by David Baer, October 11, 2015
Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21,6:4-9
I’ll always remember that walking through the woods that day. My aunt listened carefully to the birds singing, and pointed them out to me, up in the trees. That’s a bluejay, she said, and if you look over there, you can see a goldfinch, a splash of yellow hidden among the green leaves. My aunt loved being out in nature, and at age 8 (or maybe 9) I was ready to soak up all her observations. I still treasure that memory of an adult taking time to share her knowledge with me. I treasure the time my grandfather tried to teach me trigonometry when I was still in elementary school—I felt like it was just beyond the grasp of my understanding, but so tantalizingly close! I treasure the family dinners where my parents helped us interpret everything that happened during the day.
As children we don’t start from scratch. If you’ve been around children you know how eager they are to copy the adults in their life. We seem to be born with the ability to soak up behavior and knowledge like a sponge, and we take in both the good and the bad. Today’s scripture contains a verse that folks sometimes find troubling, where God talks about punishing the children for the iniquity of the parents. Actually, what God says, in the Hebrew text, and in the King James Version, if you remember that, is that God visits the iniquity of the parents on generations to come. In other words, when there’s brokenness in our families, that brokenness tends to stick around. If you grew up as the child of an alcoholic, it’s likely that your parent’s illness continues to affect your life. It’s not so much that God punishes children for their parents’ brokenness, but that it’s just a reality that we hand down our unresolved stuff to the next generation. But you’ll notice what God says after this, that if brokenness sticks around for three and four generations, the blessing that comes from living in a way that honors God sticks around for a thousand generations. Look, we’re all of us fallen, flawed people, and the next generation will inherit from us more than their fair share of our prejudices, our neuroses, and our neglect and abuse of the natural world. But God has given us something else to hand down, something whose power and goodness is so far greater than all that junk. Just what is it that we’ve been given? And how do we pass it on?
Last week we heard about God’s call to Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. Today we skip forward many years in the story. The Hebrews, with God’s help, escaped from Pharaoh’s army and have been living in the wilderness. Because of the disobedience of the first generation, the people who left Egypt, including Moses, God is not going to permit them to enter the promised land. Moses has been permitted to glimpse it from a high mountain, and now as his life is coming to an end, the new generation is preparing for God to make good on God’s promise, to give them a homeland.
The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech to the new generation. The name of the book literally means “second law,” and what Moses is doing here is reminding this younger generation of the history of their people, of everything that has brought them to this moment, when they’re about to inherit the promised land. Maybe you remember from last week that God first spoke to Moses out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb. At that time, God promised that the whole people of Israel would return to that mountain to worship, and when they did, God gave them the law, or the Torah, which literally means “teaching.” God taught these former slaves how they were going to live now that they were a free people, a special people chosen and blessed by God. Now Moses is teaching it a second time, to the generation of Israelites who are about to cross of the Jordan River and enter the land of Canaan.
That’s why the way Moses begins is so odd. He talks about what God did on the mountain, and he says, “The Lord made a covenant with us.” When God gave the Ten Commandments, it was part of a special agreement. God had rescued the people from slavery. God was going to give them a homeland. God would continue to bless them. And for their part, the people were going to live a special existence as those set apart, a special, chosen people who behave differently from the other peoples of the world. But notice what Moses says, to this new generation. He says, “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” This is strange. Of the people who stood there at Horeb while the mountain burned and smoked, while God spoke the commandments to Moses, just about all of them have died. All of us alive here now, as Moses puts it, have been born in the wilderness, during the many long years since that day. And yet the covenant, the agreement that God was making on that day, Moses says, was not with your ancestors, not with those of us who stood on that mountain, but with you. It was not for their benefit that God spoke, but for yours. The promises and commandments God made were for you, he says. He wants them to hear the words of God’s teaching addressed to them.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s not for you ancestors, Moses says, but for you. You, who weren’t even born yet when we crossed the Red Sea; you, who were only a twinkle in your parents’ and grandparents’ eyes when we left our slavemasters behind. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt…” Yes, you, the young man in the front row, the young woman over there, you were slaves in Egypt too—you were slaves in a land you’ve never seen. If God had not heard the cries of God’s people, if God had not come down to deliver them “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” you would be there still, building Pharaoh’s cities. Your life, your freedom, your future depends on God’s power and God’s grace, and so God’s covenant is with you. Listen now and hear the shape of the life you are meant to lead as a people freed and blessed by God.
A couple of summers ago we worked through the Ten Commandments in worship, and there’s so much there that I won’t go in depth into them today. It’s enough to remember what Jesus said was the essence of God’s teaching: Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. Traditionally the first four commandments are seen as shaping the way to love God: worship and honor God exclusively, don’t try to capture or control God’s likeness, don’t trivialize God’s name, and lastly, observe a set time for holy rest, a time to pause from work and activity and simply be with God. That’s the outline for loving God with your whole self. And the next six commandments show us how to love our neighbor: honor mother and father, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t become obsessed with desire for the things that belong to someone else. That’s the outline for loving your neighbor as yourself. And as for the commandments that are worded as prohibitions, the ones that tell you not to do something—it’s not enough just to refrain from killing and committing adultery and stealing. You have a positive duty to pursue the opposite of those things. Do not murder means, not just refrain from killing, but do your best to build up the well being of your neighbor. The commandments don’t just push us away from certain kinds of behavior. They are meant to push us in the opposite direction.
What the commandments give us is a way of living in love, an outline for a loving relationship with God and our neighbor, one that, God promises, will bring blessing from one generation to the next. It’s important to realize that the commandments are not the starting point for God’s relationship with us. The starting point, in the Hebrew Bible, is always God’s action, God’s choice. God created the world. God chose Abraham and Sarah. God heard the cries of the Hebrew people and rescued them from slavery. And the starting point in the New Testament is the same. God sent Jesus to lay down his life for us. The commandments are not the terms and conditions of the relationship with God. We encounter God’s commandments only as people who have already been blessed beyond our imagining.
And how do we pass on this gift? How does this blessing get shared with a thousand generations? “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart,” says Moses. Internalize them and let them shape your actions, your choices. But also, he says, “[r]ecite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” He’s talking about building this teaching into the fabric of everyday life, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. He talks about binding them on our hands and foreheads, and writing them on the doorposts of our house. Maybe you’ve seen a Jewish home with mezuzot, scrolls with these words affixed to the doorposts. That’s one way to keep the words of scripture present. But there are so many ways to bring the word into your home. There are opportunities for prayer at meal times and bedtime. There are Bible apps for kids, for phones and tablets, which you can use and talk about together. But maybe the most powerful thing is shaping your own behavior, talking with your family, with your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews, with the children in this church, about the ways you are being stretched to love God with an even greater part of your whole being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Children copy what they see. They’re little sponges, and they will soak up what you offer them.
The commandments are God’s gift to a people saved and blessed by God. They are meant to pass that blessing on to one generation after another, to the thousands. They are a treasure, an inheritance from a God who continues to love, to bless, to save. It was not with our ancestors that God made the covenant, but with us, who are living, all of us here today. I am your God, says the Lord, not to them now, but to us. I freed you, I saved you, I guided you, I have blessed you, and I will bring you home. Thanks be to God! Amen.