Deuteronomy 4: I AM, the One and Only - 17th May 2015 - Dave Walker

Bible Reading: Deuteronomy 4

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There’s one big point today. It’s really simple, but it’s a biggie. It’ll take you your whole life to really grasp it.

We’ve said all along that Deuteronomy is a book of preaching; it’s Moses preaching on the beach to the people of Israel as they get ready to cross the river and enter the Promised Land; telling them what they need to know as they prepare to live the life they’ve been promised. What they must not forget. Well today’s chapter, chapter 4, is one complete sermon from Moses. With one big point to remember.

And as is the way with us preachers, if we want people to really get something, we say it more than once. So have a look at verse 35, because here it is: “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other.” OK, now look at verse 39: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath. There is no other.”

OK, that’s it. The LORD alone is God. That’s going to take you all your life to grasp. That’s what Moses wanted the people of Israel to get hold of, and the rest of the Old Testament is the story of how they never really got it.

How can that be? After all, it’s not complicated, is it? The LORD alone is God. One God. Only one. My guess is that it’s not the maths of this that proved difficult for the Israelites or for us. This is not a game of “count the gods.” We live in a society where people tend to think that there is either one god, or else none. So it’s as easy for us in monotheistic Britain to say “there is only one God” as it was for the Israelites, fresh out of many-god-worshipping Egypt, to say “there are lots of gods.” That’s the default position. But in that we can be just as wrong as they were.

One of the burning questions in our culture is “is there a god or not?” So we divide the world into ‘God-believers’ or ‘atheists’. And then once we’ve come down on one side or other of that debate, let’s say we go with “there is a god” – then we don’t like to differentiate too much more. One message that we are constantly drip fed through school assemblies and films and pop songs and political manifestos is the idea that God is too big to be confined within one religion. I was in a coffee shop the other day and the old George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” was playing in the background. Do you know the one? It’s where he sings “Hallelujah… hallelujah,” and then it becomes “Hare Krishna… Hare Krishna.” His point is clear – the two are the same; there is only one God, and you can get to him in a variety of ways, as long as you really want to know him. Now that’s old hippy stuff, but the idea is still very much with us, isn’t it? I’d be surprised if you’d not thought it at some point.

Moses here, and the rest of the Bible, is really not very interested in the question “is there a god?” For Moses the critical issue is “which God will your heart be fastened to?” That’s what he’s talking about, isn’t it? Verse 39 again: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.”

This is covenant language again, isn’t it? Exclusive relationship language. Sarah is my wife. There is no other. That doesn’t mean that there are no other wives out there – there are many wives in the world, but none of them are for me. She alone is my wife. I’m in covenant with her; my heart needs to be fastened to her. The LORD is God and there is no other. It’s not that strictly speaking there is no alternative. There are alternatives. Many of them. They’re just really bad alternatives. This people are in covenant with the LORD. He has chosen them and saved them for himself. So now believing there is a god is no good. Which God will your heart be fastened to? The LORD, or an idol?

1. Don’t fasten your heart to fake gods.

So let’s look through Moses’ sermon and let him teach us this, shall we?

He starts with the past. Look at verse 3: “You saw with your own eyes what the LORD did at Baal Peor. The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 but all of you who held fast to the LORD your God are still alive today.” Moses begins again by reminding them of what has already happened. Like last week when we saw how he reminded them of what had happened to the generation before them. This time he’s reminding them of what happened to their generation, when they had joined in with the worship of a false God, the Baal of Peor. This is a raw, recent memory. Idolatry is a very real possibility for them; it’s there in their recent past. And remember where the idols got you.

Then, having shown them the past, he goes to the heart. Verse 9: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.” See the emphasis on the heart? When the truth of what the LORD has done for you slips from your heart, that’s when you’re on dangerous ground, says Moses. Idolatry begins with forgetting what God has done, letting it slip from your heart.

The having told them of what God has done, and how it must grip their hearts, he spells out what the false alternatives are. Verse 15: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars--all the heavenly array--do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshipping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. 20 But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.”

Moses spells it out, doesn’t he? People make an idol when they take something created and elevate it, so that their world begins to revolve around it. When they take something that God has made and treat it as God. And the problem is that people are good at this. The great Christian writer Calvin said that the human heart is “a perpetual factory for idols.”

You see the alternative to true faith in the true God is not no faith; it’s false faith. Human hearts will always fasten themselves to something. When hearts detach from the true God, they will attach to a false one.

The shape those idols take depends to a large extent on the culture we’re part of. Moses was talking to people who were living in an environment where people routinely worshipped human shaped god statues, or animal gods or especially the sun, moon and stars. Those were the things they were tempted to put in the place of God. Humans, animals, stars – none of them are bad things, are they? But they become extremely bad when they are put in the place of God. In our culture the images themselves may be different, but people still worship them in the same way. Listen to this from a really helpful book, Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller:

“A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”

The same thing, isn’t it? A created thing lifted up so that the world begins to revolve around it. A created thing where only the LORD should be. And as our world revolves around that idol, that includes God himself, he is made to serve our idol – so for us he becomes the God who must make my career work, who must protect my loved ones. That’s what he’s there for. It’s so utterly common, isn’t it? This is not a minority sin. This is mainstream, default thinking for ordinary people. Can you see why Moses is so keen to preach against it?

Because it’s devastating. Worshipping false gods is miserable and hopeless for anyone. But for God’s chosen people this is covenant breaking. Look at verse 23: “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the LORD your God has forbidden. 24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Think of marriage again. If I were to start living as if other wives were valid options for me, it would be devastating to my marriage. It would be devastating to my wife. She would, quite rightly, be angry and jealous. Even if I said things like “I was actually thinking of you, when I was with that other woman.” So it is with the LORD. He is angry and jealous, and rightly so. If the people run off after other gods, this will bring destruction upon them, as Moses so clearly lays out in verse 26 and verse 27.

The LORD is God. There is no other. Don’t let your heart be fastened to fake gods.

2. Let God’s word bind your heart only to the God of the Bible

So, to steer them away from the false gods, to show them that the LORD alone is God, what Moses does is he points them repeatedly to what God has said. Look at verse 35 again: “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. 36 From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you.”  The word of the lord disciplines here; the word of the LORD is there to bind them to the only true God. There’s a big theme in this chapter about hearing God’s voice as the opposite of worshipping the images, the idols. The word of the LORD is what they need. Look back at verse 12 again where he describes how the people had heard God’s voice at Mount Sinai: “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. 15 You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.”

Do you see how Moses emphasizes what they heard, not what they saw? The word of the LORD is the thing that tells them the truth. There’s a much loved saying isn’t there, “a picture tells a thousand words”. It’s true, because when we see a picture we read our own meaning into it. Newspaper editors know that. Ed Miliband and the bacon sandwich.  That’s why God is so cautious about giving his people images. Because when we read our own meaning into God we end up with an idol. It’s another way that our idol-factory hearts work. It’s striking isn’t it that this is still true for us, even now that God has sent his definitive image of himself, the LORD Jesus, into the world, to show us what he is like. Jesus didn’t leave us pictures of himself, did he? He left us with the gospel message. The word of the LORD.

The word of the LORD tells us who he is. The word of the LORD tells us how to approach him. He’s not left us in the dark, making up our own meaning. He’s spoken to us. That’s a loving and kind and life-giving thing. If you want to stick with the true God, not the idols, you need the Bible. The Bible is what your heart needs. Have you ever read the Bible and had that feeling of “if I were God, I wouldn’t have done that, or I wouldn’t have said that”? That’s a good thing isn’t it? It’s great when the Bible contradicts us and changes our mind, because that’s the LORD turning us back to himself. Away from the idols that we would make up. The further you go from the Bible, the more you are into idol territory.  The more we try to gloss over the Bible to make it fit with our culture or opinions or desires, the more we are into idol territory.

And one of the things that the Word of the LORD shows us is just how much better the LORD is to any alternative. As Moses preaches here twice he has to stop and say “who’s like this? Who else has the privileges we have?” Do you see that? Have a look at verse 6, can you see? As God’s people keep to his word the nations around them will look on and admire. Because… well look at verse 7: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” The LORD is near. He hears their prayers. Idols don’t do that. Idols will always stay just out of reach. Whether they are religious idols like the Allah of Islam, who is always so other that you cannot really approach him in any relational sense, or if it’s the secular idols of wealth or health or beauty which will always slip through our fingers whenever we get hold of them. The LORD’s people are never alone in the world.

Verse 8: “And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” The LORD’s word is so wise. His laws are so right. Look down at verse 33 and you see the same thing: “Has any other nation heard the voice of God speaking out of the fire, as you have, and lived?” The LORD has spoken.

And then verse 34, the LORD has saved them “Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? 35 You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other.”

The LORD is near. The LORD has spoken. The LORD has saved his people. No-one else has that. Idols can’t do that. Idols slip through your fingers whenever you think you have them. Think of beauty or wealth or the Allah of Islam. Idols don’t come and speak to us; idols leave us in the hands of experts, having to take their word for it. Idols don’t save us. They leave us with an endless list of things to do, they tell us to climb up a ladder through our own efforts; they don’t come down to us to save us.

The LORD, the God of the Bible, the God who we meet in the person of Jesus Christ is different. He’s better. He is near, he has spoken, he has saved. In fact we who believe in Jesus are even more privileged than they were, because in Jesus God has come so much nearer, and said so much more, and saved us so much more completely.

I was talking to two of our members this week who have quite recently become followers of Jesus. Both from situations where they had been chasing after different stuff. One thing that they both said really stuck with me. Each of them said that now they had come to know Jesus, he made so much sense. One of them said “I’ve realised that Jesus is really the only thing that makes sense in my life.” They were looking at the world in a completely different way now. Jesus had turned it all around for them. The other one said “I’m amazed to hear myself say this. If three years ago I had heard me saying things like this, I would have thought I was mad.”

That sounds like the LORD’s work, doesn’t it? As the Apostle Paul says, when someone becomes a follower of Jesus they “turn to God from idols to serve the true and living God.” The LORD alone is God. There is no other. That’s what we need to grasp. As Moses was preaching, he knew that his hearers wouldn’t grasp it. They would go off after the idols. But at some point in the distant future, the LORD, because he keeps his promises, would turn them back. The LORD has kept his promises. He has come to us in his Son. He has set up home with us in his Holy Spirit. Let’s pray now that he would turn our hearts to the only true God.