Bible Reading Romans 10:6-13
Paul quotes today’s sermon text, using it to demonstrate that when we live by faith according to the Word, we don’t have to earn our salvation by working our way up to Jesus, and we certainly don’t need to rescue him by our works. Trust that God in Jesus has brought our salvation near so that all we need is to believe and call on him. This is what he writes:
But the salvation that comes through faith says, “You don’t need to search the heavens to find Christ and bring him down to help you,” and, “You don’t need to go among the dead to bring Christ back to life again.” For salvation that comes from trusting Christ—which is what we preach—is already within easy reach of each of us; in fact, it is as near as our own hearts and mouths. For if you tell others with your own mouth that Jesus Christ is your Lord and believe in your own heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in his heart that a man becomes right with God; and with his mouth he tells others of his faith, confirming his salvation. For the Scriptures tell us that no one who believes in Christ will ever be disappointed. Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect: they all have the same Lord who generously gives his riches to all those who ask him for them. Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. (TLB)
Message The Rewards of Covenant Living Deuteronomy 30:9b-20a
In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus also drew on these final words of Moses in Deuteronomy when he said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (NIV) or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.” (MSG)
These Deuteronomy words also became the basis for a New Year’s Covenant Renewal Service, most vividly described in Joshua 24. For natural watering and sunning reasons Mt. Gerizim flourished in greenery, while Mt. Ebal was rocky and barren. Joshua gathered the people in the valley of Shechem, a natural amphitheater between the two mountains. He divided up the priests who went up into the two mountains -- and at the appropriate times, the priests on the green mountain called down the blessings of obedience, and the priests on the barren mountain called down the curses, the consequences, of disobedience. It was a powerful visual. Then the people were asked what they were going to do, and they promised to obey the Lord.
As we pick up the text in Deuteronomy, we have reached the point in Moses’ address where he answers what happens if the wrong choice is made. Will cursing destruction be the final conclusion of their story, of our story?
By the time we conclude 2 Kings, Jerusalem is in ruins, the Temple is destroyed, the kingship is demolished. There are thousands are casualties, and the cream of the survivors are exiled to Babylon far away from their home. Those who lived in those consequences basically had 3 choices.
Endure through hopeless stoicism
Some resigned themselves to what their situation was and endured it. There are times we have to “soldier on” in circumstances that are beyond our control. Some of you may remember the song sung by Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life” where we are riding high in April, shot down in May… Sometimes things just happen. But it is actually a positive song about persevering against people who “enjoy crushing your dreams”, and you are back on top in June. Not sure it always turns around that fast.
But there are also times when we choose to soldier on because we don’t learn to do things to help ourselves improve our circumstances, or we are too proud to ask for help that we might need.
Try other “gods”
Other people may have chosen a different path. In their culture, as I mentioned last week, whoever won the battle was presumed to have the stronger god -- so some may have switched to the religion of the powerful Babylonians while they were exiled into their land. I wonder how many times disappointments of life cause us to inappropriately rearrange our priorities. We conclude that just because the choice wasn’t popular or the results weren’t as positive as we hoped, our choice was wrong. Sometimes we can do everything right and still not get what we expect.
I was reading some biographical tidbits from the life of Bob Newhart. He originally studied in Illinois to be a lawyer. He left the field because as he participated in a required internship, they asked him to do things that were not ethical or legal. He then worked as an accountant and clerk but kept having to change jobs because the companies kept asking him to “cook the books”. He struggled economically for a long time before he finally became successful as a comedian. How much easier it would have been to follow the priorities and practices of the culture in which he lived, but he chose to remain faithful.
Learn from experience
And that is the final choice the people had when responding to struggles… These people (Daniel and the three firemen -- (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego of Daniel 3:8ff) for example) remained faithful; and others returned to God and tried to learn lessons from their disastrous circumstances.
Not every negative thing in life is directly (or indirectly) sin-caused. Nevertheless, today’s text is directed to those who are willing to humble themselves and to seek to learn from God and their life experiences. Hopefully that includes us, for who of us hasn’t fallen short of God’s perfect will and suffered consequences for our errant actions? Or simply experienced setbacks and challenges from which we should hope to learn and grow? Beginning in Deuteronomy 30:9.
The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9-10 (NIV))
This passage is telling us that within or beyond even the most serious situations, we can have a certain hope in God’s compassion, and on the basis of that loving grace -- we know he holds out a promise of redemption and restoration for any who turn or return to him. We cannot undo our past, but we can change our present, and that can lead to a new future…a day of healing and wholeness and blessing. It is a consistent message not only through Deuteronomy but throughout the Bible. What God wants to see in his people is a new heart and new spirit that is characterized by a genuine love expressed as a willingness to follow his will.
The next verses anticipate the objections that to do so is impossible. Beginning in verse 11:
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 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?” 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?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NIV))
We can’t keep God’s will
The unwritten objection is that God cannot justly blame us for failing to keep the law because, first, it is too hard to keep… It is true that the consistent practice of loving God and our neighbor can be challenging, but God looks at the desire and sincerity of our hearts more than how successful we are. But we shouldn’t lean on “good intentions” as an excuse; proclaiming the theory of love in our hearts while never bothering to practice it. Sincere love will work its way out in words and actions more and more as we grow in Christ.
We can’t know God’s will
The second unwritten objection is that God’s will is impossible to know. Yet to claim ignorance of the Law was not valid for it was in the mouth and heart. Devout Jews memorized and recited the Law throughout their history. God reveals his will to us.
In the pre-sermon reading we heard Paul’s take on this passage -- answering Christians with similar objections. In the context of that passage, he allows that keeping the law was burdensome, especially with what the Pharisees had constructed from it. But Paul says God’s self-revelation is not seen nor fulfilled by some superhuman effort in the Law, or by, as Peterson puts it in The Message, “no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah [to bring him close], no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah [from death by our own efforts]. But it is accomplished by accepting God’s grace in his Son Jesus Christ who is already near to us, and whose life demonstrates what God’s will looks like and who empowers us and shapes our hearts to live and love as we ought, and we’ll see in the next verses that if we choose to do this, God’s promise to us in Christ, like God’s promise to them through Moses and the Law - is that if call on him, turn to him -- we will never be disappointed but will be saved.
And so, in the last verses we are empowered to freely choose or reject God’s offer. Verses 15, 19, and 20 say:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction… 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 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life… (Deuteronomy 30: 15,19,20a (NIV))
In the Old Testament, blessings were connected with the land and agricultural / material abundance that flows from it, and with a long life. In this context it is not individual, but national life. The calling of witnesses was a regular practice in antiquity. Normally it was done “before the gods of those making the contract”, but Israel rejected this practice and instead called on all nature was called as a witness. The plea is to choose life -- and choosing life consists of three things.
Love the Lord your God
It sounds so simple. And yet we are so easily distracted... In the popular movie, Robin Hood, The Prince of Thieves; Robin walked up to a young archer aiming at a target and asked, "Can you shoot amid distractions?" Just as the boy shot, Robin tickled his ear with the feathers of an arrow. The boy's shot went high by several feet. After those watching stopped laughing, Maid Marian asked Robin, “Can you?” And just as Robin Hood was about to release his arrow, Maid Marian leaned toward him and flirtatiously blew into his face. The arrow missed the target, glanced off the tree and scarcely missed a bystander. Distractions come in all types, and whether they are painful or pleasant, the result is the same: we miss God's mark, which is the technical definition of sin.
Listen to his voice
People in love don’t get distracted from what or who they love. They want to please the one they love and so they carefully listen so they can do what the other desires. We will listen for and do what God wants because we know it will please him. And as a bonus, we will know it is in our own best interest as well, not only because he loves us, but because he knows our situation better than we do.
Does anyone remember Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team? His rule was that no one attempted to steal a base unless he gave the steal sign. Star Reggie Jackson didn’t like the rule because he felt he knew pitchers and catchers well enough that he knew when he could gain the base. One day he decided to break Weaver’s rule and stole second base. He was easily successful, and he brushed himself off with a self-satisfied smile, thinking he knew more than his manager.
Weaver pulled him aside after the game and explained why he hadn’t given him the sign to steal. The next batter was their best power hitter after Jackson. By stealing second, first base was left open and the other team decided to intentionally walk Lee May, taking the bat out of his hands. Not only that, the next batter was not strong against that pitcher and that forced Weaver to send in a pinch hitter, weakening his bench strength when he might need it later in the game. Sometimes we only see the small picture and think we know what is best for us, but God sees the whole game of life and knows what is best for all of us together.
Hold fast (cleave) to him
So we see that it is best to keep listening and doing what he says. One person lost their life savings in a corrupt business scheme. She went to the Better Business Bureau. They asked why she hadn’t come to them to in-vestigate the company before she invested. She said the deal sounded so good she didn’t want to go the them because she was afraid they might say “No”. Sometimes, we don’t pay attention to God because we are afraid he might say “no” to our plans and desires.
On the other hand, allegedly (I didn’t get time to fact check it - but if not true, it still makes a good methapor). Allegedly, a news crew was covering hurricane Andrew (this would be about 27 years ago) and went to one neighborhood that was completely wiped out except for one home. The owner was cleaning up his front yard. The reporter went to him and asked, “How did your house alone manage to escape all this severe damage?” The man answered, “The Florida state building code is written so homes can withstand a hurricane.” I built this house myself, and I built it according to the code with the proper size trusses and hurricane clips and all the rest. I guess they cut corners on the rest of these homes. (See Matthew 7:24-27 for Jesus’ version of the same idea and applied to the spiritual life). When the sun is shining and the skies are blue, building our lives on something other than the guidelines in God's Word can seem less costly and very tempting. But there's always a potential hurricane coming to our lives. Even if no storm ever comes, it is still best for all that we choose to build our life according to the code of the One who made us and remakes us every day. Choose life.
Closing Prayer Let’s Pray. Lord, we crave to be remade by you. Daily, be it sunny or stormy, encourage us to choose life, to choose love, to choose to listen and obey, to cling to our relationship with you. Open all our senses, that we may better understand and live out what you have put in our hearts and mouths. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 454 Open My Eyes
Closing Blessing Now choosing to build on the solid foundation of God’s will and way, we know that no storm can ever knock us down. So go to live and love and cleave to the covenant relationship God has gracefully established with us. Amen.