Deuteronomy 12-13: Forsaking all others... - 21st June 2015 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Deuteronomy 11:26-13:18

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Why has God put hard passages in the Bible? This is a hard passage, isn’t it? Not so much that it’s difficult to understand, more that it’s difficult to take emotionally. It sounds harsh and cutting. Why in the course of these great sermons that make up the book of Deuteronomy, why would Moses preach this? Why would the LORD include it in the Bible? Why the hard passages?

Because they cut to the heart. They expose what’s in there. And Deuteronomy is all about that, it’s all about the heart. There is a place for massages and hugs and nice cups of tea. But if there’s surgery to be done, nothing beats a scalpel.

The hard passages of scripture and meant to shock us into listening and thinking. Kind words may comfort us and help us in all sorts of ways. But sometimes it’s necessary to speak sharp words. As Proverbs 27:6 has it, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” When the LORD speaks sharp words to his people, he means it to help them. He says hard things when he means us to listen and think hard.

So straight away we need to remember that. The sharp words we read today are given to us by the loving God who rescues and cherishes his people. If you read this passage or hear this talk and you come away thinking “God is just harsh and judgmental” or “the church is just harsh and judgmental” then you’ve got him wrong, and you’ve got us wrong. The Bible is from cover to cover the story of an amazingly loving God. It’s good news. But it’s also realistic enough to cut to the heart of our problems, as well as tell us good news.

Deuteronomy 12 is actually a junction point in the book; it’s where Moses moves from telling them the big picture stuff to the specific applications. It’s the “so what should we do about this?” part of the sermon. All the way through Deuteronomy so far we’ve been hearing two big things.

1.  The LORD is the best

He’s loved his people, he’s rescued them from slavery in Egypt, he’s brought them to the wonderful land he’s promised them and he wants to bless them there. So Moses is saying “Love the LORD. Walk in his ways! A life filled with love for the LORD is the best life there is. He’s the best.” The LORD is the best. We’ve heard that a lot, haven’t we? OK, well the other thing is this:

2.  The people’s hearts are wayward

We’ve been hearing that too, haven’t we? The people have idol-factory hearts. They have this tendency of filling their lives, not with love for the LORD, but with love for other things. They lift up other created things and try to make the world revolve around them instead of living with the LORD as the centre. Do you remember last week when James was preaching and showing us from Deuteronomy chapter 10 how Moses focuses on this heart issue and says that actually they need a complete heart change. Because their hearts will always be running off after others, to their own destruction, instead of being faithful to the LORD. The LORD is the best, but the people’s hearts are wayward.

Put those two things together and you end up at a bit of a crossroads. You can see that in those couple of verses we read from the end of chapter 11. See chapter 11 verse 26? “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse--  27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today;  28 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.” It’s an either/or thing, isn’t it? Moses desperately wants them to go the LORD’s way, the way of blessing. That’s why he warns them of the other way, the way of other gods, the way of cursing. Moses is standing there at the crossroads saying “walk this way and live! Not that way.”

So that’s where we are as we begin chapter 12. That’s where we are as we begin these practical applications. All of these commands are going to be making one simple point, which is this: make sure that you stay with the Lord, not with the false gods. These are practical ways of making sure that their hearts don’t wander. And it’s fairly clear what Moses tells them to do about it:

Deuteronomy 12:2-4 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods.  3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.  4 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.

He says to them: When you get into the Promised Land you will find yourselves surrounded with all of the paraphernalia of idol worship. Their statues, their places of worship, their rituals and traditions, all set up to worship other gods. So go and get your crowbars and start smashing. Until it has all gone. Why? Because the LORD has better for you.

Deuteronomy 12:5-7 But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go…  7 There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you.

The LORD is better than the other gods. The idols. The LORD has better things planned for them – he wants them to feast with him and enjoy his blessing. The other gods, the other practices that the nations around them have, those things are massively inferior. Those things are roadside furniture from the way to destruction, they have no place in the LORD’s way. So get rid of them. There’s a thing about names here isn’t there? Do you see the end of verse 3: “wipe out their names from those places” – the names of the other gods – and then verse 5 the LORD is going to put his Name there for his dwelling. The names of the other gods must go so that only the LORD’s name is there. Name is to do with identification; the people are the LORD’s people, they are his, they don’t belong to some rival. No you may not bring your ex-boyfriend with you on our honeymoon; don’t even bring his picture with you. They are the LORD’s alone. So they need to get rid of the other stuff.

Moses tells them to get rid of this stuff because their hearts are wayward; because they are so easily tempted to go off after the other gods. The LORD is clearly better than the alternatives but the problem lies with their hearts. Rather like how we know full well that not smoking is better than smoking. We have plenty of information to convince us of that. But if you’re trying to give up smoking then it is really not wise to leave packets of cigarettes lying around the house. Even if you know and are convinced that smoking is not good for you. Because you don’t trust your desires or your willpower to resist. Get rid of the rivals because your hearts will be tempted.

Now I need to answer one point at this stage, because some of you may well be thinking: “Uh? Isn’t this just like ISIS?” You know, Islamic State smashing all of those ancient places in Iraq. Isn’t that just like what God is commanding here? Well in a way it looks a little similar, in that there is some smashing involved, but it needs to be stressed that the LORD has not commanded ISIS to do what they are doing. Here’s two reasons why. First: The LORD does not command anyone now to do what Moses commanded the people to do back then. Remember these chapters are about practical applications to a specific setting: going into the promised land. Moses commanded his people to do this once, as they went into the promised land. That was the situation. But this has its place within the Bible’s story, and that story has moved on, and the coming of Jesus has changed many things. God’s people now are not a nation with borders and armies and other things like that that nations have, God’s people now are a gathering of people all over the world who follow Jesus. When in the New Testament you see the apostles taking the message of Jesus out into the world, false gods are still just as much of a problem, and everywhere they go they are calling people to turn away from false gods to Jesus. But they don’t go and smash the temples and the rest. The situation has changed and the Bible itself makes that clear. If we were to rip this out of context and say “God told them to smash idols, so we can go and smash mosques and shopping centres and football stadiums and whatever other monuments to false gods we see around us” that would be twisting God’s words. That would be wrong, whoever did it. Whether ISIS or crusaders or Israelis. We need to read this bit of the Bible within the story that the Bible itself gives us.

Second reason why this is different to ISIS: ISIS are serving a different god. We need to be realistic here and say that ISIS are different because they are trying to turn the world to a false god, and smashing everything else. It would be like if the people of Israel smashed the idols and set up a statue of the Egyptian sun god Ra in their place. Now we find that hard to grasp because in our pluralistic society we don’t know how to distinguish between gods. We think that if two people are talking about ‘god’ then they must mean the same thing. Our society has many people who take one look at the evils that ISIS are carrying out and say “that’s religion for you, and you Christians must be the same because you are religious too”. Passages like this seem horribly exclusive to us, because, well, this sort of pluralism is such a part of the air we breathe we hardly notice it. All gods are not the same. All opinions are not the same. Which God we follow and the way we follow him are of key importance, as Moses emphasizes so strongly. The God of the Bible, whose revelation of himself culminates in the coming of Jesus is very different to the God of the Qu’ran. If you don’t believe me, read the Bible and read the Qu’ran.

So, Moses says make sure that you stay with the LORD, not with the false gods. In chapter 13 that gets sharpened further as Moses warns them that the temptation to turn away from the LORD can come to them on the lips of some of the people who they would normally most want to listen to.

Just have a look over that chapter with me for a minute and you can see what I mean.

Don’t be led astray by false prophets: Verse 1 “If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder,  2 and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them,"  3 you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.” Verse 5 “That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow.”

Don’t be led astray by those closest to you: Verse 6 “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods"… 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.  9 You must certainly put him to death.”

Don’t be led astray by large sections of your community: Verse 12 “If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in  13 that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods you have not known),  14 then you must enquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you,  15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town.

Phew. This is heavy isn’t it? It’s meant to be. Remember, this is Moses speaking sharp words to the people to shock them and us into listening and thinking carefully. Make sure that you stick with the LORD, not with the false gods. Do you see how seriously he takes that? Do you see how seriously the LORD takes that?

I’m massively grateful that now, this side of Jesus coming to carry the punishment of the law for us, I’m so grateful that I am not required to kill false prophets or family members. Again, the application of this to us this side of Jesus works differently to how it did for the people back then, as the Bible itself makes clear. But we are not to assume that the LORD therefore takes this sin of leading others away from him any less seriously now than he did then. What did Jesus say? Listen to this from Mark chapter 9: “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the depths of the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” That’s no less shocking, is it? Turning someone’s heart away from the LORD who saves and gives life and sending them off down the way to destruction is something that God will take very seriously indeed.

I’m going to ask some questions now to help you to think through how this does apply to you. Remember, the big challenge is ‘make sure that you stay with the LORD and not with the false gods.’ Here’s some questions then:

Are you realistic about your own heart? All that Moses says in this chapter comes out of a clear understanding of how easily the people can be led astray. He knows their hearts and their tendency towards idols. Are you realistic about your own heart? There’s a saying isn’t there: pride comes before a fall. That’s true spiritually. When we think we are solid, when we think we can cope ok, that’s often when are hearts are in most danger. I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me. I can cope with this situation, I can dabble in that, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Compromise begins with cockiness. Apostasy begins with arrogance. Are you realistic about your own heart?

Are there teachers who you need to not listen to? Beware of false teachers. They may be convincing, they may even be miracle workers, as Moses says in verse 2. They might get some things right, as Moses says in verse 2. But the acid test is what they make of the true and living God, as he has revealed himself in the Bible, it’s not how good at their job they seem to be. False teachers will always generate interest, they will often be successful, not least because false teaching generally works by carefully tailoring God to fit with what people today want to hear. False teaching will often sound nicer to our ears than the truth, because our hearts are the way they are. This is an issue for us now, isn’t it? We have TV channels full of prosperity teaching, luring us away to a God who fits our desires to be rich and successful. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had some Church of England ministers saying that we ought to move away from the Bible’s way of talking of God as Father and refer to God as ‘she’, and others rubbishing the Bible’s teaching on marriage and saying we need to be more inclusive. It all sounds so nice, so socially acceptable to us. It may be that large sections of the church community are taken in, like Moses says with the town here. These people may be very impressive, they may be widely respected, they may be right on various things. But if they are leading us away from the true God of the Bible then they are doing something very dangerous. Are there teachers you need to not listen to?

Are there people close to you that you need to not listen to? This is where it really gets close to home, and very uncomfortable for many of us. Being a Christian in the world means being mixed in with people who are not Christian, that’s important, if we’re not meeting non Christians how can we share the saving message of Jesus with them? But we need to be aware that they can influence us just as much. Marriage is a classic example; I just think of a friend of ours, not from Finchley, whose husband is not a Christian, and that means her involvement in church is carefully rationed. He wouldn’t mind her doing other things, but church, well he doesn’t want her to take it all too seriously. Do you know what I mean? Some of you know all too well. It’s intensely difficult to keep your heart loyal to the LORD when someone you love so much is trying their best to pull you away. If you’re in a marriage like that, well know that you’re not told to leave it; the New Testament is very clear that Christians in that situation shouldn’t divorce their spouses because they are not Christian. The challenge for you is to love the LORD in your marriage. That is the best thing for you and your spouse, whether they realise it or not. But you do need the support and prayer of Christian friends.

And, perhaps even more controversially be very careful if you are a believer who is thinking of going out with someone who is not. Where the Apostle Paul says clearly in 1 Corinthians that Christians shouldn’t divorce a non-believing husband or wife, he says just as clearly in 2 Corinthians that unmarried Christians shouldn’t marry a non-believer.  The biggest reason I’ve seen for women in particular leaving the church is because they hook up with a non-Christian boyfriend. It happens so often. It happens to guys too. And when you say this to people, you know what they say? Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine, I can cope. Pride comes before a fall.

Make sure you stay with the LORD, not with false gods. Be realistic about your heart.

As I say, this is heavy stuff. These are sharp words. There are things we need to think long and hard about here. I’m expecting that there will be many of you wanting to talk. Come and talk to me after the service, please. Talk to John/Christine too.

Do you know sometimes when our kids are naughty we tell them off. Hard to believe. I remember it happening to me too. Even harder to believe. And at times like that we speak sharply to them, to make them stop and think, even to shock them into listening. They don’t like it, sometimes they get upset. But when it works, do you know what happens next? They run to us and we give them a big cuddle. And they cuddle back. They know that we love them. When the LORD’s words are sharp, when they shock you into thinking, the thing to do is to run to him. He speaks in love. To stop us in our tracks, so that we might run to his embrace.

It’s a striking thing that when in this chapter we hear Moses talking about even a son who tries to lead you away from the true God, we know where this is heading. We know that there would come a time when God’s own Son, Jesus, would be taken outside the camp and put to death as a false prophet. The death of Jesus would be the way that lawbreakers could be forgiven. The way that those under the sentence of death might be released. If you’re feeling convicted, if you’re feeling even condemned or ashamed, stung by the sharp words we’ve read today, let them do what they were meant to. Let them point you ahead to the cross of Jesus. To the good news. Run to Jesus and his cross, to find forgiveness, freedom and the embrace of a Father who truly loves his children.



Further reading

This sermon has probably prompted lots of questions. If so, good! Please come and talk to me about them – or contact me via email or our Facebook page if you’d rather.

Here are a few Bible passages you could read to help you think about some of the questions raised today and how they might apply now: