St Erth/Madron The Choice between life and death 16 February, 2014
Deuteronomy 30. 15-19: See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…..
These are the words of Moses after he had come down from Mount Sinai, having spoken with God. They are the message, which he brought to the people of Israel from God: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…..”
I want to think about those words with reference to Jesus and ourselves in relationship with him. What is life and what is death?
In the case of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai they quite clearly referred to the physical life and physical death.
However, it goes a little deeper than that. Life is linked to fellowship with God and death is linked to an abandonment of that fellowship. Life for the People of Israel is to be prosperous; death is linked to the withdrawal of the promises:
if you love the Lord your God and obey his commands, you will live and become numerous – and he will bless you;
but if your heart turns away & you do not hear and bow down to other gods – you will not live long in the land you are entering but will perish.
This is the kind of Prosperity Gospel, which some Churches preach: become a follower of Jesus Christ and you will succeed in life and have wealth. However, that is not what Jesus taught at all.
So what did he teach about life and death?
What is to live? here and now; after the physical death?
What is to die? here and now; after the physical death?
One of the big differences between Jesus’ teaching on morality in the Sermon on the Mount (the Gospel today) and that of the Old Testament is his understanding of us as human beings. The Old Testament law is only concerned about outward actions: there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. Jesus looks at us however, as whole human beings. It is not just the way we act but the way we think, and beyond that our basic attitudes in life – to ourselves, God and others.
The formula goes like this: “You have heard it said that ….., but I say to you ….”
Our actions stem from our thoughts; our thoughts stem from our attitudes and our attitudes are controlled by our spirit/soul (the sort of person we are).
This in turn has a bearing on the choice we make between life and death the Jesus way. So let’s go back to those two questions:
What is to live?
What is to die?
You may have heard this story:
Three men, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Jew, were condemned to be executed. Their captors told them that they had the right to have a final meal before the execution.
They asked the Frenchman what he wanted.
“Give me some good French wine and French bread,” he requested. So they gave it to him, he ate it, and then they executed him.
Next it was the Italian’s turn.
“Give me a big plate of pasta,” said the Italian. So they brought it to him, he ate it, and then they executed him.
Now it was the Jew’s turn.
“I want a big bowl of strawberries,” said the Jew.
“Strawberries!!! They aren’t even in season!”
“So, I’ll wait…”
I want to answer the questions about life and death with reference to what happens after the physical death first.
Jesus’ teaching on life and death after death is quite clear: there will be a judgement and he will be the judge. Those, who have lived an exemplary life (altruistic, caring for others in a sacrificial way, which goes beyond the occasional assistance or coin in the collecting box) can look forward to a wonderful life of fellowship with him and God the Father for ever. “Come blessed of my Father … to the place where there is plenty of room for everyone.” It is here we can expect to experience the full wonder of the overwhelming love of God. Elsewhere in the New Testament this is filled out even more: it is a place of constant communal activity centred on Jesus with worship, singing, fellowship.
To be bereft of this is to die the second death – to be cast into outer darkness or to be burned in the fires of hell. Both of these are metaphors for being removed from God’s love and from that which humans need most of all – love, value, companionship, purpose. We were created to centre our lives on God and it is in him that we find wholeness.
These are the things, which we all crave, whether we recognise it or not. So many of the ills affecting people today in our Society stem from their lack – alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide.
It is the inadequate life that sins. It is a life, which looks in the wrong direction for fulfilment – a life which feels unfulfilled and tries to make up for this through compensating in other ways: by trying to dominate others or to amass wealth (income and possessions) or struggling to attain the impossible.
Take this young business woman for example:
“My life is all maths. I am trying to add to my income, subtract from my weight, divide my time, and avoid multiplying.” She lives an unsatisfied and unfulfilled life!
What did Jesus promise to us as his followers?
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry.” The person, who lives in close fellowship with Jesus will never be wanting, never be lacking. I have to say that this involves far more than coming to church. It requires a spiritual and personal connection with him.
Jesus never promised wealth. He promised that we would always have enough! In my journeys around Asia, I have visited Christians, who live in abject poverty (in the Northern Philippines and Bangladesh). They live on the poverty line, but they survive: no electricity, no running water, little meat, little medical support or schooling. But they are committed Christians.
So, when Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full,” what did he mean in terms of this life?
The answer is really exactly the same as that for life after death. A life lived with Jesus has meaning, purpose and value, because it is lived within his overwhelming love. We can never reach our potential unless we have been liberated from everything within us that inhibits our growth. This liberation can only come through feeling totally loved and accepted. It is that love which enables us to reach a point, where we do not feel the need for anything to make us whole. We are then able to give ourselves totally to others in community. We are able to reach our potential.
“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty,” said Jesus. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” (John 4.14). To live within the love of Jesus and to experience that love is to find fulfilment, and so to live life to the full both here and for ever.