“Finding Life’s Proper Limits”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
September 8, 2019
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,” — Deuteronomy 30:19i
There are moments in one’s life when following the rules is critical to one’s safety. I drove a car the other day that had features new to me. I have no idea how it worked but if the car drifted either over the center line or over the solid white line on the shoulder, the steering wheel would move and correct for the mistake. There are moments when staying within prescribed limits is critical to one’s safety.
I hated that car.
I could not figure how to turn off the lane integrity system, so I drove for over an hour having the steering wheel jerk in my hands while I was attempting to keep the car in its proper lane. I wouldn’t have minded if the system was able to always keep the car in the proper lane. I could have let the car drive and read a magazine. Try that, however, and an accident is assured. So, I hated driving that car. Oh, I forgot, there was also a high-pitched beep that went off every time you left your lane. Of course, in general, I don’t like being told what to do and particularly don’t like a car cataloguing my errors.
And then there’s Deuteronomy 30:15-20. In very clear language, God delivers a message to God’s people. They have a choice. They can obey God’s commandments by loving God and walking in God’s way, in which case they will live long and prosper. Disobey, seek out foreign gods, and death and destruction are promised.
For some modern men and women these are hard words to hear. It’s like driving that blasted car. Just as the car attempted to insure drivers stays in their proper lane, these words of Deuteronomy seek to set our moral course aright.
I think these words are hard for some of us to hear for two reasons. First, we proclaim that God is love and this seems counter to that assertion. They can be seen as pointing to a God of wrath and judgment and those of us within the liberal tradition of the Christian faith, have a hard time reconciling this portrayal of God while still professing the love of Christ. So maybe these words grate against our sensitivities. The second reason is they restrict our options. There are some who want no limits, who believe that such tired morality outlined in the commandments of God should not, indeed, cannot be relevant to our day. For these two reasons — it grates against our sensibilities and the belief that life is meant to be lived in moral freedom — these words from Deuteronomy are hard to take in.
Despite these objections, I contend that life’s proper moral limits are found in the commandments of God. I have three reasons for this contention. First, whether we like it or not, the world is structured as Deuteronomy suggests. Second, consequences are woven into the fabric of life. Third, the love of God lifts us beyond the limits of legalism.
Taking these three points in order, we begin by affirming the universe to be structured in the way described in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. If I disregard the rules of the road, if I decide that lane integrity is silly nonsense and drive in the passing lane for my journey home, I will not last long. My disregard for the law of the state results in my demise. If I flaunt the vows of my marriage, the best thing that has ever happened to me ends. If I decide baring false witness is an overblown moral construct, my word means nothing. And note one other thing. It is not just me who is harmed by my behavior. Driving in the passing lane kills the driver of the other car. The demise of my marriage affects my four children, their spouses and children yet unborn. So, when God addresses “the people” it is because their sin, like my own, is not a private indiscretion. It tares the fabric of human community. This is the way life works. The moral principles contained in God’s commandments are part of the warp and woof of being. So, these words from Deuteronomy need not be seen as filled with wrath and vengeance. No, this is nothing more than revealing who and where we are.
Second, and building on the first point, consequences are woven into the fabric of life. When taken seriously, one must admit that actions having consequences makes free will possible. If my moral decisions have no consequence, then there is no decision to be made because one moral choice is as good as another. And there is another point to consider — life lived without consequence would require the suspension of the laws of physics. My decision to drive in the passing lane and my subsequent collision is simply what happens when two objects collide. It was my decision to disobey the rules of the road and the natural order of the universe is not ignored because I was a fool. No, these words from Deuteronomy hold us accountable to a moral code.
Third, the love of God lifts us beyond the limits of legalism. Notice that in Deuteronomy 30:16 it is by loving God that these commandments are to be followed. Legalism, obedience to the law, even some of the strictures outlined in Deuteronomy, can run afoul of the love of God. If one is never to bare false witness, then when the Gestapo came to the home of a family harboring Jews in the basement, they were, if asked, to tell the truth and by so doing send the innocent to their death. There are times when what is legal is not fitting. There are higher principles at work than adherence to law and it is our love of God that guides us to a higher path.
In conclusion, the proper limits of life are found in God’s commandments lived with one’s heart loving God. Our moral behavior is to be constrained by obedience to God’s ordinances. Follow them and one’s life is blessed. Let us pray…
i Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If 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, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.