Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16, 2014
“Life and Blessing in God’s Commandments” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
I am going to say something that may surprise you today: There is life and blessing in God’s commandments. “What?!” you say. That’s right, I said there is life and blessing in God’s commandments. But you respond, “But, Pastor, I thought the Commandments were there to show us our sin, that God’s Law actually condemns us. How can there be life and blessing in that?” Spoken like a true Lutheran. And true enough, as far as it goes. But there is even more to say about the Ten Commandments than just that. And that’s what we’re going to do now, under the theme, “Life and Blessing in God’s Commandments.”
You know, our immediate reaction, especially as Lutherans, is to shy away from God’s Law. We tend to think of the Ten Commandments only in a negative light. These commandments condemn us and convict us as sinners. And this is true. And so, how can this be good? But the Law of God is good. The problem is, we aren’t–not as good and holy as we ought to be, not as good and holy as we sometimes think we are. And so the Law condemns us. But that doesn’t mean the Law itself is bad. No, it is very good–perfect, in fact. And there is great benefit and blessing in walking in the way of God’s commandments, as we shall see.
Our text is the Old Testament Reading for today, from Deuteronomy 30. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ “farewell address,” if you will, to the nation of Israel. Close to 40 years earlier, Moses had led the people out of bondage in Egypt–through the Lord’s doing, of course. First they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from the Lord, and he in turn gave them to the Israelites. And the people said, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” But that didn’t last long. Moses went back up the mountain for further instructions, and while he was up there, the people grew impatient. Their faith in the Lord wavered and evaporated. They built a golden calf to worship, thinking the Lord wasn’t doing a very good job of being their God.
Later, the Israelites sent out some spies to check out the land the Lord had promised to give them. But most of the spies brought back a bad report, thinking that the people living there would be too strong for them to drive out–in other words, thinking that the Lord wasn’t strong enough to deliver on his promise to give them that land. And so that whole generation of Israelites would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, because of their unbelief.
So now in Deuteronomy, Moses is reviewing everything with the next generation of Israelites, the ones who would enter the Promised Land very shortly. He goes over all the commandments and the covenant that the Lord made with Israel, and now he’s about to wrap things up. It’s at this point that he speaks the words of our text. Let me read it once more.
Moses tells the people: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
There is life and blessing in following God’s commandments. That’s what Moses is telling the people. In these commandments, the Lord has given you a good way to live. The one true God; the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who established his covenant of blessing and promise with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel who heard the cries of his people and remembered his covenant and visited his people and brought them out of bondage and to the Promised Land–this same gracious God knows what is best for his people, and you will be blest to listen to his voice and to walk in his ways. That’s what these commandments are for. They give you the best way to live, a way that is fitting for the redeemed people of God.
But, oh, just like the Israelites, we think we know better than God. We think that his commandments are too restrictive, that they would spoil our fun and impede our desires. We kick and resist against God’s Law. But do you not think that our Creator would know what is best for his human creatures? The Ten Commandments express God’s good design for how we should live. It is the way of love, love for God and love for our neighbor. Life works so much better when we live this way.
Do we believe this? You see, true obedience to God’s commands flows out of faith in God’s goodness. It comes out of a redeemed relationship with the God who has rescued us and made us his people. It starts with faith. Knowing who God is, knowing what he has done for us to save us–this is foundational to a faithful obedience to his commands. Remember how the Lord introduced the Ten Commandments back in the Book of Exodus, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And it is after this that he states the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and so on. Life and blessing in God’s commandments come in the context of knowing who God is, the God who has redeemed us and saved us.
You see, your keeping of the commandments is not how you get right with God. That’s not how you make yourself righteous or earn your way into God’s favor. That was kind of the delusion of the scribes and the Pharisees. They thought that by their external keeping of the commandments, just the outward show of righteousness, that they made themselves righteous before God. Not so fast, as we heard Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading. If you’re doing just a surface show of keeping the commandments–you haven’t actually murdered anybody, for instance, but you get maliciously hateful toward others and wish them ill—that isn’t going to cut it. And here indeed you and I are exposed as sinners. We will never keep the Law well enough in thought, word, and deed, to earn our salvation.
That is why Christ came. He fills in where we fall short. Christ Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law for us. He, Jesus, truly loves God with everything that is within him. He came to do the will of his Father. He, Jesus, truly loves people the way we should, but don’t. Jesus is the one really righteous man who has ever lived. And because he is the very Son of God, his righteousness is big enough to cover all of our sin, the sin of the whole world–which he did, both in his life of righteousness and in his sacrificial death on our behalf. Jesus fulfills the Law for us. He takes the punishment that the Law requires for sinners–namely, death under God’s judgment. Jesus experienced this on the cross. And he gives us his righteous standing before God in its place. Quite an exchange!
This is God’s ultimate act of redemption, leading us out of the bondage of our Egypt–slavery to sin and the curse of death. Jesus’ resurrection shows us the result: life that conquers death, resurrection life, newness of life now, as new creations in Christ. This is what you have been baptized into, dear Christians!
The Law will not save you. You cannot keep it well enough. Only Christ can save you, and he does. “For he is your life and length of days.” It is his works, not yours, that give you eternal life. Trust in him, and you will be saved. It’s all by grace, through faith in Christ.
Now that you are saved, now that you are a new you, given the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, now that we are the redeemed people of God–now we can approach God’s commandments with a new attitude and a new obedience. Now we can see these commandments for the good expression of God’s will for our lives that they are. Life and blessing–this is what we find by walking in his ways. It’s like the psalmist says in Psalm 119, as we heard earlier: “Blessed are those who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who walk in his ways!”
It’s true! The Ten Commandments describe the way of life our gracious God has laid out for us. There is great blessing here. Think of it. Go down the list. The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” This is a good thing, for those other gods, those false gods, cannot save you, they cannot give you life. Only the one true God, the one we know in Christ, is worthy of our faith and our worship. The Second Commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Blessing here also, for what is implied is that the name of the Lord, which he has revealed to us in his Word–this is the name we can call upon in the day of trouble, call upon in prayer, and he will hear us. The Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” There is great blessing in coming here to church every Sunday, to hold that day sacred and to gladly hear and learn God’s Word.
And so on down the line. The commandments about loving our neighbor: Honor the authorities God has placed over you, like father and mother, to be his channels of blessing for you. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie about your neighbor and tear down his reputation. It should be fairly self-evident that life in community works better when people live and conduct themselves in these ways. On the other hand, we can see very graphically in our day what happens when this type of conduct breaks down among a people. Look at the breakdown of morality in our society just in our own lifetime. Life becomes chaotic, people do things that are just plain stupid–crime and violence and sexual immorality, the breakup of marriage and family. And as a result people get hurt.
Going against God’s commandments is very stupid, but we still do it–yes, even religious and moral people, churchgoing people–we too rebel against our gracious God and his good design for our life. And this is why we always must walk humbly with our God, realizing how much we need God’s forgiveness in Christ. Our righteousness will never be enough to earn God’s favor and our salvation. But because we are saved, we are redeemed in Christ, now are free, now we are new people who do love God’s Law and who do walk in his ways. Not to get saved, but because we are saved. Yes, by God’s grace, dear friends, we do find life and blessing in God’s commandments.