Deuteronomy Overview: Chosen Together - 3rd May 2015 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Deuteronomy 7:6-13

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Why do we preach sermons? It’s not actually to entertain you. You may find that very easy to believe. And nor is it to relay some information, or to try to be interesting. It’s not even to provide a soothing sonic backdrop to your morning nap.

Preaching is all about passing on God’s word, so that people will know God and respond to him. Good preaching helps people to know God better. Good preaching brings a response. Bad preaching is all about the preacher, or the listeners, but it’s not about God. Bad preaching may be interesting or entertaining, but it leaves people unchanged. Preaching is about knowing God and responding to him.

The book of Deuteronomy is rammed full of good preaching. In fact that’s basically what the whole book is. If you just flick back to the start of the book for a second, chapter 1 verse 1 (p.178) you can see what this book is all about. “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan.” Or just glance down at verse 5 of the same chapter: “East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying…” And Moses begins preaching God’s law, God’s words to them. He’s expounding it, like we do when we preach, not just telling them what God said, but helping them to understand what it means, so that they will know God and so that they will respond. And as he starts he goes on. Pretty much all of the rest of the book is Moses preaching to the people. 33 chapters. He really, really wants them to get this.

Why is he preaching to them so much? Well, it’s to do with where and when they are.

The story of Israel so far has been a belter, and if you’ve missed it then go and listen to the sermons on the Christ Church website that we had from the book of Exodus last year. Or go and read the book of Exodus. Basically, God, the LORD, in keeping with his ancient promises, has rescued this people the Israelites out of miserable slavery in Egypt, he’s done it by some pretty amazing acts of power, he’s met with them and spoken with them and set up home with them. And he’s led them by a roundabout route through the desert to the edge of the land he had promised them. That’s where the book of Deuteronomy happens, on the verge of Jordan, on the banks of the river with the promised land on the other side, on the cusp of the life they’d been promised. This is a ‘preach on the beach’ if you will.

And it’s crunch time for them. There is a choice before them. Their situation is brimming with excitement and tension. You see there’s a big question, and the question is “which way are they going to go now?” Will they go God’s way or not? When you move location or go through a change in circumstances, there’s always an opportunity to change isn’t there? I remember feeling that acutely when I first moved away from home and started at university; I was aware of a choice. I could carry on being a Christian, or I could try to reinvent myself as something different. Which way would I go? It’s like that with the people of Israel here, and much more so for two reasons. One reason is that their recent history has been filled with rebellion against God. Their parents generation, the generation which came out of Egypt, had spent their time in the desert grumbling against God and distrusting him, so much so that the LORD had delayed their entry into the promised land by a whole forty years while that generation had died out in the desert. So this lot in Deuteronomy weren’t there in Egypt. They didn’t see what happened with their own eyes. That adds tension. What are they going to do? Not their parents, them. And, to ramp it up even more, Moses is about to die. He’s not going into the land with them. Moses who has been their leader, Moses who has always known what to do, Moses who has been God’s mouthpiece to them. This is crunch time isn’t it?

So what do they need? They need good preaching. They need to hear God’s word so that they will know the LORD and respond well. That’s what I needed when I went to university; I’ll always be thankful that I received it. That’s what the people of Israel need: a preach on the beach. And that’s what we need. You see our situation is clearly different to theirs, but not so different as to make this irrelevant to us. We’ve not been rescued from Egypt, but, as we heard in Colossians, if we’re believers in Jesus then God has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. And we may not have the promised land ahead of us, but we have much bigger promises, the promise of eternal life, life with the LORD in a new creation ahead of us. And so today, and every day until either we die or Jesus comes back, becomes crunch time. What will we do? Will we go God’s way or not? Will we grow together in Christ or will we fall back? We too need God’s word; we need good preaching, we need the book of Deuteronomy.

So what is the Holy Spirit going to teach us through this book? Well I think there’s two big headings which sum up the main themes of Deuteronomy, which are these: the LORD has chosen and loved his people; and the people must choose and love the LORD.

1.  The LORD has chosen and loved his people.

If you’re not back at Deuteronomy 7, turn back to it now (p.186). Have a look at verse 6: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.  7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.  8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

When we tell our story we normally begin with the word “I” don’t we? “Tell me about yourself.” “Well, I grew up on the Wirral…” The people of Israel’s story began not with themselves, but with God. The LORD chose them. That’s what made them what they were; they were chosen by the LORD to be his. Before they had done anything. Before these people Moses was talking to even existed, God had chosen them. God acted first.

It’s crucial we understand this. If we come to Deuteronomy thinking it’s a guide to how to get into God’s good books, we’ve got it all wrong. If we think that God’s law in general is a ladder we can climb to get to him so that if we’re good enough he’ll accept us, we’ve misunderstood it. God acted first, not the people. He chose them. He reached down to save them.

And Moses is really clear isn’t he? – it’s not because of anything to do with the people themselves that God has chosen them. Verse 7 says it’s not because they were exceptionally big – in fact they were exceptionally small. In chapter 9 says likewise that it wasn’t because of their righteousness or their integrity. God hasn’t taken them because they were the pick of the bunch. They weren’t. He chose them because he chose them.

And it was a deeply personal choice, wasn’t it? Verse 6: the Lord has chosen you to be “his people, his treasured possession.” Verse 8: “It was because the LORD loved you,” Moses says. The LORD had chosen them and set his covenant love upon them. Covenant love. Covenant is one of the key themes in Deuteronomy and the whole Bible. Covenant is relationship with teeth. Covenant means lasting commitment. Covenant means binding promises. Marriage is a covenant; just living together is not. The LORD is not playing around. He does not blow hot and cold. He has chosen and loved his people. He has bound himself to them. He has made promises to them and he will keep them. As Moses says in verse 9: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God.” Faithful is covenant language. Faithful is marriage language. He has chosen them for himself, and he has given himself to them.

Now this was pretty unique. One of the big things that Moses keeps telling the people in Deuteronomy is “know how privileged you are.” Listen to this from chapter 4 verse 32: “Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?... 34 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?” Other nations either inherited their gods, because their ancestors had always worshipped them, or they chose their gods to fit their needs, such as fertility gods because they wanted to have children and they wanted to have food to eat and so on. This God chose his people.

Now let’s take this to us for a minute so we can think about our situation and how this might speak to us. There’s a big continuity here. Christians now are the same, people chosen by the LORD. Like we heard the apostle Peter say in that other reading just before to Christians: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” It’s what Moses says all over again, isn’t it?

It’s a clear and repeated message throughout the Bible that if we are followers of Jesus, that is because God has chosen us for himself. Sometimes people struggle with that, they find it hard to swallow because, well, frankly we’d rather opt in to something than be chosen. If we can opt in then it leaves us more in control. We’d quite like to be like the line from that famous poem ‘Invictus’ that’s currently being quoted in Xbox commercials “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Being chosen takes that out of our hands. Indeed it does. But there you go, there is no alternative. The glory of the Gospel is not what believers have done for God but what God has done for believers.

This has to lead us towards having, in the words of the hymn, ‘humble, thankful hearts.’ Our salvation, our rescue, our adoption as God’s children, our righteous standing with him, all that is not because of anything we have done, or because we are particularly loveable or talented or nice or whatever. God acted first. He chose us in Christ and loved us in Christ. What a privilege. One of my favourite hymns is an old one called “When this passing world is done”, which includes this verse: “Chosen, not for good in me; wakened up from wrath to flee; hidden in the saviour’s side; by the Spirit sanctified. Teach me Lord, on earth to show, by my love how much I owe.”  Humble, thankful hearts.

2.  The people must choose and love the LORD

Look again at chapter 7 verse 9: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.  10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.  11 Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today.”

Preaching is there to help people to know the LORD and to bring about a response. And it is a real response, a real choice. Some people have the idea that because God chooses, his people are therefore just passengers who sit back and let it happen. That is quickly dismissed here, as it so often is in the Bible. As they stand on the banks of the river, they have a real choice before them.

A deeply personal choice. Do you notice how personal the language is here? Verse 9 “Your God”. “Love him.” Verse 10: “Hate him.” It’s no half measures is it? Love or hate. Now as I’ve said the other nations would choose gods to suit them – fertility gods and so on. So you’d have this god when you needed good crops, and a different god when you were unwell or whatever. A bit like that other unbiblical idea –patron saints. You’re going on a journey so you ask St Christopher to help. It’s nonsense, isn’t it? Their gods were like emergency services – you would pick the one you needed when you needed it. It’s nothing like that with the LORD is it? You can’t hire him for particular jobs and then drop him again. How often do we treat him like that in prayer? You can’t take the bits you like. There is none of the piecemeal religion that our postmodern culture loves here – I’ll have a bit of Christianity, a bit of Buddhism and so on. Or the Christian equivalent – I want a God of love but I don’t want a God who is angry about sin. It’s love the LORD. As he is, in his entirety. Or else hate him.

The LORD has given himself to his people in covenant, and therefore, like with a marriage, the only appropriate response is personal faithfulness and love. A marriage where only one person makes vows is not a marriage. As Moses says so memorably, the heart of the law is Deuteronomy 6:5. Now you all know Deuteronomy 6:5 by now, don’t you? “You shall LOVE the LORD your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your might.”

It’s love, honour and obey. Loving the LORD, being faithful to the LORD and obeying the LORD are all part of the same thing. As Moses says at the end of verse 9, “he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.” Now this is where the picture of marriage breaks down a bit, because when we think about human marriage, even allowing for all that the Bible says about the different roles of men and women and headship and so on, we’re thinking about a marriage of equals. Not so with the LORD and his people. It’s not equals. It’s loving, yes. Deeply. But it’s not between equals. To put it simply, the LORD saves and commands. The people listen and obey. And the LORD blesses. If you know Deuteronomy at all you’ll know that there’s an enormous amount about obedience. Commands for all sorts of situations. And the big command that comes again and again is “hear!” Listen to the words of the Lord and obey them.

Moses finishes his preaching with these words in chapter 32 verse 46: “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you – they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

It’s not that hearing and obeying will bring them into relationship with the LORD, no, they’re already in relationship with the LORD. He brought them into relationship with himself when he saved them out of Egypt and made them his people. No, hearing and obeying is their relationship with the LORD in action. It’s like within a marriage, when I spend time with Sarah and talk to her, that doesn’t make us married – we’re already married. And talking to her is not an alternative to loving her – it’s an expression of love. It’s the marriage in action. The covenant relationship between God and his people in action means the people hearing and obeying the words of the LORD. They’re to do it as an expression of love. And as they do so he will go on blessing them, showing them more and more of his kindness and love. That’s the picture that Deuteronomy paints of relationship with God. Ultra practical – hearing and obeying the LORD in all kinds of circumstances and situations. This is a book that really gets down to the nitty gritty. Very practical. But totally a matter of the heart. It’s all about real, faithful love.

Ah yes, but… The problem is that it doesn’t end all that well. There’s not really a happy ending to the book of Deuteronomy. In fact there’s not really an ending to it. There’s an ending of sorts, because Moses stops preaching and dies. But the stuff he’s talked about kind of launches into the rest of the Old Testament. It points forward. And, as they say, spoiler alert: the Old Testament doesn’t end happily. Moses foresees that. He preaches for all he’s worth, pleading with them, urging them to love the LORD, warning them of the perils of rejecting him, but there’s an inevitability about it all. Moses knows that they will not love honour and obey. He knows that they will be unfaithful, that they will run off after other gods, that they will turn their backs on the LORD who has chosen them and saved them and blessed them. And that will be disastrous for them. As they do that the blessings will be stood on their head and become cursings. There’s a lot of talk in Deuteronomy of curse, the opposite of blessing. Of punishment and condemnation in return for unfaithfulness and disobedience. It doesn’t end happily.

But again, Deuteronomy itself has a longer view. Moses speaks of a future restoration for the people. He speaks of a future leader like him. He speaks of a future where the people will be atoned for, where they will be blessed. Deuteronomy is looking forward to Jesus. Jesus who will ramp up God’s love for the people, who will be God with us and who will also be the faithful Israel who will love God his Father with all his heart. Jesus who will succeed where his people have failed. Jesus who will take his people’s punishment, Jesus who will, as Paul says, become curse for us. Instead of us.

So, as we study Deuteronomy, what can expect and pray for? Well I pray that we will see the LORD more clearly. The LORD who has chosen and loved his people. This God is our God – not a different God. Our situation is different to the Israelites but our God is the same. In Deuteronomy we will see him in his glory, his holiness, his fierce love. I pray that we will respond with love. Obedient love. That’s still what God wants from us, obedient love. Jesus says, doesn’t he, “if you love me, obey my commandments.” Let’s pray that we’ll love and obey the LORD. And as we hear of the curses for disobedience, conscious of our own failures, let’s praise our Father all the more that he has sent Jesus for us, to do what we could not, and to take our punishment in our place. The LORD has chosen and loved his people. Choose and love the LORD. And all the more, now that he has sent Jesus for us.