The compassionate society - Deuteronomy 15:1-18

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 16th July 2006.

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In some areas of the United States we could visit what is called a drive-in church. Yes, you did hear me correctly, not a drive-in McDonalds but a drive-in church. Services are held in what used to be drive-in movie theatres but which have since been converted to suit the tastes of Christian individualism gone mad. This is what a typical service looks like. Worshippers drive up in their cars, they find a place to park and then they sit back to enjoy the religious experience. They don’t leave their car, they simply tune into the service using a prearranged frequency on their radio. They sing the songs, they can roll up their windows if the person in the car next to them is out of tune, they pray the prayers, they listen to the sermon and then, afterwards, they go home challenged and encouraged but without the hassle of having to talk to anyone along the way.

I hope we recoil in horror at such an idea. I’m sure you do. It is a grotesque example of selfish individualism and it flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches us about how Christians are to interact. But here is our challenge for this evening. Drive-in churches are certainly an extreme example of Consumer Christianity but how many of us think about church in exactly the same way? We may leave our vehicles in the car park but how many of us still come through the doors at the back with a mindset, which says, “I’m here to receive, I’m not here to give”? “Keep your distance. I want to be left on my own.” Unless we tackle it, the individualism of our culture will destroy authentic Christian community. And so, therefore, it is a great joy to be focusing tonight on Deuteronomy chapter 15.

Did you notice when I read these verses earlier how many references there are to fellow members of God’s people? Let me show you what I mean. Verse 2. This is how debts were to be cancelled in ancient Israel, “Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother.”

Or verse 3. “You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you.” Or verse 7. “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will towards your needy brother and give him nothing.” And then, lastly, verse 11, when Moses says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in the land.”

The repetition is there to make a point. It is supposed to remind us that when you are a member of God’s people you have a responsibility to look after your fellow believers. We are not to keep ourselves to ourselves but we are to share life together. We are to rub shoulders with each other. We are to cry with each other, hope with each other, laugh with each other and, according to Deuteronomy 15, we are even to provide for each other when times are tough. I occasionally meet people who say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. I can be a Christian in the privacy of my own home.” What utter nonsense! Of course it is true that being a Christian is a deeply personal experience. As a Christian, I know God for myself and I know he has forgiven all my sins. But here is the issue: When we give our lives to King Jesus we also take on responsibilities towards the King’s people. Christianity is not a private faith! It has massive implications for how we interact with other people. And tonight I want to focus on one of those implications, our generosity towards other Christians.

I think generosity is the big idea in the first 11 verses of Deuteronomy 15. God is passionately concerned that when his people finally move into their new homes in the Promised Land they will remain generous towards each other. God is no fool.

He anticipates the difficulties ahead and so with great wisdom he commands his people to be extravagant in two particular ways.

First of all, he commands them to be generous in what they give up. Verse 1. “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed.”

I’m sure most of us have heard of the Make Poverty History Campaign. It was launched in January 2005 and was planned to coincide with a meeting of the G8 leaders at Gleneagles in Scotland. At the time many people were very optimistic about the possibilities for change. And no doubt you will remember the passionate speeches from the likes of Bob Geldof, which were written to encourage the world’s richest countries to drop the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries. But have you ever wondered where such an idea came from? Make Poverty History may be a 21st century phrase but the original idea belongs to the God of Israel, who commanded his people to drop the debt of their fellow believers every seven years. Everything was to be wiped clean. The accounts were to be started again. It was to be a fresh start for anyone who found themselves in financial difficulty.

Now if we know anything about the God of Israel we should not be surprised that he commanded such a practice. Here is a law which perfectly reflects God’s character. Remember he is the generous God. He is the God of the fresh start. He is the God of the new beginning. And, let’s not forget, he is also the God who wants to restore the whole person.

He is the God who cares not just for the spiritual but also for the physical. And here is a command designed to do just that, to release people from the crushing spiral of uncontrollable debt. Or at least God’s people were to be released from this heavy burden. Because, in verse 3, Moses tells the people, “You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you.” So a distinction was to be made between fellow Israelites and those who were not part of God’s chosen people. Now it seems that a generous Israelite would also cancel the debt of a foreigner, that was completely up to them. But they had no choice what to do when the debt was owed by a fellow brother or sister. As members of the King’s community they had to obey the King’s commands. And every seven years he would command his people to make poverty history.

Or at least that’s what he would need to do if his people disobeyed his other commandments. Did you feel the impact of verse 4? “However, there should be no poor among you.” Why? “For in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.” So if everything went according to plan there would be no need for the cancellation of debts. No one would be borrowing. Everyone would be enjoying the prosperity of the land. The only condition was obedience to the LORD’s commandments. Or let me put it like this: If there were poor people in the land of Israel it was not God’s fault. Don’t you find that people are very quick to blame God for everything? Taking responsibility for our actions is becoming less and less common. And yet Deuteronomy chapter 15 is clear. If the people will not obey the LORD, he will not bless the land. And if he will not bless the land, the Big Issue will need to be sold.

And when this happens God’s people need to be generous in what they give away. Verse 7. “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother.  8 Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs.” I love the picture-language of these verses, don’t you? The people were not to be tight-fisted, clinging onto their cash to ensure none of it was given away. But they were to be open-handed; they were to be generous with the financial resources in their possession. If they saw a fellow Israelite struggling to cope with the pressures of life they were obligated, as a community member, not just to offer them a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on, but to give them an interest-free loan to help them through the difficulties.

And this was to be a responsibility no matter how close the people were to the year of cancellation. So I’m sure we can all imagine the scene. It’s year 6 and one day you arrive home from work to discover your next-door neighbour has lost his job at the local farm. He has a wife and 7 children to support and, to be honest, the future looks bleak. So what do you do? You are a generous person. You know what God has done for you and so, therefore, in your daily life you are trying to imitate the character of God. So you reach for your wallet and are just about to walk through the front door when you suddenly remember this is year 6. Next year will be the year of cancellation and so if you lend money now you will not get it back. So what should you do? Verse 9. “Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.” Why? Because God’s people had a responsibility to care for each other. And it’s the same today. That’s what we signed up to when we became a Christian. Not just a guaranteed place in heaven when we die but committed membership of a local fellowship of believers.

God expects every single Christian to be a member of a local church. And he commands that every single local church is made up of Christians who are generous helpers of one another. When we give our lives to the King we also take on responsibilities towards the King’s people. And God tells us very clearly that when we fail to look after each other we are guilty of sinning against him. It’s deeply serious, isn’t it? And it’s a million miles away from much of the selfish individualism that pervades many British churches today.

God wants us to be generous to each other. And when we are, we can be sure God will be generous to us. Verse 10. Moses says, “Give generously to him [your brother in need] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land.” Unfortunately, that will be reality. But based on everything I have told you about your responsibilities towards each other and my commitment to you “I command you to be open-hearted towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.”

The command was crystal clear. If you were a member of the Old Testament people of God and if you were living in the land of Israel you could not misunderstand what God required of you. But here is my question as we finish tonight: How are we supposed to apply this command at the beginning of the 21st Century? It’s vital to remember we are not members of the Old Testament people of God and we do not live together in a piece of territory in the Middle East. So what relevance do these commands in Deuteronomy 15 have for us today? Well, let me show you how the early church put these words into practice. It would be a great help if you would turn in your bibles to Acts chapter 4. You’ll find it on page 1096 and let me start reading from verse 32. Here is a description of what the first Christians were like.

Verse 32. “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.”

Now this was not Communism. The early believers still continued to own private property. They didn’t hand over everything they possessed to a local cult leader who kept everything in his personal garage. No, “from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them” and “brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet.” This was not Communism, this was Christian generosity. All the believers knew they belonged together. They believed in the same King and now, by faith, they belonged to the same family. And so therefore “no-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” They still held on to them as private property but, after they became Christians, they viewed them as potential resources to help everyone else in the local fellowship. The early church were committed to each other in practical ways. And because this is how they interacted with each other we are told, in verse 34, “there were no needy persons among them.” It is an amazing statement to read, isn’t it? As a result of their overwhelming generosity the early church saw the fulfilment of Deuteronomy 15:4.

And let’s not think this is an isolated example. Again and again in the New Testament we read about the practical care Christians showed to each other in their community. Have a look at Acts 6:1. It’s just over the page in your bibles.

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.  3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” So it was not right for the Bible teachers of the early church to be distracted from their main task of teaching the word of God to the people of God and praying to God for them. But also, if you notice, it was not right for the practical distribution of food to be stopped either. Both ministries were vital for the church to do. The only question was, “Who were the right people to do them?”

Or take this example from James 2:15. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

Or listen to what the apostle John says in 1 John 3:16. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.  17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

We are to be a community of people who support each other practically. Our God is in the business of saving the whole person. So when Jesus arrived at his hometown of Nazareth and declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” he was talking about the salvation of the whole person. So, yes fundamentally, Jesus does offer us release from the debt of sin that we have accumulated throughout our life but he also wants us to function together as a community of forgiven sinners to help each other be released from many of the practical burdens we carry with us. It a vision of the local church which almost brings tears to my eyes. And I’m very thankful that I belong to a church where I see evidence of this behaviour all around me. But, nevertheless, I want to finish tonight by suggesting two ways that will help us to see this happen even more.

First of all, we all need to join a small group. If all we do is come to one service on a Sunday then our experience of church will be deficient. In a church of this size we all need to be members of a smaller group who are committed to each other. Now this may be a home-group or it may be the Tuesday group, or Wednesday at 10 or Mark II if you are between 14 and 18. Although I would say that for most people belonging to a home group should be the normal experience. Now, of course, if you are still in the process of exploring more about Christianity then this does not apply to you – well, at least not yet! But if we see this as our church then we need to join a small group. If we want to be practically cared for and if we want to care for other people, which is what Jesus commands of his people, then we need to rub shoulders with them, we need to know who they are and we need to know what is going on in their lives. And in a big church, this only becomes possible when the larger congregation also meets in smaller groups.

I’m sure most of us remember the American TV series Cheers that was broadcast a number of years ago. It was all about a mixed group of people, from the city of Boston, who used to meet each other frequently in a local bar. Now for many people the theme tune is something that resonates deeply with their experience. “Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same, you wanna be where everybody knows your name.” It is the desire of the human heart, isn’t it? We long for such a place. In fact, we need such a place. A community that will care for us, a community that will value us and a community that will miss us when we are not there. Where do we find such a place? Well, in a church of this size only in small groups. So if you are not a member of a small group then can I encourage you to speak to either myself or Nathan at some point during the summer, perhaps even tonight, and we will make sure that from September onwards you are part of a regular home-group. It is vital that we join a small group.

But, secondly, it is also vital that our small groups function properly. Home-groups are not bible study groups. They certainly do study the bible together but home-groups have a much bigger function than this. We need to see them as the primarily place where we can care for other Christians and be cared for ourselves - and that includes both our spiritual and practical needs. It is impossible for one individual to care for everyone’s needs in this congregation tonight. Just look around you. How could you possibly look out for everyone in this building? It’s impossible! And so therefore if this is the only church meeting you come to during the week then it is probably true that you feel unloved by this church. But don’t blame us! The way to be supported is to join a small group.

And for those of us who are members of small groups, how seriously do we take our responsibilities in them? Do we know everyone’s name? Do we talk to them outside the small group meeting? Do we make a special effort to speak to them on Sundays? Do we ring them up during the week to see how they are? Do we even have their telephone number? Do we visit them if they are ill? Are we prepared to help them financially? The list could go on and on. But I’m sure we see the point by now. We are to be a community of people who are committed to each other in practical ways.

So as we finish let’s thank God for what we already experience in this church and let’s ask him to make our small groups even better at what they already do. Let’s pray.

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