Are you listening carefully? - Deuteronomy 1:1-8

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 30th April 2006.

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I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The summer had finally arrived. School was now a distant memory. And I was planning to leave my small town in Scotland to join the anonymous millions who live in the city of London. But just before I finally said goodbye to all things Scottish there was one crucial football match I had to watch on the TV. It was the 15th June 1996. The venue? Wembley Stadium. The occasion? The Group A European Championship match between Scotland and England. I don’t know if you remember watching the game but I couldn’t believe how we performed that day. Let me tell you a secret. When you are Scottish your hopes for success in sport are usually set at a reasonable level of expectation. That is, normally, we don’t expect to win anything. But, on the 15th June 1996, against the old enemy, there was a mood of confidence amongst the Scottish people. You could call it madness but we were hopeful. We had just held out for a draw against the Dutch and so perhaps this time the old enemy would be defeated. Perhaps this time would be different. Perhaps this time we could do it. But, no, it was not to be. Admittedly, we made a bad start when Alan Shearer converted Gary Neville’s right-wing cross but undoubtedly the game’s pivotal moment arrived when David Seaman saved Gary McAllister’s penalty. And then who can forget the tricks of Paul Gascoigne? It was a disaster for the Scottish team! From their own penalty box, England broke away and Tottenham midfielder Darren Anderton fed Paul Gascoigne, who chipped the ball over Colin Hendry before driving it past the helpless Scottish goalkeeper. It was game over. England had won. And, yet again, Scotland went back to their hotel for the now traditional post match analysis after another defeat.

Three days later Scotland were scheduled to play Switzerland and the stakes were very high. There was still a tiny possibility that we could actually qualify for the quarter finals.

But if this was to happen the downhearted players needed to hear an inspirational team talk from the Scottish coach. Without doubt Craig Brown had a massive job to do. How do you motivate a group of players for a crucial match when they have previously suffered a humiliating defeat?

A similar question lies behind the book of Deuteronomy. The contents of Deuteronomy are addressed to God’s people as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. They are about to begin an exciting new stage in their history as God’s chosen people. They stand at the edge of a new home. They are poised at the boundary of a new adventure with God. But what they choose to do next will be absolutely crucial for their future. You see this is not the first time God’s people have stood at the borders of the Promised Land. Almost 40 years previously, the ancestors of the current generation had been in a very similar situation. But just when they should have been enjoying a celebration party in the land of promise, God’s people managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Have a look at verses 1-3. “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan — that is, in the Arabah — opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab.  2 (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.) 3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the LORD had commanded him concerning them.”  

It should have taken the Israelites 11 days to travel from Mount Horeb, which is simply another name for Mount Sinai, to a place called Kadesh Barnea. Now I’m not sure how good your Middle Eastern geography is. I hope I’m not insulting anyone by displaying a big map of the region. But I thought it would be wise to show you on the big screen where all these different places can be found.

Traditionally, Horeb has been located in this position on the map and Kadesh Barnea is situated a few hundred miles to the north . Now, according to verse 2, it should have taken the Israelites 11 days to travel from Mount Horeb in the south to Kadesh Barnea in the north, if they traveled on the Mount Seir Road, which was somewhere in this part of the country. But here is the shock. After 40 years the Israelites still haven’t made their home in the Promised Land. Instead, when the words of Deuteronomy were first spoken, the people of God were somewhere over here. So what has gone wrong? Even accounting for traffic congestion on the outer ring road, a wrong turning at the Promised Land Intersection and, who knows, perhaps even a few distressed camels along the way, what has gone wrong? 11 days to Kadesh Barnea and then maybe a few weeks until you are standing at the very centre of the Promised Land. But 40 years and you are still waiting at the border. What has gone wrong?   

Have a look at verse 6. “The LORD our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.  7 Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates.  8 See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers — to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and to their descendants after them.””

What a promise from the living God! Here was the owner of the entire planet and he was giving his people a place to live. I’m not sure how you feel about God changing the international borders in such a manner but we need to remember that as the creator of the universe God has the right to draw the international map as he thinks best.

No need for a quick phone call to the UN Security Council to clear it with the Russians, or the Chinese or even with the Americans. God can move his people to any place he so desires. So why here? Well, many years previously God had made a promise to Abraham that one day his descendants would occupy a massive piece of territory in the Middle East. This is what God said to Abraham in Genesis 15:18: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” And here at last, as the people of God gathered round Mount Horeb, they received the marching orders they had all been waiting for. Verse 8. “See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession.” Can you imagine the excitement? What a privilege to be living amongst the generation of God’s people who would see God’s precious gift with their very own eyes. What could go wrong? All they had to do was march in and take it.

Have a look at verse 19. “Then, as the LORD our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites through all that vast and dreadful desert that you have seen, and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. 

20 Then I said to you, “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the LORD our God is giving us.  21 See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” 22 Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.” 23 The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe.  24 They left and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and explored it.  25 Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought it down to us and reported, “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.”

It looks promising, doesn’t it? The people of God have reached Kadesh Barnea and there is no indication from what we have just read that it took them longer than the 11 days predicted on their GPS route finder. Everything seems to be going according to plan. A few more days and the people will be enjoying life in a new environment. And what a place it will be! The scouts have been sent in and they have returned with samples of the local produce. And what is the conclusion? “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.” This was no Spanish holiday resort that looks amazing in the brochure but when you get there you discover it is still a building site, occupied by a few goats. This was no lastminute.com bargain bonanza! No, this was a good land that the LORD was giving to his people. So what could go wrong?

Verse 26. “But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God.  27 You grumbled in your tents and said, “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.  28 Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’” 29 Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them.  30 The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes,  31 and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” 32 In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God,  33 who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.” And then pay careful attention to what happened next.

Verse 34. “When the LORD heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore (Notice how serious God is!):  35 “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers,  36 except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the LORD wholeheartedly.””

What a disaster! To use the old cliché. So close and yet so far. They were on the very edge of the Promised Land. They had all the might of the creator of the universe fighting for them. All they had to do was trust in his goodness and in his protection. And remember this was the God who had just rescued them from Egypt and cared for them in the desert.

What were the chances that he would fail them now? Given the fact that in the previous few months he had destroyed the advancing Egyptian chariots, what were the people to fear from the so-called giants of the land whom they called the Anakites? When the LORD is on your side the big people simply make easier targets. There was nothing for God’s people to fear. And yet in all their perversity they concluded that God hated them, after all he had done. And so they refused to take possession of the Promised Land. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

It’s not been a great week for Charles Clark, the Home Secretary, has it? More than 1,000 convicted foreign criminals who should have faced deportation after completing their jail terms have been released back into British society. And on Tuesday Charles Clarke admitted that only 107 of them have so far been located. He called it a “shocking administrative blunder”. Which, I think, when you remove the spin, is simply a politician’s way of saying, “Hey guys we failed big time and don’t we know it.”

But, my friends, such a massive failure pails into insignificance when we compare it with the humiliating disaster that took place when God’s people were on the edge of the Promised Land first time round. They were within spitting distance of a new world. They only had to march in and take it. But, because of their lack of faith they were prevented from enjoying God’s blessing. Because of their disobedience to God’s commandments they had to spend 40 years wandering aimlessly through the desert. And if you look at the big screen you will see roughly where they went. From Kadesh Barnea they moved towards the hill country of Seir and spend 38 years, in this part of the region, waiting for the previous generation to die. Can you imagine how boring that would be? Especially, when we compare it to the alternative they had forfeited because of their faithlessness. But as Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” And what Paul means is not: “When we are faithless there will be no consequences because God will always help us out regardless of our behaviour.” Rather, what Paul means, and what we see recounted for us in these opening chapters of Deuteronomy, is that when God’s people are faithless there will be consequences because the faithful God has promised that faithless behaviour will meet with divine sanctions. As a consequence of their previous rebellion, God’s people were made to wander in the desert until the previous generation had died out completely. And only then did God order the new generation to march north until they reached the place described for us in Deuteronomy 1:1.

So here they were. At last a new generation of God’s people have arrived at the edge of the Promised Land. Like their ancestors they are now within spitting distance of a whole new world. But here’s the issue. Would they succeed where the previous generation failed? Or if I can put it like this: How would God motivate his chosen team for such a crucial moment when they have previously suffering a humiliating defeat?

Have a look at verse 1. “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan.” Or verse 3. “In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the LORD had commanded him concerning them.” And then verse 5. “East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law.”

How did God choose to motivate his people for such a momentous occasion? He asked Moses to preach a sermon.

It may sound fairly low key to us. Why not dazzle the people with a few more miracles? Surely that would get their adrenaline pumping round the body. But a sermon? Surely the people need more than that? Well, not in God’s wisdom. You see, God has determined that his people always need to hear his voice. Admittedly, hearing alone is not enough. Hearing must be combined by faith and true faith must show itself in obedience. But if God’s people are to inherit God’s blessing they must listen to the word of God. And that’s why on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses, the great national coach of Israel, preached a number of motivational sermons to inspire the current generation to succeed where their parents had failed.

Now, over the next few weeks, we have the great privilege, and we really should count it as a great privilege, of listening in more detail to certain parts of what Moses said. But I want to end my sermon tonight by highlighting one of the major features that stands out from the preaching of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.

His focus is not entirely on the future. Now, of course, we’ve seen this already in the first few chapters of the book. Again and again, like a good leader, Moses looks back to the past in order to motivate the people.

So, on the one hand, he recounts the great successes of God. He reminds the people of the Exodus, when God fought for them like a mighty warrior. He reminds the people of God’s protection in the wilderness, when God he for them like loving father cares for his children. And in more recent months God had also defeated two powerful enemies on the road to where they were currently standing. And so like a skilled motivational speaker Moses holds out these achievements to the people and says, “Here is your evidence for trusting the Lord. I’m not asking you to blindly leap over the edge of the cliff. No, I’m asking you to place your confidence in the God who has already demonstrated his power and love in human history.”

God never promises to show us a physical miracle when we are alive. Admittedly, in his sovereignty, he may choose to show us one, but it is much more likely that he will not. And the reason is because God has already demonstrated his great power and love for his people. Do you remember how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23? “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And then in Romans 5:8 he says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So when we contemplate our future as Christians, when we feel nervous about the uncertainties that lie ahead, and when we feel tempted to doubt the Lord’s provision, what do we need? Not a physical miracle but a reminder of the cross. We need to realise that because God did look after us there he will certainly look after us for all eternity. The past actions of God should motivate us for the future.

But what about the past failures of God’s people? What part do they play in Moses’ motivational speeches? No one likes to fail and no one likes to be reminded of their past mistakes but if we are to avoid making the same blunders in the future it’s essential that we learn the lessons of history.

The video tape needs to be played. It cannot just be erased. The action must be witnessed again so it is never repeated. Now we can be fairly confident that Colin Hendry did not enjoy the post-match team talk from Craig Brown. It’s very unlikely that he applauded as he watched Paul Gascoigne delicately chip the ball over his head. But did the Scotland team really have to sit and watch a painful rerun of their recent defeat against the old enemy? Yes. If the lessons of history are to be learned they need to be known. And once they are known it is essential they get applied. Which is exactly what we find Moses doing throughout the book of Deuteronomy. He is not frightened of bringing up the past. Instead, he constantly says to the people: Are you listening carefully? Be careful or the same things might happen to you! Be careful not to blow it again! Be careful or you might find yourself excluded from the land of promise.

At first glance, one of the obvious gaps in the New Testament is the Promised Land. The word ‘land’ appears 2,504 times in the Old Testament but it almost seems to disappear from the pages of the New Testament. Which, of course, should beg the question in our minds: What has happened to God’s promise of a physical piece of territory since the arrival of Jesus?

Let me make three brief comments about the land of promise.

First of all, the land was to be a place of rest. Repeatedly, in the book of Deuteronomy, entering into the land of promise is equated with leaving a life of restless wandering and beginning a life of restful existence. The land was to be a place of rest.

Secondly, the land was to be a place of obedience. This is what Moses said to the people in Deuteronomy 4:5-6: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it.  6 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.”

When God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt he did not just save them from something but for something. He rescued them for a life of obedience to his amazing commandments. And the land of the promise was to be the place where this obedience was lived out under the watchful eye of the nations around them. The land was to be a place of obedience.

Thirdly, the land was to be a place to live. Physical people need a place to stay. And so God, in his generosity, gave his newly adopted son, the nation of Israel, a piece of his vast estate.

So have you got it clear what the land in the Old Testament was for? A place of rest, a place of obedience and a place to live. Now let me show you what has happened to the land of promise in the New Testament.

First of all, where do we find rest after the arrival of Jesus? This is what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The place of rest is now located in the person of Jesus. For those who are troubled and torn inwardly apart by the frustrations of life and feel heavily weighed down by pressures of daily existence, what is the solution? Well, it’s not to go on a trip to the Middle East. If we are looking for rest we shouldn’t all dash out of the service tonight and book our flights for a two week vacation in Israel. There may be other reasons for visiting Israel but it’s not to find rest from the daily turmoil. No, the way to find rest is to give your life to Jesus.

Secondly, where is the place for Christians to live out their obedience to God’s commandments? Where can Christians live the life that is best for them and show the world that the commandments of God are wise and good? Should we all buy a villa just outside Jerusalem and form a Christian settlement?

No, of course not. But why not? If God has promised his people a piece of territory in the Middle East and we are his people then why not go across and claim our land? Why not catch a flight and plant a flag in the soil? Because, for the Christian, the place of obedience, since the arrival of Jesus, has shifted from a physical land to a dynamic community. The local church is now the place where Christians are to show the world a different way of human interaction.

Let me give you an example of this shift from the book of Deuteronomy. Turn in your bibles to Deuteronomy 15:4. This is how God’s people in the Old Testament were to treat each other in the Promised Land. God says, “there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless.” Now with that thought in mind please turn to Acts 4:32-35. It’s on page 1096 of the church bibles. Now here is a description of what is was like to be a member of a local church just a few months after Jesus returned to heaven: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.  33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.  34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Do you see the shift? In the New Testament the local church has become the place of obedience.

So what about a place to live? What does the New Testament teach us about a physical location for the followers of Jesus to inhabit? Do you remember what Jesus says at the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount? Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Not just a small piece of territory in the Middle East but a region appropriate for the size of God’s new redeemed people. Or what about the hopes of the apostle Peter that we read about in his second letter?

2 Peter 3:13, Peter writes, “in keeping with his [God’s] promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” Or who can forget how the Bible ends? Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” And why does John see a new earth? Quite simply because resurrected people need a place to live.

But here is our final challenge as I prepare to finish. When Jesus Christ appears to bring these events to pass, will you and me join him forever in the promised home for God’s people or will we fail to enter it like the generation of Israelites who were excluded from the Promised Land? The Bible is clear that those God has chosen before the creation of the world and has called to faith by his gospel will never lose their promised inheritance of an eternity spent in the presence of their creator. Genuine Christians are guaranteed to find a home in God’s future world. But here is the vital question. How can we make sure we are genuinely converted? Would you please turn with me to Hebrews 3:12. It’s on page 1203 of the church bibles. And this is what we read. “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” But, wait a minute, why should we even contemplate such a future away from God? Surely such a prospect does not await any of us who are currently trusting in Christ? Hebrews 3:16: “Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?  17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert?  18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed?  19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief. Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 

2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.”

So, are we listening carefully? Do we want to make sure we are genuinely converted? Then let’s make sure we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. And let’s do this by taking every opportunity to hear God’s word, whether it’s here on a Sunday evening or in a small group bible study or on a one-to-one basis with another Christian or simply when we read the Bible for ourselves. Bible teaching is not a useless activity. It is God’s chosen way to keep us persevering until the very end. And if we ever think to ourselves, “It will never happen to us. We will never give up on Christ” then let’s remember the past failures of God’s people. It has happened before. It will happen again. But let’s make sure it never happens to us by listening to the word of God whenever we can and by putting it into practice whenever we have the opportunity. Let’s pray together.

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