Be Prepared – Follow the True God
St. Augustines Archive
7 August 2017
If you travel somewhere, it is really important to be prepared for what you’re going to experience when you get there. It helps to have an idea of what to expect, what the place you’re going to is like. Unfortunately, not everyone prepares well for travel. During the week I found some ridiculous, yet real, complaints that tourists had made about parts of their holidays.
One couple holidayed to Spain, but were met with a nasty shock. “There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners.”
This family were shocked by what they found on their beach holiday, and felt the need to complain. “No-one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled.”
And this couple just couldn’t handle the injustice of it all. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England; it only took the Americans three hours to get home.”
It’s really important to be prepared for the place you are going to. And that’s what our passage is about today. Today we are in Deuteronomy chapter 4, which contains the words of Moses that he spoke to Israel in around 1300 BC, as they were poised on the brink of entering the land that God had promised to them. Last week we saw that Moses sought to prepare Israel for what was to come by reminding them what had happened in the past – how they had come to be at this point. Last week’s passage was a flashback for Israel. Moses has shown them beyond a shadow of a doubt how God has acted to save them and bring them safely to this point – and how that generation of Israelites failed to serve God and thus would miss out on entering the promised land. From here onwards in the book, Moses speaks to the new generation of Israelites, and sets out for them the details of what it looks like for them to live faithfully under God. We see this in the opening two verses of the chapter. Look at verses 1 and 2, and see how Moses begins this section of his sermon.
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Moses here is going to lay out what God requires of Israel – and he calls for them to follow these decrees and laws, to keep these commands of God, so that they may live. Moses wants them to be careful – to be sure that they are following the commands from God, and not following anything other than God. Because Israel have a track record of idolatry – that awful sin of putting something that is created in the place of the creator. And with just a brief examination of ourselves, we find the same tendency toward idolatry in ourselves. So Moses’ words are important for us to hear today as well.
We are going to look at four different pointsthat Moses makes to try and prepare the Israelites for entering the land. First – he gives them three reasons why they should follow God. We will spend most of our time on this point. Second, he warns them against following idols – they should instead listen to the God who speaks. Third, he tells them that they will stumble once they enter the land – but he assures them that God is faithful. And finally, he reminds them that besides God, there is no other that can compare.
First, the reasons why they should follow God.The first reason he gives is that false religion has terrible consequences. To make this point, Moses reminds them of something that happened while they were going through the land of the Moabites. It’s there in verses 3 and 4.
3 You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did at Baal Peor. The Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 but all of you who held fast to the Lord your God are still alive today.
This was quite a recent event for the Israelites – it would have been fresh in their memories. And this was not a nice memory for them. There is a detailed account of what happened in Numbers chapter 25. But Moses is reminding them of this as it is an example of a religion that is not from God. I’ll summarise it for you; while travelling peacefully through the land of the Moabites, many of the Israelite men were seduced into sexual immorality with Moabite women, and went on to give sacrifices to their god, Baal.
And you see in verses 3 and 4 the consequences of this. God destroyed every one of the Israelites who went astray; but those who followed God faithfully remained alive. It is amazing how easily people can be deluded into participating in something that is not from God. Maybe these Israelites who died had somehow convinced themselves that what they were doing was okay in God’s sight. But they were wrong, and they died as a result. Friends, we face this same danger! It might not manifest itself in the same way for us – but we face the same temptations to go astray from God and follow after other gods. A big temptation for many Christians at the moment is following after the god of tolerance. Christians are often labelled as intolerant, or bigots, because we hold a different view on topics like same sex marriage, or gender identity. And of course it doesn’t feel nice to be given these kind of labels – but some Christians, as a result of this, change their view in order to be considered tolerant.
Two things here. First, to be tolerant of someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with every single thing they do. You can disagree with someone and still tolerate them; in fact, you can disagree with someone and still love them – and indeed, we must show love, especially when we disagree. And second, if society says something different to God’s word, we must be careful not to view God’s word through the lens of what society says – instead, we must view society through the lens of God’s word. We must not weaken our convictions on the words of God as a result of pressure from people; because, as the Israelites found out, that way leads to death. False religion has terrible consequences.
The second reason Moses gives for following God is that what what God offers, what we have, is far better than any alternatives. Verses 5-8.
5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
Moses is saying to the Israelites that what they did, engaging in this false religion, is crazy! ‘Look at what God has given us, and how amazing it is! If we rightly follow God, other nations will look at us and marvel.’
How could these Israelites possibly try and improve on what God had given them? God had brought them up out of Egypt with mighty power and miracles. He had given them the promise of great blessing through their father Abraham. He had spoken to them at Mt Sinai and given them the law from heaven. God had done amazing things for these people, and still what characterised them was their unfaithfulness, their turning away, their persistence at trying to improve on what God had given them, to add more on to it.
Friends, it is an arrogant and foolish thing for humans to think that they know better than God. And if it was crazy for the Israelites to do it then, how much crazier would it be for us to think that we can improve on what God has given us? If what these Israelites had received from God was incredible, how much more incredible is what we have now? Moses was insisting to them that they have it far better than any other nation; but we have it so much better than even those Israelites! We have Jesus! We who are on this side of the cross can look back and see the whole fullness of God’s plan to bring about salvation from our sinfulness through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, who is in heaven preparing a place for those who simply put their trust in him for salvation. We have a guarantee. Romans 10:13, the verse that is on the wall out in our foyer, says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, the name of Jesus, will be saved. The Israelites, who were striving to live under the law, and falling at every turn, lived in fear. We live in a sure hope of heaven. Who could possibly offer us something better? How foolish and arrogant would we have to be to think we can add to or improve on what God has done for us?
That’s the second reason. What we have in God is far better than what anyone else can offer us.
And the third reason that Moses gives the Israelites to follow God is to remember what happened at Mt Horeb, otherwise known as Mt Sinai; that day when God spoke the ten commandments, which Moses wrote down on stone tablets. It’s interesting, though. Moses here is referring to what happened at Mt Sinai thirty-eight years earlier. But we saw last week that Moses here is speaking to the new generation of Israelites, those who God has allowed to enter the promised land. Most of this new generation wouldn’t have been born when Israel were at Mt Sinai – it would have been their parents, their grandparents. This new group who Moses is speaking to had been born and grown up since then. And yet Moses says to them, verse 10, Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb. Remember it.
Is Moses confused here? Is he making a mistake, thinking he is talking to a different group? No, of course he isn’t. Moses knew very well who he was talking to. And he is very deliberately saying to this new generation of Israelites, “Remember Horeb? You were there.” Moses wants them to know that even though they weren’t even born yet, they were still involved in those events. God wasn’t just speaking to the Israelites who were literally standing there at the foot of the mountain. God was speaking directly to the next generation, and the one after them, and the one after them. Moses is assuring this new generation of Israelites that what God did in the past is just as relevant for them as if they were there themselves.
So, yes. They were there. And Moses says in verse 9, teach your children that they were there too. And their children’s children. Because this was a hugely significant event from their past that shaped their identity now. You see, in order to truly know God you must know how he has acted in history, what he has done for us in the past. For these Israelites, that meant looking back thirty-eight years to what their parents had experienced at Sinai. But for us, we can look back to something far more wonderful and incredible. We can look back to the cross of our Lord Jesus. This is the event in the past that shapes the identity of each of us. That day, 2000 years ago, as far as God is concerned, we were there. It was our sin that Jesus bore on the cross, and on that day he won for us victory over sin and death. That day, 2000 years ago, is the most significant day in any of our lives. That day is the day that shapes our identity now.
And like the Israelites were commanded, that day when Jesus died is the day that we need to teach our children about, and our children’s children. It is critical that we do teach this to the next generations of Christians. It has been an often observed pattern in Western churches that what the first generation teaches, the second generation assumes, the third forgets and the fourth rejects. We have been taught about Jesus – but we must be very careful not to be that second generation who assumes the gospel and doesn’t teach it. We must not assume the gospel, but we must actively be teaching it to those in the next generation. Who is in your life from the next generation that you could share your faith with? What kind of relationships do you have that you could pass on this teaching to? It could be your children, it could be your niece or nephew, it could be your coworkers, it could be the many kids and teens we have here at St Augustine’s. You were there 2000 years ago; you have seen what Jesus did for you. So let this news be on your lips as you speak to others. Remember what happened at the cross. You were there.
Point two: Don’t follow idols – listen to the God who speaks.
Look at what Moses says in verse 15. You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. He made this point earlier as well, in verse 12. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. This is the key here. The primary means by which God communicates with his people is by his words. God is a God who speaks. And this is why Moses is so at pains in verses 16 to 19 to warn them against idolatry! He says, watch yourselves very carefully, to make sure that you don’t make any idols and worship something that God has created! They have received the words of the living God when he gave them his law at Sinai – and the first two of the ten commandments that God spoke to them were both warnings against idolatry. They are in Exodus 20. The first commandment? You shall have no other gods before me. And the second? You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. It is an awful travesty to put any created thing in the rightful place of the one who created it. So if we put our hope and security in the things we have, the things we can buy, the things we can hold, the things we can look at, instead of putting our hope and security in the God who created all of these things… well, friends, we elevate these things to the position that only God deserves. And if we elevate something else in to that position, then that means we are bringing God down to a lower position. And that is idolatry – putting something else in the rightful place of God.
But you might ask, “why doesn’t God show himself to us? Sure, he might speak to us, we might have his words in the Bible… but I want more, I want to see God! If he would just reveal himself to us, it would be so much easier to worship him and not focus on other things!”
God has revealed himself to us. He revealed himself in Jesus. God took on flesh and came into our broken and sinful world, and he gave himself up on the cross to deal with humanity’s biggest problem, our sinful hearts. God has revealed himself in the greatest act of love imaginable – taking on himself the punishment for the sins of the whole world. So for us to say, ‘I just wish God would show himself to us’, is a profoundly wrong attitude. If we have that attitude, we are seeking after a form, rather than listening to God speak! And what’s more, by saying that, we are saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t enough. ‘I wish God would do more than deal perfectly with my sin and offer me the free gift of eternal life with him in heaven.’ That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? God has revealed himself perfectly to us in Jesus – and we have his words right at our fingertips that we can know more and more about him and his plan for us and our world. What a privilege that we can listen to the God who speaks.
Point three: Israel will stumble – but God is faithful.
After all that Moses has said, in calling Israel to follow God and avoid idolatry… he knows that they won’t be able to maintain that. In verse 25 he starts off by saying “if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol”, making it sound like a possibility, but by the end of verse 26 he is taking about the consequences like they are a done deal for the future. He says, You will not live there long [that is, in the promised land] but will certainly be destroyed. 27 The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. 28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell. Moses talks about this as a certainty! And we know from the rest of the Old Testament that this does come to pass, when they are run out of the promised land and taken into exile in Babylon. Israel’s future rebellion against God is anticipated, and punishment is in store for when they do… but the story doesn’t end with the punishment. Moses also gives them a word of hope here, from verse 29 to 31. Read along with me in your Bibles.
29 But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath.
God promises mercy. Even though he has brought this nation out from slavery in Egypt, and shown faithfulness to this people, and they continue to turn away from him, God still promises to accept them when they turn back to him. If one of us were God – and thank God that that isn’t the case! – we would certainly not be so quick to show mercy. If someone wrongs us, we are not likely to trust them completely again. Even if we say we forgive them, that indiscretion always seems to hang over the relationship. But it is not so with God! God is a God of mercy. He rightfully punishes those who turn away from him, but once someone turns back to him in obedience and repentance, God is quick to show forgiveness. This is even more real for us in Jesus Christ. God knows that in our sinfulness, we will continually turn away from him in our day to day lives, as we so naturally place created things in the position in our lives that only God deserves. This is why every week at church we confess our sins before God. He knows that we fall short and will continue to do so, but he is a God of mercy! In the death and resurrection of Jesus, our sins are dealt with. And this is the most wonderful comfort to us. We will stumble; but God is faithful to us.
Moses’ final point in this passage is also our final point this morning. Besides God, there is no other.And this point stands in summary of all that he has said up to this point. In verses 32 to 38 he reiterates how much better God is than any other alternative. He is reminding them that it is pointless and foolish to try and improve on what God has done for them, because besides God, there is no other. Trying to find something to compare to God is like trying to spot a star in the sky in the middle of the day. None of them can be seen because of the dazzling light of the sun. And how much more fitting that analogy is for us, when we consider the sacrifice of God’s own son, Jesus Christ; which far surpasses even the incredible things that God had done for the Israelites.
Moses had a lot to say to Israel to prepare them for entering the promised land. His words to them make up the whole of the book of Deuteronomy! But the key message for them to be prepared is that besides God, there is no other – they would have to be crazy to follow anyone else given how much God had done for them in the past.
Besides God, there is no other. Does your life reflect that? Is serving God the number one priority in your life, or does that get squeezed around the edges of everything else you need to get done?
If that is the case for you… and I know it is often the case for me… we need to be reminded of where our identity comes from. Our identity as Christians is shaped by that one day, 2000 years ago. That day is the most important day in any of our lives. On that day, Jesus, God’s son, willingly went to the cross to take on the punishment for the idolatry of our hearts.
If Moses were speaking to us, instead of the Israelites, he would say, “Remember the day you stood on the hill of Calvary. Remember the crowd bustling around you, calling out curses and scoffing at the battered man carrying his own cross. Remember how the soldiers nailed him down. Remember the darkness that came over the sky in the middle of the day. Remember that moment when he cried out to God and breathed his last, and the whole earth trembled. That day shapes your identity. Remember that day; you were there.”