A sermon on Deuteronomy 3:23-4:6, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (my last as interim pastor there)
If anyone had poured his life into the people of God, it was Moses. Adopted into the highest levels of the Egyptian oppressor class, he gave up his birthright because he couldn’t stomach the injustice the Hebrew slaves were facing, and so he became the agent of their deliverance from Egypt, leading them across the threshold of Egypt’s outer boundary and, even more fabulously, across the natural threshold of the Red Sea.
But that was forty years ago. Moses had led them, instructed them, settled disputes among them, and otherwise shepherded them for a full generation as they wandered through the desert, because God had condemned the exodus generation to die wandering in the desert because of their disobedience the first time they had arrived at the threshold of Canaan, the land God promised to give them, just two years after the Exodus. The next thirty-eight years had been spent essentially “marking time” until that generation had died off. Now Moses stood at this threshold again, this time with the exodus generation’s adult children and their children – and he knew that, this time, he would not be allowed to lead them one further step. It would fall to another – to Yehoshua, or Joshua, the son of Nun – to take them forward on the next leg of their journey and into the Promised Land.
And so, as he stood at this threshold, Moses wanted to be sure that the people whom he had led would retain what he had taught them, that they would carry his instructions with them into their future and allow these instructions to continue to shape their lives, even under Joshua’s new leadership, as they continued on to the other side of this threshold. Moses had relayed to them what he had received from God for them as clearly and as closely as he was capable, and now at the threshold he reminds them of the key elements of the Law. And thus we have Deuteronomy – a title derived from the Greek for “a second statement of the Law.” The whole book essentially represents Moses’ farewell address, an opportunity he took to remind them of the instructions he had given them concerning how to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.
Now I know that I’m no Moses, and these nine months haven’t quite seemed like forty years to me; nor am I going to remain behind as you all move forward with a new pastor, but will simply slip back into my supporting role under his leadership. I also trust that, unlike Moses during those thirty-eight years in the desert, we have not simply been ”marking time” during these nine months, but have made some progress together as a congregation. But I need to acknowledge that we are standing at another threshold, at another transition in the life of this congregation, and as I stand here I can sympathize most with Moses’ desire that God’s people remember the instructions that he gave them for the sake of their own flourishing in their life with God, and that they take these instructions to heart so that his ministry to them might not have been for nothing.
- Our confession of Jesus as our Lord has meaning and impact only to the extent that we actually do – actually discover ways of living out – what he has commanded his followers to do. There is a purpose for our lives, and it is to live as he tells us, to allow Christ to accomplish his purposes through us, to establish Christ’s kingdom fully in the little space of our bodies and our spheres of activity and influence. Christ’s reign is real and visible in this world only the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives.
- The most needful renovation project we could undertake is the reconstruction of our lives, from the ground up, on the foundation of Jesus’ instructions. The new wine that he has for us won’t be contained in the old wineskins of the lives our society has taught us how to build and wants us to hold onto.
- Remember that you’re not here as customers to be satisfied and consumers to be filled; you’re called here to be producers of all that contributes to God’s vision for the Body of Christ. Abandon the consumer mentality that leads to dissatisfaction and division, and instead take the lead in producing unity and harmony throughout the Body. Embrace your calling to ministry alongside the representative ministers (the paid staff) of the church, investing yourself in “building up the Body of Christ” both in terms of helping your sisters and brothers grow deeper in their discipleship and navigate life’s challenge and in terms of reaching out tirelessly to those people who have not yet become part of the Body of Christ – but who are needed to complete the building!
- As you consider how you spend, save, and invest your resources, remember Jesus’ tip about the investment opportunities that have the longest-paying dividends. The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever. You don’t want to get to heaven and be surrounded for eternity by all the good you haven’t done, but by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible.
- Remain mindful of your Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world who face harassment, dispossession, imprisonment, torture, and even death because they have put their trust in Christ and value his promises. Rally around them in prayer, through sharing of resources, even through personal contact and support, because Jesus promised them that you would be their family, and take care of them as family, now.
- Die a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to those character traits, those knee-jerk responses, those convictions, those demands that have been formed in you by your self-centered resistance to God. Come alive a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to the “new you” that Jesus died to bring to life, that the Spirit labors to bring to full term in you. Leave behind those well-traveled detours and well-exercised dysfunctions, and trust God’s Spirit enough to make of you something unspeakably beautiful in God’s sight. Trust Jesus enough to let go of that old life, that old self, knowing that it’s the person who lets go of his or her life that secures his or her life for eternity.
- Learn to crave the Scripture more than you crave any and all food. It is as essential to your formation as a disciple as physical food is to your sustenance as a biological organism. Open up the Word for yourself, and open yourself before the Word, each day, so that you come to reflect God’s vision for the redeemed and regenerated person more and more fully till, after the pattern of Jesus, the word has once again taken on flesh – in you!
- Exercise your ability to sense and connect with God more regularly than you exercise your body. Give yourself time each day to experience the presence of God, to learn how to discern his promptings and how to recognize his voice.
- Come before the God who knows you better than you know yourself and allow him to lay bare to your own gaze what you hide even from yourself, so that you can be set free from the power of all that would hold you back from becoming the “new creation” God seeks to perfect. Practice letting in more and more of the light of God into your inmost self, until you have reserved no corner of yourself for the darkness.
- At the center of our faith is Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And on that cross we do not see a man giving himself up to a torturous death to win over an angry, bloodthirsty God; we see God giving himself up to win over ungrateful, self-absorbed human beings. Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his rights and prerogatives for the sake of accomplishing God’s purposes; his willingness to go the full distance and not draw any lines in the sand; his emptying himself instead of becoming “full of himself”; his willingness to divest himself of everything, even every last shred of dignity and of life itself in order to obey God and advance God’s desire to restore people – this shows us the mindset that must guide us who follow this Jesus, who are bound to give for Jesus as he gave for us, in whom this Jesus must take shape, so as to restore in us the image of God. Remember how at no point along the way did Christ say “that’s far enough to go for them,” and extrapolate from that how far we, who have benefitted so greatly from Jesus’ pouring out of himself for others, ought to go to invest ourselves in one another’s good and perseverance throughout the global Body of Christ.
- Jesus is widely remembered to have highlighted the command from the Torah, “you will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), but on the night before he gave up his life he raised the bar significantly, telling his disciples, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Jesus’ example – how Jesus loved us – takes us far beyond “Love your neighbor as yourself” and moves us to “Give yourself over to secure your neighbor’s good.” “Lay aside your own comfort, your own pursuits, your own delights, your own time and resources for the sake of meeting the very real needs of the sisters and brothers both in our midst and throughout the globe – to bestow on those most in need among Jesus’ family the love and self-investment that Jesus bestowed on you.” Following the example of our Lord and teacher, we are challenged to regard no act of loving service as below us, but rather to jump up to be the first to stoop down. We are challenged to observe no hierarchy among ourselves that does not call the most ambitious among us to the most humble service. We are challenged to allow Christ’s love for us to continue to have force in this world, by finding the ways in which we are being called to lay our own lives down for one another in love throughout the Body of Christ in response and imitation of Christ’s love.
- Receive all the help that God makes available to each of us to live so fully for others and for the accomplishing of God’s good purposes for those others. Receive the love that the historical Jesus demonstrated for you by going steadfastly to the cross and that the living, glorified Jesus continues to lavish upon those who take the time to experience it. Receive the assurance that Christ’s resurrection from the dead gives you, that this life is not all that there is, that the One whom you follow has the key to unlock your tomb as well, so that you are free to give yourself away for the good of others like a person who has an endless supply of life – because you do. And receive the Holy Spirit. Cultivate a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s voice and direction and allow the Divine Other to accomplish his complete work in and among you. The Holy Spirit alive within us allows us to experience the intimate communion with God for which our souls yearn, into which God longs to draw us. The Spirit also brings direction and power for living in alignment with God’s righteousness, the power for a transformed life. The Spirit empowers us to stop contributing to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, working through us instead to contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever he moves us. It is this Spirit, coming alive within us and taking over within us, who allows us to live the kind of life that God will approve as “righteous.” The Spirit brings power to build up other Christians as you become the instruments through which God encourages, counsels, and strengthens them – and they, you! And, of course, the Spirit brings power for effective witness. The more we hear about the trials and tensions and tragedies besetting people throughout our world, the more we must know that the people who are not in this sanctuary with us need this witness – and we need the Holy Spirit to drive us to bold witness and to make our witness effective, for their sake.
- Keep bearing this witness. If that neighbor, or that relative, or that person you come across at the store every week is going to hear God’s invitation to come back to him and to become a part of the family God’s creating, he or she will hear it because you lent God your voice.
Joshua would indeed lead Israel into the land of Canaan, but he wouldn’t finish the job. Throughout the period of the judges and King Saul, Israel would continue to contend with the native inhabitants of Canaan on the one hand and powerful enemies at their borders on the other. It would not be until David’s reign, two hundred years after Joshua, that the Israelites would take possession of Jerusalem away from the native Jebusites. Even then God’s work would not be finished, as the people would indeed forget Moses’ instructions and warnings, bringing upon themselves all the curses threatened in Deuteronomy, including expulsion from the Promised Land. Even the coming of a new Yehoshua – Jesus – would not complete the work, for God has been sending “apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” among his people and out into the world generation after generation after generation. The United Methodist Church has institutionalized this process quite dramatically in its system of endlessly itinerating pastors from pulpit to pulpit. Many have already occupied this particular pulpit; many more will across the decades to come. The important thing is that each one contribute to the central task laid upon each of “equipping the saints” – equipping you – “for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ until we all attain … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13). I pray that anything I have contributed to this end among you will abide, and I pray that Pastor Lewis will do exponentially more among you to this same end.