Divine intolerance - Deuteronomy 12:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Back in December 2005, one of the main Sunday newspapers ran an article entitled the Politically Correct Awards for 2005. For example some of the nominations included the following: In the most PC use of language category, the Professional Association of Teachers was nominated for its motion to replace “failed” on exam results with “deferred success”. Our very own Hull City Council was nominated for advising its staff to stop calling women “ladies”. And in Edinburgh, the Employment Agency advised all nightclubs no longer to call their doormen “bouncers” but “ejection technicians”. Nominations for best example of political correctness in public service went to Calderdale Hospital in Halifax which banned visitors from cooing at new born babies because babies deserve respect and dignity. But by a long way my personal favourite in the awards was the lady who complained to Asda about the term Thick Irish Sausages because it was offensive to the Irish. The manager reportedly pointed out that the term ‘thick’ referred to the sausages and not the Irish!
Now of course, there is a serious side to all this, which is to guard against unnecessarily offending people, although as we’ve seen it’s often take to bizarre extremes. But to my mind, what is far more worrying is that behind the face of political correctness is the slow unrelenting secularisation of our country. And for Christians that is very worrying indeed. Because if you look below the surface, it is Christianity that is slowly being sidelined and pushed out of the public arena. For example in Devon last summer, Torbay Council decided to remove the crosses from their council run crematorium causing huge upset. And the comments of spokesman for the council were very revealing. He said: “We live in a diverse, multi faith society and many people have no specific beliefs at all. The facility at Torquay Crematorium is a ceremony hall, not a chapel.” Now whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of that decision it does highlight one very important point. That whilst Britain is becoming a pluralistic, multi faith society and has been for some time, yet it is Christianity which is being sidelined. For many people Christianity is just another option in the religious supermarket, and it’s one that has been tried and tested and found wanting. And anyway, all religions lead to ‘god’ eventually, so it really doesn’t matter what you choose so long as you don’t impose those views on anyone else. Hence the removal of crosses from crematoria, Bibles from hospitals and Christ from nativities. And the challenge for the people of God living in this country is how do we react? How do we live as Christians in a secular pluralist country? How do we cope? Because the pressure is on to conform, to throw in the towel, to water down the great truths of the gospel and just to keep the faith to our own personal lives and little church communities. And the temptation is to think that we are the first in the history of the Christian church ever to face this dilemma. That no other Christian has ever lived in such a multi cultural, diverse place such as the world as we know it.
But we’d be wrong, because the Bible was written from a situation where the people of God were in as religiously pressured and culturally diverse society as our own. And I’m not just talking about the New Testament. I’m talking about the Old as well. Because for us this evening, Moses is addressing a generation of God’s people who were about to enter a land which had the same sorts of religious and cultural stresses as our own. And they did it as people like us who were convinced of the unchanging exclusive message of the One True God.
Now there is one significant difference which we need to remember before we launch in, and that is that the people of God today are not a particular racial group living in a particular land. We are not like the people of God then who were Israelites living in Canaan. To them God gave very specific instructions on how to live in the land and what to do about the surrounding nations, instructions which have changed in application for us since the coming of Jesus. But still the principles on what it means to worship God properly apply to us in the 21st century, principles which are timeless and unchanging. And it’s those principles which we’re going to look at tonight which challenge us to the core on what it means to worship and serve the true God in a land where pluralism and secularism are rife. For Moses teaches us that true worship is:
1) Unashamedly Exclusive
2) Unfailingly Devoted
1) Unashamedly Exclusive
So first then we discover that true worship is unashamedly exclusive. In other words, God commands his people to worship Him and Him alone without any shame at all. There can be no room for worshipping God in any other way apart from what he says. And there can be no room for any other deities among the people of God. Now it’s worth clearing one thing up before we look in detail at this point, because there is much misunderstanding about the term worship. What exactly do we mean when we use that term. For many it has come simply to mean singing. So some churches, for example, have worship leaders who lead the music on a Sunday morning. But when the Bible uses the term, and there are a number of different words the Bible uses, the meaning is much broader. In fact, worship doesn’t just happen here on a Sunday. It happens on Monday morning when you’re making coffee at work. It happens in the middle of the night when you’re changing the baby’s nappy. It happens on Saturday evening at the party. Because worship is about the whole of life. It is a total response to God in every part of life. It’s about obedience and service. So yes we worship God together on a Sunday morning, but we also worship God alone as we stand for him at work or college or with friends the rest of the week. So the question is what does that mean in practice? Well Moses outlines for us both negatively and positively what worship which is unashamedly exclusive looks like.
First he outlines what it means negatively. In other words there are certain things that the people of God are to do which are negative. Verses 1-4: “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.” Now remember that the people of God are about to enter the promised land. And in the land there were many different nationalities and different gods and goddesses. The people in the land of Canaan used to worship on the tops of hills because they thought they were closer to their gods. And they’d worship what were known as Asherah poles, which were wooden poles representing fertility goddesses. They would indulge in prostitution because they thought it would be good for the land. And you can imagine the people of Israel saying to themselves as they came across these gods and goddesses: “Well are they really that bad? Surely we can squeeze them into our religious system somehow. Let’s have a policy of live and let live. I mean we’re all worshipping the same thing really aren’t we?” But God responds by telling them to destroy these other gods. God will not stand for such idolatry in the land of his people. He is ruthless in his commands to purge the nation of these false gods. Destroy, break down, smash, burn, cut down, wipe out. It’s very clear. The people of God are to wipe out every trace of other religions in the land.
And to our 21st century sensibilities, it’s all very shocking. It may be that you are quite offended by such ruthless language. But that is simply because we have not understood a number of things about the living God. For one we have not realised that as God says again and again in his word, he is a jealous God. He’s said it in Deuteronomy 4 already. This is a God who brooks no rivals. This is a God who will not allow his glory to be taken by another. For as God says in chapter 4 v 29: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and earth below. There is no other.” Whilst we find it hard to stomach, we need to understand this plain fact. That every other religion or cult or form of worship, no matter how long established or large, every religion other than that which focuses on the God of the Bible is fundamentally false and a human creation. And as such it is an insult to the living God. Yes there may be good things in certain religions like caring for others. But if it is not centred on this God, then it’s fundamentally wrong. Another thing we fail to realise is that God acts in judgement against false religion. He did it through his people in the Old Testament. They were his instrument of bringing judgement on the nations who failed to repent. And one day he will act in final judgement at the end of time. The coming of Jesus has brought in the day of salvation, but that does not mean that judgement has been forgotten. It has simply been largely suspended until Jesus returns. And then he will act fully and finally in judgement again, and sadly in ways far more terrifying than here in Deuteronomy 12. And thirdly the reason we find such passages so painful is because we fail to see how spiritually dangerous such idolatry is. If the people did not take God seriously and wipe out the false gods of Canaan, then it would be a thorn in their flesh and eventually bring them down, leading them away from the living God. Which is precisely what happened. The people didn’t carry out this command properly and they were led astray from God. More on that later. So God says to them as they enter the land. Get rid of all traces of false gods. Because true worship is unashamedly exclusive. God is a jealous God who allows no rivals. And the people were to be no less passionate about the glory of God in all his exclusivity. He is alone is God. So they must purge the land.
But does God say anything positively about true worship? Well yes, because he says to his people that they must worship him in the right way. And in this passage he says the same thing in a number of different ways. Verse 5: “But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go.” Verse 11: “To the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name- there you are to bring everything I command you.” And in verse 13: “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.” You see the people were not allowed to worship God wherever they wanted. They couldn’t just set up an altar willy nilly on a hilltop somewhere, like their pagan neighbours. No, God insisted that there was a proper way to worship him. And that was in the place he would tell them. And eventually that place would be the Temple in Jerusalem. It would be there that Solomon would build the house of God when the land at last had rest from its enemies. And it would be a place where God’s name, his glory, would symbolically be said to dwell. The people were to worship God in his way and in his way. But of course with the coming of Jesus, then no longer do we need physical a Temple to worship the Lord, because Jesus is Immanuel. He is God with us. He is the full revelation of the glory of God. What does John say in his gospel about Jesus: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
You see the simple truth is that as the people were to enter a land full of other religions and gods, they were to be unashamedly exclusive in their worship of God. Not because he was just their pet god for their particular nation. But because he is the living and true God and everything else is idolatry. And that meant negatively opposing all forms of other religions, and it mean worshipping God in the right way in his place. And for us, living three and half millennia on, the lessons are no less challenging. God is still God, but even more significantly he has revealed himself fully and finally in Jesus Christ. And so all that exclusive worship and passion is to be devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ. He demands exclusive rights to worship because he alone is God. It’s not that we are called as Christians to be destructive of other religions. It’s more positively that we are to be unashamed in our proclamation of the exclusive claims of Jesus. And for us living in a multi cultural and slowly secularised country, that is a serious challenge. Because to stand up and say that there is only one way to God and that way is Jesus Christ is to be thought arrogant and offensive, and even nowadays downright dangerous. And it’s a message that even some professing Christians are loathe to proclaim. For example I read this letter recently from a lady involved in a church writing in a Parish Magazine, "Dear editor, I feel very strongly with the members of the PCC who find evangelism unattractive to English people. I would never dream of imposing my beliefs on anyone else just because I feel I have found the right way for me. Surely it is up to each one of us to find their own path."
How often have you heard that opinion? How often have you heard a friend say something like: “Well it doesn’t really matter which religion you follow does it? After all they all reach the top of the mountain? Each to his own, I say. And please don’t impose your views on me.” And the trouble is in this increasingly pluralist age, with many competing religions, and much political correctness pressuring us to conform or tone down our message, then we Christians are beginning to feel ashamed. We cannot bring ourselves to say Jesus is the only way. Our tongues go silent when challenged about the claims of Jesus. We’re in danger of being backed into a corner where we have our little god, Jesus, but we should never impose our views on anyone else. Heaven forbid. But I want to challenge us tonight not to be a church or individuals who shy away from proclaiming wholeheartedly the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. Don’t be ashamed but rejoice in the wonderful truths of the gospel. Don’t bite your tongue or stay quiet. Yes we might get it in the neck, yes we might well suffer, as many brothers and sisters do around the world. But our comfort is secondary to the truth of the gospel. That is infinitely more important. Because the God of the Bible is the true and living God and he has revealed himself fully and finally in Christ. There is only one rescue boat, there is only one mountain and one way up it, there is only one way out of the maze, or whatever other illustrations we care to use. And when professing Christians or anyone else tone down and soften the exclusive nature of the person of Christ through multi faith services, or simply through being ashamed of the glory of Jesus, then it is a deep offence to the holiness and majesty of the true and living God. No. Let us learn this lesson from the people of God as they entered the promised land, that true God centred worship is first of all unashamedly exclusive. For God alone is God and everything else, however sincere, is idolatry.
2) Unfailingly Devoted
But secondly Moses teaches us that true worship is unfailingly devoted. Because worship is not just seen in proclaiming the exclusive God to the surrounding nations. It is also to be seen in our behaviour. And Moses explains to the people that unfailing devotion to God means have nothing before God and surrendering everything to God.
a) Nothing before God- First it means have nothing before God. Now this is really a further outworking of our first point. Because you’ll remember that we said that one of the reasons the people were to purge the land of idols and false gods was the danger of spiritual compromise and idolatry in the people of God. If they didn’t do the job properly, then their failure would come back to haunt them. Which is exactly what happened several centuries later as they were booted out of the land under the judgement of God because of their idolatry. And the underlying assumption all the way through this passage is that nothing must come before God. It’s seen in the first and last verses of our passage. Verse 1: “These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess- as long as you live in the land.” And then the very last phrase of verse 14: “Observe everything I command you.” It’s a common theme all the way Deuteronomy that God expects 100%. He demands unfailing devotion and obedience. He commands first place in our lives. So don’t do verse 8, when it comes to worshipping and serving God, which is everyone doing as he sees fit. No do what God says. The point is: Nothing else should come before God.
Now of course for a people about to enter a land with many different distractions, that was a big ask. But God gave them warning after warning. And the same is true for us. There are plenty of different things that can distract the Christian on his or her journey to the promised land. And even though we might not bow down to worship idols, idolatry is still as big a danger for us as it was for the people of Israel. Just listen to these words of writer Harry Blamires: “We live in what is, in effect, a polytheistic society, with varying degrees of what can only be called idolatry. We give ourselves to the service of money making, career making, power grabbing, food, drink, fashion, entertainment, cars, gambling, sex and so on. …There is a due degree of attention that such things merit. But in fact they are getting excessive attention. As objects of concern they are attracting the kind and degree of human response more proper to the religious sphere. They have become objects of devotion.” Idols you see are those things which attract our devotion and love above the Lord. And it can even come in the form of something good like the family or a sports interest or a relationship. And we must constantly check ourselves to see whether or not these good things are coming in the way of our commitment to God and his people. It’s a question of what comes first, of what is most important. The Lord and his commands, or our idol. Because unfailing devotion to the Lord means having nothing before him.
b) Surrendering everything to God- But it also means surrendering everything to God, which is of course the flip side to having nothing before God. And that’s repeated in a number of places in our passage. Notice that twice Moses commands the people to bring everything to God that he has commanded to the future Temple. Nothing is to be held back in their devotion to God. Verse 6: “There bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.” And it’s even clearer in verse 11: “There you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the LORD.” Once again the challenge is unfailing devotion to God. Everything that God has commanded is to be brought to him. The people of God were commanded to give of their very best to God. And if we were to dig around in the background to some of those sacrifices, we’d discover that these were very costly. God did not expect his people to bring him the fag ends of their devotion. Perhaps a half eaten goat or a rotten pigeon. No he wanted the best. He wanted his people joyfully to give him everything he commanded. And the wonderful thing is that when we do that, then we are truly blessed. So often the temptation is to think that we need to hold something back from God because we’re scared of what will happen if we give him everything. Maybe you are not yet a Christian because you fear what commitment will involve. Maybe you have a son or daughter that you are not willing to entrust to God’s service, because you fear the Lord might take them far away. Maybe a work situation or some deep fear which you cannot bring to him for fear of where it will lead. Well the wonderful thing is when we surrender everything to him, our talents, our hopes, our fears, our regrets, even our lives, then we find there is true joy and blessing. And we will not find true lasting satisfaction until we have done so. Because true worship is about being unfailingly devoted to God- it means having nothing before God and surrendering everything to him.
So as we finish, let me tell you about one young woman who took both lessons this evening to heart. A woman who knew what true worship meant in her secular pluralistic land, that she should stand for the exclusive truth about God and that she should be unfailingly devoted to him. Now my hesitation in telling you this story is that we could easily write it off as an extreme example. But we shouldn’t because despite what this young woman became tragically famous for, she was an ordinary 17 year old who was simply passionate about serving God, and a girl who put her money where her mouth was, spiritually speaking. Rachel Scott was a girl who grew up in an ordinary American town and who loved the Lord. She was clearly a young woman who was passionate about her Saviour. She once wrote to her cousin: “If you had to make a list of the top 5 things most important to you, what would you put? Here’s mine: 1) God 2) Family 3) Friends 4) My future 5) Myself.” Now Rachel was no stranger to suffering. She wrote in her journal. “I am not going to apologise for speaking the name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put me into. If I have to sacrifice everything….. I will. I will take it. If my friends have to become my enemies for me to be with my best friend Jesus, then that’s fine with me.” Just words, just youthful exuberance. No. Because a short while later Rachel would become one of the fifteen victims in the tragic massacre at Columbine High School on the 20th April 1999. And as her attacker paused before killing her, he asked her the question. “Do you believe in God?” And she answered, “You know I do.”
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