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Getting in the Way of Life
Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
I set before you life and death, says Moses, blessings and curses. Choose life.
I should carry those words of Moses on a card in my wallet. I should have them as my screen saver. I should tattoo them on my arm. At some of the most important decisions of my life, these words have been a guide, a prod, a test of motivation and validity. They are like the room with two doors. Which door to take? Which way is life, life-giving, listens to life calling? Which way is death, life-draining, listens to fear?
These words were not written to be used like that. They were not proclaimed by Moses so that I could make better personal decisions. They were made for bigger things. They were made for Israel. They were an exhortation disguised as an option. Moses stood before all the Israelites, freed from Egypt, having been given the gift of law, chosen by God, promised land. Moses speaks to them. This speech is his last will and testament. It is a summary of all that his life has been and all that Israel has seen. Now the people are on the threshold of a new land. Moses is near his death. He will not see the land that God has sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I have led you by God’s will out of slavery, Moses tells them. I have given you the law from God, he says. I have brought you with God’s guidance to this land. Before you now you may go this way or that. The doors are clearly marked. There is no guessing. This way is the way of God, doing what God commands, keeping God your God. This way is the way of life. Land, prosperity. That way is turning your back on God, choosing others. That way is the way of death. Wandering, adversity. Choose one, Moses says. No, he corrects himself. Choose this one! Choose life!
So on they go, into the land, choosing to follow the commandments, to be God’s people. But like the book of Deuteronomy itself, the future is open ended. There is not one choice made once and for all. The story of the rest of the Bible is the story of a people who betray and abandon God over and over, choosing death as often as life. And then being—thank God—reconciled, restored, redeemed—forgiven—over and over.
Set before each of us is the same choice set before all Israel. Choose life. And in the end the buck stops here. It stops with each of us. And so the grand choice of Israel turns out to be implemented over the centuries in the humble and routine choices of you and me. Maybe we need those cards and screen savers to remind us of what we are doing.
These bigs words of Moses—life and death—have appeared in the lives of many, including mine, in smaller words. Is what I’m about to do generous or greedy? Am I acting out of love or out of fear? Is it brave or cowardly? For me only or for others? Is it moving forward or retreating? Is it playful or grim?
But perhaps I am misleading you into thinking that this passage in Deuteronomy is mostly about choosing things. Though the effect comes down to that. This passage is a warning. The warning is this: There are things that are deadly. God is not. You’ll stick with God, if you know what’s good for you.
Rather than list a whole bunch of deadly things, I want to mention two things in particular today. I want to talk about worry and about regret. I want to do that because it seems to me that it is possible that worry and regret squeeze God right out of our lives, and in the end there is no life left to choose.
Worry is an attempt to control the future. When we awake at 4:30 in the morning—or whatever that time is for you—when we awake before the sun is up, it’s because we are trying to figure out how to make things work that might not. We imagine conversations and how they might go our way. We imagine tactics that can foil our detractors. We imagine ways to protect things that are ours. We imagine scary scenarios and wonder how we might prevent them.
Regret is an attempt to control the past. We think as if we could relive that shameful event, or undo the hurt, or to seize the opportunity. To say the words or to unsay them. We imagine that those conversations did go differently, we imagine that those scary scenarios we did prevent.
Worry and regret are the same thing. We know that to be so because they make us feel the same way. Helpless. Powerless. Anxious. In our hearts and insides, our guts. They lead our thoughts into little unfulfilling circles.
We cannot control the past and we cannot control the future. We can remember the past. And we do hope for and plan for the future. But in the end, the past and the future are not in our hands. We need to let them go.
We are taught by our faith to trust God. What good is worry? the Bible asks us. Consider the lilies of the field, it suggests. Give away all that you have, Jesus tells us. Do not set up treasures for yourself on earth. Expect the unexpected. Worry fights trust.
We are taught by our faith that God forgives us our sins. God frees us from our shameful past, the hurts we have caused, the good left undone. We are promised forgiveness for all our misdeeds. Regret fights forgiveness.
In our worry, we shove God out of the future. In our regret, we shove God out of the past. We squeeze God out of all the hours of our lives. All we are left with is ourselves.
In choosing life we choose, Moses says, to listen to God. To not hear is to choose death. Worry and regret are too noisy in our brains. They make us deaf to God’s voice. You do not hear, Moses says. God seems silent to us. If to choose if is to walk with God, as the Bible says, how will we know what is life and what is death if our own anxious voices drown out God’s.
Quiet those anxious voices. Stop a moment. Listen for God who forgives your past and steps with you into the future. Choose life.