The great English poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote in his poem The Wasteland, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Martin Luther knew that sentiment well. He once said, “With baptism and our faith we are always in motion and yet at the beginning.” In his eyes, the Christian, being simultaneously sinner and saint, is not a life of progress upward and onward from Baptism. The Christian’s life is a perpetual return to our Baptism.
St. Paul said as much even earlier than Luther. Romans 5. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Throughout all of our experiences, our “motion” as Luther called it, our “exploration” as Eliot called it…we discover anew what is given us at the beginning by our Baptism into Christ—the Holy Spirit, faith, hope, and love.
Finally, even earlier than all these writers, this is what Moses has to say in our passage from Deuteronomy 8. Now the whole Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ “farewell to the troops.” Israel stands once again at the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses will not be crossing over the Jordan with them. Temper, temper! So he addresses the people one last time.
In chapter 5 of Deuteronomy Moses repeats the Ten Commandments. This is why the book is called “Deuteronomy.” Deutero-nomos, the 2nd Law, the second place where the Commandments are listed.
In chapter 6 Moses gives Israel the Shema, their most ancient Creed. Shema Yisrael… “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
So having reminded the people of God’s Law, and having condensed all of that Law into one great commandment, Moses now goes on, 8:1, “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do…” And Moses now knows very well about being careful with God’s commands!
“…that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” After 40 years in the wilderness, Moses is bringing Israel back to remember the first thing, the thing which has defined them. The Law of God.
Oh yes, there is still that first covenant with Abraham, the promise of God: “You shall be My people, and I will be your God.” And, yes, the nation has been baptized in the Red Sea. All very true. But it is the Law–the commandments, the precepts, the ordinances, the statutes, the rules–which shape and define them…until He comes in whom both the Law and the Promise find fulfillment. Ah, but that’s a Christian thing. For Moses, for Israel, the first thing is the Law. “Be careful to do it!”
And Moses now rehearses for them why it is so good to be careful with God’s Law! Vv2-6, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in His ways and by fearing Him.”
To paraphrase St. Paul, Israel’s 40 years of suffering in the wilderness has produced perseverance, and their perseverance has produced character, and their character has produced hope. They have learned to hope in God’s Law. Oh yes, it’s the hard way, disobedience followed by punishment, many, many times over those 40 years. But they have certainly learned that Law through experience in ways which they could not learn at first hearing way back at Mt. Sinai!
They have explored the world of sin–as individuals, as a nation–they have done a lot of exploring, but now at the end of their “exploring,” they discover again their beginning. The Law of God. And they come to know it as for the first time.
Is it worth all the trouble? Oh yes! Moses tells them, v7, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.”
Compared to the 40 years in the wilderness, compared to the 400+ years of slavery in Egypt, this is a very good land! But the whole point here is that Moses is urging them to remember, “You are a people defined by the Law of God on Mt. Sinai. So…if you plan to live and thrive in this Promised Land…don’t forget to carefully do all that is in that Law!”
V11, “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His rules and His statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, [lest you forget the Lord your God]… who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end….’” To do them good!
Because…v19, “if you forget the Lord your God [and His Law] and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” “Obey or die!” That’s the gist of Moses’ farewell speech.
And you know how well that turned out! Over the next 700 years, wars and famines, invaders and conquerors, finally the Assyrians and the Babylonians…a torturous discipline because Israel did not remember. They did not remember the Lord their God. They did not remember His Law. Even though God brought them back again and again to the first thing, to His Law, they did not learn. It’s like they couldn’t even see how it all began at Sinai.
Now it is so easy, and it is so often done, that Moses’ farewell speech gets lifted wholesale and dropped onto the Christian faith. This is especially true among us Christians in these United States. The point is made so often, by preachers and pundits: “See the good land we have!” “O beautiful for spacious skies For amber waves of grain; For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!”
It is a good land…a very good land. But these preacher/pundits sound exactly like Moses. “If you want to keep this good land, then remember the Lord your God. Keep His Law. Or you will lose everything!” Problem is, they miss the point entirely!
For us as Christians the first thing is not the Law of God. For us, the first thing is Jesus. And as good as this land is, it is not the new Israel. This is not the Kingdom of God. And that makes for a very different story than the Moses story!
To be sure, the Lord God still disciplines us Christians like Israel, like a father disciplines a son, for we are God’s sons and daughters by baptism into Christ. So He still causes us to hunger, literally and spiritually, feeding us in ways we would never guess. He still sifts out our hearts to see what is in them. But this is NOT…this is NOT to bring us back again and again to His Law. “Obey or die!” We are not shaped by the Law. We are in Christ!
We Christians are a people shaped in the crucified and risen Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death, and raised with Him to a new life. We are bodied and blooded together with Him in the Holy Supper. In Him we bear the image of the Man of heaven. But it’s not a Law thing–obey or die. It’s a Jesus thing–die each day in Christ by contrition and repentance that in Him, in His grace, in His forgiveness, we may rise to live each day anew.
To listen to some Christians speak about the life of faith, they babble about progress and growth, becoming more saintly and on and on. Trouble is, that sort of talk begins to sound like a great balloon, rising by virtue of it’s own hot air!
Isn’t it rather obvious that the older you grow, the harder this whole thing gets? It takes a lot of grace to battle with age and death. You get more crotchety, self-protective. It gets harder not to become cynical or angry about being cheated by life.
That’s why we read Moses, not to act like Israel–obey or die–a life shaped by the Law of God. No! We read Moses to remember again the better things God has given us in Christ. As the Hebrews writer says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [as here in Deuteronomy], …let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…looking to Jesus…” Not to the Law. To Jesus. He is the Founder and Perfecter of our faith.
And every day, exploring our sinner/saint life, every day of our motion through life, every day…we come back to the beginning, to square one, to Jesus Christ. Lest we forget. For in Him and Him alone, God is leading us to a far better Promised Land.