January 13, 2011


“Here’s the Choice: Life or Death”

Matthew 5:15-31


On the verge of entering into the promised land, Moses stands before the people and warns them: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” In the bible, life is defined by being in relationship to the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob; and with His people.

I wish that there was a way for me to honestly tell you that if we read Deuteronomy 30 in the original Hebrew that this choice is not exactly what Moses is offering. It would be better if I could somehow affirm that if you choose not to follow the ways God had laid out before us you will not die, but that is precisely what the text says.

If there is a caveat in this text, if there is a qualification, if there is a word or two that need to be unpacked, it is the words that constitute both the choice and the consequence: Life and Death.

We tend to think of life and death in biological terms. We think in physiological terms. People wonder, “is there life on Mars?” Then some smart astrobiologist points toward the potential for some microscopic organism that can survive on sulfer and battery acid. We say immediately that this isn’t what we meant. What we meant when we asked the question, is, ‘On Mars, is there a golf course there with a decent resturant?’ Personally, I would have wondered a different question. ‘Is there a trout stream there with 20 inchers who will rise to a fly?’ That is what we meant when we asked, “is there life on Mars?”

We all have those particular activities that for some reason put a little bounce in our step, a twinkle in our eye. But it isn’t even these activities that Moses was thinking about. It was, rather, a state of being. Haven’t you seen someone who, seemingly no matter what, has that certain ‘joie de vivre?’

The Apostle Pauls, admonition to Timothy to be “content in all things…” begins to approach the condition we are thinking about, but even this isn’t quite what we mean by life. To be truly alive does not mean trudging along, as I am quick to say, “right foot, left foot, breath.” There are always days like that. But that isn’t how any of us would describe being truly alive.

In his book, I and Thou, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote that “All real living is meeting,”  Buber said that when we meet a person authentically, not only does that person become less of a stranger, but we may glimpse God.  When we meet people authentically our guard is down, our judgments are shelved, and our awareness of God’s presence is stronger.

Moses tells the people that they are about to the land an so stand to receive God’s blessings. The only condition to these blessings is that the people worship God.

In the same breath, Moses tells them that it is possible that not all will go well in the land. He is not only setting before them life, but he is also offering them death.

We also think of death in physiological terms. For the longest time, people said that the environment on Mars was “inconsistent with the existence of life.” That well may be. Others have noted that there are other ‘micro-climates’ right here on earth that are ‘inconsistent with life.’ Think of when Apartheid ruled South Africa. Or you might even have watched the recent uprisings in Egypt and thought, those people have chosen life over death.

Do not make the mistake, as I mention Egypt, in thinking that freedom is absolutely equated with life. We live in a culture that is saturated with choices. We are a people who have more choices than we know what to do with, “paper or plastic.” There was a simpler time we all pine to return to, when choices were few and the consequences seemed less destructive. Now, it seems that choices are killing us.

According to an old preacher’s story that probably is not true, years ago when spies were captured by the Persian Army and brought in for execution, one particular general would give the spy the unusual choice of the firing squad or whatever was behind a big, black door. The spies, according to the legend, always decided on the firing squad. They did not know that the door led to nothing terrifying. It led outside. When the general was asked why he gave prisoners a choice that would have led to freedom, he answered, “Almost everyone chooses death over the unknown. People are actually more afraid to live than to die. Anyone with the courage to choose what they don’t already know deserves life.”

That is what makes the situation in Egypt so remarkable. It is risky business to commit to the unknown in the hopes of receiving life.

If the choice for life is not based upon the biology of the oxygenation of red blood cells via pulmonary function; or the evidence of electrical activity in the brain, what is life?

In the Gospel, Jesus says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus’ life and ministry did not consist of material wealth, nor possessions, nor land, nor livestock, nor any of the ordinary measures of life in the ancient world. No longer did the promised land consist of a physical place, but what Jesus continually emphasized was that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This state of being which Moses points toward and that Jesus demonstrates is what we might call being in relationship with God.

“While God offers life, there is a sense in which we also create that life as we respond by choosing life. If we reject it, we have chosen death and by so doing then we create a death in the world that consumes us. To choose life is not only to accept life but also to create life; to reject life is not only to choose death but to create death in the world.”

In other words, we have choices that are so consequential that the world in which we live is literally determined by the choices we make. And it is true of free people that we have it within our power to structure the environment, to establish the context or quality or climate in which we live. And indeed when we make those choices, we determine something very important not only for us but for those around us.

One of my favorite movies is that classic “Shawshank Redemption.” Many people suggest that the movie is about hope. I suppose they are right. But to me it is about a choice between life and death.

In the movie, Andy is a relative newbie to the prison ‘Shawshank.’ Andy talks to his new found friend Red, an long timer, about his dream of going to a place far away, a tropical beach in Mexico. Red knows as well as anyone that Andy has a life sentence and very little chance of parole. In the prison yard, as Andy tells red about Mexico, Red cannot shake reality. He tells Andy, “…the thing is that that is there and you are here.” Andy tells Red, “it’s time to get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.’”

We’ve seen people make this choice, haven’t we? Isn’t it better, for ourselves, and for those around us to choose life?

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, `Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…”