. It can look reassuringly comfortable or attractive or pragmatic – easier, often, than the unpredictable journey with God and his fierce grace.
I understand, I think, the reluctance of some of the Israelites. If choosing life is about following God wholeheartedly – loving him with all one’s heart and mind and soul and strength – then it’s tempting to keep this demanding God at a distance, to settle for something which is less disruptive than the grace of God, which doesn’t ask you to pray for your enemies or love the stranger or give up your possessions. I confess there are times when I think Christianity is just too hard: that I simply do not have the capacity for the sort of love and holiness that following Jesus asks – and which I’m not always sure I want, if I’m honest: it being easier and kinder to my ego to practise self-righteousness rather than humility, or pride instead of vulnerability.
And I’m right, in part: I do not have the capacity, on my own, to be a disciple of Jesus. But that’s the point: we’re not on our own. The path of life, of blessing, is an openness to God’s abundance. To knowing that he has grace enough and more to supply all that is wanting in me; to saying yes to the work of his Spirit even and especially when it’s hard, because I have learnt, through remembering God’s faithfulness, that I can trust him.
This is why remembering truthfully matters, why Deuteronomy calls the people to avoid the twin pitfalls of nostalgia and a remembrance that produces fear. Scripture helps us here: it sets out the story of God’s faithfulness from generation to generation. Reading it and meditating on it helps us to know ourselves as part of that unfolding story. The Eucharist helps us: in this act of remembering we are drawn into the new covenant as Christ’s sacrifice is re-presented to us, God’s faithfulness written in Jesus’ body and blood. And familiarity with the work of God in our own lives helps, too: the grateful remembrance of God’s mercy and grace giving a sure ground for trust in the present and the future.
And what are the signs of the life which Moses exhorts the people to choose? That life is visible in its fruits of justice, mercy, and righteousness. It is seen in the way the community’s life is shaped by the call and covenant of God – by the way God’s life is made visible in the life of the community. And that call echoes through the Bible and to us: choose life, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you – and to the world.