Moses is tired. He has been leading the people Israel through the wilderness for decades. With God’s help, he has faced their complaints, met their needs, and given them guidance. Now the people are on the plains of Moab, almost within reach of the promised land. But Moses is 120 now, and according to his own account, he no longer gets around very well. Who can blame him? Moses is nearing the end of his life, and he’s not going to make it to the promised land. So before he dies, he shares some more wisdom with the people on God’s behalf.
After all that he’s done and said, what is it that Moses wants to make sure that the people know? You have a choice, says Moses. You have a choice. You can choose between prosperity and adversity. You can choose between blessings and curses. You can choose between life and death. You can choose between honoring the God who brought us up out of Egypt, and worshiping someone or something else. You have a choice, and your choice matters.
This season we listen to both Moses and Jesus share ideas with us about how to live faithfully. Many of us have heard it all before. Don’t lie or steal or kill. Don’t spend your energy on worry or hate. Don’t worship wealth or seek power for its own sake. Instead, honor creation and be generous with what you have. Strive to forgive other people and help those who need help the most. Love God with all that you are, and your neighbors, and even your enemies, as yourself.
These instructions may be familiar to us. They may even seem simple. But one thing’s for sure: they aren’t easy. So what does Moses mean when he tells us to choose? Can we really just choose a way of God, a way of life, once and for all, and everything will fall into place? If so, why hasn’t it happened already?
The ways Moses asks us to choose aren’t simple to live out. His insistence that we have a choice may even make us angry as we remember just how many things we can’t choose. None of us get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing. We don’t get to choose what we’re naturally good at, or what is really hard for us, or what jobs we get or lose. We don’t get to choose who falls in love with us. We don’t get to choose if we or our loved ones get sick. We cannot choose how the people who are closest to us will act, siblings or spouses or children or parents or friends, even if we really, really wish that we could.
There are so many things we don’t have a choice about — not only in our personal lives, but in our common life, as well. It’s President’s Day weekend, and this is an election year. We don’t get to choose who runs for office, or who other people vote for, or how politicians act once they are elected. We cannot force our leaders to tell the truth, or care about the truth, or uphold any kind of moral code. We cannot single-handedly stop hateful speech and action, or redistribute wealth, or eliminate oppressive laws and practices, or halt climate change, or transform our immigration policies.
Choose a way of life, Moses? What choice do we really have? If we pay attention to the world around us, and particularly if we stay up late reading or watching or listening to the news, it’s easy to end up feeling entirely powerless. I wonder how those folks Moses was talking to felt, coming up out of slavery in Egypt only to endure 40 years of wandering and want. How many choices did they feel that they really had?
But Moses never claims that we can choose the circumstances of our lives, or that we can choose anyone else’s actions. He only reminds us that we have a choice about how we will live in the midst of everyone and everything else. God creates us for choice in the very beginning. God designs us to be free and even creative. God does then offer us guidelines for meaningful and just living, suggestions for how to use our freedom, lots of them; but God has no interest in forcing us into obedience. Instead, throughout our holy text, God cajoles, pursues, provokes, questions, and entices. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say no to whatever is life-taking, life-denying. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say yes to whatever will nurture, heal, inspire, connect, strengthen, honor.
God gives us freedom. God makes us free. It is our work, then, to claim that freedom. To choose despite the pain of our past, and our fear of the future. To choose despite the pressures of our families and cultures and political systems. To choose with as much creativity and faithfulness as we can, and then, when we make a mistake – as we will inevitably do – to accept God’s forgiveness, and choose again.
What might you choose, if you truly felt free? How might you live, if you claimed all your choices?
Keep in mind that Moses wasn’t speaking to one person here, but to the whole people of Israel. A free human community. As we struggle to make choices in the directions of goodness, and kindness, and justice, we will discover others who are striving to choose these things too. And while each of us has very limited power, together we have astonishing power. Power to influence, and power to change.
Just before he asks us to choose life, Moses says this:
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Please pray with me.
God, you are close enough for us to cling to, and the wisdom you give us is not far away, but planted here, in our hearts. Whatever challenges we face, personal and political, grant us the strength and courage to still claim some part of that magnificent freedom you have given to us. Guide us as we struggle to choose faithfulness, wisdom, and life: by ourselves, and together; for your sake and for our own sake and for the sake of one another. Amen.