Deuteronomy 9:15-24 – The Dark Underbelly of Sin

“Golden Calf” by John Bradford

Moses continued: “So, while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves. How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow! So, I took the stone tablets and threw them to the ground, smashing them before your eyes.

“Then, as before, I threw myself down before the Lord for forty days and nights. I ate no bread and drank no water because of the great sin you had committed by doing what the Lord hated, provoking him to anger. I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again, he listened to me. The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he wanted to destroy him, too. But I prayed for Aaron, and the Lord spared him. I took your sin—the calf you had made—and I melted it down in the fire and ground it into fine dust. Then I threw the dust into the stream that flows down the mountain.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you. (New Living Translation)

I’m really glad there was no social media back in the day when the Israelites made the golden calf idol. Most people tend to post flattering pictures of happy families and wonderful experiences. Somehow, methinks the ancient Israelites would have tried to make the whole thing at Mount Sinai look like some party we would envy going to.

But there’s always a dark underbelly to all the glitter and photoshopped pics. And God sees and knows it all.

God is full of grace, steadfast love, and covenant commitment. Yet, this does not mean that God is okay with disobedience and people doing whatever the heck they want to do. The Lord has anything but a shoulder-shrugging “meh” attitude toward hedonism. 

In fact, grace only exists because of sin. Where there is boundless grace and compassion there will be found bucket loads of self-absorbed behavior. And, oh my, was there a load of it among the ancient Israelites! They were characterized as stubborn, rebellious, and idolatrous. It’s the kind of stuff that evokes the ire of God.

Genuinely godly people share God’s heart and interests. That is, what upsets God, upsets them; and what makes God pleased, makes them pleased. Moses was in sync with God. So, he was visibly angered by the people’s idolatry. Moses confronted the people with going far astray from the Lord. And, what’s more, Moses showed that his heart reflects God’s heart by immediately engaging in an extended time of fasting and prayer on their behalf – forty days and forty nights.

Lackadaisical attitudes and approaches toward God are a dime-a-dozen with many so called believers. There is little to no sustained, prolonged, and focused times of prayer and fasting among both individuals and groups of people. Many folks are simply too busy indulging in revelry with their idols of money, sex, power, and perfectionist control. 

Until we are cut to the heart with this present darkness of empty souls and vacuous spirits, which run to everything and everyone but God, there will be no entering the Promised Land of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 

The dark underbelly of sin needs to be turned over so that it can be exposed to the purifying light of God’s glory. The worms of guilt must be unearthed, spread before the heat of the Son, and destroyed. The heavy load of shame needs to be jettisoned and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath.

The glory of the Lord is almost upon us, and the season of Lent is nearly here. So, let us make a solid spiritual plan for the forty days leading up to Easter for prayer and fasting on behalf of our own wrongdoing and shortcomings, as well as for the sin of the world.

Holy God, idolatry brings about your wrath because you cannot stand the lack of love in the world. I bow before you and bend the knee to your sovereign reign in my life. Please lead me in your way of righteousness and have mercy on those trapped in darkness so that we might see you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:6-14 – Remember and Learn

Moses and the Masks by Israel Tsvaygenbaum, 2002

So, understand this: It’s not because you’ve been living right that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess. You are impossible to deal with!

Never forget how you made the Lord your God angry in the desert. You’ve rebelled against the Lord from the day you left Egypt until you came here. Even at Mount Horeb you made the Lord so angry that he wanted to destroy you. When I went up on the mountain to get the stone tablets, the tablets of the promise that the Lord made to you, I stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. Then the Lord gave me the two stone tablets inscribed by God himself. On them were written all the words that the Lord spoke to you from the fire on the mountain on the day of the assembly.

At the end of the 40 days and 40 nights, the Lord gave me the two stone tablets with his promise on them. He told me, “Leave right away. Your people whom you brought out of Egypt have ruined everything. They’ve quickly turned from the way I commanded them to live. They’ve made an idol for themselves.”

The Lord also said to me, “I’ve seen these people, and they are impossible to deal with. Leave me alone! I’ll destroy them and wipe their name off the earth. Then I’ll make you into a nation larger and stronger than they are.” (God’s Word Translation)

Significant things happen on mountains in the Bible. In the anticipation of Transfiguration Sunday, in which Christ’s glory is revealed on a mountain top, today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us of a great mountain event. And it was not all bunnies and butterflies. 

The book of Deuteronomy is a restatement of the Law. Moses recalled and recounted an oral history of Israel. They were about to enter the Promised Land, and Moses wanted the people to remember and never forget God’s saving actions and God’s Law. 

Forty years earlier, God graciously met with Moses on the mountain and gave him the Ten Words (Ten Commandments). However, the ugly truth was that, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people became impatient, insolent, and rebellious. They degenerated into a chaotic mass riot who quickly worshiped an idol. Definitely not Israel’s best moment.

In restating Israel’s Law and history, Moses wanted the people to remember the Mount Sinai event in all of its foulness and degradation. It was important for them to not forget how stubborn and pig-headed their parents and grandparents were in running from the one true God to a false god. The people needed to avoid the sins of the previous generation so that they could enjoy God and thrive in the new land being given to them.

It does no one any good to whitewash the past or to altogether ignore it. 

Whether it is one’s personal past, a previous generation, or even a national history, we must face the sins of our forebears, to remember and not forget. We must neither be so extremely individualistic that we disconnect ourselves from our generational moorings, nor be dismissive of past sins – as if they have no influence upon us today. 

Mountain experiences can either be glorious, turn very dark, or a bit of both. We are meant to learn from them all, to remember and not forget.

Yet not all remembered. Which is why, over a millennium later, the New Testament issued it’s own remembrance and warning so that we will learn and not forget – contrasting the two mountains of Sinai and Zion:

Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai—all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble—to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them, and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words— “If an animal touches the Mountain, it’s as good as dead”—they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified.

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.

So don’t turn a deaf ear to these gracious words. If those who ignored earthly warnings didn’t get away with it, what will happen to us if we turn our backs on heavenly warnings? His voice that time shook the earth to its foundations; this time—he’s told us this quite plainly—he’ll also rock the heavens: “One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.” The phrase “one last shaking” means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.

Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God. For God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire! (Hebrews 12:18-29, MSG)

The old adage from the late philosopher, George Santayana, stated in his 1905 book, The Life of Reason, is true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!”

Winston Churchill, restating the phrase for the British House of Commons in 1948 said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Let us, then, ascend the mountain with Jesus and learn from him. And let us descend into the valley of the world remembering Christ’s words and ways for ourselves and for the next generations of believers.

God of history, your sovereign reign and rule extends to all creation and has existed for all time. You know the sins of my past, the heart of my present, and the soul of my future. Do not let me forget my sins, not because you hold them over my head, but because your grace has saved me from them all through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:1-5 – A Reality Check

Jordan River by Ilan Szekely, 1944

Listen, Israel! Today you will cross the Jordan River to enter and take possession of nations larger and more powerful than you, along with huge cities with fortifications that reach to the sky. These people are large and tall—they are the Anakim. You know and have heard what people say: “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” Know right now that the Lord your God, who is crossing over before you, is an all-consuming fire! He will wipe them out! He will subdue them before you! Then you will take possession of their land, eliminating them quickly, exactly as the Lord told you.

Once the Lord your God has driven them out before you, don’t think to yourself, It’s because I’m righteous that the Lord brought me in to possess this land. It is instead because of these nations’ wickedness that the Lord is removing them before you. You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Common English Bible)

When my kids were small, I dealt with the issue of sharing, as every parent has to do. Once, two of my girls were fighting over a doll. As I entered the room, one of them quickly said, “She has my doll!” So, I sat her down with me and calmly asked, “Whose doll is it?” “It’s mine!” my daughter cried.

I asked again, “Whose doll is it?” Again, the answer came, “It’s my doll!” I asked yet a third time, “Whose doll is it?” Because this was not our first rodeo together about fighting over dolls and toys, my daughter bowed her head, gave a big sigh, and quietly said, “It’s God’s doll.”

“Yes, it’s God’s doll,” I said. “God is just letting you borrow it for a while and expects you to take good care of it and share his stuff with others.”

Kids often need a reality check of where things come from and who really owns it all. Many times, adults need the very same reality check.

We big people grow up and tend to think we are bigger than we really are. Over the years, we gain misguided notions of our possessions and accomplishments. We believe we did it all through our own skills and character.

Maybe you recognize some of these common notions about our life, work, and ministry:

  • “I worked a long time for my money. I’m not giving it to so-and-so.”
  • My church has a lot of people because we preach the Bible, not like other churches.”
  • “The government takes too much of my hard earned money.”
  • “Here, you can have this couch. I was going to throw it away, anyway. My couch is a nice new one.”
  • “I made a lot of sacrifices for my job. I’m not letting anyone steal my position from me.”
  • “I raised my kids and they’re all doing very well in life. They wouldn’t have made it without me.”
  • “Hey, that’s my yard. Your dog can’t be on it.”
  • “This is my time.”
  • “It’s my car. Don’t touch it.”
  • My way or the highway.”

Those are actual statements Christians have said to me over the years. In their extreme individualism, they believed they were the masters of their own goodness and achievements. In other words, they gave themselves more credit than they really deserved.

A person is proud and selfish not for pursuing their own good but for neglecting their neighbor’s.

It’s far too easy to chalk-up our positions, titles, degrees, jobs, and the good things which come with them as of our own doing. We then believe we are the true owners of all our stuff. Some can even take the next step of believing that if others would just do what I do and think the way I think, then all would be well in the world.

That’s pretty much how Lucifer thought about things. And even after getting cast from heaven, he still exists with the delusion that he didn’t deserve it, as if he were above ever getting treated any other way than like God does.

The reality, however, is that everything and everyone belongs to God. The Lord is the rightful ruler of the universe, and we are not. Every good and perfect thing we have in this life is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father.

Stupidity doesn’t come from a lack of brains or smarts; it’s a result of pride taking over one’s thinking.

Indifference doesn’t have its source in a lack of caring; it comes from believing certain people don’t deserve to have my attention, my stuff, or my time.

Arrogance isn’t an inbred personality trait; it’s the logical end of the successful person’s life who is convinced that everyone ought to adopt their particular set of societal mores, cultural values, political views, and personal disciplines.

Conversely, a person in humble circumstances with little to their name is not necessarily lazy or unwilling to work. And when they have giants in their lives, they can trust the God who specializes in taking down the stupid, the indifferent, and the arrogant.

All things are a gift from the Lord, even the difficult people and hard circumstances we face. They are really opportunities for God to show up and give us precisely what we need.

Everything is a trust from God that we are to steward well, whether it is people, things, or money. They are given to us, not because of any superior spirituality on our part or righteous ingenuity, but because God simply gives it. We have what we have because of God, period.

The appropriate way of stewarding our resources, as well as expressing thanks to God, is through sharing our stuff, our money, our time, and our love with others.

Whose life is it?

We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat and drink that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Deuteronomy 34:1-7 – Take the Long View

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak, nor his strength gone. (New International Version)

A signpost stands at a fork in the road.

Pointing in one direction, the sign says “Victory.”

Pointing in another direction, the sign says, “Fulfillment.”

We must pick a direction.

Which one will we choose?

If we choose the path to Victory,

the goal is to win!

We will experience the thrill of competition,

as we rush toward the finish line.

Crowds gather to cheer for us!

And then it’s over.

And everyone goes home.

If we choose the path to Fulfillment,

The journey will be long.

There will be times in which we must watch our step.

There will be times we can stop to enjoy the view.

We keep going.

We keep going.

Crowds gather to join us on the journey.

And when our lives are over,

those who joined us on the path to Fulfillment,

will keep going without us and

inspire others to join them, too.

–Simon Sinek

Fulfillment

It wasn’t all about Moses. The dream and vision of entering the Promised Land didn’t die with Moses. He was just one character, albeit an especially important character, along generations of Israelites who anticipated the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people.

In Christianity, the victory has already been won. In Christ, every good promise of God is and will be fulfilled. Therefore, we can choose fulfillment. We can live into Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell by choosing to be fulfilled in our Christian lives and our Christian service.

Fulfillment of our godly dreams, good vision, and compassionate ministry requires looking beyond the short term. Long term sustainable thriving in Christian mission and flourishing as a Christian community requires an eternal perspective.

Change

To have the end in mind, a future far ahead of us, demands systemic change. This alternative system will be inspirational, not fear-based. Rather than afraid of what might happen, a long term view is for the next generation – not the next budget crisis due to the next building need.

Maybe because I have been a pastor for so long and know my tenure in each place is only temporary, I know that my vision needs to look further down the road than my own time with a group of people. And a vision of any faith community needs to outlast our own mortal existence. If such a perspective and vision appear as if it will take the energy and will you do not have, then there is no shame in saying so and planning for a good death.

Resilience

The church is resilient. It has lasted two millennia. She has weathered a lot of challenge and adversity.

Metaphors matter. The word pictures we use are important. I choose not to view the church as the first bite of the apple, which I believe is the best bite. Instead, I see the church as a fine cigar. It’s the last puff of a cigar which to me is the best of all. Christ’s Church is far from its last puff. Rather, I’m saying that the best is yet to come.

Perseverance

Your best years are not in the past; they are in the future. And that is exactly what the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wanted his readers to see. Yes, it is difficult in the present. You might be tired and weary, feeling as if you cannot keep going with this whole church thing. Maybe you’ve even dropped out altogether. So, according to Hebrews, this is what we do:

You must encourage one another each day. And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called “today.” If you don’t, then sin may fool some of you and make you stubborn. (Hebrews 3:13, CEV)

Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with full assurance of faith…. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess…. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:22-24, 35-36, NIV)

So then, with endurance, let’s run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne. Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged, and you won’t give up. (Hebrews 12:1-3, CEB)

So, through Jesus we should never stop offering our sacrifice to God. That sacrifice is our praise, coming from lips that speak his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share what you have with others, because sacrifices like these are very pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15-16, ERV)

Community

If we are united in a common cause; choose to collaborate with others; then, even if there is no clear end in sight; we will be on a road of contributing to something bigger than ourselves; something with value that will last well beyond our own lifetimes.

We can anticipate fulfillment.

This is a hard road. It requires counting the cost of discipleship. More important than our doing, is our way of being together, how we are with one another.

For, in the end, relationships bring fulfillment because relationships are the only things we will take with us.