The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 26-27, 2011
Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Dear Friends in Christ,
The book of Deuteronomy has been called the world’s longest sermon. The book is essentially a sermon given by Moses to the Children of Israel before they entered the promised land. Moses knew that he was not going to enter with them. He would turn the leadership over to Joshua.
God made two covenants with ancient Israel. The first is the messianic covenant. In this covenant, God alone is the actor. He is unilaterally giving His gifts and the actions of man have no bearing upon the end result. At the root of this is the promise that God would atone for sin. He would send His Anointed One through the line of Judah. The second covenant is the civil or earthly covenant with the nation. This covenant is quite different. It is about earthly things and mans actions play a critical role. It is this second covenant that is the basis of our text.
To understand this we must understand the role of choice in the Christian life. This is perhaps the most misunderstood thing in current day America. We like to think that we have total free will. But the reality is quite different. A person might choose to be a major league baseball player, but in order to do that you need to be able to hit a baseball. Or throw one really hard. Of all the kids that sign contracts to play professional baseball, only about 1% will make it in the majors. Only about 5% even crack the majors at all. So it might be my choice to be a major league baseball player, but that doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to happen. Even major leaguers sometimes find that they have little choice. Denny McClain thought he’d be a cracker jack shortstop. When he signed with Detroit it was not clear which way his career would go. He was the best hitter on his high school team after all. But he found in the pros, he wasn’t much of a hitter. So he just became the last 30 game winner in the major leagues, helping the 1968 Tigers to the World Series.
St. Augustine was the one who cracked this whole conundrum of choice. Man has limited free will. We will always be hemmed in by our talents, our inclinations, as well our circumstances. The most brilliant scientist in the world in 1600 would have never discovered Penicillin. All sorts of other discoveries had to happen first. So our will is always limited. Most of all, the unbeliever, cannot of his own power, respond in any positive way toward God. That option simply doesn’t exist. Thus we say in the explanation to the Third Article: “I cannot by own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him...” God has to work upon us and convert us to faith. This literally is a resurrection from death.
The unbeliever cannot come to faith by his own power, the believer can leave the faith. Here is where choice becomes very real. We can chose to kill our faith and become unbelievers. We can jump ship. We can choose disobedience. We can remain in God’s grace or choose to reject God’s grace. Notice how I put that. We can remain in God’s grace. Notice there I didn’t say this was a choice. But it is a choice to abandon the faith.
This brings us back to Moses. Moses is outlining the civil covenant with God. If they obeyed the law God gave them at Mount Sinai, they would live peacefully in the promised land. But if they disobeyed, particularly if they started to worship other gods, God would punish them. God would curse them. Now we must understand this in context. Dumb modern Americans think that the Israelites would stop worshiping Yahweh, and start to worship some idols. But that’s not what happened. That’s not what God was warning about. The sin here was syncretism. Syncretism is the blending of things that aren’t supposed to go together. People in the ancient world had the attitude, I don’t want to make anyone angry, I need all the divine help I can get. So if they traveled around they picked up all the gods of the lands they traveled through. To understand this we must understand exactly what First Commandment says. A literal rendering of the Hebrew goes like this: “You shall have no other gods before My face.” This is first and foremost a liturgical command. You are not to mix the worship of the true God with the worship of false gods. Nor are you to worship God in a way other than was commanded. Now what is this about? Throughout Israelite history they kept making idols to represent Yahweh. They were in the form of a bull calf, often a golden bull calf. Moses is telling them that if they do this, God will curse them. What happened? They failed. They did not keep the covenant. And God punished them with many calamities. God divided the nation. Ultimately, God had both halves taken off into exile.
Now how does this apply to us? First we must say that God made this covenant with ancient Israel. It does not apply to modern Israel. Nor has God made a covenant with the United States. He has promised us nothing. He has no special obligation to this nation over any other nation. We reject all forms of Anglo-Zionism and Ammer-Zionism. We are not a chosen race. We are not a chosen nation. So any inference we would take from this text, in terms of the earthly affairs of our nation, would have to be general. It would have to apply equally to all nations. What we can say is that God is not pleased with the increasing immorality of this nation. God is never pleased with sin. We have become an increasingly decadent society. We have used our great wealth for our own indulgence rather than helping our fellow man. In this, I cannot excuse myself. It is tempting to say, ah, I’ve done more than others. But that’s not the measuring stick. The measuring stick is the needs that God has laid before me. And it is difficult, because we cannot possibly meet every need that we see. But our decisions are never made purely. In addition to our lack of charity, there is the overt sins of sexual immorality. How often do we ourselves wink at sin instead of bearing witness to God’s will?
We can say, that is seems that God is sending this nation many trials as a call to repentance. But that is an earthly matter. In the end, this world will pass away. It will be replaced by the new earth, a world not corrupted by sin. But civil obedience to God’s law does not get us into heaven. So here we have two different kinds of righteousness. There is the civil righteousness which is about this world. We can say that generally, God blesses nations that have a strong sense of civil righteousness. But this righteousness does not get anyone into heaven. It is always an imperfect righteousness. Before the judgement of God, we must stand in Christ’s righteousness. And that righteousness starts with our repentance. We repent of our sins and Christ takes our place. That is saving righteousness. So let’s keep this straight. Civil righteousness is about works and its about this world. Personal righteousness is always Christ standing in our place. That righteousness is about forgiveness salvation and eternal life. Both are important. But only Christ’s righteousness gets us into heaven.