Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 12, 2015

Sermon on Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9

HOLD ON AND HOLD OUT!

Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9

Introduction

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I remember my teacher handing out a worksheet to the entire class that taught us about following directions. The instructions at the top of the page said, “Read all the questions first before completing the worksheet.” The first ‘question’ said, “Write your name at the top of the page.” The other questions were a series of math and language questions. But the very last ‘question’ on the page said, “Now that you have read all the questions first, go back, write your name at the top, and turn in the worksheet.” In other words, if students actually read all the directions, they didn’t have to do anything other than to write their name! And of course most students kept working on all the questions until they got to the end, realized what they had done, and then spent the next couple of minutes erasing everything they had just written. Lesson learned: Read and follow the directions!

God has given us something far more important than a math book or English book. He has given us the Bible, the book of books. And in today’s service we see that he has certain instructions about how we handle this book and treat what it says. He wants us to grasp all that it says, not to assume what it says like my old fifth and sixth grade classmates did with that worksheet. He wants us to treat his Word properly and to proclaim his Word faithfully. We learn about those very points in the First Lesson for today’s service from Deuteronomy. This reading was Moses’ “farewell sermon” to the ancient people of Israel before God ended Moses’ life and the nation entered the land promised to their ancestors. Moses teaches the Israelites—and us today—how to handle the words and commands of God. We could summarize Moses’ points with two short phrases: Hold on, and hold out!

I.

Listen again to the opening verse of the First Lesson. “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” This verse sets a new direction in Moses’ farewell sermon. The three chapters before this verse include Moses’ summary of Israel’s history for the previous forty years of their desert-wandering history. Now, before they inherit the land God promised their ancestors, he moves his discussion to the “decrees and laws” God gave them. Our English ears hear “decrees” and “laws” as words describing commands, but some of the “decrees” Moses was about to speak included decrees or statements of God’s gracious actions and promises. Moses was teaching them to hold on to God’s expectations for their lives and God’s promises in their lives. In Lutheran lingo, we would call the expectations “law” and the promises “gospel.” 

2DeuteronomyMoses told them to hold on to God’s decrees and laws, and he also told them how to hold on to God’s decrees and laws. “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” Moses’ words sound very similar to words that the apostle John was inspired to write in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible. At the end of Revelation, John warns his readers that those who add to God’s Word will add his judgment to their lives, and those who subtract from God’s Word will subtract God’s eternal blessing from their future.

“Do not add to what I command you.” Why would anyone do that? Just look at the Gospel for today’s service. Some of the descendants of these Israelites were masters at adding to the Scriptures! Jesus had harsh words of criticism for some of the religious leaders of his day. It is one thing to have your customs and traditions. It is quite another to call your customs and traditions commands of God! Adding to the Word was a real temptation for them—and us. God’s actual commands show my sin. So maybe I need some rules and regulations that I find easy to keep. Then I don’t feel so aware of my sinfulness. Then I can stand out from the rest of the crowd for my good record.

“Do not subtract from it.” Why would anyone do that? Just look at their history. Shortly after this farewell sermon from Moses, they inherited the land God promised their ancestors. One of God’s orders was to wipe out the immoral, heathen nations around them. But they didn’t, and the influences of those ungodly nations continued to lure Israel away from God more and more throughout their history. It was easy for them to ignore and essentially subtract from God’s commands—and it is for us, too. But what we’re forgetting is that this warning to not subtract from the Word doesn’t only mean that we would be ignoring content; it also implies that we would be devaluing the Word.

What happens if you make a recipe without certain ingredients? What happens if you subtract baking powder from your cake recipe? What happens if you add ingredients that don’t belong? What happens if you add onions and peppers to your cake recipe? You’re either going to have a very flat cake that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, or you’re going to have a very weird cake that doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to.

We have been given a true treasure in God’s Word. Inspired and directed by God, we have his Word to hold in our possession, on our shelves and even on our digital devices. Yet there is a real temptation to alter this God-given book—to add or subtract its ingredients, if you will. God says, “Do not add to what I command you!” but I will add a reason why it’s not wrong for me to list, or why it’s okay for me to give offering leftovers to the Lord, or why I really don’t need to be in God’s house, or why my sin is someone else’s fault. God says, “Do not subtract from it!” but I can find a reason why this or that command of God no longer apply in the modern world, or why I can ignore biblical teachings that don’t jibe with twenty-first century America, or why clear words no longer mean what the clear words mean.

We wouldn’t dream of consuming food from the store that has been tampered with. We’d demand that it be recalled from the shelves! But when it comes to tampering with the Word of God, sometimes the tampering makes the message seem more attractive to our sinful nature! But when we tamper with the Word, what we’re left to hold on really isn’t God’s Word anymore. And our Word cannot forgive sins or erase guilt or redeem from hell or rescue from the grave.

II.

As Moses spoke to Israel, he wanted them to hold on to God’s decrees and laws, but he also wanted them to hold out the truths God had given them. This wouldn’t involve holding out copies of the not-yet-written Old Testament. This “holding out” would involve concrete examples in their lives. They would honor the commands God gave them. They would follow the gospel-proclaiming ceremonies God gave them. And this would hold out God’s law and gospel truths to others who viewed them.

Moses said, “Observe them” (these decrees and laws) “carefully.” The original Hebrew text really has two commands here: Keep and do. So there are really two encouragements here: Cling to the Word of God: Don’t mess with it or alter it, but preserve it. And then follow it: do what it says not only for your benefit but because others will take notice and learn from it. In these ways, they would hold out the Word for others to see.

Forty years earlier, the Israelites had come out of Egypt, one of the “wisest” nations of the ancient world. But Moses said that observing God’s commands and decrees would show them to be truly wise to the nations around them. “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” After all, the Israelites weren’t worshipping a cultural figment of their imagination. They were worshiping the one, true, real, and living God who led them from old home to their new promised homeland.

But the benefit of holding out God’s decrees wasn’t just for others. The benefit extended much closer to home. Look at the final verse of our reading. “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Parents know that the examples they set trickles down to their children. A positive, godly example may not guarantee their children’s future actions, but it certainly has a positive effect on them. So the encouragement to hold out the Word wasn’t just for the world but it was also for those right inside the walls of their homes.

And the benefit came even closer than that. In verses 7-8, Moses asks the people these rhetorical questions: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” What we might not understand or remember is why God’s decrees were so beneficial. They all seemed like commands, and some were. But others were really customs that served as object lessons that taught them about the coming Savior. Sacrifices, holidays like the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath Day, and many other Old Testament customs taught them truths about Jesus, the Savior who was to come. The gospel message they heard and gospel ceremonies they observed would hold out the truth that would benefit their own souls as much as their children and the observant peoples around them.

Worship in St. Mark's GymNow that we’re worshipping in the gym for the next seven weeks, we have our mission statement very visible on the wall in front of us. Point three in that statement is to “Go with the gospel,” which is another way of saying, “Hold out the Word for others to see.” But before we can hold out the Word, we need to know what it is we’re holding on to and holding out.

God gave Israel bits and pieces of information about Jesus in their decrees and customs and ceremonies. God has given us the complete picture in his Word. Moses asked what other nation was so great as to have God close to them? Today, God could not be closer to us! Emmanuel, “God with us,” was the name attributed to Jesus at his birth. He lived among us and lived holy and perfectly for us, just as some of God’s Old Testament customs revealed. And then he did for us what we could never do in a thousand lifetimes. He endured the penalty for the sins of the world as he sacrificed his life on the cross, just as the sacrifices of the Old Testament taught. And he rose from the dead and showed himself to his followers and disciples to demonstrate yet again that those who trust in him will be raised to be close to him forever in heaven.

When you find a great restaurant, you tell others to dine there sometime. When you see a great movie, you tell others to see it. When you discover a really great doctor, or mechanic, or store, or fill-in-the-blank, you tell others. We have a great and gracious God who has done everything to bring us close to him. What a message to hold out to our children as we bring them to Sunday School and set a positive example for them in worship! What a message to hold out to our neighbors as we get to know them and God uses us to be the witnesses to the gospel that they might not otherwise hear! What a message to hold out—not a message of “Do this and do that,” but a message of “It’s already done in Christ Jesus!”—a message you already treasure, and a message whose treasure is meant for every soul we encounter.

Conclusion

We will probably have a few “hiccups” as we worship in the gym for the better part of the next two months, but I’m kind of excited by this experience. This is what it feels like for many churches as they just get started—setting up and taking down in a temporary facility, working together as a congregation or a team to make worship possible each week. And there’s the excitement of knowing that, Lord willing, on October 25 we’re going to return to an attractive, “refreshed” church sanctuary. I hope you feel that positive vibe and excitement!

But there’s an even greater reason to be positive and excited. It has little to do with a building, but it has a lot to do with what will build up the church. In Christ Jesus, you and I have forgiveness, new life now, and an eternal future in store. There is no news, no spiritual journey, no religious philosophy that could bring you those everlasting blessings. That’s something worth holding on to! What’s more, that’s something worth holding out to others! God bless us as we do both to his glory! Amen.

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