Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
February 16, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Today’s scripture reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verses 15-20. These verses are near the end of the book, which is the last of the five books of law, the Torah. Moses has been giving a farewell sermon, which must have lasted about five hours. He has been recounting the mighty works of God and the importance of God’s covenant. He has reminded the people of God’s law, and the call to obedience. Now, he’s winding down.
In sermon-speak, Moses is about to “land the plane”, with this challenge and call to decision. Moses is about to die, and the people of Israel, freed from slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert for 40 years, are now about to cross the river Jordan and enter the promised land. Moses will not be going with them, and these are his last words. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in Deuteronomy 30:15-20:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 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; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Have you ever seen those joke lists with the “famous last words”?
They were really popular when I was a kid:
Gimme a match, I think my gas tank’s empty.
Pull the pin and count to what?
Don’t worry, that bear is asleep.
I know it’s a long way down, but I think I can make this jump.
If we speed up, we can beat that train to the crossing.
And the ever-popular: Hold my beer and watch this!
All of these – famous last words, and bad ideas.
My mom is good at pointing out bad ideas. So when someone makes a brash or outlandish statement, like “I will NEVER do that!” or “I would never say such a thing!” Mom will say, “Famous last words.”
Maybe that was a little bit of what Moses was about, in this long, long sermon he was winding up. Maybe he wanted to say some famous last words. Certainly, like my mom, he was passing on wise counsel. But these verses are more than just good advice. They concern matters of life and death, choices with enormous consequences. Perhaps that’s why the sermon in Deuteronomy is so very, very long.
The Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt, for generations. After they finally fled the suffering and servitude they had known, they had wandered in the desert for forty years. Now they were on the brink, at the river’s edge, about to cross over Jordan.
If you are born in slavery, and that is the only life you have ever known, it would be difficult for you to know how to live as a free person. How would you know how to make choices – about your family, your work, about what you would do with your time and your resources? It would be a challenge, at first, to adjust to the array of choices now available to you. Moses spent a lot of time laying out the choices, and now he is summing up the consequences of those decisions. This is a lot more crucial than “Stay out too late and you are grounded.” This is about making a choice to say yes to blessings, yes to God, yes to life. It’s like a motivational speech for choosing a blessed life.
You may notice that the consequence of choosing well is not any kind of prize or material reward. Moses mentions prosperity, in contrast to adversity, but there’s no promise that loving God will ward off bad times. Moses is simply stating what we know to be true: the choice to love God makes for a meaningful life, a better life.
His call to them is the call that is heard every week in the synagogue: Shema, Israel!
Shema means to listen, to hear, and to obey. The decision to listen and obey God’s commandments leads to blessings. Listening to God’s call opens us up to happiness, to joy. Making right choices blesses everyone; obedience to God benefits the entire community. For the people to choose obedience meant that they would have a home, and that they would welcome the alien and the stranger. For the people to choose obedience meant that they would have food, and there would be enough to feed the hungry. Choosing God’s good would mean freedom to live a new kind of life – not just for them, but for their neighbors. That choice is not merely about saying no to things that are bad– although that is part of it. That choice is about saying yes to life.
Recently, I read an article by a hospice nurse about the top five regrets of those who are dying. She framed those regrets as the wishes most commonly shared with her. As people faced death, they thought deeply about their lives, and the choices they had made.
The first and most common regret shared was this: “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” When it was too late, people realized that they had missed opportunities to be their whole, true, courageous, genuine self – heart, soul, and strength. They had gone along with others’ expectations, followed the crowd, instead of making their own decisions, “true to myself.”
The second regret was voiced by every male, and also by many females: “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.” The writer said, “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence." There’s an old saying that nobody’s tombstone says “I wish I had gone to more meetings.” Life offers us so many chances for joy, for relationships, for community. Not that we can’t get that from work, but mostly, we find deeper joy away from our jobs, with friends and family, or in solitude and leisure.
The third regret was “I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.” People had not taken opportunities to truthfully say what they were feeling. Scripture tells us to be truthful, to let our yes be yes and our no be no. But so often we second-guess ourselves, and miss the opportunity to speak the truth, to share a word of hope, to express our love.
The fourth regret was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” People realized, at the end of their lives, that they had let friendships slip. Again, if our focus is on meeting others’ expectations, on working as much as we possibly can, we tend to let go of the simple and deep satisfaction of friendships.
The fifth common regret: “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”At the end of their lives, people realized that they had missed out – not on bigger houses or fame or more money or success, but on laughter, silliness, fun – on joy. 
It is so sad, isn’t it, that when death is standing at the door, so many people finally notice that life is there, too, and has been there all along, dancing around in the hallways, peeking into the office windows, telling ridiculously silly jokes and shaking with laughter, climbing into our laps and grabbing our faces and saying, “Look! It’s me! Life!”
The choice is set before us, every day.
What are we going to say?
How are we going to answer?
What are we going to say?
How are we going to answer?
We are a free people, whom God has delivered from slavery – slavery to sin, to others’ opinion of us, to conforming to the world. We are free to choose. Will we choose life? Or will we simply stand up and close the door, and wait until death returns, leaning against the wall of the hospital room, arms crossed, waiting for us?
God’s people, long ago, crossed the River Jordan, crossed over into the promised land. We know from their stories that they did not always follow Moses’ advice. But not long after Moses died, they walked down to the Jordan’s banks, following the Ark of the Covenant carried by the priests. The waters receded, as the Red Sea had done when they ran from Egypt, and they crossed over into Canaan on the dry land. At that moment, at least, God’s people said yes. We are far from that moment, both in time and space, but every day we stand on the banks of that river, and every moment we are faced with choices.
Still, the choice is before us, between death and life.
Live then, as a resounding yes!
Say yes to this life by loving the LORD your God, by walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments. Then on that day when death finally slips in the door, we can cross over to the Promised Land without regrets, having been true to ourselves, having lived lives of meaning and joy, having been loved and having shared that love, having known the satisfaction of friendship and community and having felt and shared the great, profound adventure of life, fully and without regrets. When we go into God’s presence, at the last, we’ll join the host of angels and the great communion of saints in endless praise and thanksgiving, in gratitude for our lives, and for God’s call, and for saying yes to life.
The decision seems obvious: to say yes to life.
Then life says yes to us.