“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…” Deuteronomy 30: 19-20
26 years ago, in 1996, when most of you were still in your early twenties (you wish!) a film came out called Trainspotting. It was directed by Danny Boyle and starred Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and many others looking very much younger than they do today. If you’ve not seen it, it definitely wasn’t about trains or the spotting of them! Instead, it followed a group of heroin addicts in an economically depressed part of Edinburgh. Doesn’t sound very promising, does it? But it’s regularly voted amongst the top British films of all time.
In a classic scene, one of the characters called Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, comes up with this monologue (which I’ve edited to take out the swearing): “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments… Choose your friends… Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fabrics. …Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth… Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
As you can probably tell, it was having a go at a conventional lifestyle and it wasn’t a film that you’d recommend to the local Youth Group. But it’s been parodied ever since. You may remember that George Osbourne did a variation on it in the 2014 Conservative Party Conference, much to the annoyance of Irvine Welsh who wrote the original book. “Choose prosperity. Choose investment. Choose David Cameron. Choose the Conservatives,” said Osbourne. Where are they now?..
In 2017, Trainspotting 2 came out, with the characters 20 years older. Renton had moved on and his speech this time became: “Choose life, Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself. Choose your future. Choose reality TV… Choose a… two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen. And then… take a deep breath. You’re an addict, so be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.”
Being good Christian folk I’m sure we’re all pleased that Renton turned his life round. But I don’t suppose that Trainspotting 2 ended up as a poster on the walls of as many student flats as the first one did!
A stark choice
But back to Moses and the original ‘Choose Life’ monologue from which this was all shamelessly, if unwittingly, pinched. It’s at the end of his extended sermon given on the edge of the Promised Land. Moses gives the children of Israel a stark choice. Death or life. You choose.
It may seem harsh, but Moses is speaking to a people already redeemed by God (Deuteronomy 7: 7-8). They are already in relationship. Already given their liberty from Egypt. He’s brought them to the edge of what he promised. And he’s telling them now that how they choose to live and how they choose to behave has its consequences.
The Commandments weren’t to be seen as a set of constraining rules. Not a list of do’s and don’ts. Not a legal trap. They set out the way to freedom and life. Body and mind, heart and soul. Follow these for a life of joy and hope and love with both God and neighbour.
Fire and water
If you have a Bible with an Apocrypha in it, you’ll find the Book of Sirach. It’s a book of Wisdom along with Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. It contains these verses: ‘If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given’ (Sirach 15: 15-20)
Like Renton, it suggests that we each have the ability to choose between good and evil. But those individual choices can have wider implications.
Salvation in the Hebrew Scripture is communal rather than individual. We’re in this together. Salvation means freedom from violence and bondage and hunger and homelessness. Decisions that you make affect others who are around you now and those in generations to come. It’s a work in progress. Those decisions define the spirit and cohesion of the community. Put another way, our choices, our behaviours, affect how we are judged as a church, as a group of believers.
A daily choice
Thank God that Moses repeatedly uses the word ‘today’ in our passage from Deuteronomy. Because every day we have a choice. Each time we hear the word of God we can choose how to respond. That should give us hope. If we chose wrong yesterday, then we can choose right today.
And it is achievable. It’s not an impossible task. “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” says Moses earlier in the chapter (30:11). Seems all very sensible, doesn’t it? So, why on earth would we do anything else?
If you remember that, for much of the 40 years leading up to this, the Israelites had been wandering in the desert with many of them moaning and groaning about leaving Egypt. “It wasn’t so bad, was it? We had homes and jobs. And think about all the food we had in the old country (Numbers 11:5 and 20:5). OK, there was slavery and oppression and Pharaoh wanted to see us all dead… But it wasn’t so bad!”
They’re no different to us. We all have selective memories. Sometimes we settle for the familiar, even if it’s second best, when we’re on the verge of a promised land. Perhaps we’re overwhelmed with choice and information and it feels safer to stay not-knowing. There’s risk and uncertainty – after all there could be giants out there in the promised land. So, let’s stay in the unpromised land. We have to step-out and trust God if we’re going to cross that border.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus ups the ante. He’s every bit as uncompromising as Moses and for good reason. Those who choose to follow him must carefully consider the cost of discipleship. He leaves us in no doubt that we should make a break with the past and share what we have. Grace is free but it’s not cheap, as someone once said.
Our faith isn’t just individual. It’s collective too. If we follow the command to love God and love one another then we build up the whole. We each chose to be here this morning – but for most that choice began some time ago because we are part of a communion that has been meeting this way in the past and will meet this way in the future. We choose not just for ourselves but in response to the God who calls us here to be with his people and later round his table. Soon we’ll have to choose what kind of Vicar we want to take us into the next stage of our future.
So, what do you choose? Choose life, choose Jesus? Yes, I hope so. But what does that look like for you? With apologies again to Irvine Welsh, what would your version be? “Choose Charles Wesley and Graham Kendrick. Choose fairly traded coffee. Choose to love your neighbour – both nearby and far away. Choose to get involved and to give generously. Choose to pray a bit more and read your Bible a bit more. Choose a church where people can take a risk and explore new ministries. Choose a worshipping community of people who care for each other – but could always care a little bit more… Choose a church in new community with others in the town. Choose to make a difference. Choose St John with St Mark’s.” Amen