OT Lectionary Aug 30th Trinity 13 Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.

There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!

The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.

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But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.

Reflections on Discipleship – Just do it!

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I love the quote from American philosopher Dallas Willard that

‘Discipleship is the conviction that Jesus knows how to live my life better than I do’.

If that’s true, it follows that obedience is just about the greatest and most helpful spiritual discipline there is. Yet in a society marked by an anti-authority mood, and a sense of my divine right to do just whatever I like, we find it so difficult just to submit and do what God tells us.

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I was reading recently the story of Naaman, the proud but sick warlord of Aram, who heard that there might be a chance of healing if Elisha the prophet would pray for him. You can read the story in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman finally finds Elisha’s house, and of course expects to be treated with the respect and deference due to his exalted status as an army general. So to have a servant come and tell him to jump into the river Jordan seven times puts his back well and truly up. He goes away angry, presumably preferring the inconvenience and stigma of leprosy over the indignity of washing in a foreign river. But his servants, who are clearly devoted enough to their boss (and address him as ‘Father’), and feel able to help him to rethink, ask him if this is really a wise course of action. If the prophet had asked him to do some great heroic deed in order to get healed, would he not have jumped in with both feet? So why is the river Jordan such a problem? You never know: incredible as it sounds, it just might work. So he does, and it does, and he goes home cleansed, healed, and committed to the God of Israel.

I thank God for those servants who had a much better sense of perspective than their master. Reading the story made me ask myself about those times when I have simply gone off in a huff and refused to do what I know God is calling me to, and wondering what I might have missed out on because of my stubbornness. Thank God for people around me who have had more sense than I had, or who could retain perspective because they managed not to feel as affronted as I did.

In our Diocese we’re about to begin a major piece of work on stewardship, or ‘Generous Living’ as we’re going to call it. As an ex diocesan Stewardship Adviser I know how much hassle this is going to cause, and how resistant people are to the conviction I and many Christians have that I can live better on 90% of my income than on 100%. I know the financial gymnastics people will embark upon to tell me that we should give after income tax and not before it, or that daily newspapers and coffee in Starbucks are legitimately deductible from their tithing assessment. Disciples are those who have learnt, or are learning, that to ‘just do it’ will bring, as it did for Naaman, blessings which humanly do not seem possible.

Finance is of course only one example of our reluctance to obey, but it is one which Jesus spoke very strongly about. But if he really does know how to live my life better than I do, I’d better listen and obey. Who knows what I might lose out on if I don’t?