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The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 09/04/2016

Sermon on Deuteronomy 30:15-20, by Samuel D. Zumwalt

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, 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.”   




            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            “If...then” passages in this (and other) reading(s) easily leads to bad theology. Taken at face value, “if...then” implies that God is subject to human decisions. That kind of thinking leads to wasting the death of God’s Son Jesus. How? God’s grace becomes a quid pro quo for our actions, and the death of God’s Son Jesus becomes unnecessary. In that kind of thinking, we can save ourselves by the choices we make. Of course, reading passages apart from the whole counsel of God in Sacred Scripture can be nonsensical.


            So, then, how should we read Deuteronomy 30:15-20 so that “if...then” doesn’t waste the death of God’s Son Jesus?

            Starting with the cross of Christ which is God’s unmerited, undeserved grace in action for us sinners, we remember that salvation is God’s work and not ours! Creating faith in us is God’s work and not ours! Drowning in the waters of Baptism the old sinner in us day after day is God’s work and not ours! Reserving even the tiniest bit of God’s saving work for our unconverted human will wastes the death of God’s Son Jesus!

            So, then, how should we read Deuteronomy 30:15-20 that “if...then” doesn’t waste the death of God’s Son Jesus?


How did any of us get where we are?


            First, let’s recognize our 21st century unbelieving ears have been so stuffed full of bad theological “earwax,” it is extremely difficult for us even to listen to the Word of God without the prejudicial “hearing aids” installed by living when and where we live. We have been so shaped by our culture’s almost complete immunity to objective Truth, that we cannot even hear God’s Word without this unbelieving voice whispering “Really? O come on! You’re not buying this, are you?” In Jesus’ words to some adversaries, “You strain at a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). We will subject God’s Word to the finest scrutiny but then allow the wider culture, and particularly absurdly, unbelieving “authorities,” to drive an 18-wheeler through our cerebral cortex.

            Just have a preacher mention “Adam and Eve” or “our first parents,” and some metaphorically place their index fingers in their ear canals and go, “Nn, Nn, Nn, Nn, I’m not listening!” But then some air-headed actor, comedian, politician, or journalist mocks the very idea of God and 21st century folks will go, “You know, she’s right!” And we Americans will positively swoon if that line is delivered with a posh British accent. It’s positively idiotic how illogical, intolerant, downright stupid, and even completely false some “authoritative” comments about God and the Christian faith are swallowed today. May God grant you the ability to recover from indoctrination by this hell-bound world!

            So, then, how do we talk about the innate rebellion against God in our own hearts and minds? Let’s start with how we want to make everything about me. To actually learn to think critically (which means to being to discern truth from falsehood), we have to admit we (and the so-called “authorities” around us) can be wrong. As I have said before, it must be quite a reality check when so-called atheists show up to give an account of their lives to God. Death works that way. Everyone discovers she/he isn’t the center of the world. Everyone discovers whether what she/he believes is indeed true. It kind of blows the very notion of relative truth claims out of the water now, doesn’t it? If there is a God, and I believe there is, then God has more experience being God than me. Or, as others have said: “Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.” Just because a person doesn’t think God exists doesn’t mean God doesn’t, in fact, exist! Not being able to hear (including refusing to hear) is not the same thing as there being no Sound!

            When the so-called atheist responding to the phrase “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence,” by analogy, says “I can prove there is no butter in the refrigerator (evidence of absence) so, then, you who believe there is a God, in which refrigerator am I supposed to look for Him? (show me your evidence of presence).” We respond: “Your analogy confuses a creation with its Creator. You won’t find the Giver of butter or the Maker of the refrigerator-maker in any refrigerator. But God does reveal Himself on the cross! That’s the evidence of presence to which we can only point!”

            Martin Luther contended the root sin of all sins is unbelief: “We do not fear, love, and trust God above all things.” But, absurdly, we will place our fear, love, and trust in people who will die, things that will break or get stolen, health and beauty that will fade, celebrities and authorities that will fall out of fashion tomorrow, and earthly systems that, like all of us, never last in this life and in this world. I used to be thin, long-haired, more naive, attacted to socialism, occasionally cool (mostly in my own mind), with the goal either to be James Taylor or the author of the Great American Novel. Look at me now!

            So...when Moses was giving his goodbye sermon to the Israelites at the verge of the Jordan River opposite the Promised Land, he wasn’t forgetting God’s people had been chosen by grace, rescued from slavery in Egypt by grace, or been the recipient of the Sinai Covenant by grace. As we learn in the Crossways Bible Study (that resumes this week), what God’s people do doesn’t effect a relationship with God but rather reflects it!   

            The “if...then” in Deuteronomy 30 is not about how to become God’s people but all about God’s gift of the Promised Land. If His people run after other gods and don’t keep the Sinai covenant, then God will let them have their way. In other words, God will step back to say, “How’s that not relying on me working for you now?” This is logical consequences talk in the same way that not keeping one’s marriage vows will lead to terrible endings. Bluntly now: Moses already knows they will end up going into exile!


God still graciously chooses us!  


            After the death, resurrection, and ascension of God’s beloved Son Jesus, there is only one way to become a child of God. It’s no longer by ethnicity. It’s by Holy Baptism, where God graciously chooses us when we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we could decide to be saved or decide to be obedient enough, God’s Son Jesus would not have been born in human flesh to live the obedient life we can’t live and to die the innocent death we cannot die that we might be His own! God must do the work of saving.

            Our limited free will gives us the ability to say “No” to God, but it does not have to capacity to say “Yes.” The so-called atheist keeps insisting God must be “find-able” through his or her own reason, strength, and efforts. Such a person is tragically trapped by a worldview in which he or she is the center of everything. That’s called narcissism. And the only cure for that worldview is death. Holy Baptism is the death of me – not once but day after day. Only when this body of death is, in fact, dead am I totally free of my narcissism. The person who refuses to die to self daily will sadly go to her or his death without God and without hope. We should pray for those trapped by narcissism!

            During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus expressed zero interest in middle eastern real estate. Today I am pro-Israel because my Lord Jesus is a Jew, and because His Jewish relatives are still being threatened by radical Islam and by anti-Semitic westerners. With the apostles, we Lutherans are amillennialists, which means we believe that Christ will come in glory one time to judge the living and the dead and to pull the plug on this old creation. If I care about the Holy Land, it’s because that’s where my Lord Jesus walked the earth before His death, resurrection, and ascension, and His relatives there need my help to keep from being driven into the sea by radical Islam. Loving my neighbor includes having his or her back when today’s neo-Nazis come calling.

            Having said that, my ultimate concern is not for this life or this world. In the words of the Hebrew writer: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (13:14). With Paul: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). It should be no surprise that the so-called atheists and the unbaptized do not understand this worldview. They literally cannot hear God’s story, because their ears are stopped with bad theological “earwax” or with index fingers accompanied by a childish mantra: “Nn, Nn, Nn, Nn, I’m not listening!”

            Thanks be to God for Christian parents, grandparents, and godparents who obey Christ’s command to make disciples by baptizing, because it is only in Holy Baptism that the Lord Jesus takes my sin and my death (my innate narcissism) and gives me His life and righteousness as a free gift! Thanks be to God for Christian parents, grandparents, and godparents who obey Christ’s command by teaching the baptized all that He has commanded and by placing in their hands the Holy Scriptures and providing for their instruction in the Christian faith. By so doing, these Christian parents, grandparents, and godparents are putting themselves and the children in that place where the Holy Spirit can strengthen them in their own Baptism where they receive, day after day, God’s gift of new life in Christ as they hear His voice calling out of darkness into His marvelous Light.

            Because becoming God’s child is a free gift that can only be given in Holy Baptism, we Christians hear and affirm this: It is God’s Son Jesus who alone chooses death on a cross in order to give life to those whom He chooses in Baptism. At the last, He will sadly let those have their way who have refused His free gift of life in order to choose death. Yes, He will sadly let have their way those who insisted life had to be on their terms with themselves firmly ensconced in the center that belongs only to God.

            This, dear ones, is not cruelty or the willy-nilly actions of a capricious God. This is simply the difference between Creator and creature, between what is and is not humanly possible. If we choose death, it is our own doing as a result of willful refusal to receive God’s gift. If we choose life, it is because we have seen and heard with Peter there is nowhere else to go but to the One who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).


            In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net