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.”

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