Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Matter of Life and Death

Sirach 15:15-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
    and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
16 He has placed before you fire and water;
    stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Before each person are life and death,
    and whichever one chooses will be given.
18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
    he is mighty in power and sees everything;
19 his eyes are on those who fear him,
    and he knows every human action.
20 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
    and he has not given anyone permission to sin.


Some of you may be wondering about the reading this morning.  Sirach is part of the collection of books in the Bible known as the Apocrypha.   These are books of Wisdom sayings, stories, and prophetic writings that are considered to be informative and important as to matters of living right, but are not thought to be authoritative in matters of doctrine.  They are generally found in between the Old and New Testament, and more often in study Bibles than in personal or pew Bibles.  They are included in the Revised Common Lectionary used in many Protestant churches - like this one - for the selection of scriptures to be preached each week as one of the Old Testament selections, as all of them are believed to have been written sometime between the last of the prophets and the birth of Jesus.  That belief is pretty much backed up by the fact that many tell the story of what happened in and to Israel after the exile.  I am quite fond of some of the readings to be found in Sirach.  My very favorite is one I use for folks who don’t want to cooperate with their doctors, which ends with the words, “He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.”  (Sirach 38:15).  

Just so you know, all of today’s passages speak of good and evil, obedience and disobedience, the choice between life and death.  I chose this reading because i just really liked how plainly the dichotomy was stated in Sirach.  “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.”  

The reading in Deuteronomy 30:15-20 says the same thing, but somewhat less clearly.  “15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God. . . then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, . . . 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish;”  The problem with this reading is it also seems to set up the concept of “Do right and good things will happen.  Do evil and bad things will happen.”  It was this concept that the Book of Job was written to address, because bad things DO happen to good and obedient people, all the time.

When I was a student at Chapman I said to my advisor one time, apropos of I don’t remember what, “It must have been God’s will. It happened because it was meant to happen.”  He asked if I really believed that.  When I said yes, he asked if I thought God had planned for me to be a drug addict, and if God had caused all the bad things that I experienced before and after those years to happen.  I said no, of course not, because God is good and loving.  I told him I believed that we have a choice, that one of the greatest gifts God has given us is free will, and … at that point my voice kind of drifted off and I realized that I was busy believing two opposite things at the same time.  That’s not terribly unusual.  Lots of us believe in contradictory things all the time.  But in this case, the next thing I knew I had agreed to do my senior project on Free Will, and so I spent the next 3 months doing research, meeting with him to discuss my research, and writing my thesis.   

That work has been incredibly helpful to me.  One man used to ask me all the time if I believed that God has a plan for everyone.  He was especially worried about children who are killed in war zones, or die from horrible, preventable diseases, or die of hunger.  He wanted to know what kind of God makes a plan like that for someone’s life?  Another man, who had once been a very active member of his church, told me he left the church when his teenaged son was killed by a drunk driver.  He couldn’t forgive God for taking his son like that.   Even though he understood the concept that the drunk driver made a decision to get behind the wheel of his car, he still couldn’t get past the belief that God could have stopped it.  He couldn’t accept that God’s plan for his son was to die at age 17 because some dude decided to drive drunk.  

I do, in fact, believe that God has plans for all of us.  But sometimes other people’s decisions, or our own, or even natural disasters, interfere with that plan, and because God is not a puppet master, God’s plan doesn’t come to fruition.  I don’t believe that God’s plan is for children to die of preventable diseases, or in a war because one group of people want the land and rare metals or gems that another people live on, or in drunk driving accidents.  I believe that God has a magnificent plan for everyone’s life.  But droughts and wars and decisions by governments continue to kill children and cut short God’s plans for them.  An individual’s bad decision killed the young man and many others like him, and destroyed the magnificent plans God had for them.  

This is not to say that God is not all powerful.  God is more powerful than we can possibly imagine!  But I believe strongly that God has given us free will, that we get to choose between good and evil, life and death, blessing and curse.  And because God has given us that gift, I believe He feels it necessary to allow our decisions to bear whatever fruit they will.  I believe that, because God has given each of us that choice, when my bad decision impacts someone else, as it often does, I have to live with the consequences.  I find that this passage in Sirach says that so much better than any other reading I have come across.  First, we make the choice to either be obedient or not.  And then, “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.”  God is no puppet master, and wants us to do what is right. But we have to make the choice to do God’s will, or not.  It was never God’s plan for me to become a drug addict, and while maybe it is good now that I have had all those experiences, still, all those years of doing the wrong thing were by my choice.  I believe that I started doing God’s will when I realized that I was dead inside and wanted to live.  I believe I started doing God’s will when I made the decision to change my life, and that decision eventually led me here.  

If you choose, you can keep the commandments.  and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.   
17 Before each person are life and death,  and whichever one chooses will be given.

Making the right choices, the obedient choices, can be incredibly difficult.  We talked about that last week - trying to decide what is right and just can be really hard.  There might be no one right answer, no one obviously right choice.  Sometimes it really does come down to, “What will hurt the least number of people?” or “What will do the least harm?”  If the decision I make is on the side of love and compassion, I have probably made the right one.  If the decision I make is a result of selfishness or fear, anger or hatred, then it is probably not the best choice.  

God’s choice for the people of Israel, from his very first conversation with Abram, was for them to follow his commandments, treat each other with the kind of extravagant love that He poured out on them, and be his hands and feet and mouth in the world.  Unfortunately, over and over again Israel wandered off, made the wrong choices, and eventually had to be rescued.  Over and over again, God sent rescuers - judges like Samson and Deborah, prophets like Samuel, Kings Saul and David and Solomon, even foreign kings, like Cyrus the Great.  And then he sent someone different, someone who wasn’t as obvious as David or Samson or even Cyrus.  He sent Jesus, an ordinary man, to simply speak God’s Word to everyone he encountered.  To teach the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.  To make disciples and spread that Word across all the earth.  To tell everyone that we have choices today.  That we, as descendants of Abraham by adoption, have the same choices that God gave the people of Israel so long ago - to choose the ways of God, or the ways of the world.  That we can choose to do what Love demands and live, or what the world demands and die inside.  

I think I like it best the way Joshua said it, when he faced the Hebrews on the banks of the River.  “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”   (Joshua 24:15)  

May we all choose to follow Jesus, and serve the Lord, our God. 

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