Message: Promises

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MUSINGS

Message: Promises

Every year I sign at least two contracts: one with Cutty’s for work in the fee booth and one to work as Santa at a mall. These contracts are full of “if/then” stipulations. If I fulfill my side of the promise, then the other signers of the contract are legally obligated to fulfill their promise.

There is another type of contract called a covenant which binds one party in the contract to fulfill their obligation regardless of the actions or inactions of the other party or parties. Read Genesis chapter 17 and you’ll see the Covenant that God gave to Abraham. God’s promise was to Abraham and all of his descendants regardless of how those descendants behaved. At times, when his descendants acted outside the will of God, he would withdraw His support but never cancel his promise.

Listen again to Deuteronomy 30:9 through 14 and the Lord Our God will make you prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and then the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good semicolon for the Lord will again enable you to prosper as he rejoiced over your ancestors if you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his Commandments

follow his statutes which are written in this book of the law

The commandments of God are not too hard. Moses said, “This command I’m giving you today isn’t too hard for you or beyond your reach. It’s not in heaven. This command isn’t on the other side of the sea. These words are very near you. They’re in your mouth and in your heart so that you will obey them.”

The apostle Paul wrote, “If God’s Spirit lives in you, you are under the control of your spiritual nature, not your corrupt nature.”

Speaking of things being too hard or maybe too easy, I had a psychology professor hand out a multi-page test with these words written at the top, “Sign your name and stop, the test is completed.” Surprisingly, only a few in the class followed those instructions. By the time we reach college, we’ve taken hundreds, maybe thousands, of tests. We (quote) know how tests are to be taken, so, many students just continued to plow through the test questions even though they were made unnecessary by the first line on the page.

Charles Stanley tells a similar story of a professor who wanted to teach his students a lesson about grace.

“One of my more memorable seminary professors had a practical way of illustrating to his students the concept of grace. At the end of his evangelism course he would distribute the exam, and caution the class to read it all the way through before beginning to answer it. This caution was written on the exam as well. As we read the test, it became unquestionably clear to each of us that we had not studied nearly enough.

“The further we read, the worse it became. About halfway through, audible groans could be heard through out the lecture hall. On the last page, however, was a note that read, “You have a choice. You can either complete the exam as given or sign your name at the bottom and in so doing receive an A for this assignment.”

“We sat there stunned,” Stanley said. “Was he serious? Just sign it and get an A? Slowly, the point dawned on us, and one by one we turned in our tests and silently filed out of the room.

“When I talked with the professor about it afterward, he shared some of the reactions he had received through the years. Some students began to take the exam without reading it all the way through, and they would sweat it out for the entire two hours of class time before reaching the last page.

“Others read the first two pages, became angry, turned the test in blank, and stormed out of the room without signing it. They never realized what was available, and as a result, they lost out totally.

“One fellow, however, read the entire test, including the note at the end, but decided to take the exam anyway. He did not want any gifts; he wanted to earn his grade. And he did. He made a C+, but he could easily have had an A.”

The lawyer in our gospel reading asked, “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

This lawyer, like the students in my class and doctor Stanley’s class can’t take the esay win. What must I DO? Christ had answered the lawyers question by saying, “Do this (what the lawyer had told him) and you will live.” Many Christians, like this lawyer, think we have a contract with God, full of “if/thens” that are too hard to follow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Through Jesus Christ, God made a covenant with us. The promise was and still is all His. Our only duty is to accept or reject the promise. Certainly, all who are guided by God’s Spirit are God’s children.

Many Christians today seem to assume that keeping God’s law is impossible and is meant to be too hard for us to keep, in order to show us that we can only be saved through God’s work and not by our own efforts to keep the law. It is an old argument. The early non-jewish christians were often expected to keep all 613 of the Law of Moses. I like what James wrote in his small letter. “Faith by itself is dead if it doesn’t cause you to do any good things.” His point was not (as some have claimed) that it was the works that lead to salvation. It is the opposite salvation ought to lead to works. We are, after all, called to be servants. A servant who doesn’t serve is nothing.

This text from Deuteronomy challenges the assumption that we cannot follow God’s commandments. In this powerful segment of Moses’ speech, Moses makes three statements to encourage the people of Israel that they can, in fact, keep God’s law.

This made me think of times I’ve told my children to do something that might challenge them but was within their ability to accomplish. How often I heard, “I can’t do that, it’s too hard!”

I’d ask, “Have you tried?” The answer would come back, “No!” I’d tell them, “Go, do as much as you can – if you get to where you really can’t do it alone – come get me!”

They seldom came back and when they did, I would act as an adviser more often than finishing the job myself. I’m proud to say that all of them have moved mountains that they didn’t think they could do.

Moses’ first promises the people that “All the work of your hand” will be blessed by the Lord. There will be fruitfulness: of children, of livestock, of produce. Moses asks them to look to the past for the proof of the future. “The Lord will do this for you, just as the Lord did for your ancestors. You can trust that the Lord will act this way in the future because the Lord acted this way in the past.

God was referred to as “your God” three times in verses 9-10. God was not like the false gods of the other nations. He was their God and they were His people. Jeremiah 32:38 This passage echoes the Shema, the prayer that observant Jews pray twice daily, which begins with this well-known passage from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8).

Moses explains that the people are to obey God by observing God’s commands, turning to God with all their heart and soul. Manybible versions translate 30:10 as, “if you obey…” making the promise of the future blessing in verse 9 contingent on the people’s obedience, in other words a contract where both parties had to observe the terms of the contract. However, other versions translate it as “when,” suggesting that the promises of future abundance will happen WHEN God’s people obey. In the Jewish Publishing Service Tanak, Deuteronomy 30:10 reads, “SINCE you will be heeding the Lord your God…” which would also signify that God’s blessing is a response to our actions. Yet, this translation presents it as a given, instead of only a possibility.

In some ways, however, the different translation possibilities are made moot by Moses’ third statement, when he assures the people that they can keep God’s commandments. Even if we translate 30:10 as “if,” which could allow that the people might not obey, Moses declares in verses 11-14 that they can. Or, if the word in 30:10 is “when, for,” the move is still one of assurance. You can obey! You will obey!

It is a choice, Deuteronomy says, a choice that we can make — to obey or not to obey. To obey means blessing and life. Not to obey means death. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:29).

Moses gives this assurance by explaining to the people that it is not too hard for them nor is it too far away. If the people object that the commandment to obey God is too hard for them, Moses is pushing that aside. “It’s not too far away” (30:11) — can be understood as part of Moses’ assurance. Here, he is allaying fears that the commandment is in a place beyond their grasp — it is not in the heaven, nor is it over the sea. In both verses 12 and 13, Moses imagines someone saying, “Who can go to that place, take the commandment for us, cause us to hear it so that we can do it?”

These people were about to enter a new land. And those who knew that Moses was speaking his final address must have been worried about the presence of a leader who could help them to act in a certain way. Moses anticipates those fears and faces them directly, and in the final verse he completes his encouragement that the people can and will follow God’s law. Instead of being far away, the command is so near to them that it is inside them, inside their heart.

Such language recalls the new covenant described in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Certainly, many people understood God’s promise in Jeremiah as yet to be ultimately realized. But, the language of a command inside the heart of God’s people occurs here, at almost the beginning of their story as a people. The new covenant, then, certainly has connections with the old one. Also compare this to Jesus saying in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into the full truth.” The same God who made the original covenant with Abraham doesn’t discard the covenant He reinforces it with Jesus. Jesus said I come to fullfill the Law.

Moses affirms two things: that it is both in the people’s mouth and heart to do it (30:14). The language that it is in their “mouth,” suggests that the people are able to speak it, perhaps to speak their own words of assent to follow God (cf. Exodus 24:3, 7; Joshua 24:16-24). And the language of heart can suggest a yearning to do what God has asked. When it is in their heart to keep God’s law, what may have seemed impossible becomes not only possible but desired.

If the Israelites cannot love God with all their heart and soul, then God himself will make it possible for them to do so. God will circumcise their hearts, removing their disobedience and their callused disregard for God’s covenant, so that they might indeed love God and thereby live.

Ezekiel speaks of God giving Israel a new heart — “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant — “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). Likewise, Deuteronomy speaks of a circumcised heart and a word that is “very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

In all of these instances, it is God, not Israel, who makes it possible for Israel to be in relationship with God.

“The more God’s grace empowers their lives, the more they know their need of his pardon. And the word of pardon carries with it God’s commitment to make us people who will want to live in his presence — to make us what he says we are. Hence, God’s promise is embedded in his command: ‘You shall be holy.’”1

God’s promise is embedded in God’s command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

It is a word of law. It is also a word of promise. You shall love the Lord your God.

God doesn’t love to forgive sin. God loves sinners. God calls sinners to love him in return, and God through Jesus Christ gives them the grace to do so, to become the people God says that they are: freed, forgiven, sent out.

“Costly grace,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” writes Paul, quoting Deuteronomy. And what is this word? “The word of faith that we proclaim” (Romans 10:8). Gift of God for the people of God.

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