Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Jeremiah 18:1-10, Deuteronomy 30:15-19
September 8, 2019  Roger Barkley

Today’s passage from Deuteronomy recounts Moses’ farewell sermon to the people he had led through forty hard years of wilderness trials from Egyptian slavery to the banks of the Jordan River.

Moses is about to pass the baton to Joshua because he knows that he will die before the people cross the river.

He loves these people and he worries about what they’ll make of their future in this new land.

He’s taken the slaves out of Egypt but wonders if they will leave their slave mentality behind to become fully free.

Moses carefully chooses his words in his final message, with three words, in particular, revealing the radical and urgent message he delivers.

Those three words are, “life”, “choose”, and “today”.

Moses uses the words “life” or “live” over and over in his address – eight times within a few verses.

God has brought the Hebrew people through the desert to a land of milk and honey – a place offering abundant life – if they will only embrace it and care for it.

This is his last chance to sway his people, yet can hear the resignation in his voice.

Deuteronomy 30:11-12 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.  It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”

Forty years before, Moses had ascended Mount Zion to receive the laws that would structure a good and prosperous life, but the people kept resisting, doubting God’s promises, grumbling about Moses’ leadership, worshipping golden calves, bowing to their Sovereign Self over the Sovereign Lord.

It became so frustrating that back Exodus 32:9 an exasperated God complained to Moses,“I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are … they are a stiff-necked people”.

One brisk morning ten or twelve years ago, Vivienne and I met Eric Thomas, then the pastor of Christ Community Church in Winnetka, at a Coco’s Restaurant in Van Nuys.

We had also invited Vivienne’s son, Tim, to meet us because this was to be an intervention that we hoped would save Tim from more self-imposed disaster.

Tim had gotten a job – not as good as he’d wanted, but it was steady, it was a fresh start after several years in prison.

But we sensed that he was about to go off the rails again – his addiction to drugs, alcohol and petty crime was about to undo the progress he’s made.

For those of us not in the grips of addiction, the choice seems so obvious and easy: stop with the drugs, get some different friends, stick with your job and stop flirting with another arrest.

We sat in our booth at Coco’s and made our pitch: it’s not so hard, you can do it … choose life.

Sadly, he was unwilling to make that choice and has returned to prison twice since then.

And now as he approaches yet another chance to be paroled and choose life, we are both encouraged and resigned.

Encouraged that at fifty-years-old he’s saying he’s had enough of that life; resigned that he may not sustain his best intentions.

So, Moses turns from staring wistfully across the river at the Promised Land to face his people, and winds up for his final pitch:

Deuteronomy 30:19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. 

To get an idea of how bold and radical a statement Moses is making, consider that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament that we find the Hebrew verb behar – which we translate as “choose” – where human beings are the subject of the sentence.

Elsewhere it is God who chooses – but here Moses says, “Hey guys. Get this. You choose what you will do with what God is giving you. You choose.”

The entire book of Deuteronomy has led to this point.

We’ve witnessed how God already has redeemed the Hebrew people – this is not their doing; it is God’s gift, at God’s initiative, and through God’s power.

But they choose what they’ll make of it.

And God didn’t redeem the Israelites because they were powerful, charming or highly gifted.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8 God wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. He did it out of sheer love, keeping the promise he made to your ancestors. God stepped in and mightily bought you back out of that world of slavery, freed you from the iron grip of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Do you ever think about how infinitesimal is the likelihood that you are even alive?

And not only alive but living in this affluent, free society –which for all of its many problems is providing a lifespan and standard of living unimaginable to 99.99% of people who have ever lived.

God gave you this life, not because of anything you did, but out of pure love.

Every breath you take is a gift, and what you do with your life is your gift back to God.

What we do with our life is the sum total of what we think, the attitudes we cultivate, and what we do moment by moment – starting now, today.

Today” – that’s the third repeated word, which Moses uses seven times in this chapter.

We’ve all heard the statement, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”, so the thoughts, attitudes and other choices I make today determine my experience of tomorrow, and of the rest of my life.

Each day is a fresh start.

But, if I mess up my one-and-only life by obsessing about not having a better car or a bigger house, fretting that I don’t have more social media followers, grumbling about the unfairness of my boss, or agonizing that I’m not as good looking as some ideal – then I’ve wasted the gift.

Minute by minute, day after day I’m missing the blessings God has laid before me, because, in a theological sense, I’m bowing down to false gods.

If I wait to be happy until I’ve got everything around me in perfect order – the perfect job, the perfect husband or wife, the perfect 401K – then I’ll never be happy … worse yet, I will always feel lack and disappointment.

Of course, there are setbacks, injustices, and tragedies.

Without being at all Pollyannaish, I still know that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I respond to it.

So, to choose life over curses is to lean into an already blessed life, to fully receive the life God has already given.

Poised on the shore of the River Jordan, the Hebrew people can choose life by doing things like worshiping no other gods, speaking the truth in love, fostering healthy relationships and being content with what God has graciously given her.

That’s the life that the Ten Commandments and Law are structured to provide.

Deuteronomy ends with uncertainty regarding what their response will be.

But, we’ve read ahead and already know the answer – which is what the passage from Jeremiah is about.

What happened was that they occupied the Promised Land but quickly became absorbed into the local culture.

The people worshipped other gods, the rich exploited the poor, and they insisted on having a king like other nations, kings who were incompetent, violent and corrupt.

Meanwhile, their religious leaders became legalists who strangled people with the minutia of the law, largely forgetting its heart and purpose, which Moses had given earlier in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Deuteronomy 6:4 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Leviticus 19:18 and love your neighbor as yourself.

But ours is a God of second chances.

Even though the people’s unfaithfulness led to their downfall, the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, and their forced exile to Babylon, God never gave up on them.

No matter how much you or I may have messed up – and we have – God never gives up on us, either.

It’s not that you earn God’s love by being good.

God loves you just as you are, but too much to leave you that way.

On the eve of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, Jeremiah used imagery of the potter and clay to describe how God works with us.

Jeremiah 18:3-4, 11. So, I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel. Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly, as sometimes happens when you are working with clay, the potter would simply start over and use the same clay to make another pot.… Turn back from your doomed way of life. Straighten out your lives.

Jeremiah spoke these words in a last-ditch effort to convince the people and the power elite to change their ways, to let go of idolatry, to stop exploiting the poor and vulnerable, to return to God’s way before it was too late.

And God will be our partner in helping us change – God and we are the co-creators of our lives.

One time, Rev. Jim Howell invited a potter into his worship service to work her potter’s wheel as he preached on this passage.

Sitting at her spinning wheel, she used potters’ words to describe what she was doing.

She said, “Clay gets spoiled, so the potter reworks it.

“If it’s wonky, the potter has to redeem it, and the outside of the pot – what we see – must conform to the inside or it will crack.”

“Keeping the clay centered, the potter shapes, reshapes, begins again, and refines.

“The clay has its own life and nature that potter must work with;  it takes time, patience, and practice because you can’t force the clay.”

There was something else that grabbed me in her comments.

She said, “Hard clay is a special challenge because it resists.”

If the clay remains hard and resisting, it will crack and fracture when baked.

Some of us got through our childhood by numbing ourselves or   by being super-alert to danger, or by being the toughest kid on the block.

We became hard.

Some of us experienced trauma as an adult and sought safety by hardening ourselves.

That left many of us equating vulnerability with weakness, or fearing the vulnerability would unleash a flood of emotions that would drown us.

But God, like the potter, needs our openness, our vulnerability,  to the Holy Spirit in order to mold us into strong, resilient people.

To trust God begins with confessing our flaws, our weaknesses,  our fears, with letting go of our stiff-neck sovereign self and allowing God to work within us that through us.

The history of Israel is our history, too.

God sets before us life and death, blessings and curses.

Choosing life is leaning in to the life God has given us and opening our heart to God’s healing ways.