The dean of a university was at a faculty meeting when a professor from the antiquities department handed him an old brass lamp they had just acquired. The dean rubbed a smudge from it, and as he did, a genie appeared. “I’m the genie from the lamp,” he said, “and I’m here on a special assignment, Dean. Your unselfish service has won you a reward. You have a choice – you can have either unthinkable wealth, infinite wisdom, or unsurpassed beauty.” Without hesitating, the dean selected wisdom. "It is done!" the genie said, and then he disappeared into a cloud of smoke and back into the lamp. All of the other members of the faculty stared at the dean with amazement. Finally one of them whispered, "Now that you have infinite wisdom, Dean, say something." The dean looked them and said, "I should have taken the money."
Life’s full of interesting choices, isn’t it? You already made several today. Without thinking about it, you exercised one of the greatest God-given qualities you and I have as human beings.
I want us to look at 2 stories about choosing and how having a choice fits into our lives now and forever. Look for yourself in each of these; you’re there.
One is the instruction from God given to the nation of Israel right before they entered the Promised Land. It’s about 1406 B.C., during what archaeologists call the Late Bronze Age. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, Israel is getting ready to cross the Jordan River and take over the land God had promised their forefathers. They were at a literal crossroads in their history, and the whole book we call Deuteronomy is about getting them ready to go into this new setting. It’s a lot like what we do as a new year begins – looking backward at where we’ve been, and looking forward to what we want to accomplish as a new era is upon us. So, it makes good sense for us to take a look at it today.
Israel has been living in tents, not cities. Settling in, planting fields and vineyards, setting down roots, these were all going to be new things to this generation that grew up roaming the desert. Suddenly, they were going to have peace and stability and prosperity. God knows that tough times are tough, but to remain faithful in successful times can be even tougher. So, through Moses, He gave them a reminder. They were to set up large stones on Mt. Ebal, coat them with plaster, and write the Law on them as reminders to the people. Then, as the people crossed the Jordan, they were to form two squads…
When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
Picture a football game, and the crowd on one side yells, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit! How ‘bout you?”
The priests were to call out the blessings, and the curses, and the people were to all shout “Amen!” after each one.
"Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol--a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands--and sets it up in secret." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!" "Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"
So, from that day forward, they would remember how God had them break into 2 groups and do this to illustrate the way they could choose either to be blessed or cursed by Him. Every time they looked up and saw Mt. Ebal, they’d remember the copy of the Law, written on stones up there; they’d remember the day they all called out the blessings and the curses if they obeyed or chose not to. 2 mountains. 2 different directions they could go. Their choice.
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse-- the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. When the LORD your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses. As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, west of the road...
On top of that, God also told them they would mess up, and that they’d be carried off by their enemies, but that, once again, if they’d obey His Law, He’d bring them back and bless them. Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim became symbols of the fact that Israel had a choice to make as they entered the Promised Land. Obedience, or disobedience. Blessing, or curse.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
OK, you’re asking, where are you in this story. First of all, God has made similar promises to us about our relationship with Him. Do what He says, follow His decrees, and live. And you, like me, even have a 2nd chance. We’ll mess up. God knows that, but He promises a 2nd time that He’ll restore Israel if they’ll just turn back to Him. That’s a lot like the offer of grace that God gives to each us in Jesus – a 2nd chance. And just like Israel, we have this choice to make – life or death; spiritual prosperity, or destruction; blessing or curse. And God tells us: choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.
I know this sounds like basic stuff, but for some reason, and God knows it, we have to be reminded of it now and then. We have a choice. God places it in front of every one of us.
There’s another story from Scripture that talks about our choice, and it comes to us in the form of a parable that Jesus told in
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ’Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ’The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ’Friend,’ he asked, ’how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ’Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen."
This is a parable – a story with an important truth embedded into it. And once again, we’re looking at teaching about peoples’ choices. God, Who is represented by the king in this story, is giving people an opportunity to enjoy His kindness. They’ve been invited to a wedding feast, and now the time to come to it has arrived, so the 2nd call goes out. Just like Israel chose to turn their backs on God, these people choose to disregard God’s invitation. So, there’s a 2nd chance – this time to include people who weren’t even invited the first time. And once again, there’s still another choice to be made that will lead to either happiness or misery, because there’s at least one guest who chooses to insult the king by refusing to wear the wedding clothes that were provided. His choice gets him kicked out.
Now, I want us to briefly take both of these stories – this parable, and the story of Deuteronomy – and see what they help us understand about our choices.
I. The Reality of Your Choice (For You)
In the beginning, God created all that is, including man. He didn’t have to. It was His own choice. The way He established it all was up to Him too. No one told God what things should look like or how they should work. And when He made man in His own image, that was His choice too. Somewhere, as He put it all together, He gave us something precious. We call it volition, or free will – it’s the ability to choose. God placed choices in front of us.
Just like Israel had a choice, just like the guests in the parable had a choice, we have a choice.
Drs. Minirth & Meyer in their book Happiness Is a Choice - wrote, "As psychiatrists, we cringe whenever Christian patients use the words, `I can’t’ and `I’ve tried.’ Any good psychiatrist knows that `I can’t’ & `I’ve tried’ are merely lame excuses. We insist that our patients stop saying `can’t’ and say `won’t’ instead." "They need to see what they are really doing, so we make them face up to it by saying, `I just won’t get along with my wife.’ `My husband & I won’t communicate.’ `I won’t discipline my kids the way I should.’ `I won’t find time to pray.’ `I won’t stop gossiping.’ When they change their "can’ts" to "won’ts" they stop avoiding the truth & start facing reality."
We’re faced daily with the lies that it doesn’t matter or that we really don’t have a choice – that no matter what we do, there isn’t a right and a wrong to life.
“I have to lie. If I don’t, I’ll ruin a friendship.”
“Everyone cheats on the test. Besides, I have to pass this class!”
“I’d like to be a better person, but I just wasn’t brought up that way.”
“I’d give up the habit, but I just can’t control it.”
Too many people are running around without an appreciation for the fact that God has given them the ability to choose to do what’s right.
Quote - Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, Man’s Search for Meaning - We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms--to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
I’m reading these stories today and trying to listen to what God is saying. One of the points I walk away with is that God gives people a choice.
Cain was angry at his brother Abel. So God told him,
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.
Cain had a choice. God encouraged him to do what was right. His job was to make the right choice.
That’s us. You can do what’s right. You have a choice. Another aspect of our ability to choose is:
II. The Value of Your Choice
This whole idea of us being able to make choices started with God. Yeah, God was pro-choice long before the pro-abortion people tried to adopt that phrase.
Have you ever wondered why? Why He even gives us a choice?
Why did God have there be Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim?
Why a 2nd invitation to the wedding feast? Why wedding clothes?
Why, in Eden, did God even place the trees that were off limits?
Why, place a choice in front of us?
He didn’t have to. He didn’t have to set life up that way. He could have just as easily made us creatures that did what He wanted 100% of the time. If there’s no wrong option, there’s no wrong choice. Eve wouldn’t have eaten from the tree if it hadn’t even been there. Cain wouldn’t have murdered his brother if he couldn’t have. Instead, God gives us a choice.
Now, that makes our lives a little more complicated for us. It would be easier, in many ways, if all of our choices were just made for us. In fact, there may even be some resentment seated around here this morning because God has made us the way we are. Just the fact that other people choose to drive recklessly makes me have to pay for insurance. I have to pay higher prices at WalMart because of what people steal. My life is much more complicated because of people around me who make wrong choices. So is yours.
Let me tell you, in the ministry, there are plenty of times I wish I could step inside of peoples’ heads and think for them and make decisions for them. As a parent, there are plenty of times I wish I could just think for my children rather than leave choices up to them. But God hasn’t made us that way. That’s not how He chose to make us. It costs us. Does that bother you?
Quote - C.S. Lewis (in a letter) - Is it not a frightening truth that the free will of a bad man can resist the will of God? For He has, after a fashion, restricted His own Omnipotence by the very fact of creating free creatures; and we read that the Lord was not able to do miracles in some place because people’s faith was wanting. (Mt 13:58)
Think for a moment how much it cost God to make us this way. Given the chance to make wrong choices, we do. And with us making wrong choices, the only way for us to be in a restored relationship with God is by the death of His son on the cross. Our free will is what made the cross necessary. That’s how much it cost God.
Why do it? Why give us a choice? I can’t say I know for sure why God values that so much.
I’m only sure that without us having a choice – without the tree in the garden of Eden, without 2 mountains across the Jordan, without the ability to not show up for the wedding feast - no one would obey God by choice. Our choice to obey Him is somehow valuable to God – valuable enough that He’s willing to send Jesus to earth to die as a sacrifice in the place of undeserving, disobedient humans.
One last aspect our ability to choose is…
III. The Impact of Your Choice
The ability to choose is not only valuable, it’s also full of power. By our choices we set the course for our whole lives, whether good or bad. I wonder how much more seriously we would take some of our choices if we could see how they’re going to affect the futures of ourselves and the people around us.
In the parable that Jesus told, those who spurned the King’s invitation were dealt with harshly. Their choices revisited them. We need to give some thought to the way our choices today are going to affect our lives tomorrow; and not only tomorrow, but forever.
Your choice to smile at someone today may affect that person’s whole day. Your choice to stop and converse with someone, to offer a word of encouragement, could change the entire course of someone’s attitude. Your decision to finally share your faith with your friend this week could change that person’s forever. It works negatively too. Your decision not to talk with someone who needed to hear from you this morning could feed resentment in that person. Your choice to mess around during the message today could be the thing that prevents someone from taking his need for Jesus seriously. Our choices make an impact.
Really it was choices that Jesus spoke of when He said,
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
It’s as if we’re all on the same ship, and it’s sinking. 2 rescue boats approach and we’re invited to leave. Each boat could hold all the passengers. One, they tell us, is going on out to sea and certain doom. The other will take its passengers back to the safety of the shore. Where you end up will depend on which boat you get on. Each one has its course all set. You have to decide which one you’ll take.
In other words, we get to make the choice concerning our eternity. We have that choice. God even values that choice. But when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, we also must make a choice.
Stephen R. Lawhead in Merlin - This is our work in creation: to decide. And what we decide is woven into the thread of time and being forever. Choose wisely, then, but you must choose.
Whether you like the way it works or not, the good news this morning is that you get to choose, I get to choose! Listen to God’s word this morning. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose life…