S. Pentecost 13.19 “The Finest Hour” Luke 14:25-35
Famous lines, much quoted in our Old Testament and Gospel lessons today: Moses’ “I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you—I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life…” And Jesus’ “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish…”
Hard core Lutherans get all jumpy and excited about the apparent “decision theology” in Moses’ address. “How can Moses tell them to choose life! when free choice is not in our power as sinful humans!?” Well, he doesn’t say that in Hebrew. Moses doesn’t say “choose life” as if it’s our choice; it’s a simple Hebrew perfect more like: “you shall choose life” kind of despite themselves. Moses has hung out with these Israelites 40 years. He knows them—how enslaved by sin and death they are. It should only have been a year they wandered. It’s because they doubted and complained and said God can’t displace those giants in the land of Canaan—insisting He’d brought them out of Egypt only to kill them, that God said “Fine! You can wander in the desert 40 years until all of you over the age of 20 who complained and doubted are destroyed as you’ve insisted. And I will bring your children in and show them My glory and power and they will like it.”(!)
This is one place in the Bible where we know a fun little actuarial stat: besides Moses, Caleb, and Joshua there was no one in that crowd of 600,000 that day hearing Moses who were over 59 years of age. How do we know? Well, after they took the first census right out of Egypt, by household, they determined who was over 20; God said because these adults rebelled against Him therefore none of those over 20 would see the promised land. They would all die in the wilderness as they insisted upon doing. They took another census at the end of Numbers, right before Moses started this long speech which is the book of Deuteronomy (the first filibuster—because God said after Moses said his farewells he had to go up on Mt. Nebo and die!). Census shows: there were just over 600,000 Israelites, still; but none of the ones who were over 20 in that first census were still alive except Moses (who doesn’t really count because he only has a few hours of lifespan left anyway) Caleb and Joshua—because they had a different Spirit.
So Moses knows that, left to their own devices, the Israelites always choose death. It’s not like it’s a free choice—they don’t want to die. But they are more afraid of living God’s Way, entering His Kingdom than they are of death, so by rejecting God as Lord they end up making an unwitting and unwise choice of death over life. And every single one of the adults, 40 years before, made that choice. And Moses knows these new Israelites are very much their fathers’ and mothers’ children. So the gist of Moses’ “life choice” is not how we usually think of it, maybe. It’s not: “consider the pros and cons and make good choices, kids!” No, it’s more like “if your heart turns away so that you worship other gods, which I know you are inclined to do, I announce to you today that you will surely perish. So: stay with the old pg. 15 liturgy where the good way is, walk the Way God is leading you despite the fears and dangers—because this is life; so, opt out of death, for once, unlike your parents!
In the same way, when Jesus tells us to “count the cost” of being His disciple, it’s not like Bonhoeffer and others misread. It’s not like we can sit down and freely, rationally, survey the pros and cons of Xnity and make a rational decision—“make good choices!”. No. Our hearts and minds are a whirl, a constantly collapsing mess of contradictory inclinations that lead us unerringly to ruin and disaster. As St. Augustine wisely said “What am I but a guide to my own destruction?” That’s the lot we inherited from our parents Adam and Eve—an innate tendency to choose disaster as our god, to eat the apple—to think that only by following our own hearts can we truly live free.
No, neither Moses nor Jesus are telling us (like Disney princesses!) to look inside, to follow our hearts, to just do you…! Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s not “look how reasonable, safe, and sensible Xnity is and choose it!” It’s actually the other way around.
I’ve been reading a charming book by John Lukacs (a noted historian who passed away last May) called “The Duel” which looks at the struggle between Churchill and Hitler in the summer of 1940 for the survival of Britain.
Lukacs dissents from most of the popular views of Hitler and especially Churchill. He sees how uncertain Churchill actually was about the prospects of war in May 1940 when he became prime minister in England’s darkest hour. He sees that for all his wisdom and brilliance, Churchill was wrong about a lot of important things and made some serious miscalculations. Churchill incarnated the great line of Pascal that “Often, we understand things that we do not know”.
And what Churchill understood was not that the pros of being independent and fighting Hitler were greater, rationally speaking, and more in the national interest, than the cons (because they weren’t!). What he understood at a deep, intuitive level was that submitting to Hitler’s domination simply cost more than he could afford as Prime Minister of Britain. He understood that “nations that meekly surrender to tyrants always fail, but those who go down fighting sometimes rise from the dead.”
Churchill was not counting the cost of waging a victorious campaign against Hitler’s Nazis. He was counting the cost of becoming a Nazi, of giving in, of being dominated by evil and he understood: it would be better to die—for Britain and Western Civilization to fall—to go out in a blaze of glory than to capitulate. Because accommodation—capitulation to evil—is a death from which there is no resurrection. Churchill understood there was no choice, really. He had to lead Britain in fighting to the end, because: in that fight, win or lose(!), would be their “finest hour.”
And this is the point Jesus is making in our Gospel. If you would come after Jesus, and be His disciple, be a Xn, don’t kid yourself: it will cost you everything—goods, fame, child, wife, even life itself. [Yoda] Have to go these will—if a Xn you would truly be! Love for Christ produces relative hate for father, mother, wife, children, for our own life also in this sinful world such that the Cross looks like an escape hatch, not the end of everything. Churchill understood in 1940: Britain could not win this war against Hitler. Unless the United States and the Soviet Union would somehow enter the war (which neither were inclined to do in the summer of 1940!) Britain would surely lose. But some defeats are better than victories. So… Churchill fought.
So many people suggest we should consider whether being a Xn is not, on balance, more pro than con, and sign on. Jesus says, “Uhm… no.” No, consider whether life under the devil costs more than you have to spend and you’ll understand: hanging with Jesus on the cross isn’t a choice: it’s the Way, the Truth, the Life!
“A good death is a treasure none is too poor to buy.” No better death than Jesus’ on the Cross. Here’s the Universe’s costliest Treasure! All who die with Jesus will rise, at Last. It’s offered pricelessly to you, to me, in Gospel Word and Sacrament, now: “a Treasure safe on high” none can afford to pass on—where Peace surpassing understanding guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.