Today we’re talking about practice. At the time of the interview above, Allen Iverson was taking heat for skipping practice. We’re going to find that being committed to practice can save us from a whole bundle of trouble.
Turn to Deuteronomy.26:16-19. This little section at the end of chapter 26 will transition us to the conclusion of Deuteronomy. From chapter 10, 11 and 12 all the way through chapter 26, Moses has been retelling the stipulations of the treaty or covenant that God had made with the people of Israel. Now here in 26:16-19 he adds a few words of review.
In Verse 16, God commands Israel to follow the law with all their heart and soul.
Next in Verse 17, Israel declares that YHWH is their God and they will obey him.
Then in 18, YHWH declares that Israel is his people who will obey him.
Finally, YHWH in verse 19 promises to honor Israel above all other nations, that they are holy to him.
So in just a few short words, they have a summary of their agreement with one another. Israel will obey God as their only God, and God will honor Israel above all nations. But notice what is central to this entire treaty. Obedience.
It is obedience with heart and soul. In this short section, look how many times obedience is mentioned. I count seven, one of which is the very last phrase: “you will be a people holy to the Lord your God.” That phrase doesn’t explicitly the word “obedience,” or even a synonym, but it is there alright because it is impossible for Israel to be holy without obedience. As we continue on, let’s keep this theme in mind: for Israel, obedience to God honors their relationship with him.
Turning to chapter 27, we discover that the short review we just read at the end of chapter 26 was not the end of the matter. Not even close.
Read Deuteronomy 27:1-8. What we see here is a description of a memorial altar that God wanted the people to build. These are what some call stones of remembrance on which they wrote the law. This is not the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. Those were stored in the Ark of the Covenant. These were to be memorial stones, a monument to help the people remember what is true.
In my family, my wife Michelle has stones of remembrance in our house.They are coffee mugs, each from a place we have visited. We need these reminders, as they help us remember the blessing of our travels. Do you have stones of remembrance? For ancient Israel, these monuments were designed to help them remember the covenant they made with God.
Christians often display crosses to help us remember our relationship with Jesus. Sometimes on necklaces. Often on the walls of our homes and churches. Some churches are built the shape of a cross. These are monuments, big and small, to help us remember what Jesus did for us. By amazing love, through his sacrifice, we can have forgiveness and hope and a home with God. Furthermore, the cross reminds us that we are to live like Jesus, what some would call a cruciform, or cross-shaped life. Christians are called to follow the way of Jesus. In the midst of our busy lives, in the midst of the pressure from our culture to be consumers, to pursue entertainment, we can forget the mission of God’s Kingdom. We can forget our calling. Sometimes stones of remembrance can help remind us of what is true, and thus we can reorient our lives around the truth. I often think that life is a nonstop series of reorientation. Because we so quickly forget.
In Psalm 78:41-42 we are reminded that Israel forgot. The psalmist tells us “They did not remember his power.”
What have you forgotten that you need to remember? Do you need to look again at your stones of remembrance? When I drink coffee in the morning from our mugs, I rarely think about the place names on them. I just want to drink coffee! I could make a practice of looking at the place name, thinking about our time there and praising God for all we experienced and learned.
Do you have a practice of stones of remembrance? While this law is not our law, we can see the wisdom in it. You might want to start a practice of remembrance.
I love the practice that comes next. Look at Deuteronomy 27:9. Moses and the priests tell all the people to be silent and listen. This is another excellent practice to consider adding to our lives. Again, it is not our law, but it is something that we would do well to add to our relationship with God. In a relationship with someone, it is vital that we spend time listening to them. If we don’t listen to them, our relationship with them will be likely be over pretty fast, or if it isn’t over, it will be miserable. Likewise, we need to listen to God. That means we need to take time and be silent. Turn off the radio, the TV, the music. Turn off the noise, and listen for God to speak. In Israel’s case, they were to listen to two truths. One at the end of verse 9, and one in verse 10.
In verse 9 they are to be silent and listen to the truth about their identity. They are the people of the Lord their God. They are not slaves in Egypt. They are not a wandering people with no nation. They are not weak. They are not small. There are numerous descriptions that they could be tempted to give themselves. But the one truth about their identity is that they are the people of God. They are in a special relationship with God. It is a personal relationship with God. God loves them. That is their identity.
What is the truth about your identity? We Christians, we disciples of Jesus, are loved children of God. We need to be silent and listen to the truth of our identity. We are not failures, we are not misfits, we are not pathetic, we ARE dearly loved children of God. My suspicion is that most of us, me included, do not take enough time to be silent and hear that truth from God.
That is the first truth they are to listen to. The second truth is found in verse 10. It is a repetition of what we have heard already in chapter 26:16-19: they are to obey God and follow his commands. No surprise there. But then the passage takes a turn, a turn that is very much connected to the idea of obedience.
In verses 11-14 Moses tells the people that after they cross the Jordan River they are to gather together, the whole nation. Remember that the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses giving the people a second telling of the law before they take full possession of the Promised Land of Canaan. They have just barely entered the eastern side of the Promised Land, had some battles, and set up camp. The next step is the large scale invasion of the land on the western side of the Jordan River. If you jump ahead into the next book of the Bible, the book of Joshua, you can read the story of this invasion. For now, Moses is saying to them, when you do start the invasion, you will eventually come to two mountains facing each other. Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Six of the tribes, or half the nation, is to face Mount Ebal, and the other six tribes are to face Mount Gerizim. In this ceremony, the one tribe, the Levites, the priestly tribe, was then to read a group of curses and a group of blessings.
If you look at Joshua 8:30-35, you will see that the people actually did perform this ceremonial reading of the blessings and curses. The two mountains are fairly close together, and Joshua 8 tells us that they likely were in a large group with the Ark of the Covenant in the middle, and six tribes faced Ebal which is rocky and harsh, and six tribes faced Gerizim which is lush and fertile. So they were essentially back to back. Turn again to Deuteronomy 27-28, and we get to hear all the curses and blessings. Scholars note that this was a momentous event in the life of the nation. If you look on a map you will see the people are essentially standing in the heart of the land, with a very vivid image before them. “Disobey and you will be cursed, and go the way of rocky, harsh Ebal. But obey and you will be blessed, going the way of lush, fertile Gerizim.”
First, let’s look at the Curses section: Deuteronomy 27:15-26, and we notice a pattern. The Levites read the curse, and the people respond with “Amen!” This is not like “Amen” at the end of a prayer, when we just tack the word onto the end without thinking about it. Instead it is “Amen” when we agree with what has been said. “Amen” means something like “True!” or “That is a trustworthy saying.” Or as the kids say nowadays, “Facts!”
So the Levites would read the curse, and all the people would say together, “Amen!” That would be quite a powerful scene, wouldn’t it? Imagine the sound of maybe a million people facing one mountainside, and another million facing the other mountain, hearing that crowd shout “Amen!”
But what were these Curses that they were saying “Amen” about? What kind of curse are we talking about here? There are many ways to use the word curse. Swear words or bad words comes to mind, but hat’s not the cursing here. Or is this like a Satanic curse, like witchcraft or sorcery? Is God putting an evil curse on people?
Imagine a wizard with a wand, shooting out a magic power that binds up a person, like Sleeping Beauty cursed into a sleep that never ended until she was kissed by the prince. Or like the man who was cursed to be in the form of a beast until the beauty truly loved him. Is that the kind of curse God is doing? Or is these curses in Deuteronomy 27 maybe referring to consequences or punishment?
The verb itself is translated “to bind with a curse,” but what does that mean? Is all hope lost for this person? Can the curse be broken? One author I read said that word “curse” means the person who commits the offense is “destined for divinely imposed disaster.” So while the person is not zapped by a magic wand, they clearly don’t want to be in a position where they are destined for divinely imposed disaster.
Take note of the curses, and what God says can get Israel in a position of being cursed. In verse 15, it is idolatry. In verse 16, dishonoring your parents. In verse 17-19, three kinds of injustice. In verses 20-23, four kinds of sexual impurity. In 24-25 murder and bribery. Finally in 26, a concluding summary curse for not obeying the Law. Then all the people cry out together, “Amen” affirming that they agree and they bind themselves to this covenant. So the curses are life choices that result in divinely imposed disaster.
That leads us to the Blessing section, Deuteronomy 28:1-14. These blessings are amazing! Every part of Israel will be blessed. God promises that if Israel is obedient he will honor them and lift them high and make everything go wonderful for them. He will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, for them. Wow! You almost feel a little embarrassed, or even guilty because Israel will be so blessed. It reminds me of my daughter’s soccer games a few weeks ago when they were beating the other team so bad, the staff stopped keeping the score on the scoreboard. When my daughter scored a goal I wanted to cheer for her, but the score was already something like 17-0, and we didn’t want to make the other team or their spectators feel bad, so I had to do a quiet cheer.
It’s kinda like that with Israel. If they obey God says they will be in a place of unimaginable blessing. The nation of Israel would eventually see this blessing under the reigns of King David and Solomon. People from foreign countries wanted to visit Israel to see with their own eyes the fabulous wealth and wisdom of the Israelite King. They would come and actually experience Israel and King Solomon, and they would leave saying, “His wealth and wisdom are greater than I was told.”
The collection of poems that we call Psalms starts with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm that talks about these blessings and curses, and it points to another practice. Basically the psalm says that if we follow the way of wickedness we will be cursed, but if we meditate on God’s Word and do what it says, we will be blessed. We need to be a people, therefore, who practice meditation on his Word. This meditation is more than reading. It is instead a deep thinking upon, a desire to understand and apply God’s teaching to our lives, and then to live them out.
Initially as I studied the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 27 & 28, I thought, “I love that he focuses on blessing second. In other words, God finishes with a vision of how good things can be!!!” But then in chapter 28, verse 15 arrives, and, surprise, we’re back at the curses. Scan from verse 15 to the end of the chapter. What do you notice?
It is a long chapter. He goes on and on and on about how awful it will be for Israel if they do not obey God. Did God get stuck a rut of curses? We’ve already had curses back in chapter 27. But now in chapter 28 there’s an explosion of curses. Start with verses 15-19. You’d think these four additional curses, along with what we already read in chapter 27 would give the people the idea that God really wanted them to obey, and if they didn’t obey, they were in big trouble.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The picture God paints starting in verse 20 and continuing all the way to verse 68 is off the charts.
Look at verse Deuteronomy 28:26 for example. There God is telling Israel what will happen if they disobey him and then try to go to battle. Read verses 26-29 and you’ll see what I mean. It’s so bad it’s almost humorous. I am not making light of it as this is serious stuff. But my goodness, does it ever stop? It gets disgusting and vile at some points. Seriously. And why? I think the point of it all is actually to totally revile the people. If this was depicted on a video, most of us would have to turn our heads. God is saying to Israel that if they disobey him, they will face utter and total ruin in every facet of their lives: nationally, individually, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. He covers it all.
Right in the middle of this passage, though, God shares his purpose for this horrible news. Look at verses 45-47. God wants Israel to be clear, abundantly, excruciatingly clear, of what is at stake here. They are his people, and he is their God, and they will have such wonderful blessing if they obey him. But if they don’t, it will be so, so bad for them. The curses and the devastation that will erupt on them because of their disobedience will be a sign, for them and their descendants, not that God is brutal, but that Israel was unfaithful.
Look especially at verse 47 which gives us another practice. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity.” God envisions for them the time of blessing in the Promised Land, and is saying that the time of blessing is when they should serve God joyfully and gladly. That is a great message for us. I know life in these United States has its really difficult aspects. But we also have much blessing. In the midst of blessing, we too must serve God joyfully and with gladness. Yet how easy it is to complain and get fussy.
I recently heard of a church that created a no complaining rule. How about your church? Will you ban all complaining? In Philippians 2:14-16, Paul says that we should do everything without grumbling and complaining because we hold out the word of life to the world around us. Who in your community would want to be part of God’s Kingdom if the your church is known for being complaining and fussy? Instead, let us serve God joyfully and gladly! Even when life gets tough, even when people tick us off. Let’s be joyful in our obedience to God.
Sadly, Israel would totally throw their relationship with God in the trash. They disobeyed so many times, and God allowed the consequences of their disobedience to fully impact them. This happened periodically in the nation in small ways throughout their history, but the disobedience got so bad at that eventually, he allowed them to be defeated by foreign enemies and re-enslaved in those foreign lands. Israel felt the divinely imposed disaster of the curse.
Look at Deuteronomy 28:68. That’s re-enslavement happened to Israel. What we see, then, is that there is a side to this covenant that is conditional. It is an If-Then statement. If you obey, then you will be blessed. If you disobey, then you will be cursed, and we see that throughout these chapters. But there is also a side of the covenant that is unconditional. Fast-forward with me through the centuries. As I mentioned, Israel disobeyed and God allowed them to be captured and re-enslaved. But God is faithful and forgiving. Amazingly so.
One of Israel’s prophets, Zephaniah, depicts this. In Zephaniah 3, God, after all that pain of Israel’s unfaithfulness and exile, comes back to them with a vision of grace and blessing for Israel.
“Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Amazing, God’s faithfulness to Israel! But how does this connect with the New Testament?
We are not Israel, and we are not under this covenant. So first we must ask, what did this mean to them? God faithfully loved and provided for Israel, he rescued them from slavery and set them on a path of freedom, gave them a land of their own, and promised to bless them if they obeyed.
Next we seek the underlying principle: When we obey God, we are following the best possible way to live. This is not a promise of a perfect life, as if there will be no trials and struggles and difficulties for those who obey God. Sometimes following God will make life harder. Think of those Christians around the world who are persecuted for following Jesus. Think of the fact that following God means he asks us to practice self-control that we sometimes don’t want to use. God calls us to restrain our lusts and desires, and not just indulge them, and that can be hard. Clearly, God’s desires in all these blessings and curses is that he wants his people to experience blessing and he wants them to avoid curses! He wants his people to have the best life possible. So there is a sense in which he wants to entice them with a glorious vision of the blessed life, and he wants to caution them with a vision of the pain of the cursed life. God wants to protect his people.
Finally how can we Christians apply this to our lives? Obedience starts with choosing to trust in and follow the way of Jesus. His grace has forgiven all our sin. But we don’t abuse his grace. Instead we choose to obey.
Jesus taught us in John 14:15-24, “If you love me, keep my commands.” Paul likewise taught us in Titus 2:11-15, “God’s grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness, and to live holy lives.”
In another place Jesus also says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Following the way of Jesus takes practice. Self discipline. One of my children is taking guitar class at school, and it is hard when you are first starting out to make your fingers work the strings. In guitar class he is not saying “this yoke is easy and burden light.” But ask me about how he uses the controller for his Xbox video games. He has practiced that a lot, and his fingers fly over the controls with ease.
We can and should live a well-practiced life. Practices or habits help us follow the way of Jesus. They help us obey and live the life he desires for us.