Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
In our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses is at the end of his life. He led his people from slavery in Egypt, went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, was one of those who received and transmitted the law from God to the Israelites, and wandered with them for those forty years in the wilderness. And yet, despite his faithfulness, his leadership, and his legacy, he did not live to see the Promised Land, dying just before he crossed the Jordan River.
While the name Deuteronomy can be translated as “second law,” it in actuality is not necessarily a new list of laws. Rather, it’s a way in which the Law is not just presented but interpreted and preached. The book of Deuteronomy as a whole might best be considered as Moses’ last sermon, his last words to his people before he died. And as we near the end of this book with our reading today, we get to the “hook” of this long sermon. It’s the part of the sermon where the preacher has already given some of the background and the interpretation and gets to the point, if you will; where Moses calls his audience to something.
Leleah wonderfully read verses 15 through 20 for us just a few minutes ago, but I’d also like to add some of the verses that come immediately before our selection today:
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…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, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.
These are beautiful and inspiring words, and I can only imagine the way that they would have galvanized the Israelites who were on the brink of finally entering the promised land. I can imagine the emotions of Moses, proud of his community for making it that far yet feeling the bitter sweetness of not actually entering the land with them. I can imagine the Israelites hearing his words and holding them fast in their hearts, using them as their motto for centuries to come: Choose life. Follow God’s way and you shall live.
Another fascinating thing about the book of Deuteronomy, however, is that it seems to have been written far after the Israelites entered that land. Rather than being one of the galvanizing cries for that earlier community, our passage today was likely written during the time of the exile. Learning this, it becomes a little more poignant, as the people knew the story. For we know that after entering the promised land, the people did not stay. No, they indeed did not live long in that land across the Jordan but were rather forced out and exiled, sent to foreign lands as many perished. And so the people in exile were hearing this not out of hope for the future but out of reflection. Their ancestors did not keep those commandments; they worshipped other Gods as they turned away from God; and now those in exile were experiencing that adversity and that death.
Yet while they were reflecting on what had happened, they also recognized that the story was not over. No, the same choice lay before them, and they knew that the way in which they looked back on their ancestors could be the same way that their descendants would look back on them. In that moment, there was still a choice. Regardless of what happened in the past and regardless of their current situation, there was still the opportunity to turn back towards God; to turn back to the Law; to turn back to loving God and neighbor with all of their heart, with all of their soul, with all of their mind, and with all of their strength. And in the midst of all their turmoil, Moses is reaching into the future to remind them that the choice is not impossible; that it is still close to them and within reach.
Part of the beauty of this passage is its timelessness. It’s about choices made long ago yet it is also a call to the reader, who ever that may be. And this morning we have Moses reaching out to the future yet again. Admittedly, our relationship to the Law is quite a bit different; our Gospel lesson that Pastor Cathy read for us shows a way in which the Law is always interpreted and implemented, much less for us as a Christian community two millennia later. Yet still Moses is calling to us and God is calling to us to choose God’s way; to choose life so that we might live.
Like the exiles, we can look back and see the choices that our ancestors have made. We live in a nation built on stolen land by people who had been stolen from their land. We live in the nation that has made killing into a science, always finding new, effective, and inhumane ways of taking out the enemy. We can see our track record of killing the environment in the name of financial prosperity while neglecting the prosperity of simply being able to live. Time and time again, it’s clear that we have chosen death as our mode of operation.
Yet neither is our story over. In each and every moment, there are a multitude of choices in front of us. Some may seem mundane, and some may seem inconsequential. But the truth of the matter is that every single one of our decisions—no matter how small they may seem—points towards something deeper about our beliefs, our ethics, and who we are underneath it all.
And so the question is before us: How do we write our stories—our collective story—that begin at this very moment? What part are we setting out on? How do we want our descendants to talk about us? Do we want to be the people that continued in the path of death?
Or do we want to be the people that chose the way of abundance? Do we want to be the people who chose the way of life that seek the well-being of every single person, of our planet, and of our own selves?
For this way of life is still possible; it’s never too late to choose. It’s not too late to reject those things and those attitudes that lead us on the path of destruction and death. It’s not too late to turn back to God and God’s way of love, of justice, and of mercy.
My friends, the choice is before us: life or death, prosperity or adversity. It is not always the easy choice; it’s not always the sensible choice. But heaven and earth are witnesses to God calling to us in this moment. Let us choose the way of life.
 Deuteronomy 30:11-14, 19-20a (New Revised Standard Version)