The following sermon was preached on February 12, 2023 at St George’s Transcona. You can learn more about St George’s and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo credit: dominik hofbauer on Unsplash


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Today’s first reading was from Deuteronomy and in that reading we are challenged to “choose life.”

Which at least at first seems like an odd thing to have to tell someone.

This passage is the concluding section of a speech given by Moses to the people of Israel and Moses thinks that the people need to be reminded to choose life. He has laid out his arguments in the preceding chapters and then he says, “See I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…. Choose life…” (15)

The people are being given a choice but is seems like a bit of an odd choice to me. Who would anyone choose death and adversity when life and prosperity was also an option?

But I suspect we are all aware of ways we often choose to make things harder than they need to be – for ourselves and others. Sometimes we do choose adversity over prosperity.

And this is also true for the people Moses is speaking to. So how do we choose life and prosperity instead of death and adversity?

Moses tells us that, “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, they you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you…”

If we walk the path God has set before us, if we follow God’s rules, prosperity will follow.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it?

Except we likely all know of situations in our lives and the lives of people around us where this didn’t seem to work. We have all known people who walked the path, followed the rules, and something horrible happened to them.
Taking a passage like this and trying to turn it into a simple formula of cause and effect resulted in one of the most popular, and in my opinion, most dangerous theologies in our modern world, the prosperity gospel.

This is a theology that takes this scripture and applies it literally and individualistically – follow God’s rules, you will be prosperous. Don’t follow God’s rules, and you will suffer.

Which means that if you become ill, or lose your job, live in a place that is experiencing a natural disaster or face any kind of adversity, it’s your fault. You must not be doing exactly what God wants you do to.

And many, many good people believe this, and many, many people have suffered because of this system of beliefs.

Julianna Claassens explains that this passage reflects on “what makes life possible: life individually and also life together.” She notes that it follows a long list of blessings and curses in the previous two chapters and is essentially the concluding paragraph for that list.

Taken on its own, we can see how theologies like the prosperity gospel can develop for today’s passage, but within the broader context of scripture we see that things are not always that simple.

We have the lament Psalms, the book of Job and Lamentations for example.

Claassens writes that in those books, “one finds how people started to challenge the basic operating principles encapsulated in this text. Yes, it is true that to do good, work hard, and focus on God leads to life. But not always? Just as wicked people prosper, bad things happen more often than not to good people: The poor do not deserve to be poor. Infertile couples have done nothing to deserve the hardships of reproductive loss. Cells go haywire when people get cancer; accidents, and natural disasters due to human fault (or malice) happen. And to place blame then on people who already suffer due to whatever circumstances have robbed them of life is to add insult to injury…”

So why do we have this passage in Scripture at all? Why do we keep reading it? Does it have anything to say to us today?

First, it may be helpful to go back and look at the context of the passage. Context is almost always the key that unlocks the truth of a passage.

This passage is still in the early part of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s not that long after the people of Israel have been freed from slavery and they need to figure out how to live in an entirely new way.

They have to choose how they will live both as individuals and as a community. They have to choose how they will treat one another.

One of the first things that God does for the people is give them a set of basic guiding principles on which to structure their new community life. We call these principles the 10 commandments.

Which can make them sound harsh, and rigid, but they were meant to help the people of Israel live well in community.

They were meant to help the people choose life.

And generally speaking, most people today still agree that they are a pretty good set of guidelines for healthy community life – don’t cheat, steal or kill. All pretty good ideas.

There is one commandment in the list that the people found the most difficult to follow, and it’s the one most people today also seem to find the most difficult to follow and so more often than not, modern day Christians don’t even try to follow it. It’s like this is a list of 9 commandments, and one suggestion.

The suggestion: Have a Sabbath day. Take a day off where you do not work, a day where you rest.

That’s the one that from the time it was given until now, people seem to have the most difficult time with.

The Israelites have just been released from their lives as slaves in Egypt where their days had been completely controlled by the work schedules dictated to them by their Egyptian masters who have literally been working them to death for generations. In the 10 Commandments, God establishes a new national identity for the people which includes a 6 days of work, and 1 day of rest pattern that has guided Judaism ever since.

Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which means, “to cease” or “to stop.” Israel’s neighbors knew nothing of a day of rest per week –no other people group worshipped a god who commanded them to take one day off a week to rest. The Sabbath made the Israelites, and the God they served, stand out.
There literally was no other god, like their God.

The commandment to keep a Sabbath could only be given by a God who loved the people they created and God’s desire to remind the Israelites to keep the Sabbath is an especially loving gesture to a people who have just recently
escaped the seven-day per week drudgery of slavery in Egypt.

Now you’d think, that the Israelites would have graciously accepted the gift of the Sabbath but they didn’t. People have had difficulty honouring the Sabbath since the very beginning. In fact, Old Testament prophets refer to this commandment more than any other because the people are having a hard time with it.

And it can be easy to fall into a legalism with something like the 10 Commandments or the Sabbath, or the things Moses is talking about in today’s passage but remember the purpose of the sabbath – it was meant to be a gift and not a burden. Moses words and warnings are meant to be a gift as well.

I could talk about Sabbath all day long but instead of doing that today let’s stick to the assigned passage. The context is still very much the same – Moses is trying to help the people develop ways of living together that are a gift and not a burden. Try to hear Moses’ words as words of liberation and life, and not of legalism and law.

Picture the scene where the words from our passage were first spoken. The people of Israel, who can still very much remember what it was like to live as slaves and are slowly beginning to unlearn that way of being are in the wilderness beyond the Jordan listening to Moses given an impassioned speech about the kind of people they are and the kind of people they can become if they choose to.

At the beginning of this sermon I asked why would people choose death and adversity when life and prosperity were available to them.

Well in the case of the people of Israel, they are often tempted to make those choices, to return to slavery in Egypt for example, because that life is familiar and predictable and that sense of predictability seems better than a hypothetical positive future.

The people are scared, they are tired and the familiar past – even a past marked by slavery – seems better to them than this future they can’t quite see yet. Over and over they complain and beg to go back to the way things were. To go back to a life of enslavement. (See, for example, Exodus 16:2-4)

And it’s Moses’ job to lead these people. This is not a moment for nuance. The shades of grey? Those will come later as we have already discussed. This is a moment to lay out in the broadest terms the choice the people are facing – will they choose life, or death?

And Moses implores them to choose life.

Carolyn J. Sharp says that the “radical hope of Deuteronomy is that God’s redeemed people should not go back to Egypt.” Literal Egypt and figurative Egypt. Moses is trying to inspire the people to choose ways of being together in community that lead to freedom and not oppression. He does not want the new community they are building together to become a metaphorical Egypt, a new kind of enslavement that they bring on themselves.

Moses isn’t focused in this passage on how an individual’s choice might affect that individual, rather he is focused on how an individual’s choice will affect not only the community in the present day, but future generations as well.

Our choices do not only impact us, they impact the people around us and the people that will come after us. Moses is encouraging the people to make choices that will be lifegiving for generations to come. He says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants will live…”

Moses is asking us to consider the big picture and take all of that into account.
And he’s also trying to paint a picture of a good, but as yet unknown future to inspire the people to do so.

He wants them to choose life not only for themselves, not only for their neighbours, but for future generations as well.

Each of us, in our individual lives, have to live with the choices made by our ancestors, by our parents and past generations whose choices shaped the world we live in now.

All of us, collectively as a parish also have to live with the choices made by past generations as well.

And future generations will have to live with our choices.

Sometimes those choices have set us up for success and sometimes they can feel like traps we can never escape.

It can be easy to focus all of our energy on lamenting the past or trying to figure out who to blame for our current set of circumstances but ultimately that is energy that does not take us to a productive place.

There is a famous prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that I suspect is spoken in this building at least three times a week when the AA groups meet and it goes like this, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

As we go forward navigating our individual lives and our collective life as St George’s this is the kind of wisdom I wish for all of us – to accept the things that we can’t change, to courageously change what we can, and to have the wisdom of discernment to know which is which.

And in all things, to do exactly what Moses is challenging us to do and “Choose life.”

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen