September 2 2012 Sermon
A God So Near
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Deuteronomy 4:1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
2 You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.
3 Your eyes have seen what the LORD did at Baal-peor, for the LORD your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor.
4 But you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today.
5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?
8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
9 “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children–
In the passage of Scripture before us, Moses had come to the end of his life. He was about to die and name Joshua his successor as the leader of the Israelites. So he is retelling the events of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt; how God opened the waters of the Red Sea for them to cross over out of bondage. How God had called them out from among the other nations to make them his own people and possession, set apart for God. How God had made a covenant with them, giving them his promises and setting forth his statutes and rules. How God had promised to give them a land and led them to it. How God had provided for them along the way, giving them bread and meat from heaven, and giving them to drink, sometimes directly out of the stones. How God protected them from their enemies, fought for them, and took care of them so that not even their shoes wore out during the 40 years they wandered.
All these wonders that God had done for them was evidence, right before their eyes, that the Lord their God was near to them. It was a display of his uncompromising love for them. His unrelenting service to them and determined care of them. As St. Paul tells us, it was none other than Jesus Christ himself, prior to his birth of the virgin Mary, who freed them from bondage and death in Egypt, and who led them across the waters of the Sea, who fed them, fought for them, protected them and led them safely to the land of promise.
Now, Moses was giving them his final instructions: “listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you… Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding…” in order for them to live and go in and take possession of the land they had to obey these statutes and rules. Failure to keep them would mean ultimate destruction. It would bring about the wrath and punishment of God. It would prevent them from going into the land and taking possession of it. It would result in their being carried away as slaves into exile in Assyria and Babylonia.
Now Moses is telling them the old stories so they would not forget and thus depart from God. He was telling them who they were, how they came to be the people of God, how God had taken care of his people through thick and thin, and he was reminding them of the covenant God made with them. So that they would keep their soul diligently and not forget the things that their eyes had seen, lest their hearts depart from the Lord. And that’s why we tell the same stories from the Bible over and over, year after year, in order to keep our soul diligently, lest we forget the things we have heard, lest we forget that God has redeemed us, made us his people, called us out of sin and death, and given us a land to inhabit for eternity, lest our hearts depart from the Lord. For as Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a person.” So also, it is out of the heart filled with faith that come the good deeds, kind words, forgiveness of others, compassion, love, and mercy. It is all a matter of the heart. It is faith. It is not a matter of keeping rules and regulations. We are not slaves of God whom he tries to control all that we do and say. We are not a straight jacket. No! It’s about the heart; it’s about having faith in Jesus Christ. The Commandments of God are wisdom. His command is to love. They are about the heart. And what comes out of the heart, only shows what is in the heart. If you have faith in your heart your actions will be love. If your heart is without faith, then your actions will be cold and indifferent.
These instructions of Moses are instructions to you. He is telling the story of how God saved you through the water of Baptism out of bondage and slavery to sin. He is telling how God made you his own people and possession. He is telling of the deeds and wonders God does to keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart and you lose your faith. It behooves you to make them known to your children and your children’s children so that they too may have faith to live and enter into the land and take possession of it forever and ever in heaven.
But how do you keep his statutes? That is exactly the problem. You have not kept them! That merely shows your hearts are sinful by nature. Oh, you may think you have kept the statutes of God, but have you really? You have not murdered, or stolen, or committed adultery. You do not lie or cheat or gossip. That’s just swell. You may not have broken them. But not having broken the commandments doesn’t mean you have done them. So you haven’t murdered, but have you helped your neighbor in every need? So you haven’t committed adultery, but have you loved your wife completely and perfectly to the point of giving your life for her? So you haven’t gossiped, but have you always spoken up to defend your neighbor and said good things about him? So you haven’t stolen anything, but have you always worked to improve your neighbor’s property, business, or increase his well being?
And what about the great commandment: Love God with all your heart? Is God the first priority in your life? Does his Word, prayer, worship, and sacraments come first? Or is all that just something you do if you have time? Does he get the first fruits of your labor? Or does he just get what’s leftover at the end of the day? It has been said that one can tell what his priorities are by looking at how he spends his money. Both as individuals and as a congregation, where do you spend your money? On proclaiming God’s word and administering the Sacraments? On God’s mission and the spread of his Gospel? On helping those in need? On deepening your understanding of God’s Word and study of the Bible? On things, possessions, houses, cars, toys, pleasure, leisure, and enjoyment? What does you checkbook look like? Is God your top priority or the things of this world?
It’s all about the heart. Do you love God? Do you love your neighbor? Outward actions merely show where your heart is. It’s not about the rules. It’s about the heart; faith in Christ.
But the Lord your God is a God who is near to you. As he was near to the Israelites and made a covenant with them, he is near to you and has made his covenant with you. You once were not a nation. You once were exiles in a foreign land, in bondage and slavery of sin. You once were a lost people on the highway to eternal condemnation. But, just as the Lord called the Israelites out of the bondage of Egypt, he has called you out of the bondage of sin. Just as he led them through the waters of the Red Sea to free them from slavery, so he has led you through the waters of Baptism to free you from sin and eternal punishment. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ was near to the people of Israel and led them through the wilderness, so he is with you, his church, and leads you through the wilderness of this life. As he fed them with food from heaven, so he feeds you with his own body, sacrificed on the cross. As he gave them to drink in the wilderness, directly from rocks, so he is the rock of your salvation that gives you his own blood to drink in Holy Communion. As he called his people out from among the nations and made them his own possession, so he has gathered you from among the peoples of the world and made you his own children in Holy Baptism. As he fought for the Israelites in the wilderness and defended them from their enemies, so he fights for you and defends you from sin, death, and the devil. In affliction; in suffering; in illness; in tribulations; and even in death; he is the God who is near to you and keeps you as his own. Luther says: “They who in suffering trust God and hold on to a good, firm confidence in him, and who believe that he is well-pleased with them, see in their sufferings and afflictions nothing but pure and precious merits and costly treasures.”
God is near to you, especially in those times when you cannot feel his presence. That is what faith is all about—trusting him when your eyes cannot see. God is near to you in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the union of God and man. In Jesus, God unites himself with humans. In Jesus, God and man become one. In Jesus, God became your brother who does all for you, suffers all for you, and even died for you.
What has he done for you? He has kept the statutes of God and the rules for you. He has kept the commandments of the covenant for you. You have not loved God with all your heart. Jesus did! It is done! Jesus has accomplished what you do not and cannot do yourselves. That is what it means to have a God who is near. You have a God who has done what you cannot do; he has kept the statutes and rules and has done them in order that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you; and that land is heaven and eternal life. No, you haven’t kept the statutes of the covenant, but they have been kept for you. It is done. The law has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And this same Jesus Christ takes care of your soul diligently. Lest you forget the salvation that your eyes have seen and they depart from your heart. It is all a matter of the heart. Jesus preserves your faith. He keeps it through his word. He keeps it by sending pastors and preachers and teachers and parents who keep telling us the same old stories over and over again. The story of how God has called us out of slavery to sin, brought us through the waters of baptism, fed us with his own body, given us his own blood as drink, and leads us through the wilderness, protecting us from all harm and danger, fighting our enemies for us, and taking us into the land of eternal life and salvation that we might take possession of it for eternity. Amen.