October 6, 2019

“Hear O Israel:  Words of Life”

Deuteronomy 5:1-21 and 6:4-9

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

October 6, 2019  (Pentecost +17)


Introduction to the reading:

Some forty years have passed since last week’s reading.  Moses finally accepted the Lord’s call and went to Pharaoh to demand the liberation of the Israelites.  After much resistance and ten plagues, Pharaoh freed them.  And then he changed his mind and sent his army after them.  The Israelites were caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.  God parted the sea, making it possible for them to cross over, and drowned Pharaoh’s army.  


Even though the Lord miraculously provided for their needs for the next forty years, the Israelites often rebelled against the Lord.  As a consequence, that first generation was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.  Even Moses was not allowed to go over and only saw the Promised Land from a distance.  


Today’s reading takes place as the Israelites are getting ready to enter the Promised Land.  Because Moses knows he will not be going with them, he gathered them and shared all the things he thought they needed to know going forward.  He wanted them to remember who they were and whose they were.  He wanted them to remember how God saved and sustained them.  Most of all, he wanted them to know how to live as God’s people.


[Hear/read the word of God from Deuteronomy 5:1-21 and 6:4-9]



In 2007, Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a lecture which was part of a series called “The Last Lectures.”  In this lecture series, academics were invited to reflect on what really mattered to them and to give a hypothetical final talk.  For Randy Pausch, this was not hypothetical because when he gave his talk he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  And while he looked healthy, he knew he didn’t have much time left to live.  As you can imagine, people listened to his last lecture with rapt attention because it was not just an academic exercise.  Dr. Pausch’s lecture went viral and a book, “The Last Lecture” was published in 2008, the same year he died. 


Moses’s last lecture makes up the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy.  He presents the way to live as God’s people.  These are his reflections about life with the God who had saved the Israelites, whom he had led for forty years.  It was his last chance to impress on them the importance of remaining in covenant with the Lord.  He began his message by setting the context and telling them the importance of his words:


Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.  The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.  It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today.  The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.  (Deut. 5:1-4).


I had not noticed before that Moses was telling the people that God had indeed spoken to them, had made a covenant with them.  Not their parents or grandparents, but with those he was speaking to at that moment.  This is a bit mystifying because we know that the covenant had been made at Horeb (also known as Sinai), some forty years earlier, and most of the people present had been born after the exodus during their wandering in the wilderness.  


Moses’s insistence that they were present when the covenant was made was to get them to understand that the commandments and laws that he was about to share with them were really for them, that these words mattered to them and were not words from a long-gone era for old people only.  This covenant was alive and relevant to all who heard this message.  It was as if Moses knew that these “young people” might be tempted to disregard his speech as ramblings from an old man who didn’t know what was hip.  


There is a Jewish idea based on these verses from Deuteronomy that when Moses spoke his last lecture, all the souls of all Jews, present and future, were there to hear it.  This idea impresses upon Jews that these words are for them, directed to them to help them live their lives with God—even today.  (Source:  NL;DR podcast Episode 005, Deuteronomy 5 and 6 and the Shema, September 29, 2019)  


We may be tempted to disregard the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, because Jesus and his teachings supersede all that.  But the experience of the Israelites and the story of their journey with the Lord has a lot to teach us if we will pay attention.  And it is clear that Jesus observed the Law and thought his followers should do so too.


After telling the people how important these words would be for them, Moses made it clear who was speaking to them:  And he said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (Deut. 5:6).  The one speaking through Moses to the people is none other than the God who miraculously and powerfully freed them from slavery.  This is the God who had heard their cries for help and had delivered them.  With this God, they were changed from being slaves to an oppressive regime to a free people.


What follows are commandments that would help these former slaves to live as free people in relation to God and to each other.  These commandments and laws would help them shift from serving an exploitative dictator to serving a God who loved them and all people.


Mindset and culture shifts are difficult to make.  You’ve heard stories of immigration, perhaps in your own families, in which people came to Hawaii with very little, not knowing the language and having to learn the ways of a new country.  Can you imagine having to find housing or a job when you don’t speak the language?  Or having to eat food that is unfamiliar to you?  How do you learn the ways of your new country?  It’s no wonder that some of the Israelites complained and told Moses they wanted to go back to Egypt when they were thirsty and hungry in the wilderness.  They knew that, at the very least, they would have had food and water in Egypt.  Sometimes their lives of slavery looked good.


But they were experiencing a culture shift.  When they crossed over into the Promised Land, the Israelites would be building a new nation, a new community.  They had lived for a long time under the rules of an oppressive Pharaoh, so they had to change the way they thought about themselves, their property, and each other. God wanted this new community to be one in which people loved and respected rather than exploited each other.  What Moses was sharing with them was a different way of thinking and living together.  So the first thing was to remind them who they belonged to, who they were to serve when they entered the Promised Land.  They were the people of the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  Everything flowed out of that understanding of who they were and their God.


The first three commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me,” “You shall not make for yourself an image,” and “you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” define our relationship with God.  In a setting where people worshipped many different gods, Israel had only one God who could not be reduced or limited to a physical image.  This God’s name, which we learned about last week, represented an awesome, holy God, and should not be misused.


The fourth commandment, “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” is the one that most highlighted the culture shift from the exploitative life under Pharaoh to a life of serving the Lord who generously provides all we need for life.  Observing the Sabbath meant taking a rest.  Slaves were never able to take time off, but free people had days of rest. And rest is extended to all the people in the household, including servants, animals and visitors because this new way of living did not depend on the exploitation of others.


The commandments then turn toward our relationships with each other:  Honor your father and mother; you shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony, or covet.  This new community that will settle in the Promised Land will be one of deep trust and respect for one’s neighbors.  This was a basic understanding about relationships that needed to be made plain to folks who had been told for hundreds of years what they could and couldn’t do and how and when to do it.  Now they needed to make their own decisions based on their relationship with God and each other.


Rather than laws that would set limits, the Ten Commandments told the Israelites how to relate to God and neighbor as they embraced their freedom.  These were words of life.


The second part of the reading comes from Deuteronomy 6, and it gets to the heart of all the commandments.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give to you today are to be on your hearts.” (vv. 5-6).  In the Hebrew mindset, the heart represents a person’s center, physically, emotionally, intellectually, even morally.  When the commandments of God are on our hearts, they guide all aspects of our lives.  It’s not only about our religious life one day a week for an hour or two.  They are meant to speak to and direct every aspect of our lives.


The passage goes on to say, “Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).  From the time we wake up in the morning to the moment when our heads land on the pillow at night, we should be thinking and talking about God’s commandments.  They should be on the Post-it notes that we stick on the bathroom mirror or written with Sharpies on our hands or on your phone notifications or wherever you put your daily reminders.  They should be a part of all aspects of our lives.


This talk of God’s commandments is not about whether we are following them to a “T” but the spirit behind them, the kind of community God wants us to live in.  We don’t kill others, but do we act as though some people don’t matter, do we ignore them, do we treat others with disdain?  We may not commit adultery, but do we reduce some people to their looks?  We may not covet our neighbors, but do we accumulate more than we actually need to live?  Are we honoring God with our speech, with our worship?


This is what Jesus was getting at when he answered the question about what the greatest commandment was.  “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these”  (Mark 12:29-31).  The commandments, these words of life, are all about loving God and loving our neighbors.  This is the culture God wants us to live, cultivate, and pass on to our children.


In what follows in the rest of Deuteronomy, Moses recites laws and commandments that he has learned during his forty years leading the people of Israel.  He wants them to build a new nation, a new community in the Promised Land that reflects the covenant relationship that they have had with God so that they can be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.  He wants them to know that they are and will be blessed, and that all nations will be blessed through them. 


At the end of Deuteronomy, at the end of his last lecture, Moses throws down the challenge:

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


When we hear and obey the commandments of God, we choose life, and we live the blessing that Abraham was promised.  Let’s choose life.