For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 13 – Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Many times during my career I have left jobs, and have had to preach final sermons. Two in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a parish which had seen dramatic growth and a new planted congregation of relatively recent converts. We were obviously keen that things continued, that people grew to maturity and that new people would find faith, so the final sermon was a kind of encouraging pep talk about keeping going and keeping growing. The second was in a church which had effectively bullied me out, and which had a paralysing tendency to brush difficult things under the carpet and not deal with the more harsh realities of life. That farewell sermon was very different: I basically said that if they didn’t address what had happened, history would repeat itself. I recently heard that my successor had, like me, only lasted a few years.
The book of Deuteronomy purports to be the farewell sermon given by Moses just before his death, and, like my two farewells, it contains elements both of encouragement and warning. Chapter 4 raises some important questions, so let’s ask them and see what we can discover.
When? The date would be around 1250 BC, but more significant is the answer that this came towards the end of a very difficult period, when the people had seen hardship, food shortages, corrupt leadership, plague, death and uncertainty. They were coming to the end, though, of this harsh period, and therefore had the opportunity to look back and learn, to remember the past as sadder but wiser people. Even more significantly, it came at the end of the life of Moses, God’s prophet who had led and guided them through the wilderness period, but who would not go any further with them.
Where? Moses had led the people to a mountaintop in Moab from which they could see the promised land across the Jordan Valley, even though he himself was never going to enter it. They were on the threshold of a new normal, although there would be difficult readjustments to be made, not least in the loss of their charismatic leader. The future was literally in sight, but they still had much to do to get there.
What? So what was the content of Moses final pep-talk? When I teach my theological students different sessions, I always begin with what Higher Educationalists call ‘Learning Outcomes’: ‘by the end of this session we will have …’
Moses is very clear about the learning outcomes from this lecture: he wants them to listen and learn from what he’s about to say for the next 32 chapters. The Hebrew word for ‘hear’ in v.1 doesn’t just mean listen: it means actually take notice and live it out. What he has to say will literally change their lives. Teaching forges action. So he’s going to cover all sorts of things: how to worship, how to run the political, prophetic, and religious life of the nation. He’s going to teach them about national holy days, festivals, and times of rest. He tells them how to fight fairly, how to limit war and vendettas, how to run an economy with justice, and how to care for widows, orphans, and the poor, and how to protect the vulnerable. Mundane things like work, family life and eating together are all covered.
How much? So he’s got a lot to say to the people – how much of it should they take note of and put into action? As a preacher I know that there may be odd nuggets among all I say which will connect with different people in different ways. But Moses isn’t working like that: everything he is about to say is vitally important. So in v.2 the people are told not to add or subtract anything from his teaching. They have to absorb all of it. You often hear Christians saying stuff like ‘I can’t believe in a God who…’ or ‘I know the Bible says that, but I don’t believe that bit’. Moses doesn’t allow them that pick’n’mix option: the whole counsel of God is non-negotiable and vital.
But then comes the most important question, Why? Why is all this so important? Of course, for the smooth running of society, although that isn’t the emphasis here. Actually it’s all about witness, or evangelism as we might call it nowadays. They are to order the life of their nation well so that the other nations will look at them and say ‘Goodness, these people are wise! They really know how to live well!’ and that will reflect back on their God as the one behind such wisdom – surely a great God to follow and serve. There is a theme running through the OT about Gentiles seeking God because they can see such positive lives lived out by his chosen people. This is an incredibly challenging motif in an age when the Christian Church is increasingly being marginalised as outdated and irrelevant, exactly the opposite of what God intends. So what are we doing wrong?
Finally comes the How? question. This is all very well, but how are they actually to make it work, and be that evangelistic picture of God for the pagans around them? There are two hints towards this in the final verse of our passage – remember and teach. Don’t let what you have known and experienced of God drift out of your memory. And secondly see it as your role to pass it on down the generations. It’s always difficult when personal experience becomes folk memory, so keeping faith alive for the next generation becomes vital, and actually helps with the remembering too. In an age when we feel it’s OK to sit lightly to God’s words, and to allow our children to ‘make up their own minds’, we maybe need to hear Moses’ teaching again. As we too emerge from a difficult and uncertain period, maybe it’s time to rededicate ourselves to living wholeheartedly for God, and making him known in an uncaring world.