I spent last weekend, with some 20,000 others, at the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham racecourse. As always, over four days we were presented with a bewildering variety of talks, music, drama and visual arts, spread across 30 venues. An embarrassment of riches Nearly everything sounded splendid but I couldn't possibly do it all.
I had to make choices...but I was sure, at least, that whatever I chose would be rewarding.
Of course, we take choice as read in most areas of daily life...
We demand it when we shop – and I'll never forget my first experience of a third world supermarket: for most foods, there was one option and one only...you could take it, or leave it.
We demand it when we send our children to school, when we need medical treatment, even when we worship.
We believe that more choice means more freedom to express ourselves – to show the world just how unique and special we really are. And in many ways, that's a good thing...
The world is rich and various...and it's good to notice and to celebrate this.
But sometimes, the choice is very stark – so stark that it seems to be no choice at all.
Listen to Moses, presenting the situation to the Israelites in our reading from Deuteronomy.
“I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of of the Lord....then you shall live and become prosperous....I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life!”
There's no middle ground here, no modified range of options tailored to our needs.
So it follows that we need to do our research, be certain what we're signing up to.
“Choose life” says Moses butt when we listen to God's own PR, as delivered by Jesus in the gospel reading, it doesn't sound too encouraging.
The theologian Tom Wright, til recently Bishop of Durham, wrote thus
Imagine a politician making this kind of campaign speech:
"If you're going to vote for me," he says, "you're voting for higher taxes and lower wages; you're deciding in favour of losing all you love best! So come on -- who's on my side?"
We're talking political suicide
We believe in family values, but Jesus tells us to hate our families, even ourselves.
That's really uncomfortable to listen to......one of those times when the temptation to rewrite the gospel is almost overwhelming....but Jesus is very clear.
To be a disciple means total commitment – with nothing and nobody more important in our lives than Jesus himself.
A real relationship with God will, in the end, cost you everything that you trust more than you trust God.
During the baptism service, you'll remember the point at which the candidate is anointed with oil, in the form of a cross on the forehead. When we reach this stage, I often remind the congregation that this cross is a reminder of the shape of the Christian life – the selfish “I” crossed out, so that we make choices that please God, that fit in with his agenda of radical love and not those that build up our own esteem, our own kingdom.
I sometimes say, too, that this is the point in the service when the candidate might very well scream, cry or, if old enough, make a run for it.
I don't say – though perhaps I should – that I know I fail at this time and again...That though the choices, life or death, blessing or curse, are clearly set before me sometimes it's easier to take the soft option...even when it leads not to life but to death.
Now, it may seem ridiculous that given the choice I might opt for death rather than life or a curse instead of a blessing...but we all know it happens....
We are constantly warned about the dangers of cigarettes, and yet people still choose to smoke.
We are constantly warned about the risks of drug use, and yet people still choose to use.
We are very good indeed at choosing death...
And as for our physical, so for our spiritual life.
The choice to love and to live God's way is one we are asked to make daily.
But sometimes the cross-shaped demands of that choice are too much for us.
We know that we should choose to love God – not just some of the time, when it is convenient, but with our whole heart and mind and soul. That means making our discipleship the major focus of our lives...transforming what we do and who we are seven days a week.
But we don't do that.
We need to know what God considers good and right – without trying to twist God’s will around to look more like our own. That means listening to God’s word and studying the Bible.
But we don't do that either.
We need to do what is good and right, surrounding ourselves with people who share our faith and our love and allowing them to be a positive influence in our lives. But we prefer to bury our faith and fit in with the crowd.
Thankfully, though we may make the wrong choices time and again – God has already made a choice for us...
So, when you recognise the choices before you – don't panic.
Try your best to choose life – but know that there is grace and forgiveness enough for all of us – for that is the final message of that cross which we sometimes fear to carry.
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.