Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Help of God’s Grace” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
February 16, 2020
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the collect for today we prayed something that makes some people very uncomfortable.  We asked God to accept our prayers because “through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without you”, and so we prayed, “Give us the help of your grace” (The Book of Common Prayer 216).  Do you agree with this?  Do you think it is true that you can do nothing good without the help of God’s grace?  As a young man many moons ago I probably would have given this collect little notice, perhaps even dismissed it altogether.  But the older I get, the more aware I become of the many weaknesses in my life (and I have plenty of those), and the longer I serve in parish ministry, the more I see the truth in this collect.  All of us indeed need the help of God’s grace.

It has been said that life is a series of choices.  Some of these choices may not be so significant.  Which clergy shirt should I wear today—the black one or the other black one?  Which cereal should I have this morning—Honey Bunches of Oats or Fruit Loops?  Where should we spend the holidays this year?  Which Netflix or Hulu series should we watch next?  Which book on my nightstand should I read tonight?  Every morning I have to choose which Little Debbie snack cake to have with my coffee—Swiss Rolls or Strawberry Shortcake or Boston Crème Rolls?

Other choices carry more weight.  Where should I go to college, and once I’m there, what would be the best major for my skill set (or lack thereof)?  Should I buy a new SUV that will have a large monthly payment or should I save money and buy an older used sedan instead?  Should we buy a house now or wait until the housing market shifts?  Should I apply for that promotion or play it safe?

And then there are choices that really impact your life.  Should I marry this person?  Should I change to a new job in a new city?  Should I forgive that person or continue to nurse my grudge toward them?  Should I go to the gym and drink lots of water or binge watch TV and drink a case of soda?  Or perhaps somehow in your life you are asking what The Clash sang, “Should I stay or should I go?”

A number of years ago I read a fascinating online article in The New York Times about how our cultural obsession with having a myriad of choices for every detail of our lives can actually be detrimental.  Listen to this:

Research shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide.  There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better…Seeking the perfect choice, even in big decisions like colleges, is a recipe for misery…It is not clear that more choice gives you more freedom.  It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices (February 26, 2010).

Today’s Old Testament passage is from the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy.  The word Deuteronomy means “repeating the law” and the book does just that, repeating and summarizing much of the law previously given Moses by God for Israel and set forth earlier in the Pentateuch.  Moses is nearing the end of his life and is addressing the Israelites about their imminent crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Moses set before Israel a very important choice, the most important choice of their lives:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If 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.  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I 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 (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

Then Moses continues with a heartfelt exhortation:

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, loving 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 (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

This is a very black and white passage about either choosing “life and prosperity” or “death and adversity.”  Loving and obeying God leads to life and prosperity; worshipping other gods leads to death and adversity.  So again, Moses emphasizes, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  So as you read further in the Old Testament, what happened with Israel?  Did they consistently choose life or not?  Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no—but more often than not, no.

Over and over again Israel chose worshipping other gods over and above loving and obeying God, and in so doing, chose death and adversity over life and prosperity.  This went on for centuries, and ultimately ended with the Northern Kingdom of Israel being invaded and sacked by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and later the Southern Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem, being invaded and sacked by the Babylonians in 597 B.C.  Ultimately Israel chose death and adversity.

Did you catch what Moses said was the turning point, the hinge between choosing life and prosperity or death and adversity?  The heart: “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.”  When it came to Israel heeding his exhortation to choose life and prosperity, Moses emphasized that it would always go back to what was happening in their heart.  Moses knew that the Israelites would follow their heart and so he warned them, “If your heart turns away…”

And what was true for Israel is true for you and me.  We too will often follow our heart, which is why we read in scripture, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).  But it is much more complicated than that, and there is much larger dynamic at play here, because the human heart, including your heart and mine, cannot always be trusted—as the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Lest you think this is only an Old Testament concept, Jesus similarly preached, “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

The leading figure of the English Reformation was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), and Cranmer knew that human beings will follow their heart above all else.  This is why as the leading Cranmer scholar in the world, Ashley Null, said in an interview with the Anglican Church League:

According to Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  The mind doesn’t direct the will.  The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself in turn is captive to what the heart wants.

This is why during Lent when we pray the Decalogue and ask God to help us obey each of the Ten Commandments, we repeat again and again, “Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep this law” (BCP 318).  In other words, because when we are faced with the same choice Moses set before Israel, the choice between life and prosperity and death and adversity, and most often we follow our devious and evil hearts that often turn away from God, we need help from God.  We need God to “have mercy on us and incline our hearts to keep this law.”

This goes straight back to the collect for today.  When it comes to choosing life and prosperity we need God to “mercifully accept our prayers” because “through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing.”  And what do we ask for from God to help us choose life and prosperity?  Grace—“Give us the help of your grace.”  It starts with being honest about our devious and evil hearts and ends with humbly asking God for the help of his grace.

Last week at the Oscars Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of the tragic main character in Joker.  Listen to what he said in his honest and vulnerable acceptance speech:

I’m full of so much gratitude right now, and I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees or anyone in this room, because we share the same love, the love of film and this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life…I’ve been a scoundrel in my life.  I’ve been selfish.  I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I’m grateful to so many of you in this room who have given me a second chance.  And I think that’s where we’re at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other towards redemption.

The second chance for which Joaquin Phoenix thanked his Hollywood peers mirrors the second chance God gives all of us who can also be selfish and cruel scoundrels—because we too have so often followed our devious and evil hearts.

God has not and will not cancel you out for your past mistakes.  Instead, God guides you towards redemption.

And the work this redemption took place on Good Friday, when Jesus chose death and adversity for himself in order to give life and prosperity to you.  Let me repeat that—Jesus chose death and adversity for himself in order to give life and prosperity to you.  Jesus allowed himself to be victimized by the selfish and cruel scoundrels of humanity, victimized by the devious and evil hearts of the very people to whom he chose to give mercy and grace and life.  Heaven and earth bore witness that day of the unconditional love of God for selfish and cruel scoundrels with devious and evil hearts—including you and me.

What Moses exhorted Israel to do—“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him”—is the law.  What Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper—“You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16)—is grace, the help of God’s grace for all those who have made and continue to make wrong choices.

And in the same way the law always goes back to your heart, God’s grace always goes back to his heart, God’s heart toward you that has never been devious or evil, but always honest and good.  God never had to incline his heart to love you because his heart always has been and always will be inclined toward loving you.

What Thomas Cranmer said about your heart—“what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” is also true of God’s heart.  God’s heart loves you and chooses you and justifies you.

And as the reality of that love of God, that mercy of God, that grace of God, eventually seeps into your devious and evil heart it will begin to incline your heart to choose life by choosing Jesus Christ, by choosing Jesus Christ “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), by choosing Jesus Christ the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), by choosing Jesus Christ who came that you “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), by choosing Jesus Christ because he has already chosen you.

And so today may the Holy Spirit give you anew the help of God’s grace.