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The Voice of the Prophet: Choose Life

July 23, 2006

Deuteronomy 30:11-20

One of the most interesting members of the arachnid family is the spider known as the black widow. I understand that the best way to identify this particular spider is by looking for an hourglass-shaped scarlet marking on the abdomen of females. I should probably say, “Don’t try this at home.” Inspecting a black widow spider is probably not a good idea. Maybe the most definite way to know you have encountered one is if it has bitten you.

When I go out to work in the garden, I slip into a pair of old shoes I keep at the backdoor. Just a few weeks ago, a black widow had apparently slipped into my shoe ahead of me and bit me while I was working in my backyard. I felt something very painful, but Clare would say in my mule-headed way, I continued working. At the end of the day, a blister had formed on the top of my foot, one that was very sore. The second day, the blister had doubled in size, and the pain continued to worsen. I, of course, did not realize a spider been bitten me; but I finally went to my doctor who helps me take care of my feet, something diabetics have to do. He informed me that a black widow had bitten me. I was grateful that a brown recluse had crawled into my shoe because they do a lot more damage. I am much better now. My recovery has gone very well, but I feel sure the spider faired less well than I did. It is probably dead.

In our lives, we have brushes with the boundary between life and death. We heard warnings about several shark attacks in the waters around Pawley’s Island where we were this week and north of there at Litchfield Beach. You never hear about sharks attacking someone on land. You only hear about sharks attacking people who get in the water. It seems clear that people cross a boundary and that sharks do not. People get into the territory the sharks occupy. This situation raises again the issue of the boundary between life and death.

Early in the week, I saw a pro-life bumper sticker that said, “Choose life. Your mother did.” Since then, I have been thinking about the passage of scripture that is our text for today, Deuteronomy 30:11-20, which is part of Moses’ farewell address. Deuteronomy 29-30 contains one of the greatest speeches, sermons, in the entire Bible and certainly in the Old Testament. Perhaps sometime this week, you will take the opportunity to read the entire speech. Deuteronomy, a word that means “the second law,” really recapitulates what God had been doing in the lives of the people of Israel since they came out of bondage in Egypt. This book is composed mainly of three sermons Moses delivered to the people of Israel before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The first two sermons, found in Chapters 1-26, summarize the main events that occurred during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness and provide a series of rules and laws for the Israelites to follow. Today’s sermon focuses on the last magnificent speech Moses delivered, a speech that relates the consequences of the Israelites’ actions – life or death and blesses or curses – depending on their adherence to God’s Word.

Consider some of the phrases that call to mind great speeches you perhaps remember. If I read the quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” some of you will immediately call to mind President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. If I read the quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” you will think of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Maybe one of the most famous speeches in our American history is one President Abraham Lincoln delivered when he commemorated the battlefield at Gettysburg. Though a very short address, it was memorable. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address near the end of the Civil War included the line, “that we have malice toward none and charity for all,” a phrase that certainly had great meaning for the entire country, both the North and South.

Recently the papers of Martin Luther King went on the auction block. Among them are notes of the remarkable speech King made on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Most of us would recognize that speech by one line, “I have a dream.” It is interesting that nowhere in his notes had Martin Luther King written that wonderful phrase that so identified his speech. During his delivery, he started improvising on his dream. That phrase came to him spontaneously.

Like other great speeches, one phrase identifies Moses’ farewell address. We find the significant line in Chapter 30, Verse 19. Moses, speaking on behalf of God, says, “This day, I have set before you life and death, blesses and curses. Therefore, choose life.” That passage remains in our consciousness and in our memory as the phrase for all time from the lips of Moses.

What does it mean to choose life?

“I can’t have this baby,” she said. “It’s too inconvenient. I don’t even love this child’s father. I have my plans, plans for an education and a career. I can’t have this baby.”

She talked with me in my office at another church many years ago. As I spoke with her, I asked, “Why did you come to see me?”

She explained, “I know that you are a pastor, and I wanted to get your take on this.”

I have learned long ago that when people have made up their minds, it is not a very good idea to counter that. The best way to offer spiritual direction is ask them to consider the choice they are making. In issues of life and death, I have found the Golden Rule to be most defining. I told her, “The way to make this decision is to use the Golden Rule. Treat this child the way you would like to be treated if you were in this baby’s situation.”

My response angered her. She got up and left my office.

This morning, sixty people died in Baghdad from two separate suicide bombings. Sixty more lives, sixty souls, were lost. All week long, we have seen the buildup of forces on the border between Israel and Lebanon. We have seen attack and counterattack between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. This morning, Hezbollah attacked the city of Haifa and killed two more people there. The Israelis countered with an attack on Sidon. We have no accounting yet of the people killed there. We have become so accustomed to hearing about the tragedies of war that we tune out much of what we hear. We watch these stories on the news and become somewhat numb, complacent about these life-and-death issues. Some of us probably care more about the winner of the British Open Golf Tournament than we do about the killing and destruction that occurs in the wars across this world.

God’s Word says, “I have set before you this day, life and death, blesses and curses. Therefore, choose life.” We can only imagine all of the ethical issues this great passage of scripture touches. So many issues have their roots in this kind of decision-making. Certainly, this passage touches the issue of abortion, pro-life or pro-choice. We think about the issues of war and peace, capital punishment, and suicide. I do not know how many times I have turned to this passage with people who were despairing of life, pondering taking their own life, wishing they could die. “I have set before you life and death, blesses and curses. Therefore choose life.” God’s Word prefaces this command with the passage that states in Verse 19 that He will “call heaven and earth to witness against us.” We do have a choice to make in all of these issues.

What did Moses have in mind with these words? Was he considering the issue of abortion? Was he thinking about capital punishment or war and peace? Was he thinking about the possibility of suicide? Moses had in mind a spiritual decision much deeper than these ethical decisions, a decision expressed clearly in Verse 20. He says, “Choose life.” Then he tells us that this choice means to love the Lord your God. You hear an echo here of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Loving God is the first part of choosing life.

Moses goes on to add in this amazing sermon that we are to listen to God’s voice. In the Navy, the call to pay attention is, “Now hear this! Now hear this!” God’s Word is calling you to attention, calling you to listen to what He is saying to you. The third part of choosing life is to be obedient. Elsewhere in this passage, Moses says being obedient means obeying the laws, the decrees, the admonitions of God. It means doing things God’s way and not our own. The decision to choose life is, most of all, a spiritual decision to invest all that you have and all that you are in the things of God. The Apostle Paul reiterates this idea by stating that if you follow God in this way, if you follow Jesus Christ, you shall have life that is life indeed. Moses goes on to say that if we choose life, it will be a blessing, not only to us, but also to our children. We must all seek that life with Christ.

This has been an interesting week for our family. On Friday of last week, Frances Kanott, who was forty-four years old, died from cancer that had spread throughout her body. In the last days, this disease seemed to affect her lungs more than any other organ. Her lungs were filled with fluid, and every breath was labored. Toward the end, she had to sit up in order to breathe. Frances knew that she was dying. The week before we left for the beach, I went into her room and prayed with her. Then she prayed for me. I could not quite understand everything she said, as she whispered her prayer. I do know she prayed for this church, for me. She also prayed for all members of her family by name.

Frances was a remarkable woman. She married young but completed her high school degree following her marriage. After her three children had a little age on them, she returned to school and completed an undergraduate degree in two and a half years at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. In 1991, Frances and Denny made the decision to move to Spartanburg in order to provide the best education they could for their son James, who is deaf. They established residence in South Carolina so that James could attend the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. For nine years, Dennie commuted to West Virginia and continued working his job in the coalmine. During that time, the family became a part of the Morningside congregation. We have come to know them. We have come to love them. Two of Frances’ three grandchildren were dedicated here. James was baptized here. Denise and Dustin were married here. Their family has been very much a part of our congregation. If anyone chose life, it was Frances Kanott. She was a woman of deep faith who lived her life to the fullest. Her family made a very difficult decision not to rely on any heroic measures to prolong her life. She died rather peacefully. Frances now has life that is far more joyous, a life without pain and suffering. She is able to breathe the fresh air of heaven because her family chose life. Their decision was an act of faith.

Clare and I left here on Saturday to travel to Pawley’s Island. I preached in the chapel there Sunday morning and then returned that afternoon. We had the funeral service for Frances here in our Sanctuary on Monday and then drove to Cherokee, North Carolina, for the committal service at a small family cemetery. Gathered with people who dearly loved Frances, we laid her body to rest, commending her spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ. I reminded her family of a great family reunion, a time they would all be together – not here, but some day – in heaven. Clare and I left Cherokee and decided to drive back that afternoon to Pawley’s Island, where our children were. We got back to the beach about midnight Monday and enjoyed the week with our family.

On Friday morning, we received word that Tony Baker, a dear soul who was sixty-three years of age, had died. He had fought a valiant battle with viral hepatitis. Tony also knew he was dying. Before his death, he said to me and to every staff member at Morningside, “I am ready.” When I talked with his wife, Marcie, on the telephone Friday, she said, “Dr. Neely, you know that Tony was ready.” He was ready. Tony, now, is in heaven. He had made the choice of life, life beyond this life, life that is life indeed.

A black widow spider bite is insignificant when it comes to lung cancer or viral hepatitis; but every time we have an encounter with the things in this world that threaten life, we are reminded that this choice is ever before us: Choose life that you and your children may live.

South Carolina has three varieties of the whelk shell: a beautiful and delicate channeled whelk, a very tough knobbed whelk, and then a rare lightning whelk, which is a left-handed version of the knobbed whelk. Last Sunday morning before I preached at Pawley’s Island Chapel, I was walking on the beach about 6:30 A.M. I found a lightning whelk at low tide. I picked it up and marveled at its beauty. Then out came a rather ugly black mollusk, groping around in the air, looking for a foothold. I have been a shell collector for a long time, and that one would have been a choice specimen. I thought about this passage and then thumped him on the operculum. He retreated into his shell, and I threw him as far as I could out into the Atlantic Ocean. It was a simple act, but it was a way for me to choose life.

This week, Clare and I will drive to Nashville, Tennessee, so that I may perform the wedding for our daughter-in-law June. Some of you know that June was married to Erik, who died five-and-a-half years ago. June has met a great young man, Ian. He called me the day before Valentine’s Day and asked me if he could marry June. How weird is that! I said, “Ian, calling the father of your intended wife’s deceased husband has to be weird.” He answered, “Papa, Kirk, I just could not imagine asking June to marry me without getting your blessing.” Of course, Clare and I gave him our unqualified blessing. About three days later, Ian and June called and asked if I would do their wedding ceremony. How weird is that! Clare and I will stand there with our family and watch June and Ian join in marriage.

God is in the business of taking things that are broken – including broken hearts – and redeeming them. God Himself chooses life. He repeatedly gives us the choice. Whether it is simply throwing a whelk back in the ocean or performing a wedding for the widow of your deceased son, He gives us the choice repeatedly. Choose life.

“I don’t have time to have this baby,” she said, “It’s too inconvenient. I don’t even love this child’s father. I am going to have an abortion and get on with my life.” I reminded her of the Golden Rule, and she left my office angry.

About twelve months later, she came back to see me. In her arms, she carried her baby. She said, “I thought about what you said, and I decided that I could not do anything else but give this child life. I do not have a church. I do not have a pastor, but I wonder if you would dedicate my baby.” Together, we walked to the Sanctuary. I took that little child in my arms, and I prayed a prayer of blessing and dedication. I was so grateful that the young mother had chosen life.

Moses said to the people of Israel, “God sets before you this choice, blesses and curses, life and death. Choose life that you and your descendents may live.” The way you make that choice above all else is to choose the source of life, Jesus Christ. Acknowledge him as your Lord and Savior. Give your life to him. If you have never made that decision, I invite you to do so. This church wants to be your church family. Maybe you are already a Christian, but you know God has led you to this place to unite with this church. We would welcome that decision or any other decision the Lord has laid on your heart. We are going to sing our hymn of invitation, “The Savior Is Waiting.” As we stand together and sing, we invite you to respond.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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