Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Date: Pentecost XVI + Proper 18 + 9/4/16
God sent His Son to bring salvation to the whole world. When Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16), He meant “whoever,” that is the invitation is open to all, to every human being. When He said, “whoever believes and is baptized” He meant that God Himself comes and works faith in your heart through His spoken Word and Sacraments and makes you his own. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Salvation is totally God’s work and gift. By the gift of faith God makes you to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is a follower, literally a learner.
Discipleship, however, implies that having received the gift of faith in Jesus there is then a following required, a learning curve. While salvation by God’s grace through faith is a totally free gift of God, surprisingly being a disciple of Jesus ends up costing you everything! In today’s Gospel our Lord is talking about the cost of discipleship, warning us that following in His Way, His Truth and His Life is an act of a living faith on our part. He warns us, however, that faith, when it ceases to be fed by God’s Word and Sacraments, that is, renewed by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace in daily repentance and faith, this faith can grow weak and die. To become a disciple is God’s work and is a totally free gift. To continue as a disciple, however, is a struggle, a struggle of faith against death, the devil and our own sinful flesh.
Three times Jesus tells us that the right to call ourselves a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, can be lost. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In other words, do you look to Jesus Christ as the highest good in your life above everything you have and even above your closest relationships in the family? Are the trials and worries and sufferings of life a loathsome burden or has God changed all that to be a faithful bearing of the cross? Just as salvation and becoming a disciple are the gift and working of God, so the life of faith relies on God’s continuing work. “For we are (that is, continue to be) his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
At the very end of the books of Moses God’s people are summoned to see God’s salvation as a covenant, a work and promise of God requiring us to enter and to keep the covenant by living faithfully in His Word and means of grace. These continually keep them in faith, faith in all the words and acts of God included from Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Jesus seems to suggest today that living in faith requires us to make choices. To speak of choices and decisions sounds so un-Lutheran, more like relying again on our own works. So Moses says, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil…. Therefore choose life…loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him.” He invites us to choose life because He has changed us and enabled us to walk in a decisive faith. While saving faith is a gift because “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him,” by that same gift of faith, however, God gives the strength to choose life, to choose it every day when death and evil vie for our recruitment.
And how does faith enable us to choose life, to continue to follow and learn from our Lord? “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.” But this obedience is not a meticulous outward work of our own. It is, rather, “by loving the Lord your God.” As our Lord said, the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. And You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37, 39). This love, too, is a gift given to those who believe and live in the love of God.
The call of God through Moses, “Choose Life,” means to faithfully walk in God’s Word and at His guiding. Yet this ancient invitation has taken on a new meaning for us who live in a country and at a time where and when the sin of abortion, the slaughter of our own innocents has become both legal and publicly acceptable. A society that has ignored and rejected God as the Creator and giver of life has not chosen life and good but the very death and evil that still enslaves this world apart from God. This word is still true, “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” Oh, maybe not right away, but maybe so, “You shall not live long” much less in the new heaven and earth of eternal life, “for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” That land, that promised land is not only Jerusalem of old but the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.
To choose life means to know and believe that God has chosen you, remembering how Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).
Josiah Conder in the 1800s captured all this when he penned this beloved hymn.
Lord, ‘tis not that I did choose Thee;
That I know, could never be;
For this heart would still refuse Thee
Had Thy grace not chosen me.
Thou hast from the sin that stained me
Washed and cleansed and set me free
And unto this end ordained me,
That I ever live to thee.
It was grace in Christ that called me,
Taught my darkened heart and mind;
Else the world had yet enthralled me,
To Thy heav’nly glories blind.
Now I worship none above Thee;
For Thy grace alone I thirst,
Knowing well that, if I love Thee,
Thou, O Lord, didst love me first. (LSB 573)
If I love Thee, Thou, O Lord, didst love me first.