History isn't bunk - Deuteronomy 3:18-29

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 7th May 2006.

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The learning of history is a dying art. At least that’s the conclusion you’d come to if you were to examine teenagers’ GSCE history papers. For example, one candidate wrote: “Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock. After his death, his career suffered a dramatic decline.” Let’s move on a few years: “The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespeare. He was born in the year 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and is famous only because of his plays. He wrote tragedies, comedies, and hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter. Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet.” And sadly the students’ understanding of Biblical history is just as poor: “Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients. Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.”

            Well it’s pretty desperate stuff isn’t it, but joking aside, the study of history and our present generation’s lack of concern for the past troubles many. David McCullough is one of the most well known historians in America with a number of Pulitzer prizes for his work. In a recent lecture he said of his own country, “We are raising a generation of children who are historically illiterate, and it’s got to stop. It’s serious and it’s real! In fact it’s down right dangerous!” And why is it so dangerous? Because not only do we miss out on finding out our roots and past and understanding who we are and how we got here, but also because human beings have a nasty tendency to repeat the errors of the past. So a greater understanding of the past is a safeguard against repeating the errors of the past. The trouble is the past is not trendy. In our fast moving, live for the present world, such looking back to the past is perceived as old fashioned, fuddy duddy, boring. Of course it’s not a new feeling. Henry Ford was the founder of Ford cars and was one of the most successful business men of the twentieth century. And it was he who said in 1916: “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth [anything] is the history we make today.”

            Now when we come to the Bible we find that such an attitude towards history is simply not allowed. In fact if you want to be an authentic God glorifying Christian, then you have got to be interested in history, or at least the history that God teaches us. Because the Bible constantly reminds us to look back to the events of the past and to live in the present in the light of those past events. That’s actually what remembering in the Bible is all about and it’s easy to misunderstand this. To our mind to remember something simply means to bring it to mind. If you’ve lost your keys, you need a memory jogger to remind you where they are. And we might mistakenly think that when the Bible says remember this or that, it simply means recall to mind. But actually remembering in the Bible is much more dynamic than that. Remembering means recalling what God did in the past and then acting in the present in the light of that past action. Take our Communion services for example. Jesus says that they are remembrance meals. But he doesn’t just mean jog your memory on what Jesus has done, as if we would forget. Rather he means remember what I have done for you and continue in the present trusting what was achieved for you in the past. Live in the present in the light of the past event. It’s not so likely that we forget the cross, or let it slip our mind, although we are very sinful, and so we do sometimes. We are though much more likely to stop trusting the cross, and begin to trust ourselves. That’s why we need that remembrance meal to help us to keep trusting that past event in the present battle. It’s like a wedding anniversary. Ours is the 21st August, and I need to keep remembering that date! Why? Because I’ll forget? Well possibly. But more importantly as I look back to that historical event when I made those promises, then I am reminded that I need to live differently in the present in the light of that past event. I must continue to love my wife sacrificially and not spend all my time with other women! Recalling the past helps me to live faithfully in the present.

            And that is why the book of Deuteronomy is so important for you and me today. Because the book of Deuteronomy is a long sermon telling us to look back to the past and to live in the present and the future in the light of those past events. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the people of Israel are on the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan. They are about to go in and take the land. Now they should have done that forty years before. But they had refused to trust God when he told them to take the land. They got scared of the larger inhabitants of the land of Canaan, and they refused to believe that God could give them victory. And the punishment? The people of Israel were destined to wander around the desert for forty years until every one of that rebellious generation apart from two had died off. And now forty years later they are in the same position, standing on the verge of the promised land. And the big question is this: Will this new generation make the same mistake as the old and refuse to trust God? Or will they believe God and his promises. And in order to help them do the latter, Moses, their leader for the past forty years, reminds them in a long speech of all that God did for them and said to them. And his challenge is simple. Remember what God has done for you and said to you. Remember, and live your lives in the light of those past events and words. For what God did and said then is as important to you now as it was to the first generation. And in our passage, the end of chapter 3, Moses comes to the end of a series of flashbacks. He’s been outlining in the past three chapters all that has happened in the last forty years and more recently. And his challenge? Live in the present and the future in the light of the past events and words of God. Because when it comes to the past deeds and words of God, history isn’t bunk. It’s gold! And for us living the other side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, then Biblical history is vital to go back to again and again. Because as Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 10, these Israelites are our spiritual forefathers. And we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes as them. “These things happened to them, says Paul, as examples, and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10 v 11). So what can we learn from this ancient text, living as we do some three and a half millennia later. Well three things:

1) Past Solidarity Encourages Future Commitment (Vv 18-20)

2) Past Grace Encourages Future Trust (Vv 21-22)

3) Past Failures Encourage Future Faithfulness (Vv 23-29)

1) Past Solidarity Encourages Future Commitment (Vv 18-20)

So the first lesson that we learn, then, is that past solidarity encourages future commitment. And we learn this in verses 18-20. Now in order to understand these verses, we need to recap a little about the recent history of the people of Israel. Their two most recent battles had been with Sihon King of Heshbon and Og King of  Bashan, and the Israelites had defeated them both and taken their land. Strangely you don’t find many Christian parents calling their children Og, but I think it’s a great name, and will be lobbying for that for my first son. Now the land of Sihon and Og was outside the promised land. It was the wrong side of the River Jordan which they were about to cross. But some of the Israelites, namely the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, really wanted this land for their territory. It was ideal grazing land for their cattle. All twelve tribes of Israel had been promised a portion of the promised land by God when they had conquered it, but these two and a half wanted this land instead. And eventually after some debate, which you can read all about in Numbers 32, Moses agreed. These two and a half tribes, Gad, Reuben and Manasseh would receive this land which strictly speaking was outside the promised land. But this decision by Moses came with a qualification attached.

            And that’s what Moses reminds the people of here in verses 18-20. So let’s look at those verses together: “I, Moses, commanded you at that time: ‘The Lord your God has given you this land to take possession of it. But all your able-bodied men, armed for battle, must cross over ahead of your brother Israelites. However, your wives, your children and your livestock (I know you have much livestock) may stay in the towns I have given you, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they too have taken over the land that the Lord your God is giving them, across the Jordan. After that, each of you may go back to the possession I have given you.’” So Moses reminds these two and a half tribes of the agreement they came to in Numbers 32. And what is that agreement? That although two and a half tribes of God’s people have now got their part of the land, yet they still have a responsibility to the rest of God’s people. They must go across the Jordan with the rest of God’s people and help conquer the land with their brothers and sisters. Verse 18: “The Lord your God has given you this land to take possession of it. But all your able-bodied men, armed for battle, must cross over ahead of your brother Israelites.” The fact that they are now settled should not mean that they now sit back and relax. No, all twelve tribes are God’s people and all twelve will stop fighting and enjoy the land when all the land has been conquered.

            You see the point is, this people have a collective responsibility for one another. Just because some of them have their land does not mean they should adopt an “I’m alright Jack” type of attitude. You can imagine that that must have been a temptation. After all it had been a long journey. Forty years in the desert. Their parents had died off and now all this generation would have wanted was to settle down. A week in a tent at Keswick is bad enough, but can you imagine forty years? But the job was only half done. And their past solidarity as God’s people, their past collective wanderings and togetherness, meant a future commitment to their brothers and sisters despite their own personal circumstances. And notice too that this land they received was not theirs by rights anyway. It was God’s to give. Verse 18: “The Lord your God has given you this land…” And again in verse 20 they are to fight together as a whole “until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has you.” This land is a gift of God and it’s he that calls the shots. And he reminds the people of their collective responsibility and their commitment to one another. They must consider what is good for all and not just their own personal interests.

            Now the apostle Paul says that the history of Israel is full of lessons and warnings for us, so how do these verses apply to us. Well this collective solidarity and commitment of God’s people to one another is a big challenge to us as God’s people in the 21st century. Because we live in a society which prizes individuality above all things. Look out for Number 1 we’re told. Do what you want. Don’t be saddled to other people’s expectations and demands on you. The temptation is to live in our own little worlds with very little concern for what is going on outside those worlds. And it infects Christian thinking as well. So we come to the church gathering keen to get something out of it, and if not we go away disappointed. We’ve become consumers in the religious realm as much as any other. But God’s people are called to be counter cultural in this area as in every area. That is God’s people are God’s children saved by grace who are to be committed to God and to one another. Our past solidarity in Christ is a spur to be committed to one another in the future. We are commanded to think collectively rather than simply as individuals. If someone in the congregation is in pain, then we feel it. If someone is rejoicing then we rejoice with them. The “I’m alright Jack” approach to the church is just plain ungodly. Being a Christian involves commitment to one another. And the glorious truth is that God has given us one another because we need each other.  

            One of my favourite animals is the Emperor penguin. Emperor penguins live in the Antarctic and the temperature there gets as low as -40 degrees Celsius, and for much of the year the sun doesn’t shine. So how do Emperor penguins survive? Well what they do is very clever. During the dark season, which lasts for several months, they all stand in a huge circle close together. The penguins on the edge of the circle get very cold, so they keep moving round, so when you have done your stint on the outer ring, you move to the warmth of the inner circle. And they do this for months on end, living off their fat reserves until the sun shines again. Now imagine if you were a rather rebellious Emperor penguin and didn’t want to spend time with these other penguins. So you came and went as you pleased and decided to try and make it through the winter on your own. The trouble is of course you would eventually die without the support and warmth of the other penguins. And it’s the same for the Christian. We need the encouragement of one another to keep going. We need to be devoted to one another, not just on Sundays but all the week round. Now of course we cannot be equally devoted to everyone all the time. But how about those in our Homegroups, or student cell groups. Those in Tuesday group or Mark 2. Are you willing to lay aside your personal comfort for the sake of a brother or sister in need. The phone call when in need, the visit when it’s not convenient for you, the making of food, the lending of possessions, the gift of time. There are a million different ways to show love and care. Yes involvement is costly, but that’s what we’re called to. We’re a family. And the attitude which says it’s not my problem, is simply not Christian. Isolated Christian lone rangers are a contradiction in terms. No, we need to heed this challenge and adopt the same attitude as the people of God in Moses’ day. Because they saw that until the battle is over, none of them will rest. Each will lay aside his own personal comfort for the sake of a brother in need. Would you do the same? Well if you claim the name Christian, then you have no choice. It is your duty. Because our past solidarity in Christ encourages future commitment.

2) Past Grace Encourages Future Trust (Vv 21-22)

But then the second lesson we learn is that past grace encourages future trust. And we learn that from Moses’ next historical flashback. And this time he recalls what he said to his successor Joshua in verses 21-22: “At that time I commanded Joshua: ‘You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD your God has done to these two kings. The LORD will do the same to all the kingdoms over there where you are going. Do not be afraid of them; the LORD your God himself will fight for you.’”

Now Joshua had been one of the original spies who’d been sent by Moses forty years before to check out the promised land. And he and his colleagues had come back to the people with the report that the land was good. It was a great place, although it was presently inhabited by powerful people. And when the people refused to trust God and take possession of the land forty years before it was Joshua and his friend Caleb who alone tried to persuade the people to not be so foolish. It was Joshua who pleaded with the people by saying in Numbers 14: “Do not be afraid of the people of the land because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid!” But they refused to listen. And so God condemned that whole generation to die in the desert. Their places in the land would be taken by their children. And the only two to survive that divine curse? Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted the Lord. Not even Moses would make it as we will see in a moment. And it’s Joshua who is given the task of being Moses’ successor. He’ll be the one to lead the people into the Promised Land. And it’s this that Moses is reminding the people of in verses 21-22.

            And notice how it is that Moses motivates Joshua as he is about to go into the promised land. “You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD your God has done to these two kings. The LORD will do the same to all the kingdoms over there where you are going. Do not be afraid of them; the LORD your God himself will fight for you.” In other words past grace encourages future trust. “Joshua, you’ve seen all that God has done in the past. You saw how God dealt with Og and Sihon. He wiped them off the face of the earth. Don’t be worried about any of the enemies you will face in the land. God will do the same.” Moses encourages Joshua by reminding him of God’s past actions and grace. And if Moses were to go further back in Israel’s history, as he does sometimes in Deuteronomy, he’d be able to remind Joshua of the great Exodus. How God brought out his people from slavery in Egypt and saved them from the mighty Egyptian army. If God did that in the past, then he can be trusted to do it again. And then God sustained his people in the desert for forty years. If he did it in the past, then he can be trusted to do it again. Because God is totally trustworthy. His character and promises are sure. What he has said he will do, he will do. So Joshua, “Don’t be afraid. The Lord himself will fight for you.”

            Now again let’s consider how this might apply to us. For these things have been written for our instruction and encouragement. And wonderfully this lesson applies to us too. That God’s grace to us in the past encourages future trust. Because the Exodus and the Conquest of the promised land was not the last time God would act on behalf of his people. In fact these things were child’s play compared to what lay in the future. Because when Jesus Christ came and took on human flesh, when the living God became a man and died on that cross, then God performed an exodus of far more profound significance. Because on that cross he released us not from the slavery of human masters, but from spiritual slavery to sin and death, which is far more serious. The God who acted to glorify his name and defend his people acted fully and finally when his Son died on the cross. And if ever there was an event to give us absolute confidence in God’s totally trustworthy and unchanging character it is the cross of Christ. If ever there was a past event to encourage future trust it is the cross. For when you know someone’s character and see them act, then such past actions give you confidence as to how they will act in the future.

            Let me tell you about Yuri Gagarin. Yuri Gagarin is famous as the first man to fly in space. After the end of the Cold War some of Russia’s cosmonauts revealed the pressures under which he operated. Gagarin’s rocket ship was armed with an explosive charge which could be detonated by a radio signal. The Russian’s wanted to ensure Gagarin wouldn’t defect by re entering the earth’s atmosphere anywhere but over Soviet territory. So the explosives were rigged. The charges could only be disarmed and the rocket’s re-entry system activated by entering a six digit code into the onboard system. Gagarin was given the first three numbers. The last three were to be transmitted to him just before re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere. But where the Soviet government didn’t trust it’s cosmonauts, the head of their space program, Chief Designer Korolev did. Just before the rocket was launched Korolev pulled Gagarin aside and told him the last three numbers. Korolev trusted Gagarin, a trust for which he was prepared to lay his job and his future on the line by whispering those secret numbers. He knew how Gagarin would respond, how he was trustworthy. And Gagarin didn’t let him down.

            You see when you know what someone is like, you know they can be trusted. Well how much more our God. So no surprise that Moses said to Joshua, “Don’t be afraid”. Do you know what the most frequently spoken command in the Bible is? Perhaps love the Lord your God? Maybe read the Bible? It is don’t be afraid. What does that tell us? For one that human beings are very prone to being afraid. And also that God is perfectly capable of looking after us. We have absolutely no reason to be afraid. Do you sometimes fear what lies ahead? Perhaps you’re worried about a new job or not getting a job. Maybe you’re worried about your family. Maybe your health is troubling you. Maybe there is a nagging doubt that God will ditch you. You’ll sin just once too often. But the wonderful lesson we can learn from Moses is that God is faithful and his past actions mean we can trust him for the future. God will not leave us in the lurch. If he’s done the hardest thing in allowing his Son to die for us and to forgive us our sin, do you not think he’ll do the easier thing of keeping us to the end. God is trustworthy because he’s proved it again and again. And it means Paul can write: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Why? Because past grace encourages future trust.

3) Past Failures Encourage Future Faithfulness (Vv 23-29)

But then the final lesson we discover is that past failures encourage future faithfulness. And we might find this section the most shocking of all. Because here Moses is pleading to be let into the Promised Land. Verse 23: “At that time I pleaded with the Lord: ‘O Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.’” Surely we say, if anyone deserved to be let into the Promised Land, it was Moses. After all he’d been through, after all the hassle he’d received from the people for forty years. He should be given a medal shouldn’t he? But the problem is that the land is a gift. No-one deserves it. And Moses too is just as sinful and rebellious as the people are. So listen to these words from Numbers 20. There the people complain about having no water. And so God tells Moses to speak to the rock, but in his anger Moses strikes the rock with his staff. Water gushes out, but God says to Moses: “Because you did not trust me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I will give them.” Moses too is as rebellious as the people he leads. No-one deserves the land, not even Moses. So what do we read in verse 26: “But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. ‘That is enough,’ the Lord said. ‘Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.’” It’ll be Joshua who will lead the people in. Moses will merely look at it from a distance. And whilst Moses is quick to blame the people for his own sin, yet it becomes clear later in Deuteronomy that Moses must also bear the responsibility for his own sin.

            You see in many ways Moses stands as a representative of the people. His own story tells the people’s story. It tells of God’s grace in rescuing him from oblivion after he’d murdered an Egyptian. It tells of God’s sustaining power of him throughout the wilderness years. But it also tells us of God’s judgement on sin. And one of the reasons Moses spoke all these words in Deuteronomy was to remind the people of their past sins of their forefathers, and to urge not to make the same mistake twice. Don’t let sin’s deceitfulness harden your hearts so much that you fail to trust the Lord who can give you the land. And Moses himself is an example, however much it pains us to read it, of a man who whilst wonderfully gifted, was ultimately flawed. He too sat under the judgement of God and needed the grace of God to sustain him.

            And once again it’s a lesson for us. These things were written as warnings to us on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. We too need to take the warnings seriously not to make the same mistakes as our spiritual forefathers. To fail to trust the Lord of grace and mercy. Because if these people who saw amazing things like the parting of the Red Sea can fail God, then are we not as much in danger, unless we heed the warnings. But you know there is one big difference between Moses and us. Because as Moses in some way died as a representative of the people, yet we know One who has died as our substitute. One who was innocent of crime died in our place to forgive us and wash us clean so that we might one day enter God’s promised Rest that we so look forward to. For on the cross, God’s judgement for sin, and God’s saving grace to mankind came together. And as we see our past failures hammered to that cross, surely that is the greatest incentive of all to press on and not let sin entangle us as we strive towards the promised land. For you see history isn’t bunk. It’s vital for our spiritual health. And we need to heed the warnings of history. For past solidarity encourages future commitment. Past grace encourages future trust. And past failures encourage future faithfulness.

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