Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), September 8, 2013
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy takes place after the Exodus. The Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt, have been freed by God’s power and grace. They followed God into the wilderness, but because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. God used those forty years to teach them to rely on him—God gave them everything they needed, even though they didn’t get everything they wanted. God gave them the Commandments, instructions on how to live their lives. And most of all, God built a relationship with them that God hoped would last forever. When they were ready, God led them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, what we call Israel and Palestine today. But before they entered the land, while they were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to cross into the land God had promised to them, Moses stood up to give a speech.
It’s a long speech; it takes up most of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses summarized all the commandments and rules that God had given them, all the ways they were supposed to live. God had promised to be their God, and in return they were to live as God commanded. To use Christian terminology, they were to be disciples: everything they said and did was to be guided by their relationship with God. That would bring them the life God had promised them. Living any other way would bring them misery and death. Our reading today comes from the conclusion of the speech: “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.”
It sounds so simple when Moses says it. There’s a good way, a way of life, and a bad way, a way of death. It should be a no-brainer. And yet, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people go astray regularly, so that God must come and bring them back to him and to his ways. They had all manner of reasons to do so, some good and some bad. Greed and corruption were common motivations, people trying to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors. In some cases, through intermarriage with people who were not loyal to God, mixed loyalties were created that drew people away from God. In some cases, people convinced themselves that God wanted what they did, instead of listening to God’s Word. In some cases, people decided that they were rich and prosperous enough that they didn’t need God any more. In still other cases, people just forgot about God, going through the motions and giving lip service to following God instead of genuine devotion. These motivations should all be very familiar to us; you see them everywhere today, too.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus also talks about discipleship, too, and about making choices. Only, when Jesus talks, discipleship sounds more like the way of death than the way of life. To be a disciple, you must leave behind your family and friends and all your posessions. In fact, Jesus’ words are harsher than that. Jesus says to hate family and friends for his sake. Now, in Hebrew, “to hate” can mean the emotion we would think of, but it can also mean “to separate” or “turn away from,” and given that Jesus’ spent so much time telling us to love one another, I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant. But even so, that’s pretty strong language. For Jesus, discipleship is not easy, and it means you have to make choices. You have to be willing to put Christ first, above all the things that this world says are important, above everything else that you love. And worse, you have to be willing to carry a cross—to be humiliated, to be persecuted, to be punished. It sure sounds different from Moses’ exhortation to choose life. It sounds like discipleship is choosing death.
But that depends on what kind of life you mean, and what kind of death. In this world, death is everywhere. Sin and brokenness are everywhere. All the bad things people do to one another, all the natural disasters, all the illnesses and the injuries that we are afflicted with, all are symptoms of the brokenness of the world. No one is spared. Some people have more than their fair share; others are blessed with good luck and many good things in this life. But even the luckiest person in the world is going to have trials. Even the most self-reliant person in the world is going to have times when they simply can’t do it on their own, when they come to the end of their rope. A life of independence from God—a life where you make your own priorities and follow your own goals—may be wonderful for a while. It may bring you everything you think you want. But it can’t last. In this broken world, no good thing lasts forever. And so, when things go wrong and you find yourself flat on your back, you learn that what looked like the easy path, the path that you thought would lead you to the kind of life you wanted to live, actually led to death. It may have looked like the path you wanted, but in the end you find yourself alone and hopeless.
Jesus’ path will lead to death too, of course; today’s Gospel story comes from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified. When Jesus starts talking about bearing crosses, it’s because in a very short time he’s going to be carrying one, himself, out to Golgotha beyond the Jerusalem city limits, where he’s going to be crucified and die a painful, lingering death. The path of discipleship leads us to take up our crosses and follow Christ, into the valley of the shadow of death, for we are tied through our baptisms to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Because you see, there’s a difference between the death that Jesus offers and the death the world offers. The death the world offers is the end, and it comes dressed up in all kinds of things to hide what it is. The death the world offers comes dressed up in all the things we want—popularity, riches, power, love, anything to hide what it really is. The death the world offers is empty; nothing can come out of it. But Jesus’ death comes naked and bare, and it is the beginning of the story, not the end.
Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the resurrection. Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ death brings with it the only kind of life worth living, the only kind of life that lasts: a life with God, who will be with us, sustaining us and guiding us no matter what, and who will never abandon us even in the darkest times this world can throw at us. God’s life teaches us how to live the kind of life we’ll have in God’s kingdom, where there is no sin and no brokenness. God’s life is the truest and best life, the life that leads us to be our truest and best selves, full of love for God and for one another.
But to get to that kind of life, there’s a catch. You have to go through death. You have to go through Jesus’ death on the cross, and our own death with him. You have to be willing to give up all the things that pull you away from God. For some people, that’s money; for others, it’s the career you want to have or the place you want to live. For still others, it’s family and friends that pull them away from God. And that’s the choice we face, as Christians. God has chosen us; God has died for our sake. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord we are saved; all we have to do is take the salvation that God offers us. Are we willing to do what we have to do to follow Jesus from death into life? Are we willing to be true disciples? Are we willing to put our priority on the kind of life God wants us to have instead of the kind of life the world tells us we should want?
God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses. May we choose life—God’s life—and live.