Saturday, January 28, 2017

O Look! An Elephant! (Deuteronomy 7)

Forty some years ago I spent a summer in San Francisco—10 weeks working in the housing projects and on skid row during the “summer of love”, 1969. “The Age of Aquarius” was a popular song on the radio: “When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars,/ Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars./ This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius …/ Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding./ No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation. …” Well, it wasn’t. Violence and mistrust abound today. It seems that the age of Aquarius was really short.

Another song written that year made the charts the following summer. Lois spent a month that summer in Brooklyn at a Brethren in Christ VS Unit there and recalls hearing it play over and over again: “I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing./ Say it again, war, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing, listen to me./ War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker, War, friend only to the undertaker …”

Protests against the War in Vietnam were on the rise, and the song resonated with many people around the world. It could almost be a Mennonite anthem.

And then we turn to Deuteronomy, and run into trouble.

The Real War (Herem) 
Text (Deut 7: 1-10)
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 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.
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. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors 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. 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 commandments. 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.

We struggle with these verses because we hear them as a call to genocide. Placed alongside a passage such as Deuteronomy 3 (the total destruction of Og of Bashan) and 1 Samuel 15 (God’s command through Samuel to Saul to destroy the Amalekites completely, combined with God’s judgment on Saul for not doing so), this language grates harshly in our ears.

We want to sing that song from 1970—war is good for nothing—and embrace the age of peace and harmony that we sang about in the 1960s. Our question this morning is: What’s going on here? Do we do best by not reading Deuteronomy? Is there something here for us? The following comments are my beginning efforts to make sense of the passage and apply it to our lives. So here are some thoughts.

1) The Tension Remains: I do not say that we have no tension with this language. We face clearly the truth that God’s people used violence in the OT. That fact actually gives me hope. It is clear from the NT and from the teachings and example of Jesus that we are to embrace peace, and yet God was willing and able to work with people whose culture was steeped in violence. God moved them gently over centuries of interaction to the point where they (and we) could receive the way of peace as the way for God’s people.

Clues pointing in this direction are present in the OT from the earliest days. Abraham is sent to a far-away land, but not as a soldier. Abraham and Sarah travel in peace and avoid fighting whenever possible; they depend on God’s care. When their descendants do turn to fighting in the Exodus, God fights for them and they do nothing themselves against the Egyptians. In fact, their name (“Children of Israel”) means, “the people for whom God fights”. As Millard Lind says in the title of a book in which he explores the war texts of the OT, “Yahweh is a warrior.” The people’s future depends on God’s providential care, not on their military might. “Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses. We trust in the Lord.”

2) But the passage does not teach genocide: The tension (that they did fight) remains, but the further problem of a call to genocide does not. The verses do not call for genocide. We must take language for what Moses (in this case) intends to say, not for what we think the words must mean. The language of total destruction was part of the way that nations of that time normally spoke to say that they would defeat (or had defeated) the enemy.

Several considerations make it clear that “total destruction” does not mean genocide. In the verses we read, Moses tells the people not to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land who remain. Nor are they to adopt their religious practices. If they are all dead, how could the Children of Israel intermarry with them or worship their gods?

This thought is reinforced by laws in chapter 24 that tell how to make sure that “aliens” [gerim] are cared for through laws of gleaning. In chapter 10 Moses says that they are to care for these same gerim, including the inhabitants whom they have dispossessed, because they themselves had been aliens (gerim) in Egypt. In fact, God say to love them, using the same word we heard in the Shema for “Love God”. How could this mean to love the people you exterminated? Most likely, Moses never meant: Kill them all!

3) Direct and Indirect Communication: What then might he have meant? We need to understand communication among people like Israelites. They had what we call a “high context culture”. That is, the speaker means something slightly different than the words mean on the surface—what we call “indirect communication”. We come from a low context culture, in which people normally say what they mean—what we call direct communication.

An example from Zimbabwe when I was doing research there on the BIC churches in Bulawayo. I wanted to find Mlotshwa, a carpenter who had a shop in the city and was one of the founding members of the BIC in Bulawayo. I went (walking on foot) to the part of town where his shop was and asked someone on the street if he knew where Mlotshwa the carpenter had his shop. He said, “Keep going straight ahead. You will find it.” I walked for about two miles and decided I had missed it. I asked another man I met if he knew where the shop was. He directed me back to where I started and across the street. I was a couple of hundred yards away, and the first man had sent me on a long walk, two miles and back. What happened?

The Canadian in me says, “He lied to me.” But he was an African, using his culture’s way of answering my question. What he meant was something like this (in our low-context way of saying it): “No, I don’t know where his shop is, but if you keep looking I’m sure you will find it.” He intended to encourage me and not to deceive me, but I did not understand his indirect form of communication. Something like that is going on here.

4) So what did he mean? Gerald Gerbrandt suggests that we should read this language as a metaphor, stating strongly the extent to which the Israelites were to reject any other divine authority in their lives. Two chapters earlier, Moses reminds them of the Ten Commandments, in which God begins with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Yahweh War in Deuteronomy 7, then, spells out the full extent of what it means to say, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The NT uses similar images to indicate that we are in a war with the power of evil. So Paul could say, “Put on the whole armour of God” and then spell out some details of this war (Ephesians 6). We can read this passage in Deuteronomy as a similarly strong statement, emphasizing the danger that the Children of Israel faced as they encountered the worship of Ishtar-Aphrodite-Venus on the on hand and the worship of Baal on the other. The religious practices of the people in Canaan were interwoven into the fabric of daily life so thoroughly that Moses commanded them to put it all to death.

Moses’ words, then, become a call to treat the surrounding cultures as “dead to them”. We also, who have become dead to self (compare the metaphor, “I am crucified with Christ”—Galatians 2:20) now treat the culture around us as “dead to us”. We “devote it to destruction”.

We live in modern Canada. What about our culture poses danger to Christians today, like the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land? I suggest that two particular idols are particularly prevalent and powerful in our culture. One is the idol of sex: We have come to believe that sexual expression is the one true measure of life fully lived. Another is the idol of self: We have come to believe that personal fulfillment is our right, and that lack of personal fulfillment is the greatest tragedy we can experience. Both of these idols exaggerate biblical ideals for the Christian life. Both compete with God to take first place in our lives. Moses would say to us: Destroy your culture totally at precisely these points. Such “herem” requires the church to study our context carefully, in light of our commitment to God, and identify the idols of our lives.

One way that we can follow Christ and deny the idol of self is to commit ourselves to Christ and to community. In a context where we are tempted to be Christians whose spirituality is expressed individually, in isolation from other believers, we commit ourselves to the flawed, hurting, inescapable body of Christ. There we begin to live God’s reign together here on earth.

This brings me to the rocks you are holding. As you came in, you saw the table with rocks on it, and with the instruction to write your name on a rock and bring it with you into the sanctuary. Here is what I want to do with your names on the rocks. We will pass the basket, so to speak, and put our names into the basket. Then, as we leave the sanctuary at the end of the service, I am asking each one to take out a rock from the basket and take the rock home with you. I’m asking you then to pray for the person whose name you draw each day for the next month.

If you prefer not to participate, you can take your rock home with you. I hope you will take part, but I don’t want anyone to pray out of guilt or a sense of being manipulated. Rather, this is our opportunity to put on God’s armour and devote our individualism to complete destruction.

If there’s someone who didn’t get a rock and you would like one, hold up your hand and the ushers will bring you a rock and a Sharpie to write your name on the rock. [Give a moment to be sure everyone has a rock, and then have the ushers “take up the rocks”.] Once you have your rock with someone’s name on it, remember to pray for that person daily. If you like (and feel comfortable doing it), you might ask the person whose rock you draw, “How may I pray for you?” We need each other in this journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.

This exploration does not solve our problems with the war passages of the OT, but it does suggest a way forward. God calls us to live in the world, using the patterns of the world. We are Canadians, and we live as Canadians. But Canada has its own idols that we must devote to destruction. In the past, when we moved from one country to another, the very fact of being migrants helped us to avoid worshipping the idols of that place. Today we are more at home, and therein lies our danger.

God calls us to live here in Manitoba, but God also calls us to live fully as children of God, praying always, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. … For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

29 January 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Giving Shape to Discipleship (Deuteronomy 5)

As I said last Sunday, Mennonites often avoid Deuteronomy because as Protestants (saved by grace) we avoid the Law and as Mennonites (committed to peace) we avoid the war texts. Both objections are, I believe, misplaced. In two weeks we will look at a primary war text in Dt 7. Today we look at the core of the Law, often called the Ten Commandments.

The Hebrew name for these commands is “the ten words”, from which we get the name “Decalogue” (Greek for “ten words”). To think of them as laws (“commandments”) is misplaced, because it reduces them to a law code for lawyers to argue over, when they are meant as a paradigm or picture to give us a glimpse of what life spent walking with God looks like. The Ten Words give shape to discipleship. They show us what a godly life looks like. So we examine them this morning to find out how we respond to God’s grace at work in our lives.

Introducing the Ten Words
Verses 1 to 5 introduce the Ten Words. Moses says to the people:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.)

Note the importance of hearing. An old joke tells of three men, all hard of hearing, riding the train in London. One says to the others, “Is this Wembley?” A second replies, “No, it’s Thursday.” The third says, “I am too. Let’s get off and have a drink.” We may be hard of hearing with each other, but we dare not be deaf towards God. God the creative Word speaks into our lives, and God’s words are life. This way of saying, “Hear, O Israel”, is a standard formulation in Deuteronomy. It means, “Pay attention! This is important!” It implies a close personal relationship for giving the Ten Words. Although God spoke at Sinai to Moses, who was there with the parents of his present audience, “Moses insists, “God made this covenant with you. God spoke these words to you. I stood between because of your fear, but this is God’s relationship with you.”

As with the whole of the Law, the Ten Words show how the people are to respond to God’s saving act in setting them free from Egypt and bringing them to their new home. They do not earn God’s intervention; rather they respond to it by living God’s way. This fact parallels the way that we understand the work of Jesus in the New Testament. God sets us free from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. We respond by living God’s way in this world.

What follows, then, gives us the shape of discipleship for God’s people, Israel, just as the Sermon on the Mount gives us the shape of discipleship for Christians who follow Jesus today. With this in mind, we can hear Moses speaking to us also: God made a covenant with you—not just with those people from three thousand years ago. God has acted in your lives. These words show you how to live as God’s people.

The Ten Words
So we turn to the Ten Words themselves. Gerald Gerbrandt has a helpful table showing the ways that different groups have numbered them. Judaism has one set of numbers beginning with “I am the Lord your God”, Roman Catholicism has another, and Protestants a third. (See Gerbrandt, Deuteronomy, 131.) I will use the usual Protestant numbering, following Christopher Wright. (See Wright, Deuteronomy, 68-86.) We go through the ten words in sequence and then consider what they mean for us today, taken together.

First Word: You shall have no other gods before me. We meet God as Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There may be other spiritual powers, but God alone is the source of life, the creator of all, the one whom we follow when we say, “Jesus is Lord”.

Second Word: You shall make no carved image. The use of idols was common in the ancient world, and remains so today in many religions. Followers of Jesus [applying this commandment directly to ourselves] relate to God as a person, as Creator and Divine Parent, as Lord and Saviour. A basic reason that we do not make “images” is that we are ourselves made in God’s image (Genesis 1). We do not point to an idol to show God to those around us; we point to ourselves. This is an awesome and terrible responsibility.

Third Word: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Names were important in the OT. You remember the way that Jacob asks to know God’s name, and God asks, “Why do you want to know my name?” Jacob wanted to use God’s name to control God. When people today give their opinion about something, but claim that this is the word of the Lord, they transgress against this word from the Lord. Preachers are especially in danger here! We may too easily say, “Thus says the Lord,” when in fact it is only our own voice speaking.

Fourth Word: Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. As I said last Sunday, this word to Israel is revolutionary. They were to take a day each week to remember God, to remember who they were and God is, to renew the covenant with God under which they lived. Most importantly, they did so because they had been slaves of the Egyptians and were now God’s people. Therefore they also made sure that the slaves in their own homes could share the Sabbath with them. All people stand equal in God’s presence, from the lowest to the highest in the land.

Fifth Word: Honour your father and mother. This word speaks to the importance of family life and of community. The word is not directed primarily to children as children, but to everyone to respect and honour those who precede them. The word assumes that our old people are a great asset to the community and worthy of great respect. I saw an example recently of a retirement centre in the Netherlands. Young adults in a university nearby are given lodging in the community; their rent is to socialize with the elderly people there, providing companionship to people suffering from dementia, for example. This experiment is a wonderful way of living out the fifth word to honour our oldest “mothers and fathers” in the community.

Sixth Word: You shall not kill. I don’t think that the Israelites heard a prohibition of all killing in this word, but Jesus deepens our understanding in the Sermon on the Mount to include all violence against other people, not just murder.

Seventh Word: You shall not commit adultery. Again, family life is to be valued, and actions that destroy the family are condemned. Some people wonder if this word reflects a patriarchal view in which women were condemned for adultery and men could get away with it. The way that the fifth word, also lifts up the family, calls for respect of father and mother suggests rather that all violence against the family is in view here.

Eighth Word: You shall not steal. Respect for other people, within and outside of the family, includes respect for property as well.

Ninth Word: You shall not give false testimony. Such respect also includes a careful and consistent integrity that does not speak against other people for one’s own gain.

Tenth Word: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour. This word is remarkable in that it deals with the heart, rather than with external action. Jesus picks up on this interior nature of the Law when he deepens the provisions of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “You have heard that you should not kill another, but I tell you that one who hates another in his/her heart has become a murderer.” One not only avoids stealing (the eighth word), but one avoids even desiring what one might steal.

Bringing These Together
This is a quick survey of the content of the Ten Words. Remember that they are a picture of faithfulness, showing what discipleship looks like, not a comprehensive guide to how to live, nor are they meant to say all that God wants to say to us. Rather they grow out of God’s interaction with the Children of Israel, setting them free from slavery and giving them their own home in which to live.

Some observations, then, on the whole.
First, sometimes we want to turn these words into a list of rules to follow, but they represent our response to God rather than rules on how to get to God. We do follow them, but we follow them as our response to God’s work in our lives. If you are not a follower of Jesus, then these words are less important for you. They are good advice for everyone, but the first step is always to seek God’s face, to meet God ourselves.

Second, an observation comes from the dual focus in these words. They represent how we relate to God on the one hand and how we relate to our neighbours in community on the other. The vertical and horizontal dimensions are not two separate ways of being “good”, but rather they are bound together in every part of our lives. If you want to follow God, that includes treating each other rightly. If you want to treat each other well, that includes following God.

Jesus summarized the Law in the great commandment: “Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus shows us clearly that these two movements—upwards to God and horizontally to each other—are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. The Ten Words say the same thing.

My third observation is that these Ten Words give us a basic orientation to life that stands in great tension with the way that Canadians in general see life. Christopher Wright puts it like this:
It would be going too far to assert a strict sequential order of values in the Ten Commandments, but the overall impression seems valid. God’s priorities for human moral attention are: God, society, family, life, sex, property. It hardly needs to be pointed out that in Western society at least, modern culture has almost precisely inverted this order of priorities.

Consider the way that our culture treats sexual expression. We assume that life is most fulfilling if we experience a great deal of pleasure, and the highest form of pleasure is sexual. Therefore anything that interferes with sexual expression is wrong. I enjoy reading the advice column in the Winnipeg Free Press. It intrigues me how often the people asking for help refer to sex, and I observe that in her answers “Miss Lonelyhearts” assumes that sexual expression is simply good, unless it hurts someone. The Ten Words do not say she is wrong, but they do relativize sexual expression within the greater values of what is good for society and the family.

Similarly, our culture values making money and having lots of personal property. “Those who die with the most toys win,” we say. The Ten Words also value property, but place the good of the larger community and of each family above the acquisition of wealth.

Repeatedly in our world we find ourselves living by standards that are in tension with the Ten Words, and therefore also in tension with the values of God’s Reign in this world. Consider end of life issues that we face today in Canada. These are high on our radar, given the aging population of Canada. So the question arises about the right to end one’s own life.

If personal expression and the rights of the individual are greatest, then it makes sense to listen to the person who wishes to control the moment of his/her death. But if the first place is given to God, from whose hands life and death come, then we may look for other alternatives. The place that the Ten Words give to parents—to the oldest mothers and fathers in the community—suggests that we should at the least make their closing days as comfortable as possible. But a simple appeal to what the individual wants will carry less weight.

Hear me carefully at this point. I have given any answers any of the issues I have referred to. Rather I am saying that we must be clear about the basis on which we discuss and decide them. As followers of Jesus we observe that God has first place in our lives, and that we work out our relationship with God by valuing society, family, life, sex, and property in that order.

Our society answers these questions by valuing property above respect for life, sex above society, and what the individual wants above what the community wants. In our society’s view, God is a mostly irrelevant afterthought, which we do not bring into the conversation at all. For us, however, our whole conversation begins with God. God has saved us. God has made us. God has led us through the desert to the place where we now stand.

The precise shape that our discipleship takes requires careful conversation as a community, in which we help each other hear God speak. “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.”

Steinbach Mennonite Church

8 January 2017

Text: Deuteronomy 5: 1-21
Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
17 “You shall not murder.
18 “You shall not commit adultery.
19 “You shall not steal.
20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

21 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Sunday, January 08, 2017

On the Boundary (Reading Deuteronomy)

Deuteronomy must be a candidate for “least read book of the Bible” among Mennonites. Why would we read a book that recapitulates the Law (the name itself means “second law”—i.e., a retelling of the law), when we are New Testament followers of Jesus, saved by grace through faith? Why would we spend time with a book that records God’s command to kill Israel’s enemies while sanctioning the dispossessing of the original inhabitants of the land? These are fair questions, and we dare not dodge them.

Yet Deuteronomy was basic to Jesus’ own life and message. Every reply that Jesus gives to Satan when he is tempted in the desert comes from Deuteronomy. At least one commentator thinks that Jesus spent his 40-day fast before the temptations meditating on the book of Deuteronomy. This book re-emphasizes the foundation of the covenant God made with the Chosen People, an incredible gift of grace for people who had no right to expect anything from the Creator of the universe. It is with good reason that Daniel Block calls his course on this book, “the gospel according to Deuteronomy”.

So we have answered our first objection [law against grace] already. This book is the place we begin to understand the gospel as we read it in the New Testament. In fact, one can say that if we do not grasp the message of Deuteronomy, we will find it hard to understand the message of Jesus. So we begin with a brief look at the background and structure of this book, and then listen to these first verses from chapter one.

This morning, then, I will introduce the book as a whole, with special attention to the first eight verses, which we have already heard in the Scripture reading. In the three Sundays following we will consider three passages: The Ten Commandments in chapter 5, the great Confession or Creed in chapter 6 (“Shema Yisrael”), and the call to what is sometimes called “holy war” in chapter 7.

Introduction: The Book
Deuteronomy records the words of Moses to the Children of Israel, just before they enter the Promised Land. Moses knows that this is the end of his journey on this earth, and he wants to be sure that the people he has led for so long know his heart before he leaves them. The first eight verses make this nature of the book clear: “These are the words that Moses spoke …” (verse 1); “Moses began to expound this law [given by God to God’s people], saying …” As commentators say, this is not so much a retelling of the Law, although it is that, as it is a sermon about how to live as God’s people.

The gospels also function as a sermon. For example, Matthew is structures around give sermons that Jesus preaches. In the first of these (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law (5:17): “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” Jesus intensifies and brings out the inner meaning of the Law. We should expect, then, to see the gospel in our consideration of Deuteronomy over the next four Sundays.

So Moses gives his closing words to the Israelites. He tells them again what God wants them to do (what we call “the Law”, or Torah). We should not think of this Law as a collection of rules for the Children of Israel to follow—like the Law Code of Canada. Rather they give a picture of what it means to be God’s faithful people in one particular context and point in time. Christopher Wright calls the Law “a paradigm” of what it means to follow God faithfully. We should expect then to find themes in the Law that lay the foundation for the themes we find in the gospel.

Moses sets this paradigm or picture of faithfulness within the story of the Wilderness Wanderings. He reminds the people of what has happened in their lifetimes. Verse 2 makes the point in a subtle and devastating way: “It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.” They have just spent 40 years wandering about the desert to complete an 11-day journey. Wow! Moses reminds the Israelites that they have stood here before. Once before they had stood on the boundary of the Promised Land. Once before God had told them to enter. On that occasion they failed, fearful of what the future would bring. As a result God sent them away from the boundary, until that generation should die. Once before Moses had said to them: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them” (verses 7-8). Now their children stand again on the boundary. Now their children again have the opportunity to follow God across the boundary.

So throughout the book Moses recites the story of their flight from Egypt, of God’s mighty saving action setting them free from slavery, and of the ways that they have experienced God’s grace, as well as showed their own rebellious side in response to God’s grace. The whole narrative sets up the kind of thing that Joshua says at the beginning of the next book: “Choose you this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Moses is challenging them to serve the Lord.

This Morning’s Passage
Verse 1 tells us that these are the words of Moses [think “Sermon”] to Israel just across the Jordan, preparing to cross the boundary into the Land of Promise.
Verse 2 reminds the audience of their own history, capturing God’s grace and their failure in the prosaic statement of an 11-days journey that took 40 years.
Verses 3 and 4 restate the book’s nature as the words of Moses, and the setting in point of time—after 40 years.
Verse 5, at the centre of the passage, emphasizes that these are the words of Moses, given on the boundary of the Land of Promise.
Verses 6 to 8 give God’s command: Cross the boundary and enter the Promised Land. Moses is remembering the original command. Now the children are given their opportunity. The closing formulation, reminding them of the way that this promise fulfills the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, connects the opportunity before them with the covenant God first made with the patriarchs.

This last thought highlights the shape of the book as a covenant between nations. Such covenants normally name the ruler who is in charge, and name the subjects of that ruler. Before the Exodus, the Children of Israel were in a covenant relationship with Pharaoh. It was a bad, but also a binding, covenant. Pharaoh was their ruler and provided homes and food for them. They were Pharaoh’s subjects and provided Egypt with labour.

God set them free from this oppressive relationship and now makes them God’s People. Deuteronomy is the record of this covenant, in which God is revealed as their absolute ruler and the Children of Israel are revealed as the People of God, who live by the rules of God. Consequently we have at the heart of Deuteronomy the forerunner of the basic Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord.” We pick this theme up when we look at the central confession of Israel in the Shema of chapter 6.

A Central Theme
This central confession leads us to ask what other themes are basic to the book as a whole. Remember that the Law in Deuteronomy is a paradigm for how God’s People should live rather than a set of individual rules that we try to apply directly to our lives. To put it another way, we don’t read the Law and ask which rules apply today. The answer to that question is: None of them. Rather the Law shows us themes and patterns that do apply today.

A basic and perhaps surprising theme is the way that the Law reorders all of life on the principle of everyone’s equality standing before God. Consider the call to war in chapter 7” We wonder how a good God could possibly order the Children of Israel to kill all of their enemies. We will look more deeply at this question in the fourth message of this series, but notice this basic point for the moment. In the laws that follow, Deuteronomy explicitly reminds the people how to relate to the people they now live with. But if they have killed them all, how can they relate to them? The answer of course is that God never intended to eliminate the inhabitants of Canaan, but gives guidance on how to live with them.

One point in the requirement of how to live with the inhabitants stands out to me. Some of these people ended up as slaves within Israel. Slaves and servants in the countries around them were second-class citizens. They had no right to participate in the great festivals of the land, but were there to serve their rulers. The Israelites had experienced that condition in Egypt. God tells them explicitly: You will treat the stranger and alien in your land, even your own slaves and servants, differently than that. The Sabbath is a Sabbath for everyone, including the marginalized people among you. The great festivals are festivals for everyone, including the aliens and servants.

Deuteronomy makes it clear that before God we are all one. When Jesus summarized the Law in his own ministry, he said, “Love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus did not introduce something new to the Law in this statement, but drew out what was there from the beginning. God is our Ruler [“Jesus is Lord”], and all people stand as brothers and sisters in God’s presence. This radical equality was something new in their context. Egypt and Assyria believed that they alone were truly special, but the Children of Israel knew something deeper and truer: We are all one in God’s presence.

Living with the Text
How do we hear Deuteronomy today, especially listening to these first verses? We will come back to the note of God’s rule in the next three sermons. We will also sound the note of caring for marginalized people. This morning we return to the central idea of this passage: These are the words of Moses to the Children of Israel standing on the boundary of the Promised Land.

We have just come through one of the most difficult years in our history as a church. In a real sense we may feel as though we are wandering in the wilderness, and we may feel somewhat lost. We may ask ourselves what hope there is for the future. Moses speaks to us, just as he did to the Israelites so long ago: “You have stayed long enough [here]. Break camp and advance …; go … See, I have given you [your future].”

Our situation is different from the Children of Israel before the Jordan River. They had Moses, the prophet who spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend. We seek to hear God’s voice together, which is a difficult process. We have a committee working on structural issues. We have a pastor giving leadership. We have care groups and other informal gatherings providing support and direction for daily life. We have a Vision Council seeking direction from the congregation and from God for the future. In all of this we ask God to lead us—together, hearing God’s voice through each other.

We also face challenges that may remind us of the way that the spies who went into Canaan saw the situation: We see giants and obstacles that may overwhelm us. If we face the challenges ahead with our own resources and in our own wisdom, we will find that the obstacles are greater than our strength. But we have something else also. We have our relationship with God, who has brought us this far and will take us to the end. In Philippians 3 Paul talks about pressing on towards the goal of our high calling in Christ Jesus. In Hebrews 12 the author of Hebrews encourages us to run the race with the strength given to us by “the author and finisher” [NIV: “pioneer and perfecter”] of our faith.

Martin Luther put it this way in his great hymn:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,
Our helper, he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great. On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus! It is he!
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he shall win the battle.”

You see what I am saying. We face many challenges, as did the Children of Israel. But Moses knew that God is greater than any obstacle, and that they needed to follow God into the struggles of the Land. So also we hold on to the reality of God’s presence, and we commit ourselves to God’s sovereignty and care. God is at work in us. You remember that the Children of Israel did cross the Jordan once when God told them not to. They had failed to follow God across. When the recognized their failure, they said, “Let’s go!” God said, “Not this time.” They went, and they were routed. We seek God’s direction; without God our efforts come to nothing.

While we were in the States we talked with my brother-in-law, who told us of a spiritual breakthrough in his life. After many years of struggling with the issue of anger in his life, God showed himself through what we can call spiritual warfare. Whatever one thinks of prayer to cast out demons, it is clear that he has experienced a new freedom, and that a long-standing struggle in his life has been healed. I am not advocating for or against the methods used, but simply noting that God is at work, and that God’s presence is available to you and to me as well. The world wants to destroy us; God wants to lead us into the future. We stand on the boundary and God invites us to follow into the Land of God’s promises. I repeat the invitation: Let’s cross the boundary together into the new life together that God is preparing for us.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
8 January 2017
Text: Deuteronomy 1: 1-8
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)
In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them. This was after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.
East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying:
The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”