Tag Archives: moses

Why we can follow God’s way even when we’re scared or anxious [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 5]

23 Feb
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

What mountains are you facing? This past year, I started doctoral studies, and the thought of researching, writing and defending a dissertation feels like a vast, unconquerable mountain. If I’m honest, sometimes being a pastor of church feels that way too. As does parenting or living out the way of Jesus in our complex world. How about you? Got any difficult situations in your life? Anything that seems impossible? Are you scared? Nervous? Struggling with anxiety or fear?

If so, please know that you’re not alone. In this series of posts we have been studying Deuteronomy chapters 31-34, which describes the final days and last words of Moses, the great leader of Israel. After hearing God and Moses’s songs to Israel, we read that Moses passed on, but not before turning leadership of the nation over to Joshua. With that in mind, let’s return to God’s command to Joshua Deuteronomy 31:6-8 and 23.  “Be strong and courageous… Do not be afraid or terrified… I will never leave you or forsake you.”  Then connect those statements with Moses’ words in chapter 32 where over and over again he refers to God as the Rock of Israel.  For example in verse 4 he says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”

With this wonderful message of assurance, and all the blessings in chapter 33, the very next book of the Bible, Joshua, begins nearly identically to how Deuteronomy concludes.  Turn to Joshua 1:6-9, and what do we see? “Be strong and courageous”!

Though this was a message for Joshua and the entire nation of Israel, there is a principle embedded in this for us too, when we face what seems impossible.  How does this relate to us? Turn to Hebrews 13:1-6, and perhaps we’ll see the connection.

In the first few verses, the writer of Hebrews mentions numerous actions, life choices that Christians are to follow.  Then look at the surprising quote that the writer uses to sustain why we should follow God’s way.  He quotes Deuteronomy 31:6, the very thing God said to Joshua!  When a Christian is attempting to apply an Old Testament passage to their lives, it is always helpful when that very OT passage is quoted in the New Testament.

What the writer of Hebrews accomplishes through his quote of Deuteronomy 31:6 is a powerful reminder to us that though there are many times in our lives that we Christians can be afraid, fearful or ashamed to follow the way of Christ, when we know God is faithful to us, we can have confidence that we can be faithful to him.

We can be courageously obedient as disciples of Jesus, trusting in him, living out his way of living, because he has our back. 

Ours is a society that is changing, and it could be that living in obedience to Jesus will mean that we will look different from the people around us.  We might even look strange.  And yet, what is the promise we have from God?  That he will never leave us or forsake us.

Additionally, there is the principle that in God we have everything we need, which is a direct connection to our struggle with fear, anxiety, and worry.  In Matthew 6:24-35 Jesus teaches us not to worry.  In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul teaches us to not be anxious, and in 1 Peter 5:7, we read “Cast your anxiety on him.” 

We can be afraid or anxious or worrisome in life because there are so many difficult situations we encounter.  But this principle reminds of us the rock we have in Jesus.

What is the insurmountable situation that you face?  Joshua was facing a huge task.  He was to take over leadership from Moses, leading people who didn’t have a good track record of being followers. More than that, he was to lead them in a massive invasion of a land filled with people who were more powerful than Israel.  I can see why God says over and over and over to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous.  I am with you.”

While you and I might not be leading massive amounts of people to do huge world-shaping historical events, we each have important roles that God has called us to.  We each face situations that might seem like they are too much.

Digging out of a financial hole.

Passing a test, graduating from high school.

Healing a broken relationship.

Facing a medical health emergency.

Being a mom, being a dad.

Life is fraught with so many difficulties.

And to each one of them God says, “Do not fear, I am with you!”

How God’s mercy changes the future [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 3]

20 Feb
Photo by Valeriy Andrushko on Unsplash

Do you feel stuck? Maybe you see some light breaking through the darkness, but there is a wall, a forest that seems like it is blocking the way. Maybe it feels like you will never get past the difficult situation you face. When we are in the middle of pain, we can wonder if God has locked our future, and we have no hope. But is that how God works?

In this series of posts on Deuteronomy 31-34, we have been looking at Moses’ last words to the people of Israel, as he is about to pass on, and Joshua will be their new leader. Before Moses addresses the whole nation, first, in Deuteronomy 31:14-23, God has a private meeting with just Moses and Joshua, at the Tent of Meeting.  There God appears in a pillar of cloud, and he has a very strange conversation with Moses and Joshua. 

It’s like God gives them a glimpse inside his heart.  What we see is that God’s is a broken heart, broken because of Israel’s rebellion.  Look at verses 16-18 in particular.  It’s like God is opening a crack in the space-time continuum, and he allow Moses and Joshua to see the future. He says to them, “the people will break covenant with me.  They will prostitute themselves to other false gods.”  As a result, he says, he will leave them.  God’s protection will be gone, and Israel will be destroyed.  Woah.

Imagine being Moses and Joshua hearing that.  If you’re Moses, you could be thinking, “And I just spent the productive years of my life on this people? And it will all be for naught?” Then think about how Joshua might have felt! “I’m getting myself into a total train wreck…it will be pointless for me to lead these people.”

I have to ask, though: did they hear God’s words as an absolute future, as if it had no chance of changing?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why: Moses had been in this situation before.  Remember the Golden Calf episode that happened not long after the people were originally freed from slavery in Egypt?  They had been out of Egypt maybe a month and a half or so, and Moses had gone up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God, and there God gave him the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But what was happening at the same time down below?  The people started getting antsy, feeling like Moses was gone too long, and they gave up.  They created an idol in the shape of a golden calf and started worshiping it.  God tells Moses, “You better get down there because the people are losing it.”  Moses is angry with the people, of course, and he breaks the stone tablets, but God is angrier yet.  He tells Moses that he is going to eliminate the people, and start over again with Moses.  But what happens?  Does Moses say, “Ok. Fine.” As if it was a set future, with no opportunity for a change?

Nope. Moses puts on his lawyer hat (if there is such a thing…) and starts advocating on behalf of the people, and shockingly, God changes his mind.  He is a gracious and loving God.  So this vision of the future in Deuteronomy 31:18 is not set in stone, even though God is using words like “certainly” and “I will do this and that.” We know the forgiving, merciful heart of God because we have seen it time and time again.  God is not given Moses and Joshua a picture of the unchangeable future.  This is, however, another warning, a strong caution that the people need to obey God.  To live a life of following God’s ways is far and away what is best for them, and thus we can see this passage as God loving them in the midst of warning. 

Next in verse 19, God tells Moses to get out a pen and paper and write down a song.  This is a very rare occurrence in the Bible.  God writes a song!  In chapter 32, we will get to read the song.  Before that happens, though, God has a word for Joshua, and it is the same command that Moses gave Joshua.  Compare verses 7-8 with verse 23.   See that is it nearly identical. As I said in part 2 we’ll come back to that. 

Before we get to God’s song in chapter 32, the final verses in chapter 31 talk about the Book of the Law.  We read this in verse 9, and now again in verse 24, that Moses wrote down the Law, gave it to the Levites, who were the priestly tribe, and had them place it beside the Ark of the Covenant. 

But look at verse 26.  That law, Moses says, is a witness against them, which sounds very negative, right?  Then in verse 27-29, Moses pretty much says to the Levites what God had just said to him and Joshua, that Israel will rebel.  Nice final words, Moses.  He sure sounds bitter, mentioning how difficult the people were. Then he asks the Levites to assemble all the people together because he wants to address them, and give them a piece of his mind. When the people are together, we read in verse 30, that Moses recites the song to Israel, and we will find out what the song is all about next in part 4…and it is a strange song.

Grim last words from a beloved leader? [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 2]

19 Feb

Photo by Carlos Arthur M.R on Unsplash

Have you felt the sting of words that make you want to hide your face? Words have great power to wound, and power to heal. Last words are particularly meaningful and impactful. Maybe you’ve heard someone give their last words before death. More than likely you still remember them. What do you want your last words to be?

Remember that Deuteronomy has been a last word of sorts from Moses to the people of Israel.  They have been on a long journey, starting about 40 years prior.  40 years before this moment, 40 years before the events of Deuteronomy 31-34, the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, and it was as horrible slavery, a persecution, in which they had no hope.  A prince of Egypt named Moses, though, came to them and revealed that he was actually a Hebrew like them. In a strange twist of events, he kills an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew slave, flees into the desert, is away for awhile, and then returns from the desert saying that God had spoken to him and given him a mission to confront the Egyptian king, the Pharaoh, to let Israel go free. 

The story of Israel’s exodus or leaving from Egypt is one of high drama, involving astounding acts of God’s mighty power.  But through it all, Moses emerges as an imperfect but effective leader of the people.  They do leave Egypt and head out on a long journey to a new land.  As they follow God to this Promised Land, both the people and Moses commit grave mistakes and have moments of astounding faithfulness along the way.  Through it all Moses grows in stature and reputation.  But now the time of Moses’ death is at hand. 

As I mentioned yesterday, this is our final blog series studying Deuteronomy, and it focuses on chapters 31-34. That’s a lot of material, I know, but as you follow post by post, I think you’ll see why I grouped it together.  To get some context, my opinion is that it is best to start at the very end, Deuteronomy 34:10-12.

There we learn the preeminence of Moses in the eyes of the people.  He was a George Washington type in that he was a founder of the nation who led them through a difficult trial. But Moses was far more than Washington, as Moses spoke with God face to face. Did you notice how the writer of these verses describes the power of God that was resident in him?

We also need to remember what was said of Moses in Numbers 12:3.  He was a very humble man, the most humble on the earth. 

It is true that David was Israel’s greatest King, and David’s son Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, leading Israel to heights of wealth and influence.  But there is no one in the history of the nation of Israel that is as important as Moses.

Not only did Moses lead the nation from slavery, but Moses was also the one to whom God gave the Law.  Yes, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph, along with his brothers are the historical patriarchs of nation.  Jacob was renamed Israel, which is where the nation got its name.  The twelve tribes of Israel, therefore, are named after Jacobs 12 sons.  But even those important factors pale in comparison the position that Moses has in the hearts and minds of the people. 

And now he is passing on. 

What we see, then, in chapters 31-33 are Moses’ actual last words.  Sure, the whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses giving the people a retelling of the covenant.  But here in chapters 31-33, we get his final words. 

Now turn back to the beginning of chapter 31.  In verses 1-8 Moses tells the people that his time is up.  Their invasion of the Promised Land of Canaan is about to begin in a short matter of time.  But Moses will not be joining them.  Instead he turns leadership over to Joshua. And he has some special words for the people and Joshua: He tells them that the Lord will be with them and will go before them, so they should be strong and courageous, they should not be afraid or discouraged.  These are powerful last words that we will return to in future posts in this series.

Next in verses 9-13, Moses one last time commands them to remain familiar with God’s Law.  He tells them to make a practice every 7th year in which they come together as a nation to read the Law of God out loud, so that they, their children, and even the non-Israelites among them can remember to obey God.

These last words of Moses are so encouraging thus far. But starting in chapter 31:14 and continuing most of the way through chapter 32:52, things get grim again.  Remember the curses we studied in chapters 27-28?  Chapters 29-30, the renewal of the covenant, also include strong cautions about disobedience.  Once again, scan through chapters 31-32 and once again God is warning the people about disobedience. Are Moses’ last words going to be a smackdown? Check back in to part 3 to find out.

An embarrassing dream told me the truth about my life [How God feels about our fear – Deuteronomy 31-34, part 1]

18 Feb

Photo by Ben Maguire on Unsplash

I want to tell you about a dream I had this week.  I’ve had a similar one before.  Maybe you’ve had one like this too.  My dream started as I was sitting in a chair at a pool party at a place I didn’t recognize.  At the party were some of my kids’ friends and their parents.  It was a fun event, like a birthday party.  But as I looked around, I realized to my horror, that I didn’t have any clothes on.  Instantly, I was super-embarrassed and used my hands to cover up, frantically looking for a towel.  It was a moment of sheer terror. 

Ever had a dream like that?  It is astounding what our brains and emotions can create in our minds when we are asleep.  The images are so vivid.  And often it is not hard to figure out why we had certain dreams.  Our fear and anxiety comes out, right? 

So apparently, I’ve got some fear going on in my life.  What am I afraid of?  Well I’ll tell you.  Since 2011 I have been an adjunct professor for Lancaster Bible College teaching online Bible courses.  The course I have taught most often is a six-week intensive about how to study the Bible.  During those six weeks my life can be crazy busy.  Normally, I can swing it, but last fall I started doctoral studies, taking two classes of my own. So in November, right in the middle of teaching one of those six-week intensives, I said to my wife that it was too much, and after the new year I wanted to look into different options.  My sister teaches online for Eastern University, so maybe they had something more suitable. Two weeks later, Messiah College contacted me out of the blue, asking me to teach a section of their intro Bible course.  I couldn’t believe it.  I hadn’t even thought of Messiah, though my two oldest sons are students there, and it was well before the New Year.  The Bible department chair got my name from his colleagues who lead the Clergy Leadership Program of Central PA, of which I was a participant in 2015-17. One thing led to another, and I was hired.  We started telling our older boys about it, and our second son, a sophomore, wrote back and said, “I think I’m in that class!”  And sure enough he was!  It was amazing how God answered my prayer far beyond what I expected or asked for.  So I have started teaching for Messiah. 

And that is where the fear comes in. The Messiah class is not online, but in class.  A few weeks ago it hit me, I’m going to have to stand in front of a class, including my son, and actually have something to say.  Online classes had none of that.  As of this writing, I have finished two weeks of the Messiah class, and I think it is going okay, but I can tell you that you I’ve had anxiety and fear about it!  Additionally, this past week I was up at my seminary three days for my doctoral residency, and there, too, I can feel very intimidated surrounded by really smart and amazing people, all thinking about doctorates and dissertations. Put together, it can feel overwhelming.

I’m almost certain that is what led to my embarrassing dream! 

In this final series of posts in our study through Deuteronomy we are going to meet someone who also faced what could easily seem like an insurmountable situation.  A guy named Joshua.  He was about to enter into the top leadership role in the nation of Israel, following in the giant footsteps of Moses.

Have you ever experienced a transition of leadership where a long-time leader was concluding their time as leader, and a new person was stepping into that role?  It may be a company you work for.  It may be a volunteer organization.  A church.  A family.  Might be in government.  A Coach.  Recently here in our school district we’ve had a couple long-time leaders move on.  Some elementary school principals.  Then the superintendent of the district retired two years ago. 

These transitions evoke all kinds of emotions don’t they? People miss the previous leader.  People are afraid that the new leader will mess things up. 

Transitions are hard.  They raise fear in us.  Transitions can make it seem like the foundations are shaking.  When there are pastoral transitions, some statisticians say, on average, 25% of the congregation will leave.  Usually not all at once in some big exodus, but often gradually, over a few years.  Why? We get scared, fearful. 

And you know what, the new leader is scared too.  Fearful. And it comes out in our dreams, in bodily anxiety, panic. How do we deal with this?  

In Deuteronomy chapters 31-34 we’re going to learn about a leadership transition, and a bunch of people that could be fearful. Check back in for part 2 of the series!

Practices for a blessed life [Deuteronomy 26-28]

7 Feb

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. 

Of Prophets [God’s heart for people to find truth, part 3]

28 Nov
Image result for john the baptist

When you think of prophets, what comes to mind?  A scraggly guy like the one in the picture above?  Or maybe a preacher in a church?  Someone who has a vision of the future?  The Bible is loaded with prophets, and they come in many shapes and sizes.  One thing is similar about them all, and that is what this post is about.  In this series, we’ve been looking at Deuteronomy 18:9-22, seeking God’s heart for how to discover the truth. As we saw in part 2, Israel should not listen to the sorcerer or diviner.  Now in Deuteronomy 18:15-22 we read that they should listen to God’s prophet. 

In verse 16 Moses reminds them of the time 40 years earlier when they were at the mountain and God made his covenant with the people.  See Deuteronomy 5:23-27.  There we read that God’s voice was so powerful, the people wanted God to stop talking because they feared for their lives!  We so often wish God would speak to us.  Maybe if we actually heard God’s voice, we might feel differently.  I know we like to joke about loud mouths, but imagine a voice that could get you killed!  So God said that he would raise up a prophet from among them, and God would speak through the prophet, whose voice wouldn’t kill them, and they were to listen to the prophet.  Moses was that prophet. 

Turn back to Deuteronomy 18, and Moses is prepping the people for the time when he would die and there would be a new leader.  Moses spoke God’s truth to the people, and eventually there would be a new prophet to lead them.

The big question was how were they to know if the prophet was speaking for God or just for himself or for other gods?  That prophet would have been in a prime position, right?  He could really manipulate the people for personal gain. He was the one who was supposed to be speaking the words of God, and if he wanted, he could make the words of God say a lot of stuff that would benefit him, keep him in power, enrich him. 

Like the tele-evangelists who say, “God wants me to have this multi-million dollar Lear Jet.”  Or maybe for 2019 when we start up our capital campaign again, I should say, like some preachers, that God wants me to lock myself in the church steeple until we raise all the money.   

How do we know what to believe?  With so many people saying “God told them this or that,” how are we to evaluate it? 

Well, God gives them a test.  In verse 22, he says that if the prophet speaks things that don’t take place or come true, then they can disregard that guy.

This is similar to New Testament teaching about false prophets. 

1 John 4 says that there are two tests we can use to determine if a teacher is true: must agree that Jesus has come in the flesh and is from God, and second, that teacher must listen to the apostles.  In other words, teachers must follow New Testament teaching. If they don’t they are false.

So just as Moses in Deuteronomy 18 says that there will be more prophets after him, the people of Israel began keeping an eye out for these prophets. There were many.  Through the Old Testament, there is a lineage of prophets, and they were both men and women.  Some of the most famous, you may have heard of.  Deborah in Judges 4-5.  Samuel, Nathan, Elijah & Elisha, and of course the many prophets who have biblical books to their names: Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all those short books at the end of the Old Testament, the Minor Prophets.  Even in the New Testament we read about prophets.  At Jesus’ birth there is a lady named Anna, and a man named Simeon, who functioned in a prophetic role.  Jesus called his cousin John the Baptist, the greatest prophet, but was John THE prophet that Moses refers to Deuteronomy 18?

What I mean is that as the centuries went by, the situation of the Jews changed. After the Israelite period of Kings, the people turned their backs on God and he allowed them to be defeated by the many world powers fighting for control of the region.  The Babylonians gave way to the Persians who were conquered by the Greeks and eventually the Romans took control.  So by the time we get to the New Testament, the Jews longed for another kind of Moses, a leader who would once again lead them to freedom.  And they looked to Deuteronomy 18, the Prophet who was to come. Was John the Baptist that new prophet?

In the New Testament, in John 1:21, we read that John the Baptist was gaining popularity in the nation of Israel.  This was a thousand years after the time of Deuteronomy.  John the Baptist was in ministry right around the year 30 AD in Palestine.  The Roman Empire had military control of the land, and the people of Israel were hoping and praying for change.  Maybe John was the guy they were hoping for!  So the people ask John a very unique question: “Are you the Prophet?”  They were referring to Deut. 18, and the prophet mentioned there. But John says, No.  So the people ask him, “Are you the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior?”  Again he says, No. In verse 25, they question John further.  If he is not the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior, and if he is not the Prophet, or the reincarnation of Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, then why was John baptizing people?  They were really curious about John.  But clearly John was not the Prophet, though he said he did have a unique role, in that he was preparing the way for someone, someone who was far more important.

Tomorrow we meet THE Prophet!

The danger of echo-chambers [God’s heart for people to find the truth, part 1]

26 Nov

Photo by Joe Taylor on Unsplash

Have you heard of “echo chambers”? I was listening to a podcast this week where a guy said that in our day and age, especially because of the many, many choices we have for news, and because of social media, that Christians too often live in an echo chamber. 

 Echo chambers are rooms where you can talk and hear the sound waves of your voice bounce off the walls and repeat over and over so you hear an echo, echo, echo, echo.  We do this in life too, especially with the news, when we listen to one viewpoint over and over.  For example, if you believe that one particular news outlet is biased, you might decide to never listen to or read any reports from that news outlet.  What happens is that we tend to load our social media feeds with producers of news that tend to agree with us.  Or we watch TV news shows that affirm our beliefs. Usually this falls along political lines.  It doesn’t matter if you are conservative, progressive, or liberal, it is human nature to want to be affirmed. But that can create an echo chamber in our lives, where we almost always, or maybe only, listen to what we already believe.  We don’t listen to other points of view and actually become insulated from hearing them at all. 

Here’s the thing: Christians should not be in an echo chamber.  Instead Christians should be people who are able to evaluate multiple points of view with a Kingdom perspective!  The question, then, for Christians is, where do we find this truth? 

As we will see in Deuteronomy 18, God was also very concerned that Israel would be able to find the truth too. 

In the last few months studying Deuteronomy, we’ve seen laws about worship, food, holidays, governance, generosity, and time and time again, God tells Israel that they are not to be like the nations around them.  Israel is to be different because they follow God.  God wants Israel to be different because he loves them and has a heart for justice, for human flourishing. In the nations surrounding Israel, there is much injustice.  So Israel must look different.

Once again in Deuteronomy 18, we see God warning Israel about the temptation to be like the selfish, destructive nations around them, because those nations had many detestable practices. 

Look at what he says in Deuteronomy 18:9-14.  Verse 9 tells us that in the Promised Land of Canaan, the land Israel was about to enter and take over, there were nations who did all kinds of detestable practices. 

I tried to imagine how it would feel for the people of Israel to enter into this foreign land and see all these different kinds of practices. 

Have you ever been to a foreign country where Christianity is not the dominant religion?  It is an eye-opening experience.  When I was in Guyana, India, Nepal, Cambodia and Malaysia, I encouontered a bit of this. I saw numerous temples and flags and statues devoted to the gods of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It was certainly very interesting, for example, visiting a Buddhist temple in Cambodia, talking to a Muslim Imam in Guyana, and watching Hindus enter their temples in India.  I felt uncomfortable, and yet curious, but I didn’t feel tempted to give my life to those religions. 

So from my vantage point, it seems like Israel would not be tempted to get into all those detestable practices, especially because they have God on their side. Why would they ever think of anything else?  Well, God knows his people.  Consider that slave mentality could be a factor here. They were slaves 400+ years in Egypt, and thus it would be very unlikely that in the 40 years since they left Egypt that they would have removed this mentality from their way of thinking.  Slaves did as their rulers told them.  God knows, therefore, that his people could be tempted by the powerful nations around them to fall back into that slave mentality. 

Tomorrow we’ll look at the detestable practices people in other nations used to gain knowledge and power, practices that God wants Israel to have nothing to do with.