Text: Deut. 30:11-20 LXX
Old Testament for Proper 18, Series C.
Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon v. 3)
The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one ever really listened to what he said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvellous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It wasn’t until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Startled by the comment, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”
The Consequences of not Listening
Like FDR, Moses was worried that the people of Israel were not really listening to him. Our Old Testament reading comes near the end of Moses’ farewell sermon to the Israelites before they enter the promised land. Moses is convinced that Israel will not listen to God. After spending 40 years with these people Moses declared, “And the Lord God did not give you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear until this day.” (Deut. 29:4) They remained an impenitent, hard-hearted, stubborn people. By not listening to God, they show that they had turned away and were listening to something else. So, Moses gave a warning of what might happen to Israel in the days to come. If Israel listens to God’s Word, God promises blessings; if they don’t, he warns of curses to come. What’s more, the curses reach a particular crescendo. Israel won’t only suffer blight, mildew, barrenness, poverty, sickness, and a hundred other evils while in the land, but far worse than that, their nation will be destroyed and they will be driven out of the promised land, sent off into exile, and scattered among the nations of the earth.
The warning here is of not listening to God’s Word. There are two ways this warning can apply to you. First, you can literally not listen to God’s Word. You can tune the preacher out and start thinking about lunch, or the game, or whatever else. You can not read your bible. You can skip Bible Studies for other obligations. We’d rather let a thousand other things take its place. And whatever you’ve put in the place of God’s Word, that is the god which you serve.
Secondly, you can physically hear what God has to say, but still not listen. The danger is that we are lazy and we don’t care about God’s Word. To listen is to hear God and trust what he promises. To listen to God’s Word is to hear it so that God’s Words stay within you, and impacts your life. But like the Israelites, we can be stubborn. God through his Law confronts us with our sin. God’s will can be different from how we think things should be. What God says in his Word isn’t always what we’re told in the World. And so very often, we’d rather listen to anything other than God’s Word.
And the consequences for not listening to God’s Word are dire. Moses is not speaking here to unbelievers. He is not speaking to those who know nothing of God. He’s speaking to God’s own chosen people. He’s speaking to the very people he rescued out of Egypt. Just because God had saved them, doesn’t mean they automatically got to enter the promised land, or stay in it. No, God’s people can fall away when they simply refuse to listen to God. If you refuse to listen to what God tells you in his Word, his Law, his Gospel: then there is no promised land for you, no heaven, no new earth, only exile.
Listening Brings New Life
But in Deuteronomy 30 we also have a promise which God commits himself to. When Israel has gone into exile, they might have thought that everything was finished; that God was just through with them. But God promises that if they turn back to him even while they are in exile, he will rescue them. Then exile will be over; the curse will be undone; Israel will be saved. God will have kept his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You do not need someone to go up to heaven and bring God’s Word down, so that you may hear and listen to it. You do not need someone to cross the sea and fetch it. It will come and find you! “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart and in your hands to do it.” And St. Paul says, “that is, the word of faith that we proclaim.” (Ro 10:8.)
You don’t have to go up to heaven—because the Messiah has already come down to you. You don’t have to go down into the depths—because the Messiah has already been raised from the dead. Although we deserve destruction and eternal exile from God, the curse of which Deuteronomy spoke has been borne by Israel’s representative, the Messiah. Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, took the weight of Israel’s curse on himself, not just in some abstract theological sense but quite literally and historically, when he died on the cross. The cross of Jesus means that God has dealt with the problem of our sin that stood in the way of the blessing reaching out into the world. The Bible’s cryptic promises that speak of the final undoing of the curse of exile have come true—in Jesus! Jesus bears the curse for us, so that we may have the blessing.
This blessing, the blessing of life and good which are given to us through the Word, require the cross. Jesus in our Gospel lesson tells us to count the cost. Our old way of life, the old way of listening to ourselves, the world, and everything which isn’t God have to end. Christ bids us come and die. Pick up your cross, and put that old sinful nature to death. Do not cling to this life, but die to self-interest. That is the call of costly discipleship.
But, what God wants of us does not require deep searching among the mysteries of the universe, for it is as near as hearing. He asked not for some superhuman effort but only to listen to his Word with faith. God puts his word in our ears, upon our Hearts, and in our hands. God has come near to us in Christ and as the living Word. In Baptism, we hear God’s Word spoken over the water. We have a promise given to us through those Baptismal Waters, that Christ has redeemed us, we’re given new life, and we’re adopted into God’s family. In private confession we hear God’s Word spoken over our sins. Our sins, even that specific sin you’ve just confessed, is forgiven. We hear God word of absolution and are called to believe it, to trust that he’s telling the truth. These are the blessings of God’s Word here and now. Salvation is given to us through hearing with faith.
This hearing with faith is your life and length of days. God swears to give you life, eternal life, a promised land, not in this world, but in the one to come. God has told us that life in this word can be hard, it can be exhausting, and sometimes it can bring pain. But it’s okay. The life that we’d try to save and preserve is a life we’re going to lose anyway. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe three or thirty years from now. Who knows. But you can hold onto your life in this world with a lose hold when you know that He’s got a life to give you that simply has no end. More life for you than you’ve got death, more forgiveness for you, than you’ve got sin.Through his Word God has promised us a promised land. He’s ensured us a return to life lived in his presence, and free from pain, crying, sin, and death. Those are the blessings that lay before us, promised to us. This is the hope that His words hold out to you, and are summoned to hold on to them, to listen to them.
Hear and believe his voice! You’re in the pew and I’m talking to you. You are hearing God’s Word today. “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God.” (Ro 10:14–17.) God says to you, “Your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who bore your curse.” Do you believe it? Or is God a liar? Then hold fast to it. Don’t let go of it. Trust what God says to you through his Word.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)