Sermon for September 4th, 2022
In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses has come to the end of the road. The end of the road for him at least. Moses is near the Eastern shore of the Jordan river, not far from Mount Nebo from which in the distance you can see the mountains of Jerusalem. We are told that he is 120 years old. He has had the most epic life. Saved from death multiple times. Raised in Pharoah’s court. Reborn in the desert as a prophet. He has stood in the very presence of God. He has witnessed unimaginable miracles. And finally, he has led God’s people to the promised land.
We know that it hasn’t been an easy journey though. Despite the miracles, despite their covenant with God, these people that Moses is leading have wanted to turn back every step of the way. On foot the journey from the shores of the Red Sea to the shores of the Jordan River should take about 10 days. It has taken them 40 years! 40 years of complaining and turning back to Egypt. 40 years of turning away from the God that was saving them. Moses has been through it with these people; he knows what they are like. So, in his last speech he makes it very clear to them: God and salvation and life and the promised land are this way. Death and curses and slavery are that way. Choose life. Choose a relationship with God. Choose blessings and the promised land. Moses implores people one last time, to make a good choice. Then he steps down and begins to hand leadership over to Joshua.
But before Moses dies, the Lord pulls him aside and has another talk with him. And this is a part of the scripture that you don’t hear this morning. The Lord said to Moses: “you are going to die soon and be gathered to your ancestors, and these people that you led, they are going to break the covenant again. They will forsake me. They will go chasing after other Gods. This will make them weak and they will suffer because of it.”
Now you might be thinking, “gosh, poor Moses. How depressing to think that he has come through all of that only for God to tell him at the last moment that it has all been for nothing. What is the point of urging people to make good choices, when you know that they are going to make bad ones?” But God says something very revealing to Moses. God says: “For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” God already knows that his people are going to turn away from him. God knows that these people will break his commandments. God knows that they will forsake him and go chasing after other Gods. God knows this, and he still leads them to the promised land anyways.
That is a revelation about the character of God and it is a revelation about the kind of covenant he has made with his people. God is giving life, showing love, saving and blessing people that he already knows are going to betray him. God already knows. But God does it anyways. This isn’t tit for tat; this isn’t a contract between equal partners. God may want his children to make good decisions, but his love for them and his commitment to them is not contingent upon that. God is leading people into the promised land that he already knows are unworthy of that blessing. That is a revelation to Moses that is greater than the commandments themselves.
In fact, this little conversation that God has with Moses, far from being discouraging, was probably very encouraging to him. You know, when Moses gives that speech that you heard this morning: “I set before you life and death; choose life,” you know that weighing on Moses’s soul must have been the knowledge that these people who he has been leading for 40 years are incapable of consistently choosing life. Moses knows that these people don’t have a history of making good choices. Moses knows that. He wants people to follow the commandments. He knows that the commandments are given for their benefit. He implores people to make good decisions, but in the end we see that that is not what his faith is built upon. Moses’s hope, Moses’s faith, is in God’s saving love for his people and as he is about to end his journey God shows him that that is a hope that is well founded.
You know, some people think that religion and religious leadership is just about convincing and teaching people to make good choices. Well if that were the case then this would be a very depressing job indeed. People don’t make good choices. Even people that have seen and witnessed God’s saving grace; Even people that know the Lord and have made a covenant with God; even God’s people make bad choices. They break the commandments; they bow down to idols and chase after other Gods; they forget what God has done for them. They love other things more than they love God. God’s people have never been very good at holding up their end of the covenant.
In our prayer book, I am sure most of you know that we have this thing called the baptismal covenant. People who are being baptized recite the creed, or the record of what God has done for us, and then they respond to a number of questions that we have added on: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace? And of course the people respond to every question: “I will, with God’s help.” And every time I hear that response, the crusty old priest inside of me wants to shout back: “no, you won’t! Who do you think you are kidding?!” I’m no amateur at this. You are going to break a number of these commitments, not to mention several of the commandments before you get back to the parking lot. If religion, specifically this religion, if this was simply about imploring you to make a good choice when confronted with decisions that lead to either blessings and life or curses and death; if religion or faith was simply about morality and ethics, then this would indeed be the most depressing job, and I don’t know how long I could do it. I think that’s why so many clergy and religious leaders end up getting burned out and quitting. It is probably why so many people in the pews give up on faith too. The moment we start putting faith in human decision making instead of in God’s grace we are setting ourselves up for a huge disappointment. In the gospel this morning, Jesus says that if we want to be his followers that we need to love him above all else; more than our families, more than our comfort, more than our possessions. Now I have to remind myself that most of the people that Jesus is talking to, aren’t willing to do that. Not yet at least. They aren’t ready to make that choice. But he still loves them anyways. He still offers them forgiveness and eternal life even though they are in no way prepared to be as faithful to God as God is to them. There may be a covenant at the heart of our faith, but we must always remember that it is in no way an equal one.
Moses wants the children of Israel to choose life and blessing; Moses wants them to be faithful to God, but he shows in the end that that is not ultimately what his faith rests upon. Moses’s faith is not in people’s ability to make good choices; Moses’s faith is in God’s will to save people who make bad ones. With that faith, Moses can die happy and content, knowing that his faith and his life’s work has not been in vain.
Before Moses dies he does two things: he writes down the law and gives it to the priests and tells them that every seven years it needs to be read out so that every generation is taught to know and fear the Lord and to respect his commandments. The people need to be instructed and encouraged to make good choices. But the people need a little bit more than that. They need a song. They need a song that will remind them of the wonderful things that God has done for them. They need a song that will proclaim God’s love for people who make bad choices. So Moses writes down a song that the Lord had given him and one verse goes like this:
“A faithful God without deceit, just and upright is he; yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation.”
I can only hope that that was set to a catchy tune, or that it rhymes in Hebrew more than it does in English. It may not make you want to stand up and clap, but it is good news. It is a reminder that our faith is in God’s goodness, not our own wisdom. Now we need to hear God’s law. We even recite it here once a year and we ask God to incline our hearts to keep it and to write these laws on our hearts. We should be encouraged and we should encourage others to make good choices, but we need to remember that God already knows that we won’t do it. Not consistently at least. Our faith is not about God’s love for people who make good choices; our faith is about God’s love and God’s grace for people who make bad ones.