This is the first of two sermons on Deuteronomy 6, preached at Holy Trinity, Norwich, on 15th March 2009.
A small boy was riding his tricycle round and round the block as fast as his legs would carry him. A kindly policeman stopped him, and asked, “Where are you going, sonny?”
“I’m leaving home, and I’m never going back. I’d fed up with always being told what I can and can’t do. From now on, I’m going wherever I want and I’m going to do whatever I want.”
“So why are you riding round and round the block?”
“Well,” said the boy, “my mum says I’m not allowed to cross the road on my own.
“We all have a love/hate relationship with obedience, don’t we? On the one hand, the spirit of the age tells us to value personal freedom, liberty and choice above almost everything else. And yet, on the other hand, we know that our health, sanity, often our very lives depend on following a multitude of rules and laws, from the highway code, to the instructions on a medicine bottle, to warnings about the consequences of sticking metal knitting needles into electrical sockets.
You will recall that the book of Deuteronomy records three speeches of Moses to the Israelites just before they entered the promised land. We come to chapter 6.
Deut 6:1-3 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey.
As you can see, love it or hate it, obedience is what this chapter is going to be all about.
The details of the commands, decrees and laws will come later in the book. This chapter makes, I think, two main points. First, God’s people should be obedient. Second, they should keep being obedient. They need to understand what obedience to God looks like, and they need to realise that real obedience is a fragile thing and needs constant care and attention. I shall deal with the first of these this morning, and the second this evening.
Be obedient. From the passage itself, let’s unpack this three way. Firstly, God wants his people to
1. Be single-mindedly obedient
Deut 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
It was on the basis of this verse that the Jewish people developed their creed, the Shema. It came to be recited twice a day, morning and evening. The Lord Jesus, when asked which was the most important commandment, began by quoting these words: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. It sets up in neon lights the uniqueness of Israel’s God, Yahweh. He is the only true God – all others are mere idols. He is incomparable, unrivalled, one of a kind. He alone is to be served. He is to be obeyed single-mindedly.
As for his people, the Israelites, they were following their dream – more than a dream, a promise. The promise first made long before to Abraham was that their God would make them into a great nation, and through them would bless all the nations of the earth.
But in the land that they were about to enter, they would meet other gods. Gods fashioned from wood and stone. Gods that you could see and touch. Gods that you could flatter and bribe and manipulate. Gods that could tempt and beckon and cajole and threaten you until you started obeying them, rather than the one true God.
The warning is stern:-
Verses 14 and 15, Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.
The threat of idolatry and false religion is as real today as it has ever been.
Today’s idols may look very different from those of the Canaanites. But they are no less seductive, and no less pernicious. The idolatries of today include materialism (the worship of possessions), hedonism (the worship of pleasure), reputation (the worship of other people’s opinions about me), and ambition (the worship of achievement).
The trouble with all other gods is that they are man-made. Ever since God created humanity in his own image, we have been trying to reverse the process by creating gods in our own image. I wonder how many times you have heard a person say, “Well, I like to think of God as…,” or, “My God would never…”? Nine times out of ten, when a person talks like that, you will find that they are describing, not God, but… themselves.
Whether our gods are made from wood and stone, or are the products of our own imaginations, or our simply projections of our own personalities, the problem is always the same. No god of our own making can ever satisfy our longings, or give us peace of mind, or rescue us from our plight.
Only the one true and living God can do that. The God who had created the heavens and the earth. The God who had chosen the children of Israel to be his own. The God who had guarded and guided, taught them and nurtured them. How could the Israelites forsake Yahweh and turn to man-made idols?
In v12 Moses reminds them that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
And v13 makes it clear that they have a new master; they are under new management. The Lord God alone is to be feared; he alone is to be served.
As Christians, we rejoice that we have been rescued from a greater tyranny than anything the Hebrews experienced in Egypt:-
Col 1:13 God our heavenly Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.
So, let God’s people, then and now, firmly resolve to serve him alone. Let us be single-mindedly obedient. But, secondly, God longs for his people to
2. Be lovingly obedient
Deut 6:5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Those who worshiped the pagan gods of the time did not do so out of love. People did not love Baal, or Hadad, or Asherah, or Astarte. They approached their gods either with craven fear or with flattery. They would have found it astonishing that people could be commanded to love their God. But that’s exactly what we find here.
And how are God’s people to love him? – with all their heart and soul and strength. I wouldn’t want to make too much of any difference between ‘heart’ and ‘soul’. The meaning clearly is that God’s people should love him with everything that they are, and with everything that they have.
This is not, of course, the same as romantic love. Faith Mills has some charming lines on that kind of love:-
I climbed up the door,
and shut the stairs.
I said my shoes,
and took off my prayers.
I shut off my bed,
and I climbed into the light,
and all because he kissed me goodnight.
No, the love that God calls his people to is not a state of dizzy delerium. Rather, it is very practical. It has ears to hear God’s word. It has eyes to see things as God sees them. It has feet to hasten to do his will. It has hands to do the work that he has set before us.
I do not deny for a moment that such love involves feelings – passion, even. But do not measure your love for God by your emotions, but by your obedience.
Jn 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
So, God calls his people not only to single-minded obedience, but also to loving obedience. And now, thirdly, he calls his people to
3. Be comprehensively obedient
vv6-9 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.
Do you see how comprehensive this is?
First of all, God’s commandments should be upon your hearts, v6. But then,
Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road – God’s commandments were to be before them whether they were sitting indoors or travelling outside
Talk about them when you lie down and when you get up – God’s commandments were to be before them every waking moment, from the beginning to the end of the day.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads – God’s commandments were to guide their outward actions and their inmost thoughts.
Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates – God’s commandments are to be honoured inside the home and amongst the family. But what about the references to ‘your gates’? These are not garden gates, but city gates. The city gate was a public passageway, and took on the nature of a public square, where goods would be bought and sold, news and gossip exchanged, a place for public announcements and demonstrations. The city gate was the busiest, most public place in town. And there the word of God was to be made visible, and not only in the privacy of one’s own home.
Well, we are not Israelites, waiting to enter the promised land. But their story is our story, their God our God. And what was in bud in the days of Moses is now in full bloom. What was a trickle has become a flood. What was the pale first light of dawn has become the full midday sun. We are the people, as the apostle Paul says, ‘on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.’ (1 Cor 10:11).
So, what about us? Will our obedience be less single-minded than theirs, now that God has fully made known his grace and truth in Jesus Christ? Will our obedience be any less loving than theirs, seeing that God’s only Son was bruised for our iniquities and pierced for our transgressions? Will our obedience be any less comprehensive than theirs, given the incentives and encouragements we are given to offer our whole selves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.
Let us by God’s grace be no longer confirmed to the pattern of this world, but transformed by the renewing of our mind. Then we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.