This weekend marks the sixth anniversary of the revolution in Egypt that ended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. I was reminded of this revolution as I pondered our text from Deuteronomy – another story of people who were freed from an oppressive ruler in Egypt. I remember watching the revolution unfold on social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter were the major modes of communication and organization for those who were trying to make their voices heard. From my own home I could read in real time the passion that was driving people to what turned out to be an unstoppable revolution.
Once the people of Egypt were free from an oppressive ruler they stood on the cusp, on the edge of a new day, a new life. After a few days of expressive celebrations the time came to move forward and begin the rocky process of building what would come next. One reporter for NPR related how the people she had interviewed were wondering now, not so much with fear, but with eager anticipation, just where this revolution had really taken them.
It’s the kind of question the Hebrew people asked Moses several times throughout their journey out of Egypt. Why did you take us out of that land? At least in Egypt, they were heard saying more than once, we had food to eat! As they wandered in the wilderness for forty years they wondered if they had really made the right choice by following this leader. They wondered when they were going to get to the Promised Land, and when they got there, IF they got there, what it was going to be like.
The picture on the front of your bulletins is the view they had by the time we get to the end of Deuteronomy. It’s a view of Israel from the top of Mt. Nebo, the place of Moses’ death, in the modern state of Jordan. The Jordan River, the border between the two countries, is straight below the steep slope of the mountain on which the photographer is standing. The Dead Sea is on the horizon at the left side of the picture, and all of Israel, the Promised Land is before her. On a clear day she can see Jericho, about 16 miles away. (Blog picture is slightly different – the Dead Sea fills most of the mid-ground)
It’s from this point, Scripture claims, that Moses delivered his final words to the people he had led for over forty years. It’s from this point that he led them through a final recitation of all of the laws and commandments of God. Before they could enter the land God had promised, they had to hear God’s plan for how they would live there, the commandments, decrees, and ordinances that would instruct and guide every aspect of their daily lives. It’s from this point that he gave them the final message, the final word from God, before he died, never entering the Promised Land himself. “Choose life,” he said.
To us it sounds contradictory. On the one hand, for twenty-nine chapters, Moses speaks on and on about all the things the Hebrew people can and can’t do. The exact way to organize their courts, the particular way to make offerings on an altar, what food to eat, what festivals to celebrate. Reading them all with the intent to obey can seem tedious, restrictive, maybe even deadening to our modern ears. It seems to us, especially people of a culture that so highly values independence and freedom, that every opportunity to make choices in life is taken away by the law. Everything that might bring variety and diversity is already decided.
Yet on the other hand Moses insists, GOD insists, living according to the law of God is not mind numbing or deadening. It’s not a way to make uncreative, mindless robots out of God’s good creation. It’s the exact opposite. Following the law, choosing life, is a matter of the heart. Choosing life is about loving God. Choosing life is about turning our hearts to God and in doing so making the many choices that are laid before us in a life-giving, God directed way.
The law, God insists, exists to help us love God. It frees us to give our whole lives, body, soul, and spirit, our hearts to God. It frees us to some extent from wondering, guessing what it is that God wants from a loving and obedient people. The law, in our Reformed understanding, is what we are free to follow in gratitude for the new life we are given in Jesus our Christ. Choose life, God offers; choose me, as I have already chosen you.
The problem is that we get caught up in the details. Much ink was spilled in the days of the early church about how much of the law we need to follow. Do Gentile converts to the faith need to be circumcised? Do Jewish believers need to continue to keep the food laws? Even before the early church controversies, Jesus was also weighing in on the subject. “I came not to abolish the law,” he explained “but to fulfill it.”
He takes away the temptation to say that the laws are gone, unnecessary, no longer useful to believers in him. But he also takes away the temptation to just slip through life doing the bare minimum. “You have heard it said…,” Jesus begins in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I say to you…” he continues. He broads the law for a people who sometimes like to use the law to define what is good enough, even if what it good enough isn’t what is life-giving. He shows us that the law is not irrelevant; it needs to be reapplied and reinterpreted continually as cultures and human understanding changes.
Think of two sisters in the backseat of a car on a long, very long car ride. The invisible line has already been drawn down the middle of the car to keep them from touching each other. One too many “accidental” hits has happened and the “no touching AT ALL” law has been invoked. What does the completely law abiding, but maybe not life choosing sibling do? She hovers her hands right over the line, not touching her sister, but just getting real close. “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.” The law has been followed. No rule has been broken. But is that good enough?
No, Jesus says. The law has been followed, but it hasn’t been fulfilled. Life has not been chosen. God’s laws aren’t about prohibiting every single bad behavior. God’s laws are about choosing life the way that God, our creator, has chosen to give life and bless life with God’s love. So God’s laws call us to turn our lives and our actions in a life-giving, life-respecting direction. God’s desire is for us to let go of our nagging need to be in control. God’s desire is for us to stop drawing lines around what we know from our own experience and defining that and only that as right and good and normative. In giving the law to humankind, God asks us to turn our loyalties and our hearts over to the divine will, not human will, our or another’s. And that divine will is for us to love others as we have been loved.
The divine law isn’t about taking away diversity and restricting creativity; it is about encouraging expansive living, protecting all people in their quest to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind. God’s law is about choosing life for others as well as for ourselves through actions that respect all people as blessed creatures of the loving Creator. Choosing life is about choosing the way of the One who created all life, who sees all life, who loves all life, who forgives and renews all life. Choosing life is about trusting God whose view and vision is so much farther than our own, who could see beyond the Dead Sea, beyond Jericho and the reach of the human eye, beyond our imagination of what is right and fair and good enough. Choosing life is about facing the challenges before us with a sense of hope and courage because the one who creates order out of chaos can create life out of the most difficult situations.
This is the life God’s people are called to choose. Standing on the edge of the Promised Land, the people of God were filled with excitement and anticipation, certainly, but also fear and trepidation. The Promised Land was also a “Possessed” Land. It was not empty, sitting vacant waiting for the Hebrew people to come inhabit it again. Other people were living there, farming their own farms, worshipping their own gods, raising their own families. It would not be an easy transition for them at all, as we have seen in the years since the Egyptian revolution. It has not gone smoothly in these early years. The reminder comes often that there are a number of different ideologies and values in competition for the attention of the people and the direction of the country. It has been a difficult time, deadly even, as different factions continue to cling to their individual leaders instead of agreeing on a single life-giving way forward.
On the edge of the Promised Land there is anxiety about how we should enter unknown territory, worry and wonder about just where our journey will ultimately take us. On this edge God calls us to choose life, to choose God.
In Egypt six years ago some of the revolutionaries found a way to choose life as they stood on the edge of their future in those first hours. The protests for the most part were over and while the celebrations continued some people began to look forward. It started first in Tahrir Square, people who had used Facebook to organize a revolution, used Facebook to organize the clean-up. People came down not with signs and shouts but with trash bags and scrubbing brushes. They cleaned up the square and then the streets surrounding the
square, and then the movement spread out in symbol and reality. People took to streets around Cairo and around the nation according to some reports cleaning their country, choosing life, making a way forward in an uncertain, but much brighter future.
We all face our Promised and Possessed Lands in different ways. Our journeys bring us to different mountaintops, different cliffs from which we look over our unknown futures. Whether you’re looking out over the promising future of a new job or a new family or new opportunity in school or education, or whether you’re looking out over a land possessed by diagnoses and treatments for an unexpected illness, a land gripped by financial insecurity, or ravaged by wars of addiction and dependencies, the choice remains the same. Turn your heart to God. Put your trust in God’s gracious mercy, God’s guiding spirit, God’s ordering love. With complete dependence on the one who breathed life into the dust of the earth, who died and rose again for our sake, who moves through all of creation as wind over the water, choose life in God’s hands as your way forward. You will be blessed. You will be blessed.
Celebration picture by Mariam Soliman from Cairo, Egypt (The last day – Freedom has come!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Clean-up picture by Sherif9282 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons