Teaching Through Remembering (October 6, 2019)
Deuteronomy 5:1-5, 23-31
Teaching Through Remembering
So we’re going through the Bible and we’ve arrived here at week five in the fifth book of the Bible. The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, which means law in Hebrew. And specifically the law comes mostly from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. But really, Genesis tells the story of what happened up to the Exodus, and then we have Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers telling the story of the Israelites’ travel through the desert for 40 years. And then Deuteronomy is Moses’s final speech; it is Moses as an old man who’s led this people for 40 years through the desert, sitting on the banks of the river Jordan and speaking. He knows he’s going to die and so he is giving his farewell address to the Israelites. And he’s recapping all that they’ve been through. He’s recapping all they did, and kind of telling them what is going to happen and what they need to do to make sure that things happen well. That is the stated point of the book of Deuteronomy. And so while I can’t read the whole thing up here in one sermon, if you have time and you want to get a sense of what happened over these 40 years, reading the book of Deuteronomy is a little easier than reading Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
A lot of time in Deuteronomy is spent with what happened here at this mountain, at Mount Sinai. Actually a lot of time in Exodus is spent here as well, even though it only takes up about a year give or take of the 40 year Exodus journey. And that is because a lot happened here at the mountain. When they cross the Red Sea, they come directly to the mountain. This is the same mountain where Moses experienced the burning bush. And at the mountain, the fire that God had been leading the Israelites with descended upon the mountain and rested there. And there was an earthquake, and there was thunder, and there was lightning, and there was all sorts of mighty power of God. And Moses goes up and he receives the 10 Commandments here. It’s here that Aaron makes the golden calf. It is here that they got the design for the Tabernacle. It is here that they built the Tabernacle that would become the place for the worship to God for the next several hundred years, until ultimately it was the basis of the design of the Temple. It was here that they built it. And it is here that they built the Ark of the Covenant; that was the throne of God, that was what they took in the battle and took out a battle to remind them that the presence of God is here. They built it here, and they divided themselves into companies in order to carry it here. A lot happened here at Mount Sinai just 39 years before Moses is speaking in Deuteronomy.
But the people he is speaking to would actually have been very young or not born at all at the time of the events being depicted. The people Moses is speaking to don’t really remember what happened in these events that he’s talking about. If they do remember anything they would’ve been like 6, 7, 8 years old, and it would’ve been even more majestic that it actually was, and it was pretty majestic. But what happened in the story is they leave Mount Sinai and they go directly north. God‘s plan was not to wander in the desert for 40 years; God‘s plan was to go directly to the promised land after Mount Sinai. And they do. They arrive at the edge of the promised land, around modern day Gaza. They send spies, one from each tribe. The spies come back and they say, “this is a great land. It is full of milk and honey. And it’s full of giants and they have big walls.” And ten of the spies say there is no way we can do this, there’s no way we can beat this people. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, say “well yeah, there’s big people in there. But we have God. Of course we can win! Let’s go!” And the people side with the 10. And God spends 40 years in the desert with this people so that whole generation that was faithless, that didn’t believe they could do it and didn’t side with Joshua and Caleb, that whole generation would die off. And the new generation comes up in its place. So the people Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy were too young to have had a voice in that decision. That’s the reason they’re alive right now. Only Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, at least for the males, were old enough to make a decision in that moment and are still alive.
So what Moses is doing is not asking them to remember their history. Rather, in the actual narrative of the scripture, Moses is teaching the people their history. In that sense, Deuteronomy becomes a very important book for the people of Israel throughout their history, and for us because we are also wanting to learn. We can’t remember these events either. So having a book that is seeking to teach is helpful to us. Much of Deuteronomy is Moses trying to teach the people their history so they can learn something from it. The purpose of learning any of this stuff, the purpose of reading any of the history Scriptures, is to learn from it, to learn from the people‘s mistakes, as well as learn from what they did well, and do things better. So that, in the words of Deuteronomy, “it will go well for us in the land.”
Today, I really wanted to focus on what was the reaction of the people to what was going on. I wanted to focus on what happened here, and really look at these last two stories, these two paragraphs that Moses has, talking about the people’s response to the giving of the 10 Commandments, and the way in which it was given. Specifically this idea of the words “fear the Lord.” Because you hear these words a lot, we should fear the Lord. But what does that mean? In the midst of this very story, in the midst of these two paragraphs, that phrase gets two very different definitions.
What does it mean to fear the Lord? One idea is it means to respect the Lord, that it could be translated as respect as much as fear. In other words, to respect or to obey the Lord, to follow what the Lord says. I certainly believe that in this context that is what God is meaning. When God says they should fear me, it is this very idea that they need to respect God, they need to obey God and obey God‘s commands. And I think that is a very important thing to remember, that we are to obey the commands of God, until either they are fulfilled, if we have a finite command; or until God, Jesus, or the Spirit tells us that we need to change what we’re doing.
And that does happen. You see that happen in the Gospels with the 10 Commandments, where Jesus changes the 10 Commandments twice. The first thing he does is he says there’s really only two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If you follow those two then everything else will fall into place. And then the second thing he says is “you’ve heard it said thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, whatever it is, but I say to you…” Twice Jesus changes even the 10 Commandments. But then you have things like the Book of Acts, where the Spirit starts changing things up, suggesting we need to rethink things. Instances like where the Spirit tells Peter it’s OK to eat things that are non-kosher, which is why you can have a bacon cheeseburger when you leave here. But this happens. And in theory, since the Spirit is still active in our world, it could still happen today.
But why should we fear the Lord? I think that’s a much more important question then should we fear the Lord. Why should I respect the Lord, why should we honor the Lord, why should we obey the Lord? Well the simplest answer would be because the Lord is powerful and knows more than we do. It’s the same idea as to why my three-year-old should obey me, why my three-year-old should respect me: because I don’t put a rule down unless it is for the three-year-old’s safety and benefit. For example, my rule that says don’t run into the street is not so that he can’t have any fun. He might think that way, but that’s not the way it is. It’s so he doesn’t get hit by a car. And God has that relationship with us. God is our father. We respect him and obey God, for God knows more than us, and God does not put a rule in place unless it is to lead to a more full, and longer, and abundant life. So that’s why we obey, and why we respect God‘s commands.
But there’s a second definition to fear the Lord, and that is to be afraid of the Lord. And while God is using the phrase in terms of respect and honor, the people are definitely using the phrase as in “I was afraid, I was terrified of the Lord.” They were naturally afraid of what they were seeing in this cloud as it descended upon the mountainside; as there were earthquakes, and thunder, and lightning, and fire. They had just seen the plagues. They had just seen God kill the firstborn, every firstborn, in all of Egypt. They had just seen God split the Red Sea and let them walk through on dryland, and then turn around and bring the Sea down on the most powerful army on earth. They had just seen all of this. They had seen the full power of God on display, and they were afraid in this moment that that same power might turn on them. They did not trust that God was fully on their side, but worried that God might turn on them.
God himself says it is good to fear him, but is it good to be afraid of him? I think the biblical answer is no. We need to fear God, we need to obey God out of loyalty, out of respect, out of trust; obedience from being terrified, and obedience from being afraid is never the level of faith that I think is called for in Scripture. We do not need to be obeying God the way people obey speed limits. Meaning obeying by looking for how far can I go past this before they actually punish? And then we buy radar detectors to figure out when we even need to worry about that, and when we can just ignore the rule completely? We don’t obey God‘s Commandments that way. We don’t obey God’s Commandments by trying to figure out when we’re going to be punished for it, and when we’re not. and how far we can push it. We don’t look for the loopholes. We obey God’s Commandments by obeying the spirit of the rule as well. We obey out of a joy. We obey because we genuinely believe that following the commandment will better ourselves.
Which made me ask the question of why God agrees with the people here. God knows that they are afraid, that they’re not respecting and honoring God, but that they’re terrified. God knows what’s really on their heart. So why does he agree with them, and say that it’s good? And I think it’s because for God the key here was communicating with them. The how wasn’t as important as the that. If this was what they’re comfortable with, if going through a mediator was what they’re comfortable with, then that was fine. That wasn’t the first choice, the first choice was to rest on the mountain and speak directly. But if they need the prophet, if they need the Moses, then fine. That’s how it would happen.
For God, the main thing was the communication. For God, the main thing was for these people to keep the commandments. That was the main thing: to keep them so that it would go well for them in the land. The rules had a reason, and following them was more important than how. For now, that was needed. And if they ever needed changed or reminded, there will be communication in the future, there would be prophets, or even the Messiah coming himself. So let us respect the Lord today, by listening to what the Scriptures have to say to us, listening to the Spirit; and by living out his commandments in our lives this week. Let us go forth from this place as people who fear the Lord. Amen.