Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 10, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Commentary
Like all good preachers, Moses knew how important it is to end your sermon with a story. After multiple chapters of “do this and don’t do that,” Moses is coming to the climactic end of his sermon to Israel. They are at the last stop in their wilderness wandering, standing at the brink of the Jordan River about to enter the Promised Land. Moses has been reminding them of the Torah that will shape their lives over there in the land of milk and honey for which they have longed out in the desert. To cement that Torah in their minds, he reminds them of how they have gotten this far, using a story, the story, the story at the center of their existence as a nation and as individuals. That story is embedded in a ritual they are to perform when they finally arrive in The Land.
The Christian preacher may well wonder how to preach this quintessentially Jewish text in a Christian setting, particularly on this First Sunday of Lent. What on earth does Israel’s story as rehearsed in this uniquely Jewish ritual have to do with the story of Christ’s suffering and death? We are not standing at the edge of Jordan about to take possession of the Promised Land. We are standing on the other side of the cross and empty tomb. How do we read and preach this text in the light of the finished work of Christ?
Well, let’s consider the situation of the writer/editor of this text. All scholars know that this was written after the time of Moses; his death is described in the last chapter of Deuteronomy. So, someone else, at a later time, put Moses’ long sermon into print. One of the most intriguing theories is that it was committed to the written page around the time of Josiah’s reforms (II Kings 22-23). Israel had wandered far from the ways of the Lord, and King Josiah called them to repentance and reformation. They had fallen into the sins of self-reliance, fatalism in the face of hostile human powers and the indifference of natural forces, and worship of the sexually charged gods and goddesses of their neighbors. Josiah called them back to Torah. And that included reminding them of the story of their salvation.
Interestingly, the story, as told in our text, does not include the giving of Torah, or the creation of the world, or even the calling of Abraham. The story begins with the journey of Jacob, “who went down into Egypt with a few people….” What follows is the story of a journey, the journey of a man with no land (“a wandering Aramean”) into what became the land of bondage. Then, after being delivered by “the Lord our God,” that new nation journeyed to “the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.” When they arrive in that land, they are to remember how they got there and give a special offering to the Lord and then celebrate their inheritance.
In this season of Lent, we should remember how the Lord our God has kept his promises and brought us into our inheritance. We should offer our first and best to God as an acknowledgement that all we have comes from him. We should rejoice in all the blessings he has given us by his mighty hand and outstretched arm. And that celebration should include “the Levites and aliens among us.” Yes, we must read this text in Deuteronomy across the reality of the cross and empty tomb, but it can help us move through our Lenten journey with a more thoughtful and celebratory frame of mind.
When we Christians think of our inheritance, we recall passages like I Peter 1:4, which calls us to praise God for “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you….” That language can make us forget that our inheritance is ultimately “the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (II Peter 3:13).” With its constant focus on “the land,” our text from Deuteronomy can help us focus on that final eschatological blessing. For Israel the final destination on their journey from landlessness through the land of bondage and the barren wilderness was “the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us (verse 30.” Read our text carefully and you’ll see how central “the land” is in their story.
That will be a Lenten reminder that “this earth is my home,” I’m not “just a-passing through” to my home “a-way up there, somewhere beyond the blue” (as the old spiritual put it). Jesus did not come to redeem us from the earth, but to redeem us for a renewed earth. As proven by a cross planted on a hill faraway, ours is a very much land-based faith.
As you read carefully, notice how often the land is “given;” the Hebrew word natan (give) is used 7 times, one of which is, ironically, Egypt giving Israel hard labor. The other six are the Lord giving the Land. In spite of Israel’s bloody battles of conquest, God wanted to remind them that they didn’t conquer it; it was given to them as a gift.
This is the major theme in the story of Israel, and in our story. We did not accomplish our salvation. It was done “with a mighty hand and [two] outstretched arm[s].” All “the good things” we have “the Lord your God has given” to us and our households. No works righteousness here! This is a text that calls for a Lenten focus on “Christ alone.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see Israel’s sins reproduced in our lives. Like Israel, we tend to slip into self-reliance. We can become fatalistic as we are overwhelmed by the hostile forces aligned against us and reduced to meaninglessness by the cosmic vastness of the universe. And who hasn’t been seduced by our sexualized culture. Lent is a time to repent of forsaking the Lord our God and wandering off into the wilderness of those sins.
But Lent is not only a time of repentance in dust and ashes. Our text reminds us that our sorrow over sin must always be overcome by our joy at what God has done for us. Our joy is not the giddy celebration of New Year’s Eve; it is the thoughtful offering of our first and our best to God as an acknowledgment that everything we have comes from him. “And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given to me (verse 10).” That is the end of the story of redemption in our text. It is a reminder that we cannot truly rejoice until we remember how we got here on our journey.
Lent, then, is not just a time to repent of our sins and remember the story of our salvation; it is finally a time to rejoice over all the good things, both physical and spiritual, God has given us. And our text reminds us that we rejoice not just by holding onto the good, but by sharing it with “the Levites and the aliens among us.” If that isn’t all that clear in this text, see its parallel in Deut. 16:11,12. Our joy must spill over into generosity to those who don’t have as much, who are in the land with us, but haven’t been blessed the way we have.
The centrality of story to repentance and rejoicing almost needs to proof. If you don’t remember how much God has done for you, how very central his saving works are to your existence, it is almost impossible to repent of the sins Israel had fallen into—self-reliance, a sense of futility, and adherence to the religion of sexuality. Just think of how foreign the whole concept of repentance is to a post-modern culture that has relegated the whole Judeo-Christian story to the museum of “the silly stories that people used to believe.”
On the other hand, you can’t really rejoice in how good you have it if you’ve forgotten that it all came from God. If you earned it, you might enjoy what you have, but you won’t rejoice before the Lord. When my father sank into the forgetfulness of Alzheimers, he lost his capacity for joy. Oh, he could smile when he saw a puppy or a child, but he couldn’t rejoice over the story of God’s work in his life. He had forgotten it. Only when someone reminded him of the story could he recover a bit of the joy. I’m guessing that’s why he loved to go to church right up to the end.
A good story is not only crucial at the end of a sermon. If it is God’s story, it is the very heart of it.
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