Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon: “Who Are You?”, Deuteronomy 30:15-20/1 Corinthians 3:1-9 (February 16, 2020)


“Who am I?” That’s the question at the root of both of our scripture readings today. This may surprise you; after all, the words of the Deuteronomy passage have a loaded and complex history that has very little to do with identity. The phrase “Choose life” has been co-opted by Hollywood for the 1996 film “Trainspotting” (a movie about drug use); it’s been used to adorn t-shirts in the ‘80s in a suicide prevention campaign; it’s been embraced by the “pro-life” movement to bolster their position.[1] But we can assume with a fair amount of certainty that Moses didn’t have issues like drugs, suicide, or abortion on his mind when he originally made this speech.

No, his primary concern, as he stood before God’s people about to enter the promised land after 40 years, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to go with them, was about who they would choose to be in the coming years. He knew that they were at a turning point: after generations as slaves in Egypt and years as nomads in the desert, they were finally going to be a settled society. For the first time in many, many years (since the time of Jacob, really) they had enough autonomy to decide who they wanted to be, what kind of people they would become. And Moses wanted to make sure that they made the right choice.

Out of context, it’s easy to interpret this passage as a simple ultimatum: follow God, obey God’s commandments, or you, personally, WILL die. Sounds like an obvious choice, right? But when we look back in Deuteronomy, we find that Moses has been building up to this climactic moment for THIRTY FULL CHAPTERS. He spends the first three chapters painstakingly reminding the Israelites of everything that God had done for them while they were in the desert, how God had brought them to this point. Then he switches gears: “Now, Israel, in light of all that, listen to the regulations and the case laws that I am teaching you to follow, so that you may live, enter, and possess the land that the Lord, your ancestors’ God, is giving to you.”[2] And Moses proceeds to outline all of God’s commandments and rules over the course of 26—TWENTY SIX—chapters, so that by the time he arrives at chapter 30, the Israelites know EXACTLY what it means to “choose life”, as far as he’s concerned.

Choosing life (and what’s good) verses death (and what’s wrong) isn’t as simple as preserving our existence at any cost. That wouldn’t have taken 26 chapters for Moses to explain. It’s about choosing to identify as God’s people and choosing to follow the guidance that God has given us so that we might thrive in our new identity. We’re already alive; God is inviting us to LIVE. And Moses is presenting us with the opportunity to figure out if that’s what we want. He’s inviting us to ask, “Who am I, and who am I going to be?”

This passage isn’t calling us to extreme self-preservation. It’s telling us that life is MORE than just breathing in and out, taking in food, going to sleep and waking up again. It’s about our very identity. Life in God is not just about being, but about being WHO God calls us to be. And this is a more complicated choice for us than just choosing to “be alive”. It requires sacrifice if we’re going to live for God instead of living for ourselves. My favorite example of this comes—of course—from the world of musical theater. In “Les Misérables”, the character of Jean Valjean is confronted with the opportunity to “choose life” in the sense that Moses describes, but at unfathomable cost.

Valjean is an ex-convict who’s been running from the authorities for years. During this time, he’s successfully built a new identity as a business owner and the mayor of his city. One day, he discovers that another man has been arrested for his crimes in his place: a case of mistaken identity. In a musical soliloquy, Valjean struggles with the choice set before him. “Who am I?” he asks himself. Choosing to do nothing would preserve his literal life and freedom, but would condemn an innocent man in his place. As much as it would cost him, he knows that’s not the person he wants to be. The climax of the song comes when Valjean sings, “My soul belongs to God, I know/I made that bargain long ago/He gave me hope when hope was gone,/He gave me strength to journey on…” And with that, his decision was made: he would reveal his identity and liberate the stranger. When he sings, “Who am I?” he’s not asking, “Am I a prisoner or a mayor? Am I Jean Valjean or ‘Monsieur le maire’?” He’s asking, “What kind of person am I? What kind of person is God calling me to be?” In that moment, he rejects self-preservation, but he still chooses life: the sort of life that honors God.

In deciding who he wanted to be, Valjean was thinking bigger than just himself. So actually, he was probably reflecting biblical ideas of identity better than we generally do. If someone today were to ask, “Who are you?”, most of us would probably reflexively respond with personal characteristics: our hobbies, our appearance, our talents, and so on. But in antiquity, the answer to that same question would have been much different: in that time, people identified themselves by their ancestry, their religious community, their nationality—in other words, their identity was inherently tied to the larger social groups that they were members of.[3] So when Moses urges the Israelites “choose life,” it wouldn’t have been heard as a question of individual identity. It was a challenge to the entire community. In fact, the Hebrew here says, “If your heart (singular) turns away and you (singular) refuse to listen…I’m telling you (plural) right now that you (plural) will definitely perish!” Who we choose to be ourselves impacts who our community will be, and vice versa. It’s impossible to separate one from the other.

This was still true centuries and centuries later, when the church in Corinth was wrestling with this same question, “Who are you?” Like the Israelites about to enter the promised land, they, too, were on the cusp of significant change—going from a disorganized group of Christ-followers to a more formal ecclesial body—and they needed to figure out what that would look like. Not just “Who am I?”, but “Who are WE?” And that certainly was NOT a simple question. In fact, Paul appears to have written this letter largely because of the conflicts and disagreements that were arising within the community at Corinth.

For many of them, the most important step in figuring out who they were was to figure out which group they belonged to, which “team” they were on. For them, the choice wasn’t between life and death, but between Paul and Apollos. This kind of reminds me of the denominational squabbles that we have today…or maybe an even better comparison would be to modern churches arguing whose pastor is better. For the Corinthians, who they would be hinged on who their teacher was. Who they were had to do entirely with their human loyalties.

Paul is writing to set them straight. This way of understanding their identity makes them spiritual babies! They obviously aren’t getting it. The identity that God is calling us to—has ALWAYS been calling us to, from as far back as the Exodus—is bigger than the sects that we create for ourselves, the narrow categories that we cram ourselves into. Just as “being alive” is a shallow understanding of what it means to “choose life”, so too is “belonging to this particular teacher” a shallow understanding of what it means to be of God. Being God’s people isn’t a question of making one “right choice” and being defined by it forever. It’s about choosing a way of life that leads to growth and thriving, not just for us, but for everyone. And as long as we’re all seeking the right path, it’s not helpful for us to divide ourselves into opposing sides.

Today, we have the same tendency to want to split ourselves into factions for the sake of our individual identity. In politics, in religion, in school rivalries…we define ourselves in opposition to one another. Sometimes this can lead to healthy competition and enlightening dialogue, but far too often, it leads to closed minds and disparaging that which isn’t like us. It makes us forget the things we have in common and the important places where our identities overlap. It makes us forget that the real choice isn’t between Yotes or Vandals or Broncos, Idahoans and Californians, Democrats and Republicans, Paul and Apollos, but between Life and Death, that which is of God and that which is not of God. When we look at it this way, we realize that all of us together are in a struggle for identity that doesn’t pit us against one another but, in fact, requires our cooperation. We choose life by working together to make sure we’re all making our way down the godly path together.

Like Jean Valjean, like the Israelites, like the Corinthians, we’re all faced with the question, “Who am I?” In your baptism, the question of who you are has already been answered. You are someone who chooses to turn from sin. You are a person who strives to follow Jesus. You are a member of God’s family. You choose life. The question before you, then, is whether or not you’ll continue to choose life. Will you continue to seek goodness over self-preservation? Will you continue to seek the well-being of the community over your narrow self-interests? Will you continue to prioritize shared goals over divisive alliances? Will you define life as God does, instead of as humanity does? Who are you? Who will we be? The choice is ours. Amen.


[1] Patricia K. Tull, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year A, Vol. 1, p. 242.
[2] Deuteronomy 4:1, CEB.
[3] Angelos Chaniotis, “In Search of an Identity”,

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