Choosing Life – Choosing Death
by Jack Wald | October 4th, 2015

II Kings 5:1-3

The first time my father saw my mother was at a party when she was leading a conga line. She was popular and had lots of dates; she was the life of the party. In their married life, she and my father were the center of a group of people who had monthly parties. I remember as a little boy, standing on the back of the toilet to look out the bathroom window into the room where they were talking and dancing. When life was going well, my mother was a delightful person.

But then when I was ten years old, in a fight over a family business, my father’s oldest sister, my mother’s closest friend, betrayed her. My two oldest uncles worked against my father and his three younger siblings to take the family company from them. This was a life-changing experience for my mother. She was deeply hurt by this betrayal and she never recovered from it. Her life became more difficult and the fun-loving woman disappeared. She held on to bitterness for the rest of her life. Her bitterness defined her and she died an angry woman.

What do you do when life does not go the way you want it to go? Reality crushes a dream you have had. A friend betrays you. You lose your job.

Divorce can crush the dreams of a child who sees her parents separate. There are some of us whose father married other women and were pushed to the side when new children were born. Right from our early years we face disappointment and rejection.

We may apply for a certain school and not get into the school we wanted. I know some students whose dream was to study medicine. But here in Morocco there is discrimination and Moroccans get preference, so they had to settle for the study of biology.

Injury can take an athletic career away from us. Illness can deprive us of the freedom to experience life the way we want to. Death takes people we love away from us.

The number of displaced people fleeing from war, conflict or persecution and looking for a better future in other countries has exceeded 59 million, the highest number since World War II. Half the population of Syria has left that country. Life has not gone the way these migrants wanted.

Illness, death, betrayal, discrimination, natural disasters, economic downturns, broken relationships, war. All these things come crashing through the beautiful future we have planned for ourselves and we are left standing in the rubble of our circumstances. What do we do? Where do we go from here?

In II Kings 5 we read about Naaman, a military leader of Israel’s enemy, Aram (located in present day Syria). Naaman has leprosy and cannot find a cure. So he comes to Israel to Elijah the prophet. Elijah tells him to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman does so and is healed and returns to Aram as a worshiper of Israel’s God. In this story, it is Naaman and Elijah who figure prominently. There is also the servant of Elijah who tries to make money from the deal for himself. There is the king of Israel who is terrified by the visit of this military leader from Aram. But our focus at the beginning of this sermon is on the servant girl of Naaman’s wife.

2 Kings 5:1–3
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

What were the dreams of this Israelite girl? She was growing up in a village with her parents and brothers and sisters. She played with children from the village. She talked with other girls in the village about someday getting married and having children. She speculated with the other girls about who they might marry some day.

And then, like raiders from Boko Harum in Nigeria or like the ISIS fighters in Iraq, raiders from Aram came and took her captive. Did they kill her parents and others in the village? We don’t know the full story but it is not likely they came and took her without killing others. We live today in a brutal world but the world was even more brutal in past millennia.

This unnamed girl was ripped away from her family and her dreams. She became a slave in Aram where she ended up being the servant of the wife of Naaman who commanded the military of Aram. He was the one who ruled over the raiders who had stolen her away from her family and village and now she was a servant in his household.

This young girl had every right to be bitter – but she was not. Her mistress’s husband, Naaman, developed leprosy. He used all his wealth and influence to find a cure and there was none to be found. Nowhere in Aram was there anyone or anything that would cure his leprosy. The entire household was wrapped up in this desperate struggle to find a cure for Naaman.

How did the Israelite girl respond? Did she say, “Good for him. He deserves this punishment from God for what he did to me and to my family.” Had she held on to her bitterness at what the raiders of Aram had done to her? It does not seem so.
She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

“If only,” that is what she said. This phrase carries the meaning of longing or wishing for something in the future. “If only I could pass this exam.” “If only I could get that raise in pay.” “If only I could score a goal in the football match this week.”

“If only” means that you want something good to happen and when the Israelite girl says, “If only,” she is saying she wants Naaman to be healed. The man who is in charge of the men who carried out the raid on her village is now the man she wants to be healed.

This is remarkable to me. She did not wallow in her grief and bitterness. She choose life and not death – and none of the events that followed would have happened if she had not made that choice. This is a woman whose story I would love to hear when I arrive in heaven.

Joseph was a spoiled brat. His father Jacob had twelve sons from his two wives and their maids. Joseph was one of two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s preferred wife. Joseph was the eleventh son and he had one younger brother whose mother was also Rachel. He was his father’s favorite son. At the age of seventeen, he was still staying with his father and mother while his ten older brothers were working in the fields. He was a man but he was not doing a man’s work. His father gave him the best pieces of meat and he gave him a special coat, often translated as a coat of many colors but perhaps a coat with sleeves.

Joseph knew he was his father’s favorite and enjoyed being the favorite. So when he had a dream in which his brothers bowed down to him he did not hesitate to tell them about his dream. Joseph was a talented but spoiled young man who thought he was better than his older brothers.

Regardless of how irritating Joseph was, there is no excuse for his older brothers who finally had enough, threw him into a pit, and sold him to Ishmaelite traders. Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar to be a slave in his household. We know the rest of the story. Joseph is held up as an example of someone who always made the best of his situation. He earned favor with Potiphar and was put in charge of his household. When he resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he was falsely accused and put in prison. While there he earned favor with the jailer. And then, when he interpreted a dream for Pharaoh, he became second in command of all of Egypt.

What happened to Joseph that turned him from being a talented but spoiled brat to a man who was able to use his talents as he earned favor from those in power over him? What allowed Joseph to be patient in his suffering until the next opportunity presented itself?

Something happened to Joseph in the pit and during the journey to Egypt. We don’t know how long Joseph was in Potiphar’s household but it might be that his first days were not his best days. Whenever it was, at some point Joseph chose life and not death. He chose not to hold on to his bitterness but to seek life.

Like the Israelite girl, Daniel was also taken as a captive from his home. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and took the leaders of Judah to Babylon. How was this journey for Daniel? We read about Daniel when he was serving in the court of Nebuchadnezzar and we love reading about how he held on faithfully to his faith. This took him through trials and eventually he became prime minister of Babylon.

But we don’t know the story of the journey of Daniel to Babylon. What we know is that this was not the future Daniel had in mind for himself. Daniel was a member of the nobility of Judah and was destined to be one of Judah’s leaders. But any dreams Daniel had were crushed. The defeat of Judah was a devastating blow and then to be taken from his home to a foreign land was a cruel punishment. Daniel had a choice of life or death before him. He could hold on to his bitterness or chose to trust God and look to life. The stories we love to read about Daniel would not have happened unless he had made the choice to trust God and seek life.

There are many, many examples in the Bible of betrayal and shattered dreams and there are many, many examples of betrayal and shattered dreams in our own lives. Just this past Friday there was yet another mass shooting in the US and nine people were killed by a deranged young man. The lives of the family and friends of these nine people have been turned upside down.

This mass killing made the news, but there were many other tragedies this last week that did not get reported. People were killed by drunk drivers. People discovered they have a fatal disease. People received a phone call saying someone they loved had died. People were raped. There were civilian casualties of war. People died from natural disasters.

I have been talking about how we handle suffering that is inflicted on ourselves but sometimes the suffering we experience is the result of our own actions. We sin, we make a mistake, we make a bad choice and then we suffer. If I rob a bank and then sit in a prison cell, I suffer but I suffer because of my bad choice. If I am unfaithful in my marriage and I lose my spouse, I suffer because of my adultery. If I don’t take my job seriously and am lazy at work, it will do no good to blame anyone but myself if I am fired. If I don’t study hard and fail a class, I will suffer because I was not a serious student.

But many people do not want to take responsibility for their actions, for their bad decisions, for their sin. I have known people who are victims, always blaming others for their misfortunes. As they talk about the failure of their life, it is never their fault, always the fault of people, companies, organizations, and society. They refuse to see their weakness, their sin and so they choose the path of death.

When we sin, when we make a mistake, we need to acknowledge our mistake, our sin. We need to repent. We need to take an honest look at ourselves, ask God (and anyone affected by our sin) for forgiveness, and then choose life.

This is a world of suffering. Sometimes the suffering is inflicted on us and sometimes we bring it with our bad choices. Sometimes suffering is personal and most times something we read about in the news. But it is there. How do we deal with it? How have we dealt with the personal suffering we have experienced? How will we deal with the suffering that will come in our future?

There are people who say that you choose life simply by thinking positive thoughts. Smile and put on a happy face. If you act happy, you will become happy. There is a song from the New York Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie titled “Put on a Happy Face.” Here are the lyrics:

Gray skies are gonna clear up,
Put on a happy face;
Brush off the clouds and cheer up,
Put on a happy face.

Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy,
It’s not your style;
You’ll look so good that you’ll be glad
Ya’ decided to smile!

Pick out a pleasant outlook,
Stick out that noble chin;
Wipe off that “full of doubt” look,
Slap on a happy grin!

And spread sunshine all over the place,
Just put on a happy face!
Put on a happy face
Put on a happy face

And if you’re feeling cross and bitterish
Don’t sit and whine
Think of banana splits and licorice
And you’ll feel fine

So spread sunshine all over the place
And put on a happy, happy face
Put on a happy, happy, happy face

The difficulty with this is it treats the external with the hope it will affect the internal. Cover over the internal pain with an external smile. Seriously?

If you were able to talk with the Israelite girl when she arrived in Aram, still grieving for the loss of her family and friends and the injustice of what had happened to her, would you sing her this lyric?
And if you’re feeling cross and bitterish
Don’t sit and whine
Think of banana splits and licorice
And you’ll feel fine

Would you say that to Joseph as he sat in the pit or when he was sold as a slave? To Daniel as he made the journey to Babylon?

How about Peter and Judas? Both Peter and Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Judas led the soldiers to Jesus in the darkness of night. Both of them were shattered by their betrayal. Peter wept bitterly. Judas was seized with remorse. Each of them came to a crossroads. Would they choose life or choose death? Judas could not handle the shame of what he had done and went out and hanged himself. Peter kept hanging on to Jesus and was restored to leadership when he met the Risen Christ. Peter chose life, Judas chose death.

Would a happy face have helped Judas? In this light it is clearly a superficial, ridiculous solution to the problem.

Here is the path to take at a crossroad, when you face a different future than you had wanted.

The first step is to deal honestly with the pain.

Psalm 137 is a famous psalm because of the final line.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

We think that we have to be good and kind to be spiritual and so it seems very much out of place to see this bitterness expressed in a psalm in the Bible. But I would guess the Israelite girl, Joseph, and Daniel all experienced this emotion and thought these thoughts. I know that when the parents of the children at the Village of Hope were abruptly taken away from them in 2010 I had these thoughts.

Psalm 137 is written by musicians who were taken from Jerusalem and deported to Babylon. They were deported along with Daniel. As they sat and played their harps, they sang melancholy songs of grief. Their captors demanded happy songs, joyful songs.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

They replied,
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

They reflect on all the evil that was done to Jerusalem, how their home was destroyed, its treasure taken. And then they burst out at the end with this curse.
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

This is raw and brutal. It is ugly. There is nothing nice in this. But what we learn in the psalms is that before we can be at peace, we have to uncover all the ugliness inside us. Putting on a happy face buries pain. True happiness requires that the pain be exposed and healed.

Maybe Daniel was with these singers and sang this psalm with them. But if not, I am certain that Daniel, Joseph, and the Israelite girl all went through this process because they could not have chosen life without first healing the deep pain of the injustice they experienced.

So the first step is to honestly deal with the pain of suffering. The second step is to trust God with your future. Your future is no longer what you imagined it would be. You don’t know what your future holds. But as I preached from Psalm 23, we are called to step out and follow Jesus, our good shepherd, who will lead us to green pastures and still waters. He will be with us, leading us through the valley of the shadow of death. And he will lead us safely to our eternal home.

There is nothing more important in life than clinging to Jesus. It does not matter how easy or how hard your life is. It does not matter how many questions and doubts you have. Life is found by clinging to Jesus through the good and bad times of life.

We say with David (Psalm 25:1) “In you, Lord my God, I put my trust,” And we step out into life.

The first step is really the most difficult to take. I meet with some of the men in the church on Wednesdays for lunch and we have been reading through Phillip Yancy’s book, Soul Survivor. This is a book that examines the lives of people who positively influenced Yancy. This last week we read about John Donne, a poet who lived in the late 1500s and early 1600s. He served as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London during a time when the plague killed a third of the population of London. Another third of the population fled the city leaving London a ghost town. Carts passed through the streets every day collecting the dead. Donne preached sermons that filled the cathedral each Sunday, despite the greatly reduced population of London.

Then Donne became ill himself and laid in bed, suffering just like all the other plague victims. In these weeks he wrote Devotions, reflecting on life and death. He asked what every sufferer asks, “Why me?” He asked if this plague was the judgment of God. He never is able to answer the why questions but begins to understand “that life will always include circumstances that incite fear: if not illness, financial hardship, if not poverty, rejection, if not loneliness, failure. In such a world, Donne has a choice: to fear God, or to fear everything else.”

Donne moved from the cause of suffering to the response to suffering. “Will I trust God with my crisis, and the fear it provokes? Or will I turn away from God in bitterness and anger? Donne decided that in the most important sense it did not matter whether his sickness was a chastening or merely a natural occurrence. In either case he would trust God, for in the end trust represents the proper fear of the Lord.”

It turned out that Donne had a form of typhus and not the plague. He recovered and lived for another eight years during which he preached with a renewed confidence the resurrection from the dead.

In taking this first step of dealing with the pain we experience, we need to know that God is leading us to wholeness. God wants us to be healthy and healed, not festering with the wounds that come from the suffering we have experienced.

Pope Francis visited the US this past week and met with victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests in the church. On the plane heading back to Rome he was asked, “Regarding victims or relatives who don’t forgive  – do you understand them?”

Pope Francis replied:
Yes, I do. I pray for them. And I don’t judge them. Once, in one of these meetings, I met several people and I met a woman who told me “When my mother found out that I had been abused, she became blasphemous, she lost her faith and she died an atheist.” I understand that woman. I understand her. And God who is even better than me, understands her. And I’m sure that that woman has been received by God. Because what was abused,  destroyed, was her own flesh, the flesh of her daughter. I understand her. I don’t judge someone who can’t forgive. I pray and I ask God… God is a champion in finding paths of solutions. I ask him to fix it.

Choosing the path of life can be terribly difficult and I love the Pope’s response, “God is a champion in finding paths of solutions. I ask him to fix it.” God is patient, compassionate, and incredibly creative. He will find a path for each of us to take to wholeness.

I have been talking about major experiences of suffering and I do not want to minimize how difficult it is to forgive and choose life, but there are many more small inconveniences in life that also lead to having to choose life or death. My problem is not so much with the big pains of life but with the little pains. If I cut myself, it is clear what I have to do. I wrap up my finger and go to the hospital to get stitches. It is painful but I know what to do.

My problem is with all the little paper cuts of life. I go to the store to buy ground turkey and there is no turkey because of the Eid that was just celebrated. I understand that I am a foreigner in this country, but I get grumpy because they do not have what I want.

Someone makes a right hand turn from the left lane, cutting across me, and I fuss and fume, sometimes making unfavorable accusations about the driver. The internet stops working when I am trying to research something. I get a new computer and Microsoft tortures me with a new computer system to learn. All these little things make me grumpy and determine my mood. I choose death rather than life in all these little things.

So every day we come to mini-crossroads and have to make a choice for life or for death. If you are like me, you choose death far too many times. It is difficult to continually choose life because in order to do that we have to die to ourselves – but that is another sermon.

We struggle to choose life with the daily irritations we face and there are times we come to a major crossroad and have to decide if we will forgive, sacrifice our pride, and follow Jesus. We face life or death with our choice. When we choose life, we choose to deal with the pain and then we choose to step forward with trust in God who will lead us into our future.

Deuteronomy 27-30 is the renewal of the marriage covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. Forty years after that first covenant, at the end of Moses’s life, this covenant is renewed. The blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are reviewed and then it is time for Israel to make a commitment. It is time to say, “I do,” and “I will.”

Moses lays it out before Israel. (Deuteronomy 30:11–20)
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, 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.
17 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, 18 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.

And now let me speak with Moses. You have heard the challenge in this sermon. Listen carefully.
19 This day I call the heavens and the 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 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life

Jesus is our life. Cling to him. Never let go. Hold on to him in the major difficulties of life as well as in the daily, trivial irritations we face.

May God have mercy on us and extend to us his grace so that we can increasingly choose life.