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When Conviction And Culture Collide

Between Gloom and Glory
First Lesson Sermons For Advent/Christmas/Epiphany
The climax of the entire book of Deuteronomy is found here in the conclusion of Moses' third and final sermon to the people of Israel. In many ways, this message is also the culmination of all that Moses' life has represented. Moses has more to say, but those words, found in the next two chapters of Deuteronomy, have to do with issues of transition and leadership. Here, in this final section of chapter 30, Moses summarizes the covenant that has been established between God and Israel: "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." And where does this life come from? Not surprisingly, according to Moses, it comes by "loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him."

This is a clear call to all who hear these words to make a decision. If you choose to love God, you will have chosen the way of life. Ignore God and your choice will lead toward the opposite of life. The sermon recorded in today's text is similar to other ones in Exodus 19 and Joshua 24 where a decision is also asked for by Moses. The difference here is found in the fact that this text does not report the response of the people. The others report that the people responded positively to the call of a covenant with God, but this text is left open-ended. The words are ancient, but their call for a decision is spoken to us today. In other words, now that you have heard the ancient covenant which God has established with God's people, including you and me, what are you going to do?

A common reaction to a sermon from the Old Testament, especially one that is focused within the law like this, is "Well, all of that is legalistic stuff from an ancient culture and it doesn't have much to say to me today." There is some validity to that opinion. Laws and regulations about animal sacrifice or purification practices are no longer words we need to put into practice in our lives. Many of these laws had a practical application in Moses' and David's day, but they don't say a whole lot to us anymore.

In fact, more often than not, they are used in self-serving ways. Sometimes they are used to promote bad theology. Other times they are just abused. When I was a ten-year-old Jet Cadet for Jesus, my friends and I used to enjoy claiming that our favorite verse was some law that had to do with a bodily function. You can imagine how we would do it. The teacher would ask, "Glen, do you have a favorite verse for today that you would like to share?" I would call out a reference that had to do with "relieving oneself," the class would laugh, I would get the much desired result of everyone's attention, and end up sitting in the hall for the rest of the group time!

Silly, yes, but representative of how many people view the ancient laws of Israel. They are often seen as old codes that have little to do with our lives today. At times, that may be true, but what they represent is the serious and, in many cases brilliant, attempts of those ancient Israelites to figure out how to put the love of God into practice in their own lives. The law was meant to be a servant of the people of God. It was designed to give practical advice concerning how to live every day within the choice of loving God.

I have a friend who spends one week every summer as the director of a Christian camp for high school young people. On the first day of camp, after all of the students have arrived, he opens with the camp covenant. He says, "We have two rules this week for camp: Love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Any questions?" It is usually quiet for a few moments. The teens can't believe that there are only two rules for the camp. Then somebody asks, "Wait a minute, does that mean we can go into the girls' cabins?" My friend looks out at the young people and asks, "Well, what do you all think?" At first there is, loud cry from most of the boys saying, "Yes!" Then, almost surely, one of the young persons will raise a hand and say, "You know, that doesn't seem like a very loving thing to do. I mean, you know, it is an invasion of privacy, or something." Underneath the two major rules my friend then writes "Sub-units of the Covenant" and from there he records the specific restrictions and rules that the young people themselves come up with for their week together. The session can last for an hour or two, but it is a wonderful way of building community and clarifying what matters most to the young community of faith.

This routine does more than list the rules for the camp. It also points out that there is always a need to be sure of what the guidelines are. There is always a desire to keep clear what the rules are for the people of God. The theological call to love God always needs a practical guide to help determine how that is carried out.

This is the place where society and faith may come into conflict.
This is the point where our convictions may collide with the culture. These words of Moses were communicated within a community that was constantly being bombarded from the outside by the siren call of human desire and false need. Moses' sermon is clear: there is no way but God's way. There are no other paths other than God's.

Sometimes the rules are not clear. The world and the cultures we find ourselves in today are a confusing mix of many competing voices and paths. The decision to follow our convictions when our faith runs into the culture is not an easy one. There may be derision. There may be scorn, but it is the way of life.

We are called in the community of faith to live our lives within the boundaries of our convictions. Saint Francis said, "Preach the gospel every day; when necessary, use words." Saint Francis is reminding us that the word love is a verb! If we have chosen to live out the gospel of love as a verb then we must live within the convictions of our choice to follow God. All else that proceeds from our mouths is nothing more than trying to look good while having no intention of making the choice to love and obey God.

During the mid-1980s, back when "greed was good," an investment firm used the slogan, "to know no boundaries." When the stock market collapsed in 1987, they quickly removed that theme from the airwaves and the newspapers. Life has always had boundaries. To ignore this is to invite disaster into our lives.

There is a story that comes out of World War II about B-17 bombers. Whenever the planes would return from bombing raids, they would immediately be brought into maintenance. From experience, the crews had found that the flak shells almost always did some damage, and it was very important to perform a thorough inspection. A part of this inspection was to look for unexploded shells. Once in a while there were shells that imbedded themselves within the plane without exploding.

On one particular day the inspection crew was going through the planes when they came upon not one but five unexploded shells! One non-detonation was a miracle, five was beyond miraculous. The team decided to inspect each bomb carefully and see if they could discover what had happened. Inside of each they found a note written in a foreign language. It was discovered that the notes were written in Czechoslovakian. A translator was found. This was what was written: "These bombs were built in Czechoslovakia. They are not armed. This is all we can do for you now."

They said "no" to the evil machine of Hitler and "yes" to the freedom that unites all people. When we bring the gift of ourselves to the altar of love, God is able to take whatever gifts we have and explode them into marvelous love.1

Sometimes, though, fighting against evil or some malevolent cause is easier than knowing how to live each and every day within a free society. The choices that we are bombarded with from every direction in our culture are, in their own way, just as dangerous as those flak shells from World War II.

The truth is this: it is never easy. Have you ever been in love? After the heart-pounding days fade away, is it easy to feel "in love"? Have you ever had children? There may be nothing more precious than the touch and feel of your child resting in your arms moments after he or she has been brought into this world. But later, when you've gone three days without sleep, it's 3 a.m. and the baby still refuses to quit crying, does it still feel precious? Do you want to record the moment on film?

Love is never easy. The call to love God does not always lead to the smoothest and easiest road. But in the end, it is the only road that leads to the abundant life.


1. Attributed to Richard Wing, source unknown.

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