Old Testament: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Epiphany 6: Series A)
In light of all God did by great signs and wonders in Egypt to get Israel up to the promised land in Deuteronomy, is there now really any other god who they would want to worship or any other path they would want to take? It really is an option which is a “non-option” is it not?
The climactic conclusion of Moses’ ministry on the Plains of Moab is recorded in the final chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. This critical confluence of the desert wandering is all brought to a head in this text with one simple option: Either live in the new land with the life God has given you in freedom from slavery, or die in sin and evil clinging to idols. All of creation is a legal witness to what God has done for Israel, and now they must confess that all they have is from Yahweh and Him alone.
This is a great text to preach! Notice right away how the “life and good, death and evil” mentioned in Deuteronomy 30:15 reminds us of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis 2:9. This connection may be a good way to go homiletically when needing a Gospel hook for the sermon as you make the turn toward Christ.
At the beginning, humanity was faced with the option of good and evil or life and death at the tree of Eden. Despite all of God’s good and gracious provision, humanity chose a path which led into slavery to sin and idols. However, in light of that, God Himself committed to setting them free from slavery through the Messiah/Zerah promise (Genesis 3:15). In anticipation of God’s greatest deliverance through the Messiah, He foreshadowed this fulfilled promise in Israel’s rescue from Egypt. The Exodus story of deliverance is the context of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 30. Namely, that in light of all God did by great signs and wonders in Egypt to get Israel up to the promised land in Deuteronomy, is there now really any other god who they would want to worship or any other path they would want to take? It really is an option which is a “non-option” is it not? In light of all God has done, where else are they going to go? But even though Israel would now choose “God” and by extension “life,” eventually they would still sin. Like the son in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:28-32, Israel said they would obey God but turned back to disobedience later.
No amount of our sinful volition will ever choose God rightly, and no act of our will can save us. Instead, ever since the creation and in light of our sin, God planned on sending His only begotten Son as the new Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) and also as all of Israel in one person to choose what we will not and cannot. In light of our sin, Jesus chose to do His Father’s will, which has opened to us the way of everlasting life. He accomplished this by hanging on the cursed tree of Calvary where His vicarious atonement reverses the curse and does what we cannot. Adam and Eve could not do it at the tree in the garden and were cast out into the wilderness in sin. Israel could not do it in the wilderness because even though they would choose God, eventually their sinful nature was incapable of keeping that promise. We are fully aware we cannot do it by our own reason or strength (see Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed in his small catechism). But what humanity was incapable of doing on its own, God did by sending Jesus Christ to take our humanity into Himself for us! In Baptism, we cross the Jordan (like Israel after Deuteronomy) into a promised land of faith. By grace, the Holy Spirit creates and keeps these promises throughout the life we have with God in Word and Sacrament. In light of all God has done for us in Christ, is there any other idol worth worshipping? Is there any other way to salvation? Again, it really is a non-option, is it not? Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through” Him, as it says in John 14:6.
In light of our sin, Jesus chose to do His Father’s will, which has opened to us the way of everlasting life
If you feel you have heard this text before but only a little differently, you are not losing your mind. You will notice this is essentially the same reading as you find in Joshua 24. The only difference is Moses is presenting here and not Joshua (who says the same thing, only slightly different). Both leaders of Israel are at the end of their careers and so they are both dealing with the topic of choosing. The stronger point homiletically though is that we have one greater than Moses and the Law and stronger than Joshua to take us in to the promises of God, the greatest Joshua whose name is Jesus. Instead of us choosing salvation even in light of all God has done for us, which we would certainly fail at accomplishing, God Himself chose Jesus to accomplish this for us. That God chose Jesus to accomplish this can be found everywhere in the New Testament. Specifically for the sake of the sermon, we see it clearest in Jesus’ baptism (John 1:29-34). Notice how the heavens and the earth bore witness (from the skies came the dove to rest on Jesus as He was in the water) that Jesus is the one who will fulfill the Law for us and fulfills all the promises of God on our behalf which is life and salvation. Now, because of God’s gracious choosing in Christ, Jesus has chosen us as He says in John 15:16. In the waters of our baptism, God calls us in Christ which connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11).
I once heard Dan Weber, a great preacher, make use of this “non option” choosing in the form of an analogy. His text was Joshua 24, but I believe it works here as much as it does there. He used an analogy because it took the concept from the text and landed it in the common life of the hearers; whether personally embodied as a reference or overheard as a general truism. He tells the true story of a time when he was a child and decided to run away. Burnt by some offense to his great will by his parents, he packed up his meager provisions and announced his departure. What shocked him to the core was the fact that his parents did not seem to care at all. In fact, they told him, “Goodbye.” This was not the reaction he was expecting. He had surely thought they would be sad or even a little upset and maybe even perhaps beg him to stay; which would, of course, satisfy his ego that they needed him, and they were probably wrong to force him away like this. But they simply acted as if they did not care. He inched toward the door calling their bluff. They did not budge. He perhaps even turned the handle noisily to try and signal his imminent departure. They were not phased. He said, “Okay, I’m going now... aren’t you going to miss me? Don’t you care I’m leaving?” All his parent said in response was, “Where are you going to go?” That question shot a hole straight through his entire scheme! He was done for, sunk, because he knew the truth of it was, he had no idea where he was going to go! He had no real plan! He would be alone, abandoned, destitute, and surely crawling back home like that son in Jesus’ parable from Luke 15. He knew there was nowhere else for him to go. They were it and, like it or not, they had been so good to him. His choice was a non-choice. He had nothing without their love and provision. It was them who had given him life and even the bag he had packed and the contents therein. All he could do was repent, unpack, and live under their gracious rule as God’s good gift to them.
This analogy highlights the point of our text from Deuteronomy. God had really given them a choice which was a “non-choice.” Where else were they going to go? So, the analogy helps land the sermon for the hearers. Because this is the case, I suggest using a Thematic Structure for the sermon called the “Analogy Structure.” In this type of arrangement, the sermon “introduces hearers to a theological topic by moving from the known to the unknown. The sermon is based upon an act of comparison as the preacher compares a topic that is familiar to the hearers but of secondary importance (like the analogy or secondary topic) to the topic of primary importance that might be unfamiliar to the hearers (normally the main topic of the sermon). By doing this, the preacher moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar and allows the analogy to shed light upon the theological topic.”
God had really given them a choice which was a “non-choice.” Where else were they going to go?
For example, comparing an attempted runaway who learns his option is really a “non-option” (the topic of secondary importance which is familiar to the hearers), to the way God presents Israel with the choice between life and death which is really a “non-option” (the topic of primary importance that is unfamiliar to the hearers).
The key to doing this structure well is that “the secondary topic needs to (1) be familiar to the hearers so the preacher is not forced to explain two topics at once and the secondary topic might serve as a mnemonic device, (2) be of a different nature than the main topic so it incites interest for the hearers in the comparison and (3) have a positive effect so the hearers are not offended by the comparison. Also, the preacher needs to be aware that all analogies break down and thereby prevent his hearers from falling into that confusion, either by clarifying for them the limits of the analogy or avoiding development that would lead toward that error.”
I think this story from Dan Weber is a really good analogy of how Moses is posing a similar option. Where else was Israel going to go? There really was no other option. Trust in the God who saves. Live under His rule by faith in His promise, something we see so clearly in Christ who is our life and salvation.
The key to handling all of this “choosing” language without synergism is to hold out that, in the Garden, we had a choice and we messed up. So, God made a choice to enact a plan that we see foreshadowed in the exodus story. Consequently, in light of that deliverance (in Exodus), God holds before Israel the choice in our text again. They correctly chose Him but were unable to keep their promise (even in Joshua and the rest of the Old Testament) because of our sinful condition. So, God chose Christ to fulfill the obligation of the Law in our place. It is important to acknowledge how, given the option, we would not choose this salvation rightly either (our will is miserably corrupted by sin). However, now that salvation is in Christ and in light of all of this (curse of Eden tree/salvation from Calvary’s tree) Jesus chose us in baptism (Israel crossed the Jordan into promised land, and we pass through baptism into the promises of God in Christ which includes salvation; see Romans 6:1-11), which is how we live and are blessed in Him.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Walter A. Maier III Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Deuteronomy 30:15-20.