15th Sunday after Pentecost
What makes a sermon worth listening too? I suppose there could be many answers to that. Some might say, “well he’s a very engaging preacher!” Others might say, “He has some colorful and entertaining illustrations that make his points.” Still others might say that he gives good practical advice or that every week they leave church with some tidbit of new information to perplex their atheist co-worker with.
But is this what we’re here for? Semi-entertaining practical advice like, 3 easy steps to a better family life, or ammunition for our debates with our friends or co-workers? So, then what makes a sermon worth listening too?
As an old friend of mine would say, “Did the pastor preach the text?” That is to say, was he faithful to the Word of God that he was proclaiming that Sunday. Did he lead his congregation to an understanding of that specific portion of scripture? Was their unique and specific law shown from that portion of God’s Word, then was the Gospel that is unique to that text proclaimed? In short, did the sermon add or subtract from God’s Word or was it handled faithfully?
That is what makes a Sermon worth listening to. When it’s God’s commands, his statutes, and his judgments – his law and his Gospel being proclaimed. The Words of men can’t give life! Only God’s Word gives life. A sermon is worth listening to if it speaks the Word that gives life.
This is what Moses was encouraging the Israelites to do in the text for today. He encourages to Listen to the Lord and Live! Live by the Lord’s decree and Live as an example to others.
Speaking of Sermons, Deuteronomy is really a series of farewell sermons given to his people before they entered into the Holy land. Moses had served his time as Israel’s leader and now the torch was about to pass to Joshua and Moses would go to heaven.
PART 1: By the Lord’s decree
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.
In this first verse Moses says LISTEN! Israel that you might live! He wants them to be followers of the Lord and not let any pagan influence shade their judgment or their beliefs. Now Israel listen that you might live! Follow the Commands of the Lord so that you get to see that promise made to Abraham fulfilled that you would be a great nation and that this land would be yours!
Before He left this world, Moses knew that his people’s troubles would not be ending any time soon. In fact, they were just beginning. The desert had its own hardships but the temptations that laid in wait for them in the promised land would be sure to test them.
He implores them: Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Moses gives this warning because he knows that God is deadly serious about his Word, about his commands. These were his people with whom he had made promises, and a covenant. But truth be told Israel had already, on more than one occasion, turned away from God’s commands. They were seduced by the Canaanites, both men and women were seduced into the hedonistic worship of the false god Baal. A thing that would continue to be a problem for Israel for most of its history. Moses reminds them of the results of God’s people turning from God’s commands in v. 3-4, “You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did at Baal Peor. The Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 but all of you who held fast to the Lord your God are still alive today.”
Moses actually puts this unhappy incident lightly here. Really, over 24,000 people were killed in a plague because they didn’t listen to God’s commands. Relying on their own judgment and their own reasoning to gain entry into the holy land literally got them killed.
If that seems harsh, remember that St. John says in Revelation that adding and subtracting from God’s Word will garner the same result for us!
He says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”
I know that some of you might be thinking right now, “Hey pastor, pretty sure I haven’t participated in hedonistic Baal worship lately. And here I am in church, I believe that the bible is God’s Word!”
But brothers and sisters, Christians are still tempted to “Add to God’s commands and judgments” and get dogmatic and judgmental concerning things that really have no bearing on whether others are Christians or not. We are all tempted to elevate our own pious notions, our own decrees and judgments, of what the “Christian Life” ought to look like to the level of Scripture. But the reality is that we have no business binding the conscience and hearts of others unless we can prove from Scripture “THUS SAITH THE LORD.”
On the other side of that coin, we are still tempted to subtract from God’s commands and judgments when it “diminishes” from our lives. That’s literally what the Hebrew word for “subtract” means here, to diminish. We like to leave behind those things that make us uncomfortable or unsettled. There are those passages that condemn us, and how often don’t our eyes just glaze over when we run into one of those sections of Scripture that we don’t like. The 1st commandment for example. So often we say, “Oh yea I know that’s there! No big deal, pretty sure I’ve not bowed down to Baal lately!” But there are NO OTHER GODS! What things in our lives do we treat like God? What things do we treat better than God?
And as happened to the Israelites who added and subtracted from God’s Commands and Judgments and as St. John reminded us in Revelation – the punishment for doing so is death and hell.
It does us no good to say, “I don’t know if I want a God like that! Isn’t that too harsh?!” God’s Laws should be terrifying. And our reaction to our realization that we’ve failed to keep that law should be equally terrifying. It is God’s perfect nature to hate and punish sin. When God’s Law scares us to death there is only one solution – to flee to the Gospel.
Flee to the savior who did what no one could do – Keep every command, decree and Law of God perfectly. Flee to the savior who on the night he was betrayed said to his disciples, “If you love me keep my commandments!” He said that not to terrify them but to remind them of what he said to them in the upper room when he got down and washed their feet. “This new command I give you, Love one another as I have loved you!” Listen to God’s decree that you are forgiven by the blood of Jesus – Listen and live in the joy of that decree!
PART II: Live as an example
Even the ancient Israelites could live in the Joy of that decree! They were God’s chosen people. They were the children of the Promise, the royal priest hood, the holy nation the people belonging to God – from whom the Messiah would come.
Think of all the spiritual advantages that the Israelites had! Theirs’ was not a collection of dusty old myths and legends about gods who did such and such, long long ago in a galaxy far far away. They lived it, they saw with their own eyes the Love the Lord their God had for them.
Moses says as much in v. 7 when he says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”
He says this to encourage them to have willing hearts that listen what the Lord has decreed. That they might be a light to the nations around them! That they might live in the land as an example to others. Showing to the world around them that there is no other Path to eternal life than the one that leads through Jerusalem to the only true and living God.
Jesus says in Matthew 5, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
That little light is the same one that the Kid’s song talks about. “This little Gospel light of mine!” Just as the Israelites were to live in the hope that they had we are called to do the same. Moses wrote in verse 6, “6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
This clearly is not a call to ostracize our selves from the world and form our little Christian enclave. How often do we forget the times in history when believers have lived by God’s decrees and judgments and been an example to the rest of the world? The Queen of Sheba came and sought out the wisdom of Solomon! The Jews as they spread throughout the world took the decrees and statutes of God with them and passed them on to others. Evidence of that is the wise men who came to see the baby Jesus!
So, the robe of righteousness that we have is not given to us that we might walk around hoping that other sinners don’t smudge it up! Jesus and the apostles didn’t go around avoiding sinners for fear of “infection.” Look back at the Gospels and remember how that forgiveness of sins got to you! It was because Jesus was in, with and among sinners. And sinners spoke to sinners about forgiveness in Christ! And that spread from Jerusalem, to Antioch, to Macedonia to Rome, Spain, to our ancestors in Europe to some people who got on a boat and made a life for themselves here in the new world. All they while passing along the hope in Christ that they lived by! Christians were never called to ostracized themselves from the world. Rather we are to be an example to those around us. We were called to live according to the hope that we have in Christ Jesus.
That hope isn’t even shaded in the least bit by death! We live our lives more freely than the rest because we know that the only path to a life worth living leads to the Lord. Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it to the full. This is why we listen to His Word, his statutes, his decrees and his judgments – His Law and His Gospel. Those are the word that our souls need to hear. Listen to the Lord and live! Amen.