Our OT lesson this morning invites us to imagine ourselves on a windswept plains of Moab at the foot of Mount Pisgah. We are among the people of Israel.
Not the people who left the Land of Egypt. Not the people who saw the arm of the Lord laid bare against Pharaoh and the gods of the Egyptians. Not the people who received the 10 commandments from Sinai. Not the people who begged to go back to Egypt before they were gone two days. Not the people who worshipped the calf. Not the people who refused to enter the land because it was full of giants and fortified cities.
That generation, save for a few—Caleb, Joshua, Moses himself, that generation is gone. Swallowed by the sands of Sinai as the nation wandered for forty years.
That was God’s punishment on the people for their lack of trust in him to bring them into the Land of Promise. And it was a harsh one. The generation that had rejected him would not live to see the land. Their children and grand children would enter; they would die in the desert. And they did
As our text opens today, the time of wandering is at an end. The people’s wandering days are past. They are on the threshold of a new beginning with God. The God who had delivered them from Pharaoh, the God who had made covenant with them at Sinai, the God who had stubbornly kept that covenant with a hard-hearted and rebellious people for the last 40 years, this God was about to bring them from Moab across the Jordan into the land promised to Abraham. This God was still keeping a promise to his friend from 5 centuries before. The people would enter the land.
Moses, however, would not. Even Moses, the one who drew the people out of Egypt—did you know his name means, he who draws out?—even Moses would die in the desert. And so, in the desert, knowing he would not enter the land of promise, knowing that he would die in the desert, he stands to give his final sermon. His farewell address.
That address is the book of Deuteronomy. These are the last instructions of Moses to the people of Israel as they embark on the next stage of their journey with the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
So here we are with Israel on the plains of Moab. Can you feel the anticipation? We are about to enter on to a new phase of the journey. Can you feel the anxiety? The milk and honey are still there, yes, and so are the giants and the cities. Can you feel the grief? The point of contact between you and God, the one through whom God’s will was spoken, is about to depart. Can you feel the uncertainty? Joshua is new, untried. Can he succeed Moses? All of these things are running through your mind as you hear these words.
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey,9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.
So it is that the first words we hear this morning are words of grace. God is not bound to his people by any obligation outside himself. God could have walked away from his people. He could—this is an image from the later prophets—have sued his people, his spouse, for divorce and left them. Their unbelief, their hard heartedness persisted. From Abraham onward, this was a people who constantly looked for ways to short-circuit God’s promise, to complete God’s plans in their own power, to walk away from that same God when the journey became difficult. But God remained. He chastened certainly and sometimes harshly, but he remained. He brought the people out of Egypt, he punished them with 40 years of wandering, but even there, led them by fire and cloudy pillar. And now, now, grace was seen again. They were about to enter a good land. A land ion which there was no scarcity. A land where they could harvest wheat and barley and eat bread. A land of fruit and olive oil. A land where iron was plentiful, like stones. Bend over and pick it up. A land where the hills were full of copper.
And it remains the case with those of us Gentiles. Through Christ, God’s faithful covenant partner, the one human who kept covenant with God and so fulfilled Israel’s vocation to bless the world, through him, we have been grafted into God’s Covenant with Israel. We have been, through Christ, granted what St. Paul has called, the adoption. We are now heirs to this promise. The God who would otherwise meet us in our unbelief as white-hot-holiness, a consuming fire of wrath, comes to us in Christ to change us so that that white-hot-holiness is greeted by us as a consuming fire of love.
That is, he comes to us too, in grace. He comes to us with favor undeserved. He comes to us to tell us that we are the apple of his eye, though there is no reason in ourselves that we should be. He comes to us with his promise of abundant life. He comes to us with this promise of forgiveness of sin. He comes to us again with the announcement “I will be your God.” And the invitation, “Will you too be my people?”
But then comes a caution. To be called to be the covenant people of God is to be called to live as a peculiar people, as St. Peter will later put it in the New Testament, to live our lives as a grace-filled response to the grace that has claimed us.
11 Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.
Take care that you do not forget. It is the perpetual habit of the people of God to forget. God, after all, is not right in front of us. He is not an idol to be grasped with our hands or seen with our eye. He is to be encountered in his Word and through his works. And sometimes those works fill our gaze and become for us an idol that cuts us off from God rather than an icon the leads us to him. We become focused on the works and forget the one who worked. We begin, even, to see ourselves as those who accomplished.
“We built that!” if I might borrow from the slogans of the election campaign to the south. Whether the it is the we of compassionate government or the we of rugged and independent individuals, it remains the perpetual temptation of God’s people to look at the blessings of our lives—blessings of material prosperity that no people has ever known before—and say, “We built that.” But listen to what God says.
12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .
We are still that people. We through Christ have been made one with those who came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. We live in fine houses. Our silver and gold is multiplied. And, one with them, we are like they were tempted to forget the Lord. Tempted to forget that all we enjoy, we receive from his hand. And so it is that the warning given at the conclusion of our passage is as much for us as for Israel.
17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
We are Israel. We are the people of God, covenanted to God, brought near by Christ who has broken down the wall dividing Jew from Gentile. And as Israel, the covenant obligations rest on us as well. To be sure, they rest on us in different ways. But to say glibly, “well, that was then,” is to miss not only that the Old Testament is the Word of God, but more especially, that the New Testament is Word of God only insofar as it grows out of the Old. We are Israel.
And the blessings of warnings given to Israel are, in and through Christ, given to us. And the blessings and warnings given at Pisgah are blessings and warnings as alive and true in Sudbury.
So it is that we have gathered on this Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday. We have polished our silver—and haven’t the Altar Guild women and their help done a fine job? We have decorated our nave and sanctuary. We have arranged around the altar symbols of the blessings that we have enjoyed this last year.
And now we have a decision to make.
Will we treat these blessings, as real as they are as accomplishments of our own hands? Will we survey the decoration, the abundance, and say, “My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth,”? It would be a very, very easy thought to think. After all, our daily bread does not fall from heaven. It comes from the grocery store, where we pay for it with money that we have earned by our own efforts. God doesn’t pay our rent, our mortgage. God doesn’t put gas in our vehicles. We do all that hard work. Our power has gained us this wealth. The might of our own hands has brought us this blessing.
And in those thoughts the blessings themselves become idols. They arrest our gaze. They reflect our gaze back on ourselves. They help us to exalt ourselves. And we forget the God who has, with Israel, brought us up out of Egypt and delivered us from the land of slavery.
Or, we could look at the abundance that surrounds us and remember that we stand with Israel. And not only stand with Israel, but even more so, as Israel. We are with Israel the covenanted people of God who look at this abundance before us and render thanks and praise to him who brought it about. We will remember that it is God who has given us the power to gain this wealth, and in so doing, have his covenant with us confirmed again in our presence. We will once again be back at the threshold of Promise to say with Israel, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
If we go this way, then the goods of creation are being put to their proper use. For they are not arresting our gaze and turning it back to ourselves and our abilities. They are instead becoming transparent to the glory of the one who provided all of them. Rather than becoming idols that fill our gaze, they are becoming icons which lead us beyond themselves to the throne room of God. And in that instant, we see them for what they really are—gifts of God, gifts from God, gifts which lead us to God with hearts full of gratitude for the grace they display and represent.
All of this, by the way, is true not just today, when the sanctuary and nave are so beautifully decorated. It is true every Sunday. For every Sunday, God in his grace takes up our simple and, from our side, thoroughly inadequate offering of bread and wine. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, he infuses them with the life giving presence of His Son and give them back to us. He who was the fire by night and the cloud by day, he whose presence filled the tabernacle, who inhabited the Mercy Seat of the Ark, will in just a few moments give his very life to us that we might become one people with those were led by fire and cloud, who worshipped at the tabernacle, whose priests offered sacrifice at the mercy seat. So that we might become again the people of God. And say thank you.