Sermon 02/12/2023 – Two Ways Forward

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 certainly 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.”

Sermon Text

One of the most common images we see in literature is that of the crossroads. There was a time when the meeting of two roads marked something profound. Down one path would be an entirely different world than another. They were places of business and of decisions. They were deeply spiritual, with spirits both good and bad lurking around their thoroughfares. Thieves could lurk here to make sure that they would meet their mark, and good Samaritans could likewise find those to help. At the nexus of one thing and another, the imminent moment of choice, it was there that magic could happen.

In life, we often look back on the choices we make with a feeling of bittersweet wonder. Did we make the right choice way back when? Were we meant to live the life we are living now, or was something better down a road we never took? Sometimes those alternate worlds we imagine are small, “What would have happened if I had gotten a Subaru instead of a Ford.” Other times they are much bigger, “What if I had never lived all those years chasing after the approval of someone who would never give it to me?” The reality of these past decisions is, of course, that they cannot be undone. Unlike the roads we drive on every day, there are no exits we can take to go back the way we came.

Recently driving to my friends in Vinton, Virginia, we crossed by a town called “Crow.” For miles, we kept getting a dire warning. “Crow, West Virginia. No Eastbound reentry.” If we were going to go to Crow, we were not going to make it back to where we came from. Life is like that, the choices we make are locked into time the second we make them. When we think of how final every decision we make really is, it is amazing that we ever go into anything without careful consideration. We can never take back the words we say. We can never undo the things we have done. Even if the damage can be repaired, the action itself will be locked in forever.

I think that reality scares us more than most things. The entire genre of time travel stories showshow much we want to have life be able to be redone. We want to be able to fix the damage of the past, to make everything better than it once was. Back to the Future despite being about fixing a timeline that has somehow gone wrong, captures the protagonist making his life better through his meddling with time. Countless episodes of Doctor Who, likewise show its titular character going through history and saving people from tragedies. We imagine for a moment that something as dire as Pompei or the Titanic could have had even a few more people saved than actually were. We want more than anything to turn back the hands of the clock, to save what is lost. Time is not our friend though, and a decision once made cannot be unmade.

The reality of this is dire, and our scripture sets a similar situation down in front of us. Israel is gathered together across the Jordan, Moses gives one final message to the people he has led for decades. The generation that suffered in the wilderness is dying away, and now their children and grandchildren are going to inherit the land promised to them so long ago it feels like an eternity. Moses summarizes the teachings he has given across their journey, and he asks them to reflect on what the wilderness has meant. Every triumph and every mistake is laid out before them, and a central truth is made plain. Choices have consequences, and what has been done cannot be undone. The people who left Egypt cannot enter Canaan because of what they did in the wilderness, and neither could Moses. The choices of the past had solidified the life that they were living now. However, the way forward could still be changed, if not for them then for their children, if they can make the right choice.

I have two stories to tell you – one a riddle and the other more philosophical – as a point of contrast for the choices we are given in this scripture. The first is a riddle. Two doors are put before you, one leads to an escape from the room you are in, the other will tumble you into a pit. Two guards stand there, one who only tells the truth and another who only tells lies. You are given a single question to determine which door is correct, and you cannot take back that question or your final choice of doors. What question would you ask?[1]

Put another way, Frank Stockton tells a story where a rich man seeks to keep his daughter from getting married. He has a gift for matchmaking, and anytime is accused of a crime, he finds their perfect match and has them stand behind a door. Behind the other door, a tiger sits. The choice is simple for the criminal, pick a door and either find perfect bliss or immediate death. One day a youth is given this choice, not for a crime, but because of something that gives him an advantage. The man’s daughter is in love with the youth, and knowing the answer to the doors, tells him which he should pick ahead of time. Stockton interrupts the story before it concludes and asks us a question of our own. Would this woman, facing the loss of her one true love, tell him to go to a door where he can live happily with another woman, or tell him to open a door that would kill him, but keep him as her love and her love only?[2]

This tends to be what we imagine when we think of crossroads. There is a right answer and a wrong one, and everything is conspiring to have us pick the wrong one. Perhaps that is out of the selfishness of the person who has given us that choice, or because of the ambiguity that life naturally carries within itself. Either way, we worry if we have made the right choice, because it is not always obvious which way we should go.

Even with good guidance, there are moments where we will not know the right way to go immediately. Sometimes what is good, best, and right are different things. Imagine that you could save someone’s life, but to do so you would have to lie. You are bearing a sort of false witness, but in preserving a life, a greater good is being accomplished than by telling the truth. Withholding help to someone who is better served by someone else can be hard, but sometimes an incomplete act of kindness is an enemy to recovery and goodness. Life can be hard, and decisions harder, but we need to be careful making them, because once we do, that is locked in, in a moment we cannot take back.

So, where does the hope come in? We now are thoroughly aware of how hard life can be, but how can we relax? The anxiety of making choices is heavy on us already, what relief can we enjoy? Siblings in Christ, we are blessed more than most in this. Moses gave this dire warning long ago, but he did not give it without hope underlying the whole thing. The past is gone, the choices we made final, but the road ahead is still open to us. It is never too late to choose life, and the choices we make are not hidden in deception in the way our riddles were. I have hidden what Moses said before this dire warning until now, but hear these words of hope from verses 10-14.

“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.”

God, in God’s mercy, has given us all we need to make decisions we can be confident in, if only we are willing to stick to the teachings we have been given. God did not hide the truth, but brought it down to us. We do not have to fly to Heaven or dig deep into the earth to find it, it is right here with us. We have an advantage even above Moses, even above the one who met God face to face. Christ, who came and lived among us, showed us what a life of perfect choices could look like. It was not easy, it was probably harder than it would have been otherwise, but it was a good life. When Christ left us, the Spirit remained with us. It lodges in our heart, and it offers us a way to be that is better than what we could ever find on our own.

We will not always make the right choices in life, but we have to own each one that we do make. We must be confident that we did all we could to do what is right. Likewise, the choices that we made long ago have to be something we can forgive ourselves for, because we cannot change what has already transpired. What matters, in our ministries, in our relationships, in every part of our life, is that we are moving forward and choosing life now. We have the guidance of God with us, we have nothing to fear from anything or anyone, if only we can own our choices here and now.

Blessed are we, as children of God, that we can charge forward unafraid. When we come to difficult choices, we must be careful and give them the care and attention they deserve, but we do not have to be paralyzed with fear. We have the people of God around us to support us. We have the scriptures to inform us. Most of all, we have the Spirit of God within us to comfort and transform us. There are many crossroads in this life, and we must make a decision between the two ways forward we are presented with. Praise God that we are never left to make those decisions alone, and that God is always ready to help us more and more. – Amen.

[1]  Smullyan, Raymond (1978). What is the Name of this Book?. Prentice-Hall.

[2] Frank R. Stockton “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in The Century. 1882

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