In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you remember Charlie Gard? How about Alfie Evans? It’s quite understandable if you don’t remember the names of those two little boys. I recently received a reminder about them. Both Charlie and Alfie were born in London in 2016, and at early ages both were diagnosed with very rare disorders. In both cases, the boys’ parents and doctors disagreed about continued treatment and life support. Both Charlie’s and Alfie’s parents wanted to continue treatment and life support, while the doctors and hospitals disagreed. Both cases resulted in legal battles, and the courts agreed with the medical teams against the parents’ wishes. Beginning this Monday, September 9, the UK High Court will hold a five-day hearing to decide on the life of Tafida Raqeeb, a five-year-old girl who suffered a brain bleed and resulting respiratory and cardiac arrest caused by an undiagnosed yet apparently treatable anomaly. Her parents, Shelina and Mohammed, want to take her to Genoa, Italy, where a medical team is ready to treat Tafida. The UK hospital has described her as “terminally ill,” so switching off her life support is the best option. A brain specialist consulted by the family disagrees and says what the little girl needs is time for treatment and recovery. God grant the judges of the UK High Court His wisdom and Spirit to judge rightly, to follow and uphold the way of true righteousness and godliness, in spite of the spirit of the age that has overcome their once-great nation.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Dt. 30:15, 19). Thus the Word of the Lord through His servant Moses, as he spoke to God’s chosen people Israel before they entered into the land that the LORD God promised to their fathers, to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We hear these choices which the LORD sets before His people, and may think, “Well, that’s a rather obvious choice to make! Obviously, you’d choose life: life and good over death and evil; life and blessing over death and curse.” Truly, the LORD did make it quite clear through Moses that life was the right choice. Yet if the choice is so obvious, then why did the people of Israel struggle with it so much? If the choice is so obvious to us, then why do we, the people of Christ Jesus, struggle with it so much? The cases of those three little children demonstrate that, for many in this present age and modern world, the choice is far from obvious.
Why did Moses give this instruction to the Israelites, and why do we still need to hear it? What was the LORD’s purpose for these words? His purpose is the very word I just used to describe these words: instruction. In Hebrew, this word is Torah, a word usually translated as “Law”; but, “Instruction” and “Teaching” are more faithful translations. A couple of other words we use in the Church for this frighten some folks, but they’re not scary. One is doctrine, which is basically a Latin word that means “teaching.” The other is catechesis, which is a Greek word that means “teaching given by word of mouth.” The LORD wants His people to know His Word, that it be in their hearts and minds, on their lips and tongues, that, as they hear and learn it, they walk according to the Word of the LORD, follow in His way in daily life, and speak His Word to one another, especially parents to their children and households, in all their daily activities, as Moses taught them earlier, in Deuteronomy chapter 6:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (vv 4–9).
I know of one household in this congregation where this instruction has been carried out quite literally, with Scripture verses painted on the walls above the doorways of the house. In the verses just before our text, Moses reminds the people of the closeness of the Word of the LORD. The LORD through His Word gets up-close and personal with His people.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the Word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Dt 30:11–14).
The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land, but Moses would not be leading them. Earlier in the journey, at Meribah, the LORD had told Moses to speak to a certain rock, and water would come from the rock. Instead, angered by the people’s complaints, Moses spoke and struck the rock twice with his staff, and water flowed (Num 20:2–13). So the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in Me, to uphold Me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is reciting again the wonders that the LORD has done for them, and the Torah, the Teaching, the Catechesis, that the LORD wants them to know and learn and live. The whole Book of Deuteronomy is in truth a great Catechism for the people of Israel, a summary of God’s Word for them. In chapter 5, he gives them the Ten Commandments again, and in chapter 6 he gives them their Creed, the Shema: ‘Shema Yisrael: YHWH Elohenu YHWH echad,’ “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God the LORD is one.” Some rabbis noted that here three are said to be one, so they asked, “How can these three be one?” We know not how, but we believe, teach, and confess this Truth of the Three-in-One.
God has blessed us in our day with His written Word readily available to us, with study notes and helps, and He has blessed us with a summary of His Word in the Catechisms of another of His servants, Martin Luther. If the choice of life and good and blessing seems so obvious, then why does it seem so difficult? Why does the world choose the way of death instead? Why do we sometimes shrink back from the way of life, the way of God, and choose death instead? Quite simply, the reason is sin. As we confess in the Divine Service, we are by nature sinful and unclean. We are conceived and born sinful. The Old Adam, our sinful nature, our “spiritual flesh,” is with us still in this earthly existence, and he hates and opposes God. Some have seen theology, the study of God and His Word, as “faith seeking understanding.” As John Pless explains in his new book, Luther’s Small Catechism: A Manual for Discipleship, “For Luther, [theology] was faith enduring attack.” Satan has his own catechesis, his own instruction, and the world readily puts it into many forms, but all with the same result, as the Book of Proverbs rightly describes: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prv 14:12).
The treasure that is Luther’s Small Catechism points us over and over to The Truth we so desperately need, the heart and center of the Scriptures: the salvation won for us by our Triune God in Christ Jesus, true God and true Man incarnate, born, suffered, died, buried, risen, and ascended for our sakes, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, your sin and mine. And the choice is not ours, but the Lord’s, as He says through Moses and Joshua to Israel, in calling them His chosen people (Dt 7:6; 14:2), and as Jesus says to the disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16).
Though Luther wrote the Catechism so familiar to us, he never thought that he had mastered the Catechism. Rather, it was his master daily, ever instructing him in the faith. If that sounds astonishing, then consider this: As a child, our God and Savior submitted Himself to His parents and teachers, being taught the Word of God. Imagine that, the Author of Holy Scripture is catechized in His own Teaching! The eternal Word made flesh is taught the Word! If Jesus Himself gladly heard and learned His own Word, then how could we possibly think that we don’t need always to be learning it as well?
And this Faith, this Word, this Catechism, this Christ, this Father, this Spirit, this Love of God, is for you. Apart from Christ we cannot know or come to the Father; that’s not just Luther who said that. Jesus Himself says it. And apart from the Holy Spirit’s working through the external Word of God, we cannot know Christ. The LORD said to His people through Moses, “You are the sons of the LORD your God” (Dt 14:1a). They were God’s sons through the promise of the coming of His only-begotten Son: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen” (Dt 18:15). You are His beloved sons through the Son who has come for you. Know that it is for you, that He is for you. As Luther said, “You must also know and believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you.” For some, having Christ as Lord means obedience, servitude to Him, first and foremost. Luther instead “speaks of how Christ Jesus made Himself ‘my Lord,’ by purchasing us not with gold or silver but with His precious blood” (Pless, p. 61), shed in battle on the cross for you. Your holy, sinless God submitted to the death of a sinner, for you, to redeem you. Through the Apostle Paul, our Lord declares, especially to those in the midst of the battle and persecution, “For those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Through His own battle and the persecution He suffered for you, the LORD your God, Christ Jesus, has made His own death the way of life for you, in His unfathomable goodness and mercy. And so you, in His mercy and goodness, speak this Word of life to one another, to your children, to your neighbor, and to the stranger, that He is for them, too, so that, hearing and believing, they may have life in Him. And you know how to say it; just pull out your Catechism, and let it be your Bible handbook, your prayer and devotion book, and your mission handbook.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.