We are going to start including the “script” from some of our sermons online. The first was preached by David Harley during our evening service on February 5th 2017.
Deuteronomy chapter 1
What is your favourite book in the Bible? The book of Ruth? The Psalms? John’s gospel? One book that Jesus quoted from more than any other was Deuteronomy. When he was asked which was the greatest commandment he replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:4). When he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, three times. Clearly he had a high regard for this book and knew much of it by heart. So I trust we will discover over these next few weeks why Jesus regarded it so highly.
A series of passionate sermons
The first thing I want to say about this book is it is a series of passionate sermons The first chapter begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness of Arabah.” Moses is about to preach a sermon, the first in a series of sermons that continue through the book. Moses is an old man and before he dies he wants to encourage them to remain faithful and obedient to God.
These sermons are preached at a particular time and place. The author identifies the location on the East bank of the Jordan and gives a list of towns and villages nearby. He describes when these things took place – 40 years since they left Mt Sinai (Horeb). Like Luke in the New Testament, the author wants to record an accurate account of what happened.
Moses has a memorable rhetorical style, as do many great orators. Martin Luther King will always be remembered for his “I have a dream” speech. Barak Obama impressed audiences around the world with the power of his oratory. Each had their own distinct styles and personalities. In Deuteronomy, Moses demonstrates his distinctive style as a preacher. In earlier books, Moses is usually repeating the commands and instructions that the Lord has given him. In Deuteronomy he is preaching to the people of Israel to evoke their response. He speaks with passion and deep feeling. He speaks with honesty. He is not afraid to tell the truth or to warn the people of the consequences of disobedience. He speaks with affection. He loves this group of people whom he has led for 40 years. He only wants the best for them. He knows they will only enjoy God’s blessings if they walk closely with him.
His distinctive style can be seen throughout the book. He repeats phrases like: “Hear the word of the Lord,” “love the Lord your God,” “Fear the Lord your God” as he seeks to encourage the people to trust and obey God (6:4, 13). His rhetorical style was so powerful and effective that it appears to set the stylistic and doctrinal pattern for many of the later historical books. Books from Joshua to 2 Kings share this same style and vocabulary. All look back to the preaching of Moses in Deuteronomy as being the model to follow and the test of orthodoxy.
God’s word in a new context
But these sermons are not just the wise reflections of an old man, thoughts of Chairman Moses. They are not Moses recommendations of how the people of Israel should live in the Promised Land. They are God’s instructions. They are not the laws of Moses but the laws of God. Verse 3 states: “Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him.” God has given commands to his people so that they may know how they are to live.
The name Deuteronomy means “the second law.” That is slightly misleading. This book is not a book of new laws but a reapplication of the laws already given. The people are about to enter the Promised Land. There they will face new challenges and experience a totally new way of life. They need to know how to obey and apply God’s law in this new context.
In these sermons Moses is seeking to explain or expound what God has said (5). The word “expound” means to make clear. The aim of everyone who preaches or teaches or leads a home-group or just sits down with a friend to read the Bible is to explain the meaning God’s word and to help them see its relevance to their everyday lives. We share the same responsibility given to Moses, even though on a different scale! Our task is to help others understand what God has said and to show them how it is relevant and applicable to our own situation today in the 21st century. We are not called simply to demonstrate how erudite we are, to amaze others with our knowledge of ancient languages or present them with abstract theological truths which bear no relation to their lives. We need to apply biblical truth to the contemporary context and culture. And like Moses we must do so with passion. Otherwise we are not preaching. We are delivering a lecture.
The Gospel of Love
One commentator describes Deuteronomy as the gospel of love. That is an apt description. Deuteronomy describes the loving and committed relationship between God and his people. In it God reminds his people of how much he loves then and how he has demonstrated that love in so many ways. He pleads with them to respond to his love by loving him in return with all their heart, soul and strength. He warns them not to forget his love and he goes on to describe how they should live as his chosen people. The book ends with a passionate appeal for them to love and obey him because that is the only way in which they can enjoy life to the full.
The message of the book could be summarised in four words:
Remember (1-3) what God has done
Love (4-11) the Lord your God
Live (12-26) Lives that please him
Choose (27-34) whom you will serve
Remember (1:6-45) Remember what has happened and learn from your mistakes
In this long chapter, Moses picks out three episodes from the past.
He reminds them of what happened way goes back to the time 40 years earlier when they were camped around Mount Sinai (Horeb). They had experienced an awesome encounter with God as he appeared in his power and glory. They had received his commandments, been adopted as his chosen people and given instructions on worship and daily living. Now the time for instruction was over and they were told to move on. In verse 5 God says to them: “You have stayed long enough on this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites.” God was telling them to set out on the arduous journey towards the Promised Land.” So they start to pack up their belongings and get set to leave. You can imagine their excitement, with kids going around wearing Tee-shirts saying “Next stop the Holy Land” and “Only ten days to go.”
The problem was they were a very large crowd of people. We are familiar with long lines of refugees fleeing from Syria, trying to make their way to a better future. This crowd was numbered in tens of thousands. How were they to be organised on their travels? Who goes ahead? Who goes last? Who camps where? Who is responsible for what? Who arranges the guards to protect the camp? Who sorts out problems and arguments?
Moses realizes it is impossible for him to cope by himself. In verse 9 he says: “At that time I said to you, ‘You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone.’” In verse 12, he goes on: “How could I bear with all your problems and burdens and disputes?”(12). His solution is to appoint others to share the leadership with him.
He asks for suggestions for potential candidates, people with the right temperament and gifts. It is like voting for the PCC! They are to be people who are well-respected, good listeners who will make wise decisions. Moses can cope with the difficult problems.
Moses then reminds them of what happened in the wilderness (19-25). They set off for the Promised Land and make steady progress.. It was an awe-inspiring journey. V19 describes how they went “through all that vast and dreaded desert.” But soon they approach the Promised Land. Moses said to the people. “This is the land God is going to give you. So let’s take heart and let’s go in.” A group of leaders come to Moses and suggest some men to spy out the land. So they pick twelve men and send them on their way.
And after a while they came back with a great enthusiasm. They state that the country is everything they could hope for. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. They even bring some huge bunches of grapes to prove the point (25). The symbol of two men carrying grapes is the logo of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Then Moses reminds the people that although the land was so fertile and beautiful they refused to go in. (26-46)
Moses was delighted with what he hears but his joy was short-lived. Ten of the spies continue: “Yes the land is great, but there are lots of other people there already and they are a formidable foe. Their cities are well built and well-defended. The people who live there are very tall and physically strong. They all look like the incredible Hulk. By comparison we felt like grasshoppers. We can’t possibly overcome these people. There is no way we can capture these cities. The task is hopeless.”
The people of God are paralysed by fear. They focus on the problems – the size of the population, the number of tribes, the strength of the cities. So often churches do not move forward, a vision is not realised, because we are obsessed with the problems.
The people forget the promises God has made. They forget what God did for them in Egypt. They forget how God rescued them at the Red Sea. They forget how God has met all their needs in the desert. All that has gone out of the window! In spite of all that has happened in the past, they do not believe God can help them now.
The reason they did not enter the Promised Land was not because of their sinfulness. It was not because they were weak and inadequately equipped. It was not because they had been guilty of idolatry and immorality. It was because they did not believe that God could do what he promised to do. It was not because of their sinfulness, but because of their faithlessness! They did not trust what God had said.
Far from trusting God they start criticising him: “God hates us. That’s the reason why he has put us in this impossible situation.” But Moses says: “No he doesn’t. He loves you. He is the Lord your God. He will be there right with you just as he was in Egypt.” But the people would not listen. V 32 puts it this way “You did not trust in the Lord your God.”
But the people refuse to listen. They decide not to go in to the land and they are condemned for the next 40 years to wander around in the wilderness. This generation will die. The next generation will enter the land. So a journey of ten days took 40 years.
Then as soon as God says you may not go into the land, they decide they will. God says “If you go up, you will be defeated.” But they march up into the hill country and the Amorite army comes down like a swarm of bees (44) and chase them out of the country. Moses’ verdict on that debacle was: “You rebelled against the Lord’s command.” (43)
So why does Moses spend so much time reminding the people of what happened and the way they failed. He does so not because he wants to embarrass them but because he wants them to learn from their mistakes. Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
How does this all apply to us? We all ne challenges from time to time and we often panic and feel we cannot cope. We all make mistakes and sometimes forget to learn and face new challenges. So we go on repeating the same mistakes. So what is the antidote to fear and failure?
First, we need to remember what God has done in the past. Like the people of Israel we easily forget how God has helped us and answered our prayers in the last. That is what Moses points out to them. (Deuteronomy 1:30-31). Don’t you remember how God defeated the Egyptians? Don’t you remember how God carried your fathers through the desert like a father carries his child? One of the great antidotes to fear is thinking back and remembering what God has done.
Secondly we need to remember God forgives us. He does not abandon us. He does not abandon the people of Israel in spite of the fact that they have been winging and disobeying him for 40 years. The story of the OT is a story of God’s constant love for his people in spite of everything. God forgives them and presses on with them and he will do the same with us.
Thirdly, we need to remember God’s promise. In v8 Moses reminds them of God’s promise. God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants to give them a land and, even though now there has some delay, he is about to give them the land he promised. We too, like them, can trust the promises of God, in spite of our failings. Jesus said: “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Failure is never final with the people of God. After he had denied Jesus, Peter must have felt dreadful. He had let Jesus down completely. He must have wondered if he had any future. Could he still be a disciple of Jesus, let alone one of the leaders? Surely he was not worthy of that. But when the risen Jesus met the women by the tomb, he singled out Peter and said “Go and tell the disciples and Peter.” The in Galilee in one of the most moving moments in the gospel he drew Peter aside and re-commissioned him to be a shepherd of God’s people. What an important role Peter played in the life of the early years through his leadership, he preaching and his writing. Failure is not final with the people of God.