Choosing Life Over Death [April 15, 2018]

We know that everybody dies, but some people live dead lives.  That’s what Moses wanted to stop them from doing.  So he says, “choose life.”  Say yes to Jesus.  Even when it’s challenging and scary.

Today we start a new series called Thrive.  It’s a word that isn’t in the Bible.  But the idea is there. . . in the scriptures we just read and in many others. One of the most prevalent images of thriving in the Bible is the tree…and this would be a really good place to make a pun, but instead I think I’ll just leaf it alone.

Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 both give us the picture of thriving as a tree planted by a river that sends its roots deep so that it stays connected to that life-giving water, and so it continues to thrive even when there is drought.

That same image of trees by water is found in Genesis in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9-10) and in Revelation 22:2 in the New Eden at the end of time. The standard for thriving in the Bible is that we grow and “let our roots grow down into [Christ]” (Col 2:7) and bear fruit, the signs of the Holy Spirit working in us – fruits like love, joy, peace, patience (Gal 5:22-23).

We are called to thrive – as individual Christians and as a group of Christians.  We are given new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.  “God intends every servant of the Resurrected Christ to be a servant of life.”[1]  We are called to choose life, to choose to thrive, to say yes to God’s work in us and to God’s leading.  This will sound harsh, but sometimes, instead, we choose death by saying no to God, no to Jesus, no to the Holy Spirit.

The key to abundant life is the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, who lives in us through our trust in Jesus. In our reading from John today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.”  The way to abundant thriving life is through saying yes to Jesus. Will we go through the gate? We get to choose.  Life or death?

Choose life.

We choose life by saying yes to Jesus.

We say yes to Jesus in a lot of different ways.  The most obvious is what we say when we profess our faith in our church services in our baptism vows, and in our membership commitments.  We are asked,

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? I do. 

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? I do.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? I will, with God’s help.

We say yes, of course.  And this is an important step.  We say it in our minds. Hopefully we also say it in our hearts.  We are saying yes in a general way.  We aren’t thinking about the specific implications of this.  But the basic yes is still important.  The core question is, “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” If we are choosing life, we say yes to Jesus.

Sometimes it’s not so clear what Jesus is asking, or that it’s Jesus asking.  Or fear gets in the way. Or what God brings us doesn’t look like we were expecting. That’s what happened when the Israelites got to the Promised Land the first time.  None of them had ever been there, but they’d probably been hearing about it from their parents and grandparents.  God had first promised this land to Abraham.  Abraham had lived there, along with his son Isaac, and his grandsons Jacob and Esau.  Jacob’s twelve sons had lived there, too, until they moved to Egypt because of the famine.  Now, 400 years later, their descendants are finally getting to go back there.  God had told Moses what to expect.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. –Exodus 3:7-8

If you look back at the genealogies in Genesis, you’ll see that the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites are all the relatives of the people in Egypt.  They are second, third, fourth, fifth, twentieth cousins, but their family trees are all connected.  Coming into the promised land should be like one great big family reunion, one great big homecoming, and maybe that’s what they were expecting.  But when the scouts go take a look and report back to the rest of the people that have crossed the desert from Egypt, they don’t see the land as being very welcoming.  They say. . .

“the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” –Numbers 13:28

Moving in to the Promised Land looks scary and challenging and Israel feels small and powerless, and although God has promised to help them and to give them this land, they say, “No thanks, God.”  And so, because they refused to trust God and follow his lead, God told them they would die in the desert instead of getting to live in the Promised Land.  And they wandered in the desert for forty more years, until all of that generation of people had died. They, in effect, chose death.  When we get to Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy that we read from today, it is their children who are now getting ready to enter the Promised Land.  Moses is giving them advice and encouragement. Don’t be like your parents.  Trust God and obey God’s commandments.  Do this and you will live.  Don’t do this, and you will die.

We know that everybody dies, but some people live dead lives.  That’s what Moses wanted to stop them from doing.  So he says, “choose life.”  Say yes to Jesus.  Even when it’s challenging and scary.

Saying yes to Jesus can be about big things or smaller things.  Somebody asks us to do something that doesn’t fit with our plan for the day, or our plan for the next week, and so we say no, just because it’s not what we had in mind.  But what if it was Jesus asking?

Choosing life means saying yes to Jesus.  It also means talking to him.

I will talk to God

Praying has become the cliché Christian thing to do. That’s unfortunate because praying is the most important thing to do, the thing that we need to always do more than anything else.  Saying yes to Jesus is a prayer because prayer is talking to Jesus.  Prayer might seem like some big formal thing because when we pray together in church or in meetings we make it a big formal thing, but it’s really not.  It can be just a few words, or even no words.  It’s simply how we keep on connecting to Jesus.  It’s a vital part of choosing life.

Here’s how really important prayer is.  In Jesus advice and encouragement to the disciples on that last night before he was arrested and put to death, he tells the disciples:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit [thrive]; apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5

If we stay connected to the vine, to Jesus, we will thrive.  But if we don’t, we can’t do anything.

  • Remain in me. Stay connected to Jesus.  Choose life.
  • Otherwise you can do nothing.  Death.

Prayer is how we keep on aligning our hearts and minds with God[2] It is helpful to put God in our calendars.  I have a regular God meeting time every morning.  I make it a priority so that it sets the tone for my day.  The danger for me, for all of us, is that we then get to thinking that once that time is over, our time with God is done for the day. Like a job. Clock in. Clock out. 
It’s not.  God goes with us throughout the day. Every step we take, every decision we make can be a little God meeting all day long. We get to choose whether we’re doing things on our own or we’re doing them with God.  We can be like Israel looking at the Promised Land and say, “No thanks, God,” I can’t do that, or we can say, “I’m trusting in God’s strength and God’s power.  What do you think, God?”

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. –Romans 8:6

Jesus came so we could know the fullness of life lived with the continual awareness of God’s presence.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Choosing life means saying yes to Jesus, talking to God, and . . .

Moving with the Holy Spirit [I will move with the Holy Spirit.]

Movement is life.  Let me tell you a funny story . . .

Three friends die in a car accident . . . and attend an orientation in Heaven. An angel asks, “When you are in your casket and your friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?”

The first guy says, “I would like them to say that I was a great doctor and a loving family man.”

The second guy says, “I would like them to say that I was a caring husband and a schoolteacher who made a huge difference to kids.”

The last guy says, “I would like them to say – OMG LOOK, he’s moving!”[3]

Movement is an important sign of life.  One of the big reasons that prayer has become cliché is that we don’t take the next step.  We don’t take action. We don’t move. Movement is an important part of choosing life. We say yes, God, I’m going to talk to you about this, but then we leave it at that. Or we take action but we don’t take a moment to talk to God about it first.  We separate prayer and action, instead of doing them together.

The passage we read from John 10 this morning is part of a longer speech in which Jesus is trying to explain to the Jewish leaders how he himself is the key to breaking through spiritual blindness. He is the good shepherd and the sheep hear his voice and they know his voice so they follow him.  He is the gate, the opening through which we have access to God.  He is the key to knowing God’s presence in our lives.  Through faith in Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence with us 24/7.  It’s the Holy Spirit that is our God translator, helping us to hear and understand God’s word, and God’s guidance. It’s the Holy Spirit moving in us that makes us thrive.

Thrive is a clinical term…a medical diagnosis.  When a child is not growing, or not growing as much as children normally do, the medical diagnosis is “failure to thrive.”[4] When a doctor diagnoses that a child has failure to thrive, one of the treatments is intensified feeding.  Super nutrition.  When a soul isn’t growing, that’s what a soul needs too.  Soul food.  More Jesus.  Jesus is the living water that feeds our souls.  More soul food, more Jesus water, means more prayer, more Bible, more connecting with the things in life that feed our souls . . . saying yes to the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

It might sound like I’m saying that saying yes means that everything is going to go well and be easy.  That has not been my experience.  Saying yes to Jesus was been wonderful in so many ways, but it’s also been hard because Jesus wants us to be better, to be more like him, and that takes some work, work that takes all of our lives.

Over the next six weeks, we’re going to look more deeply into how we thrive as God’s people and how we make sure nothing is getting in the way of thriving. There will be lots of different actions we’ll be called to take over the next six weeks, but today, I’m asking for your commitment to choose life over death – to say yes to Jesus, to keep talking to God, to move with the Holy Spirit.  If you are making this commitment today, would you let us know?

Write in the comments below: I’m choosing life.

Over the course of the next six weeks, keep talking to God about this, keep praying for our church.

  • Pray for me as your pastor, and I’ll be praying for you.
  • Pray for the session and deacons and committees meeting to lead us.
  • Pray for one another as we all seek to thrive in God’s presence together.
  • Pray for God to be present among us, as he already promises to be, and for us to hear and trust and follow in all the ways God is leading us to be his people in this place and time in big and small ways.

This week I’ve been hearing in my head the song by Lionel Ritchie, “Hello.”[5]  It slowly dawned on me that this could be God.  “Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?”

Maybe you know this song enough to know that it’s a guy watching a girl walk by and she doesn’t even notice he’s there, but he would really like to get together with her.  He doesn’t know how to get her to love him, so he starts by saying, “I love you.” I know it’s not an exact parallel, but there are some striking similarities.  God has given us free will, and because of that he respects our right to choose. But he’s right here with us all the time, watching as we try so many ways to find happiness, as we make ourselves so busy doing the things we feel we need to do to find fulfillment.

Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?

God knows the answer to that.  It is him we’re looking for, we just don’t always realize it.

God says, “Hello.  Is it me you’re looking for?

I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You’re all I’ve ever wanted, and my arms are open wide…”

To help us choose, God says, “Let me start by saying, ‘I love you.’”

It is God we’re looking for, and it is God who gives us life.

The key to thriving is the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, that we have by trusting Jesus.

We get to choose.  Life or death?

Jesus says, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of. –John 10:10 Message Version

To help us choose, God says, “Let me start by saying, ‘I love you.’”

Choose life. 

Say yes and thrive.

[1] Nixon, Paul. I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! (Kindle Location 81). Pilgrim Press/United Church Press. Kindle Edition..

[2] http://biblehub.com/greek/4336.htm

[3] http://jokes.cc.com/funny-dark-humor/yjjoz6/what-they-say-at-your-funeral

[4] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/pediatrics/failure_to_thrive_90,P02297

[5] https://www.google.com/search?q=hello+lionel+richie+lyrics&oq=hello&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j35i39j0l4.3517j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

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