This is the second of two sermons on Deuteronomy 6 preached at Holy Trinity, Norwich, on 15th March 2009.
Deuteronomy is one of the most important books of the Old Testament. It is one of the four OT books most frequently quoted in the NT (the others being Genesis, Psalms and Isaiah). Judging from the number of times that he quotes from it, it seems to have been the favourite book of our Lord himself.
One scholar has referred to Deuteronomy as the OT equivalent of Romans and John’s Gospel combined. That’s quite a thought!
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.
The theme of this chapter can be found in v3 and again in v25 – ‘be careful to obey God’s law’. I spoke this morning about what kind of obedience God is looking for from his people. He is looking for a single-minded obedience, one that seeks to serve him alone, and is not distracted by man-made idols, old or new. He is looking for a loving obedience, one that is eager to please him out of glad and thankful hearts. He is looking for a comprehensive obedience, one in which God is honoured in every department of our lives, in private and in public, in doors and out of doors, in our thinking and in our actions.
But this chapter also teaches that obedience is a fragile thing. God’s people are very prone to disobedience. Therefore, they need to work at it. They need to keep on being obedient. How?
According to this chapter, there are two situations in particular in which God’s commands are apt to be forgotten. Here’s the first:-
Verses 10-12 – When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you-a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant-then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Do you see? We are in danger of disobedience when things are going well, when life is easy.
Precisely this happened at various points in Israel’s history. For example, in the 8th century BC, prophets such as Amos, Hosea and Isaiah chided the people, who in their prosperity had allowed their worship to become mere lip-service and outward show.
Amos 6:4-6 You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
We ourselves are by no means immune from spiritual complacency. We may think of ourselves as hard-up and credit-crunched – and some of us are – but from the choice of food displayed in the supermarkets, from the subject-matter of TV programmes and magazines, from the gadgets and gizmos available, to the adverts screaming at us to pamper ourselves with this or that breakfast cereal, chocolate dessert, skin toner, bath foam, after-shave, room freshener or hair colouring, who will deny that we are in real danger of amusing ourselves to death, lacking nothing except for those things that really matter?
Paul was well aware of the danger, and so he wrote to Timothy,
1 Timothy 6:17-19 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.
In other words: remember. Remember to be thankful to to God and to be generous towards others.
The other situation in which God’s people are prone to disobedience is when things are not going well, v16.
Deut 6:16 Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah.
The reference is to Ex 17:1-7. The Israelites became very thirsty, and they threatened to kill Moses and even began to regret ever being rescued from slavery in Egypt.
Isn’t that a bit like us? When things go wrong, we start to grumble and complain. ‘If there is a God, why doesn’t he…’ Or we start laying down conditions on our obedience, ‘Lord, I will serve you if only you…’
But we do not, and we cannot, always understand why God allows us Isa 55:9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts, says the Lord.”
[The following was suggested by an illustration used by Tim Keller in his excellent sermon on this passage] When Flibble (one of our Guinea pigs) had an eye infection recently, someone would have to grab her, prise open her eye, and put the drops in. They probably stung quite a lot. And poor Flibble was probably thinking, “What are you doing, God?” And there was no way that anyone could explain that it was for her own good.
We cannot always understand. But we can remember. We can remember God’s incomparable nature, gracious promises, and his mighty acts. And remembering, we can trust, even in the dark.
1 Cor 10:12 So, when things are going well, remember, ‘if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’
1 Cor 10:13 And, when things are not going so well, remember: ‘no temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’
What else will help us to keep on being obedient?
Verse 7 Impress these commandments on your children. Talk about them…
There is an educational programme going on here, that was designed to serve the coming generations. And it begins in the home.
Verse 20f When your son asks you…tell him…
Are we behaving in such a way that children and others will ask us questions?
And what kinds of answers will we give? Perhaps we would be tempted to scroll down to v24, which says that we should follow God’s commandments because God has commanded us to. Parents are used to that kind of approach. “Why do I have to eat my greens?” – “Because I say so.” – “What do I have to obey God?” – “Because God says so.”
But the answer begins, not with law, but with grace. When the son asks, ‘Dad, why do we obey God’s commands?’ The father is to answer, ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders- great and terrible-upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers.’
The explanation begins with the most advanced version of the gospel that they had – the exodus.The God who commands us is the God who has already delivered us.
Obedience is not as a means of, but a response to, God’s saving work. That is the shape of obedience in both testaments. “We love, because he first loved us,” is a NT text that could equally have been at home in the OT.
That’s the core curriculum. That’s what we need to pass on to our children and to our children’s children. And begins at home.
Now the third thing to do in order to keep on being obedient is to enjoy.
Obedience to God and his commands was never meant to be a pointless, mindless, joyless chore. It was meant to be a blessing.
The purpose of all this obedience is spelled out in vv 2 and 3:-
v2 – so that you will live long in the land.
v3 – Be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.
No wonder the Psalmist could say, Ps 119:97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Obedience to his heavenly Father was food and drink to Jesus himself:- Jn 4:34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”
‘God’s commandments’, says the apostle John, ‘are not burdensome’ (1 Jn. 5:2-3).
Yes, there is joy in obedience.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, ‘I never met a happy individual who was not committed to a job or cause outside himself. Because such people have a mission in life, they are not self-centred and introspective. For them happiness is the by-product of work and duty.’
Yes, and when that cause outside ourselves is God himself, then it is that we find our highest happiness.
And how much more so for us, who live this side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ? For us, ‘on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come’?
The Old Testament is the promise, the New Testament is the fulfilment. The Old Testament is the shadow, the New Testament is the substance. In the Old Testament God’s people inherit the land. In the New Testament, they inherit the whole earth and, in the age to come, the new heavens and the new earth.
God calls his people to obedience. This is to be single-minded, loving, and comprehensive. And, because it is a fragile thing, we need to keep on being obedient; we need to remember it, teach it, and enjoy it. There is no better way to live than in the thoughtful, determined, joyful, service of the God with whom we have to do, ‘whose service is perfect freedom.’