Transitions: Last Words as we Cross into the Future

How many of you have ever dived off a high dive? Do you remember the first time? I am not very coordinated and a bit fearful of heights, so I do remember that first dive.  I was also a lifeguard for a lot of years, and so I remember the look on many young faces. When you teach someone to dive, they begin on the low dive, move to the intermediate dive, and then eventually learn to dive off the high dive.

When your time comes, you begin by standing in line to climb up the ladder. You don’t really want to do it, but your mother, father, or instructor says you must. You also don’t want to wimp out and be embarrassed in front of your buddies or a girl you secretly like, so you reluctantly keep going up the ladder until it is your turn. After the long climb, you reach the last rung on the ladder, and the person before you dives off (hopefully not perfectly). You slowly and carefully walk to the end of the board, look down briefly (against good advice), pace back a couple of steps for the approach, then you pause, getting up your courage. Finally, you just close your eyes and jump.

Today is my last sermon/blog as the transitional pastor of Bay Presbyterian Church. Our theme is “Bridges” or crossing over into the future God has for us. As we prepare to cross the bridge into the future , some of us may feel like we are on a metaphorical high dive. Today, I have just a few last words for the congregation and readers, as we get ready to take our collective plunge into the unknown!

The Last Words and Challenge of Moses

Deuteronomyis one of the most interesting books in the Old Testament. It is the last book of the first five book of the Bible, what we call the “Pentateuch.” It was written as the Last Will and Testament of Moses, containing his last words to Israel. Moses, if you remember, was the founder of the Jewish religion, and their deliverer who led them out of captivity in Egypt. He led Israel for  forty years as they wandered in the wilderness because of their sin. By the time they arrived on the east side of the River Jordan, he was an old man, ready to die. Furthermore, due to an incident early in their wanderings, God advised Moses that he would not enter the Promised Land. [1]

Since coming to BayPres, I have joked a kind of half-truth: Like Moses, I am not allowed to enter the new future you will soon enter. I must leave. Two weeks ago, I let you know that, like John the Baptist, my joy is complete because the preparations for the future are finished, and the church is ready to cross into its future. All that is left are a few last words as this wonderful congregations enters into a new era.

Our text comes from Deuteronomy 30:11-19. Hear the Word of God this morning from the voice of Moses:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today life and death, good and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

We are Able

I love this passage! As the scene is set, Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River. The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. A new day is about to arrive. Their current leader, Moses, is old and about to depart. Moses cannot enter the Promised Land with the rest of the people and soon will die. Therefore, he calls the people together and gives them some last words to guide them as they enter the Promised Land.

You see, Israel is about to experience a great change in their national life. They’re going to have a new leader, Joshua. They’re going to be in a new country with unfamiliar people. They are going to be surrounded by people with different customs and religions. Moses wants to remind them what it is they must do to experience the blessings of God in their new situation.  [2]

Moses begins by recounting what God has done, the laws God has asked them to obey, the ceremonies God wishes them to perform, and he lets them know that what God is asking them to do is not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 1-30). God is able to bless the people of Israel and will bless the people of Israel—if they remain faithful and are obedient to the way of life to which God has called them. They are able to do that God asks. Whether they will be obedient or not is a matter of the heart. If their hearts remain centered on God, then they will be empowered to obey. The same thing is true for us.

There are times when we can misunderstand the impact of grace on our lives. God forgives us, restores us, and gives us new life because of his sheer unmerited grace. [3]  This does not mean that we will no longer experience the consequences of our behavior. I can be a wonderful Christian, but if I never save for retirement I’m going to be poor when I retire. I can be deeply committed to Christ, but if I drink on the job I will still get fired sooner or later. Grace does not eliminate the need for obedience and wise living. God initiates the Christian life by grace, but we are able to make our own choices and responsible for them!

The first part of our Mission Statement as that we intend to be a people Centered on Christ. This is important! If we’re going to have the heart of God, then we need to have hearts centered on Christ.  God’s grace is the foundation of our faith. Through Christ, God has rescued us from sin and death just as he rescued Israel from captivity in Egypt. However, we would be presuming upon God’s grace if we did not change as a result of all He has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are sinners. All of us are finite. We all need grace to become the people God calls us to be and accomplish all that God would have us to do. But we are able, and we are responsible to respond to God’s grace in faithfulness.

We Must Choose

It’s an interesting historical fact that the book of Deuteronomy was discovered in the temple late in the history of the nation (2 Kings 22-23; 2 Chronicles 24). They were already practically doomed to go into captivity. In addition, the book seems to have gained its importance after the captivity in Babylon, as people recognized that they had been unfaithful to God and had in fact received the judgment that Moses prophesied.

In what I think is the most dramatic part of today’s text, Moses gives the people a choice concerning their future and beseeches them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:37). In early portions of the book, Moses has already prophesied that the people will be judged if they are not faithful to God. In today’s chapter he reminds them that they are capable of remaining faithful to God. They must choose to orient their hearts toward God and be faithful to the way of life to which they are called. Moses is reminding the people of Israel that they must choose God above all else!

This is important for us as well. We must choose whether or not we are going to remain faithful to the God that has brought us to this point of new life for ourselves, for our families, and for our church. We must choose Christ daily.

The words of Moses were delivered to Israel as a people. This reminds us that we are to be Shaped in Community. I’ve had an opportunity before to make this important point: if we do not gather together as the people of God in worship and in small groups, we are unlikely to continue to choose to follow the way of Christ. Jesus called the disciples around him and taught them in a community. Moses taught the people of God in the community. We must continue to be a part of that community to which we have been called.

No one is able to choose Christ all by themselves over the long run . We need one another. The people of God needed Moses, Joshua, and Godly leadership.  Just as importantly, they needed one another. We also need one another to be Shaped in Community to be the people we are called to be. I have watched many, many people fall away from Christian community and then end up also falling away from God.

Finally, as anyone who has been married knows, when we are part of a community, we all experience the blessings and suffer the failures of that community. This is true of families, churches, and nations. We both need one another and to some degree are responsible for one another. This is why Jesus reached out to those who had fallen away from God and told the parable of the Lost Sheep. Everyone is important in a community of Christ.

Blessings are a Matter of Obedience

Often, in a kind of simplistic way, the people talk about the Old Testament is being a testament of works in the New Testament of being a testament of grace. This is true. However, we need to understand that Grace gives us a heart for God and connection to God that enables obedience. We can’t live the Christian life without grace. We also can’t live the Christian life without being willing to walk in the way of Jesus.

This week, I  read one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  It is the story comparing those who build their lives on the rock of the Word of God and those who  build their lives on the sand of what how other people live and natural desires. The story goes like this:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

We remember the distinction between the man who built his house upon the rock in the man who built his house upon the sand. We forget that this is how Jesus introduces the story: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house upon the rock”(Matthew 7:24).  A little bit earlier, Jesus tells his disciples in the gathered crowd that he did not come to abolish the law but to complete the law (5:17).

In other words, how much of the blessings of the Christian life we experience is dependent upon how much we open our lives to the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ,  the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then actually live out the Gospel in our daily lives. The word translated “law” in the Old Testament can also be translated “instruction.” It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one. God’s rules for wise living are not rules and regulations imposed by a heavenly bureaucrat to make us do things his way or else. They are gracious gifts to us so that we might experience the abundant life. [4]

Early in my ministry with you, I mentioned that the earliest name for the Christian faith is the “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The Way we are to follow is the Way of Jesus, who showed by his life what it is to live according to the instructions of God in the way God intended in the first place. The Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, are a part of that Way of Jesus (I Corinthians 13:13). The fruit of the Spirit of joy, patience, kindness and self-control are a part of that that way (Galatians 5:22-23).

As a pastor, over the years, I have watched many people do harm to their own lives and the lives of their families by what I would call “presuming upon the grace of God.” These people, and many like them, are Christians, but they don’t necessarily live or act like Christians. They don’t manage their money like Christians. They don’t raise their children like Christians. They don’t conduct their family relationships like Christians. They are forgiven; but, they’re not transformed. In the end, these Christians don’t experience a quality of life any different than their next-door neighbor who has a different religion or no religion at all.

Jesus says that the wise man builds his house upon the rock of a relationship with him and of putting his words into practice daily. The wise man not only hears the words of Jesus the Messiah, but also obeys them. When we do,  we are like the man who built his house upon the rock. Our church, especially, should understand this truth: Faithfulness does not mean that we will not have problems. Human life is filled with problems. Faithfulness means that we are building our life on the rock of God’s wisdom and love for us, and we face the problems of life wisely with faith, hope, and love because of the foundation we have in Christ.

It’s a Matter of the Heart

The same God wrote the Old and New Testaments. In today’s text, God says that his commandments or not too difficult or beyond our reach. They’re not in heaven or in the depths of the sea. No, he says, the word is very it is in your mouth and in your hearts so that you may obey it.

The word of God made flesh is in the heart of every believer. What  God asks of us is not so high that we cannot reach it or so low that we cannot touch it. It is not so far away that we cannot find it.Today’s proverb for me was this from Proverbs 3:1-2, which reads:

 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

By the grace of God, the Word is in our hearts, and will bring us blessing after blessing.

Today I leave you with these words: In a world that is constantly choosing death, choose life!

Amen

[1] Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of an act of disobedience to God during their wanderings. Instead of speaking to a rock to release water, he struck it in an act of anger against the people. This particular act of disobedience may not seem great to the reader, but it seems to have involved more. In any case, Israel felt the incident explained why Moses did not enter the Promised Land with them.

[2] My analysis of the book is based upon Peter C. Craige, “The Book of Deuteronomy” in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

[3] One of the great reformation Principles is “Sola Gratia,” or “By Grace Alone.” We are not saved by good works. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Israel did not deserve to be saved from slavery Egypt, God saved them by an act of sheer mercy.

[4] The law is not an imposed thing; it reflects the way God created the world and what makes life best. Wisdom literature and the law are really one thing: The gracious gift of God to his people. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

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