Text: Deuteronomy 6
The Book of Deuteronomy takes its name from the Greek title given to it in the first Greek translation of the Old Testament, the LXX. The LXX is simply the roman numeral for seventy, said to be the number of people who worked on the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic originals in the century before Christ was born. Deuteronomy is compound of two Greek words. “Deutero” is simply Greek for two. And the latter part is from the Greek word, nomos, or Law. Those seventy scribes chose “Deuteronomy” because this last of the five books of Moses is his regiving of the law to the people of Israel, who stand just on the far side of the Jordan River from the Promised Land after forty years of wandering. In a very literal way, this is the second law. Not a second law as in an additional law appended to or replacing the former, but a second giving of the same law.
Deuteronomy recounts the people of Israel’s recommitting to the covenant with God their parents and grandparents first joined at Horeb, or Mt. Sinai. So prior to sending the nation into the Promised Land, which he was forbidden to enter due to his earlier disobedience regarding hitting a rock rather than speaking to it, Moses gives his farewell sermon and instructs the Twelve Tribes in the ways of God. As Moses says at the beginning of chapter 6, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.”
Consider for a moment the people to whom Moses was speaking. Moses, at 120 years of age, was more than twice as old as all but two of the remaining Israelites. His brother and sister were both dead, with Eleazer, Moses’ nephew, now chief priest. At best, all of them were adolescents or younger – many of them were not even born – during such significant events as the Exodus, the plagues against Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the theophany at Mt. Sinai where God spoke to the people of Israel and gave them His law – written by His hand on two stone tablets. Only a small portion could even remember their first approach to the Promised Land and the disaster of the eight of the ten spies who convinced the people not to go in and claim their inheritance that God was giving into their hands.
I think it is most significant that the people now going to take possession of the land had no real memory of the things that were so central to their makeup as a people – religiously and politically. All they had to rely on now was communal memory that had been handed down to them by their parents and grandparents. That was their only experience of those dramatic events of the previous generation.
Every year since 1998, two professors at Beloit College in Wisconsin have published a list for their fellow professors aimed at giving them a sense of how differently the incoming freshmen class will view the world than they might be accustomed to viewing it. If you have watched the news much in the last week or two, you have probably seen or heard some of the markers on this year’s list, for the class of 2014. This class is marked by such things as having never learned to write in cursive. Thinking that e-mail is too slow to be adequate for communication. Never having known a world that did not seek to accommodate for those with disabilities. Never having lived in a world where Russians and Americans did not live together in space. The world economy has always included the North American Free Trade Agreement. If you say the name, Fergie, they will not think of a former British Princess, but a musician.
And so time passes. The things that seem so significant and earth shattering in the moment glaze over into a faded photograph, a yellowed newspaper, or a web site whose last visit by something other than an automatic bot was a decade ago. Vinyl gave way to 8-tracks, gave way to cassettes, gave way to CDs, which have in turn given way to MP3 players like the iPod such that items that had been staples in our lives are completely unfamiliar to the next generation.
That’s the prospect that Moses faces with the crowd that gathers before him that day recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. He is looking out at a generation for whom the Exodus is nothing but a nice story their parents have told. The miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea is lost by the frustration with gathering the day’s manna, which is no longer a miracle forty years on – it is just daily routine.
Because of this, much of Deuteronomy focuses on making sure that the foundations of Israel’s faith and history are told and retold from father to son, mother to daughter, grandparent to grandchild, so that the experience of one generation will carry on with significance into the lives of the succeeding generation, and the generations that come after that. We read about it seven times in Deuteronomy, at 4:9; 6:7; 6:20; 11:19; 31:13; and 32:46. So distressing was the thought of a generation being raised not knowing the story, that the command was given in chapter 31 for the entire law to be read every seven years during the Feast of Booths. Deuteronomy 31:12-13 says, “Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.”
We have learned in our age of modernity to think of history as a kind of science, a sum of causes that shape specific effects. We think of wars as started by a specific set of crises, and the end of the war leads to new leaders and perhaps a new world map. But I would suggest to you that we should think of history differently, as one commentator on Deuteronomy suggests. He writes, “History is not an unbroken continuum of causes and effects….Rather, history reflects the will of God, in word and in deed, within the creation.” It is not, “History as progress” but instead, “history as ‘divinely ordained process of salvation.’” History is not a sum of causes and effects, but the sum of God’s working through the past to bring us to this moment, the present, an encounter with him that will in turn take us into tomorrow and an ongoing relationship with him throughout all of eternity.
An encounter with God is just how a life with God begins. In the case of Israel, their encounter with God included a set of commands given to them during their 40-years of desert wandering. These commands were instructions about how to be God’s people, how to live, how to offer atonement, how to engage with God. And so as Moses prepares to give his parting counsel, this encounter with God is where he begins. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses gives the people he is about to leave under the care of Joshua instructions about bringing the next generation into the story – the history – of God’s work among them.
This is a good starting point for all of us as we think about what God has done and how we can tell it forward. For what God has done for us will help to clarify what God will do for our progeny. Where have we seen and met God working among us? Where does it start? If we are going to help bring tomorrow’s leaders into the story that has already been unfolding, into the acts that God has already been doing, we are going to need to start at the beginning.
We’ve been talking these last few weeks about gathering our stories. We’ve talked about what kind of stories they should be. And we’ve mentioned repeatedly about the need to share them. Our vital stories, like the stories of Israel that Moses would share with the whole congregation of Israel that day on the far side of the Jordan, begin with an encounter with God. They are the ones to recall and to retell, again and again.
But the encounter with God is just the starting point. The difference is what we do with that encounter.
In Deuteronomy 6:6-9, Moses reminds the Israelites what to do with their encounter with God. At Mt. Sinai, God had presented the Israelites with a list of the commands that they were to follow. And Moses tells them: “6 These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
In other words, those commands should be infused throughout the life of the people and the community. They should be on the hearts and hands of the individuals, marking and challenging how they work, live, think, and speak. They should be on the foreheads of the people, clearly visible to all who see them. Without having to say anything, it should be obvious to the world how we believe and what we hold dear. They should be on the doorposts of our houses – markers for all who enter our homes as to Whose we are. The whole household should be taken with love and adoration of God. And they should be on the very gates – not the gate at the end of the front walkway, but the gates of the city itself. The entire community, who all had been part of the encounter at Horeb, should be shaped by the commandments. The way the entire community interacts and lives should declare to the world about God.
This carries easily into our life in 21st century America, even if our towns and communities don’t have gates on which to write out the laws of God. As Israel was to bear witness to the love and counsel of God from the individual to the family to the entire community, the same is true of the church. Individually, people should easily recognize who we live for. As families, it should be clear to our neighbors and all around us who is really head of the household. And as a church, there should be no doubt that the Lord Jesus is the Master here. These truths should be declared boldly and proudly.
Moses is not a fool. He knows the people better than themselves. He was there to come off the mountain and the people celebrating around the golden calf they had made for themselves. He knew just how fickle they had been, and he knew that their children would be no different than their parents. So he warned them that they would certainly face trials and tests in their commitments to God. These are listed out in verses 12-17.
They would be prone to forget their God not in spite of, but precisely because of the many ways that He had blessed them. Look at America today. All of the many blessings that we have enjoyed as a nation have not drawn us closer to God, as they should, but have instead led us to gloat in our own self-empowerment. That would be the temptation that the Israelites – and we as a church and family and individuals – would face. Moses further warned that the Israelites might be tempted to follow what those among and around them boasted in – other gods and goddesses who they worshipped and served. We are no different. We allow our time, money, and energy to be devoted to causes and things other than God because they are things that society tells us we should be devoted to – anything from a certain musician to a sports team to a charitable cause to a specific TV show. The pursuit of such things can become like a god for those who reside in our culture. Their temptation lures us as the Baals and Ashtoreths would eventually lure away Israel after they occupied the Promised Land.
There would be other temptations as well. It would be tempting to stretch the law’s meaning in order to accommodate our own desires and wishes. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for stretching the law surrounding devoting things to God to allow them to keep goods for themselves, as God’s workmen, rather than using them to care for ailing parents. We often like to search Scripture for a particular passage or even a lonely verse that supports what we want to say. But God warns us to follow all of His Word diligently, not compromising it or abusing it. Yet another test of our commitment and obedience.
The Israelites had an encounter with God – in their case, it was the encounter at Horeb when God gave them His law. They needed to remember this, to let it infuse all areas of their lives from the individual on up through to the entire community. They needed to commit to it and survive the tests that were certain to come as they entered the land and took possession of it.
But the most important thing that they were to do comes in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. And this was to tell the stories forward. To pave the way with God with the stones of faith which they had already taken up and shaped along their life’s journey. For a time was certain to come when their children and grandchildren would say to them, “Why do we keep all of these silly rules, statutes, regulations, and customs? Look at the Arameans – they don’t do any of these things, and yet it still rains on their crops. Look at the Philistines – they don’t sacrifice at the Tabernacle, and yet their armies are mighty. Look at Egypt – they serve an entire pantheon and are a world power. Why should we do these things?”
And at that point, history is at the point of failing. The future is about to be unraveled and undone because their children don’t know the past. They don’t know the stone-stories. They have not been there for the encounters with God. The future has not been paved with the stones of what has already happened, as it should properly be.
Two weeks ago I encouraged us to get talking. And by that, I mean that we need to spend time with each other constantly reminding each other what God has done, so that we can be reminded of the promise of what God will do. As the Israelites wore the law of God on their hands and foreheads, painted on their doorposts and city gates, so we should use every opportunity we have to declare the richness and grace of God working in our lives.
The posters of stones of faith that we have are just a starting point. In the few short months that we have been here, I have heard some mere hints of the things that God has done among you. I have heard tales of this sanctuary being filled. I have heard about tremendously large Vacation Bible Schools. I have heard about how people have cared for each other in times of great need. In short, I have heard about God’s people being God’s people and doing God’s work.
And I know that God is not dead – he is very, very alive. His work is not finished. If it were, we would not be here! Haggai was a prophet who was contemporary with Ezra, the priest who helped Jerusalem rebuild the temple after returning from exile in Persia. Haggai had this to say to the people of Israel:
Haggai 2:3-9 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? 4 ‘But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. 5 ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’ 6 “For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. 7 ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts. 8 ‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares the LORD of hosts. 9 ‘The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace,’ declares the LORD of hosts.”
We are not Jerusalem. We are not the temple. But I believe with all my heart that God has greater things in store for us here at Monte Vista than anything he has yet done or accomplished through or among us. The latter glory of God through this gathering of His body will be greater than the former glory He has already brought to Himself.
There is much to achieve and do. I earnestly believe that. And it starts here: by paving the future with the stories of what God has already done. By living in obedience to His faith and call. By facing down the temptations and the trials that come our way by standing firm in our faith. And by looking to tomorrow with the paving stones of the past.
Will you join me in praying for our church, that all of its tomorrows will be better than any of its yesterdays? Will you join me in the work of living and making it true?
Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy. in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 39-40.