New Years is traditionally seen as a time for resolutions, new beginnings, and reevaluation. In short, it can be a time for orientation, and Deuteronomy is a book well suited for honing our orientation in life.
To appreciate this important part of the Jewish tradition, we must recognize its proposed setting. The people of the exodus are on the east bank of the Jordan River just before entering the Promised Land. A new day is dawning for Israel. They have finally reached their long-awaited home with all the potential and opportunities that new adventure presents. Moses, who could not go with his people, pleads with them to be faithful to God in their new pilgrimage in this new land. In our passage, Moses does what is so often done in Deuteronomy in an attempt to guide the people of Israel. He points to the past and to the future: a past resplendent with recent examples of God’s providence and a future in which the best is yet to come.
Douglas Hall, a Canadian theologian, says that life is a dialogue between experience and expectation (experience from the past and expectation from the future). And the present is the point where these two meet. We live out of our experiences, and we live toward our expectations. If we live oblivious to our experiences, life becomes a fantasy. If we live without expectation, life becomes a tragic and pointless drudgery. But life lived where expectation and experience meet and where they dialogue with one another is vital, realistic, and hopeful. Deuteronomy, aware of this relationship between experience and expectation, constantly presents life as the only option available to Israel and to us.
So, Moses first calls his people to remember. In verse 2 he says to the people of Israel, “Remember that God dealt with you in such a way as to determine what was in your heart.” Eventually we must all ask the question, “What is the purpose of God’s dealings with us?” Is it to make us comfortable? To ease us along the bumpy road of life? To get us through? At times, yes. Perhaps some of you, for whom life has been one struggle after another, can appreciate the prayer of an old slave who was tired to the bone and prayed every morning, “Lord, if you pick my feet up, I’ll put them down.” Sometimes what we need in life is just the energy, inspiration, and desire to get through one day at a time, But the God of the Bible has an overall purpose in dealing with us which seems to be more aggressive and ambitious than just getting us by.
The English theologian John MacQuarrie writes that the purpose of God is to create a community of persons who are loving, free, creative, and responsible. [This, by the way, is one of the best tests of the validity of any religious movement. If one’s religion does not promote and nurture love, freedom, creativity and responsibility (not in the sense of duty but out of an awareness of how we are all connected in the heart of God), then that religion is sick and should be abandoned.] This kind of community cannot be brought into existence by a God whose chief concern is to protect us from any difficulty and discomfort. God questions us through the events of life in an attempt to determine what is in our hearts and where we need to grow. Kahlil Gibran understood this characteristic of love when he wrote these words in his master piece The Prophet:
When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him, though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him, though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
You see, God loves us too much to let us just be comfortable in life, like a hound dog snoozing by the fireplace. God questions us, and this rigorous examination is done for tender reasons because our Maker wants only the best for and from us.
And then Moses says in verses 3 4, “Remember the unexpected help and surprises of life.” Moses is reminding his people of the miracle of Manna in the wilderness. The Hebrew word manna literally means, “What is it?” Manna was unexpected. It was one more of the spectacular surprises the people of the exodus experienced.
Remember the times when all seemed to be lost:
- when the door seemed firmly locked
- when there was no way out
- when the darkness was so deep that you could not even see the tunnel, much less any light at the end
- when⋅ the burden simply could not be carried another single step
And then strength came, and like manna, we know not from where it came. But it came nevertheless, and life was renewed doors were flung open the dawn shattered the night, and, we became whole.
Moses says, “Remember that!” Remember that you have come thus far in life not by your own strength and cunning, but by God’s faithfulness.
Now there are three directions we can take regarding God’s involvement in our past:
a) We can forget.
b) We can regard God as a slot machine, genie, or Fairy God Mother as we practice and embrace a utilitarian view of God
c) We can see deeper lessons of life in the providence of God and learn from those lessons as we grow in trust, faithfulness, and gratitude.
So, Moses would say to us, “Learn from your past. Know that life does not consist of what you eat, drink, and wear. Life consists of a living dialogue with a living God. Remember from that past what is essential and what is peripheral in life, and choose wisely in the present.”
Moses then looks to the future; he moves from memory to expectancy. In a real sense, much of the Bible is future oriented. The scriptures understand God as future oriented. Our God has a purpose, a goal, and a Realm to which humanity and creation are drawn. The past is remembered and considered not for its own sake, but for the definition and character it can give the present and the future.
Moses speaks to his people about their future: a future in which they will still be questioned by God as to what is in their hearts; a future in which help from unexpected places will come; and a future in which miracles must become signs if God’s people are to survive and flourish. As Moses speaks of Israel’s future, he is very concrete, earthy, and this world oriented. In his vision throughout Deuteronomy, he presents:
a) A land in which human needs are met. There is to be no more poverty, hunger, or greed. Throughout this book there is gratitude expressed for “enough,” for Deuteronomy is acutely aware that when more than enough of life’s material blessings becomes humanity’s goal, the results are misplaced values, a false sense of security, and a dullness of life and spirit in which we are lulled into believing that the pursuit and enjoyment of things is the goal of our existence. Moses expresses an earthy, concrete hope (a land of enough) in which the needs of all are met. He recognizes the necessity of bread, but he also knows that we cannot live by bread alone. He therefore speaks of a land in which the goal of our existence (to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves) is not lost in the hustle and bustle of life.
b) A land in which life is celebrated. Moses invites his people to a joyful embracing of life and each other as well as a developed sense of wonder. I sense that we lack this spirit of celebration, and this lack is perhaps related to our lack of community. Sometimes I think we must be among the most isolated and insulated individuals in all of history. And if so, then our isolation and insulation along with our lack of propensity for celebration are a matter of misplaced priorities and distorted values.
God’s vision of our future always includes a community which knows how to celebrate, To serve God is to celebrate life, and to celebrate life is to find community. The symbols expressing God’s intended goals are a New Heaven and a New Earth, a Heavenly City of praise, belonging, and joy, and a Wedding Banquet (the most joyful celebration within the Jewish culture).
c) A land in which God is recognized as the Ultimate Source of enough, celebration, and community. Deuteronomy summons us to a God consciousness–an abiding awareness that life and joy flow from God and that God’s presence permeates every place and every time. God is in this world, and this world is in God.
So, Moses presents a future in which needs are met without the abandonment of our neighbor or the distortion of values;
in which life is celebrated as we realize community and belonging;
and in which God is affirmed and recognized as the Provider of every good gift and the One whose love makes special every person, every place, and every moment of time.
The present is that time when the past and the future converge–where experience and expectancy meet–where memory and hope join hands– where what we have already seen and what we anticipate give structure and definition to our own time.
This can happen, Deuteronomy says in verse 6, if we will walk in the ways of God. In partial, less than perfect, but nevertheless real ways, we can have our needs met without a distortion of values. We can celebrate life in community. We can practice the presence of God so that more people, more places, and more of time will glow with the light of eternity if (and “if” is the key term) we walk in the ways of God.
But let’s get real. We can all recall past failures at resolutions, promises which went unfulfilled, and good intentions gone awry—all of which resulted in some degree of pessimism, guilt, cynicism, and hopelessness. Perhaps we think it simply can’t happen or that it’s too late.
And it’s at this point that the history of the Book of Deuteronomy is helpful. The name “Deuteronomy” means “Second Law.” The First Law goes back to the Book of Exodus. Deuteronomy is a later presentation of that law/teaching and dates long after the time of Moses. The writers of Deuteronomy put their words on Moses’ lips because they recognize the need for a second chance. After Moses came the fall of the Northern Kingdom Israel in 722 BCE. After that disaster came the Assyrian invasion of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE. After that catastrophe came the two Babylonian invasions and final destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic monarchy, and the very existence of Judah as an independent nation in 587 BCE. Then came the Exile which lasted two generations. Then the return from Exile in a devastated land ruled by the Persians. Then the conquest of Alexander the Great and the oppressive rule of his successors, including an attempt by one foreign king to wipe out all traces of the Jewish faith and people. Then the conquest and inclusion of the Jews in the brutal Roman Empire. At each point in this poignant history, Deuteronomy invited the people of God to begin afresh one more time if they could “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.” In other words, in Deuteronomy it is as though Israel and we are perpetually on the East Bank where life can always begin again. The determining factor each time we find ourselves on that East Bank is whether we embrace the opportunity God provides to start all over again and enter a promised land. From God’s side, the possibility of growth has been decided. From our side, that possibility can become a reality only as we respond to the great “IF” before us.
Many people have an image of God as the administrator and grader of a final exam: you foul up and you’ve flunked. It’s all over. However, one of my favorite images of God is that of a conductor of a choir or a symphony. We try to sing the melody and play the music, but we mess up. And what does God do? God taps the music stand with the baton and says like any good conductor, “Now, one more time. We’ll do it until we get right.”
I’m under no illusion that we can get it all right in 2021. But don’t you think we can come at least a little closer to carrying the tune? So do I.
One of the many things that happens when we gather around this Table is that the great Composer and Conductor of the symphony life comes to us and allows us to begin again the simple melodies of our existence. Baptism is a once-for-all-time event whereby our identity and destiny are sealed with Christ forever. But in holy communion we find the strength and vision to begin life again and again. The reality of life lived in the dialogue between experience and expectation with all of its struggles and promise is recognized by this sacrament which repeatedly nourishes us. So, come and receive heavenly manna to renew your life in Christ as part of the grand symphony of God’s everlasting love.
What this tired, old world needs to know perhaps more than anything else is that life can begin again. We who have tasted heavenly manna and have drunk the wine of the new covenant can be harbingers of God’s new creation. So, through joyful lives and loving deeds, may we let the world know that in the resurrection of Jesus, morning has broken and dawn is always a possibility for every creature with the living God. Amen.