Sunday, July 24, 2022
Deu-ter-on-o-my: What do you know about Deuteronomy?
Yes, the word Deuteronomy has five syllables and rhymes with other -onomy ending words like astronomy, autonomy, economy, gastronomy, taxonomy, and lobotomy.
But since we are here in church you probably know that I mean the Book of Deuteronomy, not merely the word Deuteronomy. So, let me change the question a bit. What do you know about the biblical Book of Deuteronomy?
Yes, yes, good, good — it’s located somewhere in the Bible — probably somewhere in the Old Testament, not the New Testament.
Besides the fact that it’s a biblical book in the Bible, what else do you know about the Book of Deuteronomy? From Bible quizzing days, some of you may recall that Deuteronomy falls roughly, approximately fifth in the Bible’s table of contents. Deuteronomy comes fifth on the list of the books of the Bible, after … hmm… 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, and 4) Numbers. And then Deuteronomy. By the way, do you happen to recall which book comes next? Joshua.
Some of you may have read through the Bible in a year. If you have, first of all, my sincere congratulations! Way to stick to it. Secondly, you faithful Bible readers probably remember that Deuteronomy has lots and lots… and lots… of laws and statutes, requirements and ordinances. Admittedly, it’s easy to get bogged down and maybe even bored silly while reading through all those laws in the Book of Deuteronomy. But like a serving of vegetables, it’s good for you.
A question or observation may have crossed your mind while you were reading through all those laws in Deuteronomy. And that question is this: “Haven’t I read a lot of these very same laws somewhere else before?”
Or a similar question might have crossed your mind: “Didn’t I just cover these obscure, old laws in the previous three books? I thought I read through many of these exact same laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.”
And then the obvious follow-up question: “Why, o why? Why must I read all these laws again?”
In other words, Deuteronomy feels like deja vu all over again. It repeats the law repetitively. It seems repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. It seems more than a bit redundant. Well… Ding. Ding. That’s exactly right. And that’s kind of the point.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is repeating the Law of God one last time before he meets his Maker. But to say that is quite inaccurate because Moses had already met his Maker — and frequently so — before he died. Here’s a necessary correction, then: Moses is publicly repeating the Law of God one last time before he dies at 120 years old. I will say that again, because it’s important. In Deuteronomy, Moses is publicly proclaiming and reciting the Law of God one last time before he retires and expires on top of Mount Nebo.
By the way, the original title for Deuteronomy in Hebrew was Sefer D’varim, which literally means The Book of Words. That might sound like a strange title, because it could be applied to any book whatsoever. “This is a book of words. That is a book of words. Every book is a book of words.” Yet we should understand that the title implies it contains the Final Words of Moses.
Now let’s read a pivotal portion of the Sefer D’varim, the book of Moses’ final words.
Our scripture reading today is from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verses 11-20, from the New International Version.
Hear these instructions from the mouth of Moses, the servant of God:
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.
12 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?”
13 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?”
14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.
16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them,
18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live [last] long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 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
20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Preacher: This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation: Thanks be to God for his word.
If I were lazy and thought I could get away with it, I might just say, “As a message, this passage from Deuteronomy Chapter 30 speaks perfectly well for itself, therefore, enough said.” Perhaps I could just dismiss us all early. But no — a thoughtful sermon might do some of us some good, so I won’t do that today. Sorry.
Now, in one way, the message of this passage does indeed speak perfectly well for itself. It doesn’t require much, if anything, else. It can stand entirely on its own two feet, unassisted. It doesn’t need anything more. It may be over 3,000 years old; but it has aged remarkably well. It’s in commendably good shape. This passage speaks and speaks powerfully to us today. So in one way, it’s totally true: Nothing more needs to be said.
But, in another way, these final words from Moses should be talked about here and now, and should be talked about later, over and over. They should be read and re-read. They should be thoroughly researched, and considered for a much longer time than we have here this soggy morning in July. So something more ought to be said. Also true.
The issue, or question, is whether or not we actually heard the passage the first time through. Did you? Now if you really, truly heard it, then you’re good to go. You’re all set. Nothing more needs to be said. But many of us did not really, truly H-E-A-R hear it the first time through.
Please don’t take offense at that statement. It’s just been proven to be true throughout history. What do I mean? Well, the people to whom it was first presented did not H-E-A-R hear the message. At least, they did not hear it particularly well.
Why do I say that? I say that because they definitely didn’t take it to heart. They didn’t do it and continue to do it. Somewhere along the line, they let it slide. They neglected and rejected God’s very clear instructions, and in so doing, they did not choose life; they choose disobedience and thus death. They did not continue to walk in obedience to God and hold fast to God; instead, they drifted and let themselves be drawn away further and further.
Perhaps I should give you a bit more background information about the Book of Deuteronomy at this juncture. The prefix deutero means second; and the remaining-onomy portion of the word kind of means law. When smashed together, the two mean second-law, or, to be more scripturally accurate, a second presentation of the Law of God.
How is it, though, that Deuteronomy is a second presentation of the Law? Good question; I’m glad you asked. As I mentioned previously, the first presentation of God’s Law is recorded in the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. As a rule of thumb, you just need to associate the first presentation of God’s Law with the dramatic events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. I believe Pastor Jacob recently covered those three books.
You may recall that after the first presentation of the Law, the Children of Israel refused to trust God. They disobeyed God in a variety of ways, and basically blew it over and over and over — ten times, in fact. God got so thoroughly frustrated and furious with them that he wanted to do away with them and just start over with Moses. But Moses talked God out of it. Although it may sound strange to hear that Moses calmed down God, that’s honestly how Numbers Chapter 14 reads. Moses interceded for the Children of Israel. Moses pleaded with God to show them mercy; and so God let them live. All the same, God decided that he would punish that stubborn, rebellious generation by not allowing them to enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would have to wander around the desert aimlessly for 40 years until they expired. Only the 2nd generation would be allowed into the Promised Land. Only children admitted — kids and grandkids only.
Deuteronomy, then, is the presentation of God’s Law to that younger second generation, many of whom would not have remembered the first presentation of God’s Law. They were either too young, or had not been born yet. So right before his death (at age 120) and right before that younger generation entered the Promised Land, Moses presented the Law of God a second time. And that’s the backstory to the Book of Deuteronomy, otherwise known as the Sefer D’varim.
Notice then, that in Deuteronomy 30:11-20 the 2nd generation and all the subsequent generations of Israelites had been forewarned by Moses in absolutely, positively the clearest possible terms: Choose life, not death. Choose obedience, not disobedience. Choose the LORD your God, not the idols of your neighbors. And yet at some point, the Children of Israel still neglected and rejected Moses’ instructions. They still made the wrong choice. They made the same bad choices as their forefathers (and mothers). But why, o why, would they do that?
Fast forward to us here, today. When this passage is presented to us, we are likewise forewarned in the clearest possible terms: We must choose life, not death. We must choose to follow the way of the LORD our God, and not follow alternate, trendy, deadly ideologies and idolatries.
We must beware, because if we’re not careful, and if we do not listen, we might end up like them, like the people to whom Moses spoke. Most of them wandered away from God. Most of them neglected and rejected God’s law. Most of them disobeyed. Hence they chose death, not life.
We know this. We know this to be true because it is basically how the Old Testament unfolds and ends. Overall, the Old Testament is a tragedy. And the final few chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy forewarn God’s chosen people of the prospect and danger of just such a tragedy.
If you have read through the Old Testament, you know the prospect of tragedy regrettably becomes the reality of tragedy. The Old Testament doesn’t end well at all. It doesn’t end well because God’s chosen people did not choose well. Although they had been chosen by God and clearly forewarned by God (over and over), they still chose poorly. It’s sad and ironic: although they themselves had been chosen by God, they didn’t return the favor. They did not choose God. And by neglecting and rejecting God, they effectively chose death.
And so here we are today, confronted with the very same option that confronted them: Choose life or death; choose obedience or disobedience; choose God or the idols of surrounding culture. But there is hope for us. The good news is that we can do better. We can do better than they did.
Part of the good news is that we live when we do. We have the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we have it far better than they did. In the story of Jesus, we have a far better example. In the New Testament, we have access to far better promises. And in partnership with the Holy Spirit now available to us, we have far greater potential and far greater power than the Old Testament Children of Israel ever did. And that is good news, indeed.
So let’s read Deuteronomy 30:11-20 again. This time, let’s listen more carefully and H-E-A-R hear what it says. And let’s keep in mind that unlike Moses’ original audience, we have far more going for us. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:31-32, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” He can keep us from falling, and keep us from failing.
While the Old Testament ends in tragedy and uncertainty, the New Testament ends with the absolute assurance of triumph, if only we persevere by holding fast to Christ.
So now, let’s revisit our passage for today, Deuteronomy 30:11-20. Let me forewarn you, though: I am going to deliberately misread portions of the passage. You’ll catch on as to why as I do. I will also intersperse reflections after each one of the verses.
In verse 11 Moses says: Now what I am commanding you today is WAY, WAY TOO/not too difficult for you, AND FAR, FAR/nor beyond your reach.
One of Satan’s most common and effective lies is to tell us that God’s requirements are beyond our reach. But as followers of Christ, we are better equipped for obedience than anyone ever. This verse is even more true for us than it was for the Children of Israel. Christ’s commands are not too difficult for us. Obedience is not beyond our reach. In Matthew 11:30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy, and his burden, light, which means that with his help we can live as he requires. Or to quote Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
In verse 12 Moses says: It is WAY WAY OUT THERE/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?”
Sometimes we are tempted to believe that only super-saints can actually live holy lives. We think that living a life of obedience will require joining a monastery, or moving someplace isolated and remote. But no, this verse says that obedience is not way out there nor somewhere hidden up in heaven. Now, admittedly, it used to be. Before God made it known and made it available, it used to be way out there. It used to be hidden in heaven. But God changed all that. First he revealed himself to the prophets, like Moses. And then he personally came down to Earth. He became human, a man named Jesus Christ. And he proclaimed the Gospel to us. Shortly later, he sent the Holy Spirit down to accompany us, indwell us, and assist us.
In verse 13 Moses says: FOR/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?”
For us as Christians today, obedience may even reverse this Mosaic proclamation. Since we already do possess the precious message of Christ, obedience may require that we ourselves voluntarily cross the sea to proclaim it, so that others may hear and obey it. And I happen to know that some people in this congregation have already done just that: They have crossed the sea to proclaim the precious message about Christ. And thank you sincerely for service.
In verse 14 Moses says: No, the word is very near you; it is ON YOUR PHONE AND SOMEWHERE ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND/in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
Originally, Moses meant that God’s word was something they had already heard and learned. It was something they had already memorized and internalized. Again, this can be and should be even more true for us now. Plus, we have the advantage of the Holy Spirit’s immediacy and accessibility. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling the Church and indwelling each one of us as believers individually, reminding us of what Christ taught us, and empowering us to obey it.
In verse 15 Moses says: See, today I set before SOMEONE ELSE/you life and prosperity, death and destruction.
Like the Children of Israel of old, we are also faced with the same existential choice between life and death. But unlike them, God promises us far more than just temporary life and prosperity. He offers us eternal life, if we but confess our sins, place our faith in him, and persevere in faith.
In verse 16 Moses says: For I SUGGEST TO/command you today to GIVE LIP SERVICE TO the LORD your God ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS LIKE WEDDINGS, FUNERALS, AND HOLIDAYS.
[to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.]
Practically speaking, to love the LORD means obedience. To love the LORD means we actually obey him. But frankly, obedience over the long haul is our biggest challenge. We do need to be aware that love will cost us. Obedience to Christ will require that we take up our cross daily and follow him, as Jesus said in Luke 9:23. Daily obedience will require sacrifice. We need to be honest and straightforward with ourselves and with others about that. Nevertheless, it’s truly worth it. Our obedience is well worth the cost of sacrifice. It is well worth the cost of difficult daily discipleship. Every act of faithful obedience will be rewarded, guaranteed. It will be rewarded either in the here-and-now or in the here-after.
In verse 17 Moses says: But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, IT WILL BE JUST FINE.
No, it will not be just fine. That is a big grotesque lie. That is not what Moses said. The sentence actually breaks off mid-verse, and leaves the reader to wonder what comes next. A warning does.
Beware of sin. Beware of gradual compromises. Beware not to neglect and reject God’s ways. Beware of the allure and deception of the quick, pleasurable fix offered by the spiritually dead. These temptations are always a danger to us, especially when we are weak.
In verse 18 Moses says: I declare to you this day that you MIGHT HAVE A FEW PROBLEMS/will certainly be destroyed.
You MIGHT NOT/will not live [last] long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter…
Disobedience can and does bring severe consequences to us, too. We will reap what we have sown, as the Apostle Paul testifies in Galatians 6:7. Count on it. And yet, at the same time, we are promised immediate forgiveness and purification as soon as we contritely confess our sin and return to following Christ, as scripture also says (in 1 John 1:9).
In verse 19 Moses says: This day … MUMBLE, MUMBLE, MUMBLE / [ 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,
Oops, I omitted and mumbled my way through something. Moses called the heavens and the earth as witnesses against that second generation. In other words, they were told that they were being watched. They were being closely observed. What, then, would they do? How would they choose to live? Eyes were watching them to see what they would do, to see how they would live.
Most of us here have already chosen to follow Christ, and thus we have wisely chosen life for ourselves. Now, as Christians, we ought to realize that the eyes of others are watching us. We are being observed. We are being noticed. What, then, will we do? How will we behave? One of our primary responsibilities and callings is to live a life of obedience, so as to be an example of faithfulness and to testify to Christ. Also, like Moses, we can and must intercede for God’s mercy, and urge our children and our neighbors to likewise follow Christ and thus choose life.
And finally, in verse 20 Moses says: … and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD MIGHT BE OCCASIONALLY HELPFUL /is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Like the Children of Israel, we must actively choose to love the LORD our God, to listen to his voice, and hold fast to him every single day, knowing that he gives us much more than the promise of a few good years in an earthly promised land. He gives us life right now, and life eternal. Indeed, Christ is our source of life, today, tomorrow, and forever.
As we dismiss, our blessing and concluding command comes from Deuteronomy 6:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.