A sermon on Deuteronomy 28 by Richard Keith on Sunday 25 June 2023
If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, What have I done to deserve this? then today’s message is for you. If you’ve ever been tempted by the message that God rewards our obedience with good health, long life and lots of money, then today’s message is for you. If anyone ever told you that all your problems would go away if you had enough faith, and you believed them, then today’s message is for you. Because the reason you do all those things is probably that you are still thinking that you are in the old covenant and that you are living under the shadow of Mt Sinai.
That’s where we were in our message last week in Exodus chapter 20 with the Israelites camped at the foot of Mt Sinai, and God made a covenant with them there through Moses, and gave them his ten commandments. Because if you think that God is punishing you for doing something wrong with your mystery illness or with your unsuccessful career or with years of drought, that’s where you still are. It’s time for you to start living under the new covenant and in the light of the good news of Jesus.
Last week we talked about the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses at Mt Sinai. God had rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and brought them to himself at the mountain and made them this promise
If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
This is the solemn agreement that he had rescued the Israelites for. That they would represent him on earth for the people of all nations in order to bring God’s blessing to all the world. But it hung on that tiny word at the start of the sentence. IF.
The word “if” introduces conditions, statements that say that one thing will happen on the condition that something else happens. “If it rains, we’ll have to cancel the BBQ.” “If I can get rid of this cold, I’ll see you next weekend.” If you finish your homework, you can watch an hour of TV. God said to them,
If you obey me fully. If you keep my covenant – my solemn agreement – then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.
And God gave them his ten commandments in Exodus chapter 20 and in response the people said,
Everything the Lord has said we will do.
They knew what they were signing up for, and they vowed that they would do it. No one could say, “I didn’t know.” “Nobody told me.” It was literally carved in stone.
In Deuteronomy chapter 28 it is forty years later and Moses is speaking to a new generation. They have still not entered the promised land of Canaan. What has gone wrong? I mean I can open my Google Maps app on my phone and find directions from Cairo in Egypt to Jerusalem. It’s a 148 hour walk. So let’s walk six hours a day, that’s 25 days to walk. Okay, let’s rest on the Sabbath, so that’s a month. Maybe if you were young and fit. Let’s give them another two months to get children and the elderly there. But nowhere near 40 years. What went wrong?
The people who had heard the Lord’s words and vowed to do everything he said, had not kept their promise. They had disobeyed the Lord’s commands. And they had grumbled and complained. On their journey they came to a place where the wells were dry. They said to Moses,
Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst? Give us water to drink.
At God’s instruction, Moses struck a rock with his staff and out came water. At another time they were hungry. They said to Moses,
If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.
And the Lord sent them manna to eat every morning. Again they complained,
If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite. We never see anything but this manna.
And God sent them quail. It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad. And if it didn’t remind us of how ungrateful we can be as well.
They actually made good progress to the promised land, and when they camped on its borders, the Lord told them to send in twelves spies. For forty days the spies walked the length and breadth of Canaan. They brought back some of the best produce of the land.
Grapes the size of apples. But also this mixed report.
We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.
In response the people said,
If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.
And they refused to go into Canaan. Like Lot’s wife, they looked back. They thought their slavery in Egypt was better than this terrifying freedom. So the Lord led them away back into the desert where they wandered for 40 more years. The generation that refused to take what God offered them died in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land, and their children grew up in their place.
In the book of Deuteronomy the next generation are ready to take their inheritance. They were either born in the desert or been too young to take part in their parent’s rebellion against the Lord. They too were camped on the borders of the promised land and poised to enter. But before they did the Lord renewed the covenant he had made with their parents at Mount Sinai. The ten commandments were repeated, recorded this time in Deuteronomy chapter 5. The name “Deuteronomy”, in fact, means second law. It’s not a sequel to the law of Mt Sinai, but a repetition of it to a new generation.
And the covenant is renewed, beginning with chapter 28, in familiar sounding words. Moses, now an old man, said to them,
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.
The purpose of this agreement was still the same as the covenant made with their parents. They would be God’s people, living God’s way, living in harmony with their creator’s will, enjoying the good things that his creation provides. In this way, this tiny nation, living in this crucial intersection between three huge continents would become the envy of the world. Their prosperity and righteous living were meant to make all the other nations say to themselves, “I want what Israel’s got.”
The blessings they were to enjoy were to be specific and immediate. They weren’t just vague and intangible like, I don’t know, joy in their hearts and hope for heaven one day. But things they could see and touch right there and then that no one could deny. They would have children and bountiful crops and flocks. They would be successful at work and always have food to eat. They would defeat their enemies even if they were outnumbered. And they would have rain when they needed it. They would have enough money to lend to others and never need to borrow. They would always come out on top. Always first. Never second, and never, ever last.
I have to admit that I consider myself blessed. I love my family and my job. I certainly have more than I want or need. But there is no way that I could say that I’ve been an unqualified success. I’ve struggled with loss and disappointment and bad health. I find it hard to go to places I’ve never been to before and to talk to people I don’t know. Any success or recognition I’ve gained has been earned the hard way. Life certainly hasn’t taken me the way the boy I used to be hoped or could have imagined.
I call myself blessed and I’m just grateful to be alive. But the blessings that the Lord promised to Israel, make the good things that I enjoy look second best. They would always be at the top and never at the bottom. The blessings were going to be obvious and immediate. Nobody could deny them or explain them away. They were to be on public display in order to be the envy of the world.
But the blessings were also always conditional.
If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them,
then, and only then, would they enjoy God’s good things. And that condition meant that there was also another possibility. For if the blessings for obedience were obvious and immediate so were their opposites for disobedience. The curses.
These were not what we would call misfortunes. The bad things that happen to us for no discernible reasons. Like roadworks on the day I have an appointment at Albury. Like a teammate getting sick on the morning of the big game and we have to play without them. Even if you argue that I should have known about the roadworks or should have allowed more time for such an important appointment, and I concede that, the best you will do is show that I’ve picked a bad example, but not that misfortunes don’t happen.
None of the bad things in Deuteronomy chapter 28 are misfortunes. They are punishments for disobedience.
If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
Hunger. Failure. Disease. Drought. Famine. Defeat. Madness. Blindness. We would call them misfortunes, but under the old covenant they were curses.
The first verse of the book of Ruth goes like this.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.
You are meant to think, No, that’s not what you do under the old covenant. If there is a famine in the promised land, the people should repent of the sin for which they are being punished. You don’t just run away. The man and his two sons both die in Moab before their time and his wife, Naomi, goes back to Israel with her daughter-in-law Ruth .Naomi complains,
The Lord has afflicted me. The Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.
Under the old covenant, she is half right. She is right to ascribe to God the things that have happened to her. But she is wrong to blame him or to call her suffering “misfortune”. The men of her family have been punished for their disobedience, and she is suffering for it. And when did she get back to Israel? “As the barley harvest was beginning”. While they have suffered in Moab, Israel has been blessed with prosperity. But you have to read the story with old covenant values and expectations.
The boy David said to the giant Goliath,
You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.
And of course it worked. David picked up fives stones and only needed one. He hit Goliath in the forehead and the Philistines ran away. Because that’s how it works under the old covenant, when God’s chosen leader trusts in the Lord and not in the strength of men.
Four hundred years later when Jerusalem was destroyed by the armies of Babylon, the king’s palace demolished, the Lord’s temple burned to the ground, the city’s people led away into exile, the prophets gave one, unanimous explanation for the disaster.
Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you for you have kindled my anger.
The reason it happened is obvious if you remember the old covenant.
It’s also the reason why the disciples asked Jesus about the man born blind.
Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
They were simply thinking in old covenant terms. Blindness, specifically mentioned as one of the curses in Deuteronomy, and a man born with it. Did he sin in his mother’s womb? Did God foresee a sin in his future life and punish him for it in advance? Did he sin, as the Hindus and Buddhists say, in a former life? Or did his parents sin and they were being punished with a blind child?
Every time you suffer and you don’t know why and you start to worry that God is punishing you, you are thinking the same way. Every time you don’t get better and you start to worry that it’s because you don’t have enough faith, you are thinking the same way. You think that way because you went to Sunday School, you go to church, you hear the stories of the Bible and you learn how things work, but no one ever tells you that the Old Testament is God’s word, yes, but it’s not God’s last word. Or people are trying to tell you and you aren’t listening. Or you are listening but you’d rather believe that you have to repent to stop your suffering than have to accept that there’s nothing you can do. And you know you are miserable, but at least that makes you feel like you are in control.
If any of these things are true, then you are still living camped at the base of Mt Sinai, living under the old covenant. Yes, it is God’s word, but it’s God’s second last word. It’s time to start believing God’s last word in Jesus.
Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus replied,
Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.
Who sinned? Who was being punished with this suffering? No one sinned. No one was being punished. The blind man might have felt guilty all his life but it wasn’t necessary. People might have told him to repent to be healed, but it wouldn’t have helped. He could have made himself miserable making atonement for his many sins, but it wouldn’t have given him sight.
And so we see that an important part of Jesus’ message of the coming of the kingdom is the arrival of the new covenant in his life, teaching and work. He could not have put it more clearly in his Sermon on the Mount,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Jesus says, Be like God. He doesn’t give plenty to the righteous and famine to the unrighteous, but sunshine and rain on all alike. Be perfect, Jesus said, like your heavenly Father. I think the message is clear. Old covenant categories of thinking were only ever appropriate within Israel. Israel was rewarded for its obedience with prosperity. Israel was punished for its sin with drought and famine and defeat. But with Jesus’ coming or maybe even before those ways of thinking are like black and white TV, like video tape recorders, like coal fired steam engines. Obsolete and out of date.
What we see instead in the new covenant is that the curse for disobedience falls on Jesus on the cross and all the blessings of obedience are his in his new risen life which he shares with those who trust in him through the gift of the Spirit and our transformation into the likeness of Christ from the inside out.
Now if I go on too much about that now I won’t have anything new to say in a later message. But the message for you today is that just like Jesus left his grave clothes behind in the empty you need to leave your old covenant thinking behind. God is not punishing you. You are not sick because you don’t have enough faith. You are not blessed because you’ve been a good boy or girl. And you are not cursed. Jesus was cursed so you wouldn’t be.
Now it’s also important to understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that it’s okay to sin. It’s not okay. At the heart of sin is the desire to be God and to treat other people like things. To ruin what God has made good. That is wrong. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a final judgment and that heaven is for everyone. Hell is real and it will be the eternal home for those who hate God and prey on the weak and defenceless and corrupt all that is good and beautiful and true.
What I am saying is that God is not punishing you because you catch COVID for a second time or you get caught in traffic or if your backyard gets flooded, because believe me that can happen. If God wanted you to be healthy and wealthy and live to a hundred and ten we would have seen it in the first disciples.
It’s time to start believing the message in Hebrews chapter 12. We don’t live at Mt Sinai where the people and Moses trembled in fear. We are on a journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. And the message we need to hear is not just the ten commandments, but the message of the blood of Jesus, the blood of the new covenant, which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Because Abel’s blood cried out for justice against his murderer. But Jesus’ blood cries out for forgiveness for sinners.
Stop making yourself miserable because you only listen to God’s second last word. Listen to God’s last word. His better word. Forgiveness in Jesus. Strength in our trials. Guidance through our confusion. Hope in our disappointments. And a treasure in heaven that is better than all the money in the world.