Since I was away this past week on study leave and guest preached at my home church, my good friend Alan filled in for me at Liberty. Everyone seemed to enjoy having him there and the report is that he had a great time too. He sent me the manuscript of his sermon to post on the blog for all of you. You'll find that manuscript after the break. The passage that Alan preached from was Deuteronomy 18:15-20.
Now I have to tell you, when I looked at the Lectionary texts for this week, I was very excited to see this lesson from Deuteronomy. You see, I love the Book of Deuteronomy. And as I say this, I can practically see one of those Internet memes, posted on Facebook—perhaps you’re familiar with them—they look like old postcards, with a drawing of someone who looks annoyed. I can picture that image with the caption: “‘I love the Book of Deuteronomy,’ said no one, ever!”
I think we are often ambivalent about the Old Testament scriptures because they don’t always speak into our reality in the twenty-first century. Consider verses nine through fourteen, which come right before the part that I just read:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or a daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.
Divination? Soothsayers? Sorcerers! I don’t know about you folks, but this doesn’t sound a lot like the world I live in. And that’s the tricky part, because the Book of Deuteronomy is relevant to our world today.
The Book of Deuteronomy defines the “shape and substance of Israel’s faith.” The name Deuteronomy can be translated as “second law.” The book is presented as a final series of speeches or sermons given by Moses to the Israelites before they enter the Land of Canaan. In that series of sermons, Moses re-tells or resets the law that was given by God to the Israelites during the Exodus. As one scholar puts it, “Israel was standing in the interim period of the saving history between, on the one hand, the completion of her election as [God’s] peculiar people, and on the other, the fulfillment of the divine promise.” That is, you have God’s chosen people, Israel, about to enter into the Promised Land. They were delivered from slavery, but their salvation will not be complete until they enter the land of Canaan. They are on the cusp of something new, so Israel needs to be reminded of who they are and who they’re called to be. This is why I am drawn to the Book of Deuteronomy. We, too, are on the cusp of something new. I grew up in a world where most people went to church. Many of you grew up in a world where it seemed like everyone went to church.
Things are different now. We live in a world of declining church membership. We have whole generations of people who were raised outside of the church. For those of us who remain, this is a challenge, but not a death sentence. Like the Israelites, we, too, need to be reminded of who we are and who we are called to be. That calling, then as now, is to remain faithful to God’s covenants.
In fact, covenant faithfulness is one of the major themes in Deuteronomy. Both of the sections of Deuteronomy that I read this morning are about covenant faithfulness. Now I’ll admit, it was fun to stand up here and say, “sorcery,” in that Darth-Vader voice, but I think this part of the scripture is relevant to our world today, even if it sounds strange to us.
The people of ancient Israel were farmers and herders; they were tied to the land and they depended upon rain and the soil. They needed to plan the crops they would plant. Knowing the weather for the next year or two, or where to dig a well could mean the difference between thriving and barely surviving—or not surviving at all! So you can understand why the people might be tempted to consult a soothsayer or a diviner, or perhaps to call upon a sorcerer to conjure up a thunderstorm. Why should God object?
Covenant faithfulness goes hand-in-hand with free will. Divination and soothsaying are based in the idea that the future has already been determined. If the future is already set, then humans have no ability to shape the future, nor any responsibility to do so; the covenants are a partnership between humanity and God. If the future is already set, then God’s work is complete and little will change. In such a world, the Israelites would not be responsible for their actions. Without free will and an undetermined future, there can be no covenants. So to practice divination and soothsaying and sorcery would be to deny the covenants with God.
Yet God knew the Israelites would not be perfect in our faithfulness. They were human. They were flawed and broken by sin. God knew they would fall short, yet God promised to raise up prophets from among the Israelites. These prophets were called to remind the leaders and the people when they were failing to live faithfully into God’s covenants. This allowed the people and the leaders to repent, to change their ways.
Here again, I think we are a lot like the ancient Israelites. In our secular society we are obsessed with numbers and metrics. Consider our system of education. Students spend much of their time practicing for standardized exams. The exams are designed to measure student progress based on some set of objective standards. If teachers are to be held accountable for their work, then student progress must be measured all the time. In the secular world, we put our faith in metrics. If it can’t be measured, it didn’t happen. We place our trust in numbers because we can see them, measure them, and manipulate them.
Yet we are called to be different from this world. Our faithfulness to God is not measured by the number of people who are sitting in the pews on any given Sunday. Our faithfulness is not measured by the number of programs we run or the money we raise at bake sales. Yes, there are some things that we need to measure. We need to make sure we pay our staff and keep the light and the heat turned on. But we put our faith in God, and we trust that leaders will be raised up in our own congregations.
And I understand that this congregation has recently lost one of its great leaders. Last week, Charissa told me of the passing of Stew Owens. I read the sermon she preached and the obituary in the newspaper. It was clear to me that he was a man of great talents and great service. His kind of leadership demonstrated God’s faithfulness in this community and in this very congregation. It can be scary when you lose that kind of leader. No doubt, the Israelites were afraid when they lost Moses just before crossing into the land of Canaan. That comparison may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I think there are some definite similarities.
As I said before, the Church is on the verge of something new. Just like the Israelites about to cross into Canaan, we are also forced to struggle with who we are, who we are called to be, and how we are to remain faithful to God. Along the way, we will lose beloved leaders, yet we must remain faithful that God will continue to raise up leaders in our congregations. This won’t be easy, and we will be pulled in hundreds of directions as we wrestle with these questions. Yet we must remain faithful and trust in God, completely. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, friends, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to trust in God and remain in covenant faithfulness with God. So look for the new leaders that God will raise up in this congregation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen!