There is much to celebrate tonight.
First of all we must thank God for the remarkable results of the Gift Week and for the vision and generosity of JPC members in giving well over a £1 million pounds. And that means we must thank God for his answering our prayers for the church to grow over the next five years to 2000 by giving us this challenge of St Joseph’s.
Yes, we are at a fork in the road (the metaphor we have been using). So we must also thank God for his giving us the hearts and wills to make sacrifices (which I know will have been made) to choose the right, not the wrong road at this particular fork.
We need to be aware, however, that ahead the road will be tough. But thank God it seems we are on the right road while moving forward, aware of the difficulties. Nor should you be surprised at the difficulties. I was reminded recently of the word’s of Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China. He once said:
“Every great work of God is first impossible, then difficult, then done.”
So may I change the metaphor from a fork in the road to winning Wimbledon – of which we are now in the middle? Last year there were huge celebrations at Andy Murray winning his semi-final with the chance to be the first British Wimbledon champion since 1936. But sadly he lost in the final to Federer.
The point is this, that right fork, or in Jesus’ terms “that narrow road”, requires perseverance and continual faithfulness. Similarly a semi-finalist has to go on to win the final. So tonight we must celebrate as “semi-finalists” – not “finalists”.
And that is why I want us to look at that last verse of our OT lesson – Deuteronomy 29.29. It is so relevant to the situation we are now in.
And my headings are simply the three parts of this verse: first, “THE SECRET THINGS BELONG TO THE LORD OUR GOD”; secondly, “BUT THE THINGS REVEALED BELONG TO US AND TO OUR CHILDREN FOREVER”; and thirdly, “THAT WE MAY FOLLOW ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW”.
So, first, “THE SECRET THINGS BELONG TO THE LORD OUR GOD”.
Let me begin with the context of this statement here in the book of Deuteronomy. 40 years earlier the people of God had been at a fork in the road on the journey from their captivity in Egypt. They had been at Mt Sinai where Moses had given the 10 commandments. They then moved to Kadesh Barnea in the desert just south of the Promised Land. Moses had said there, as you read in Deuteronomy 1.21:
“See the Lord you God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
So the people wanted to send in 12 spies first of all. And they went and they returned saying (Deut 1.25):
“It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.”
But they did fear and they were dismayed. And all, apart from two of the twelve (Caleb and Joshua), were negative. They said the people of the land were too strong for them to conquer. So the people of Israel “murmured” – murmuring is the Biblical word for grumbling and being negative against Moses’ leadership and God’s good plans. They said they would have been much better off had they never left Egypt. And what was the result?
Well, for this faithless disobedience, all these people lost everything, instead of trusting and obeying God and winning all. They then had 40 years more of the same dreary experience of wandering in the wilderness, but now with no hope of escape. For God decreed that only Caleb and Joshua would enter the promised land, the two spies who were willing to face the challenges; to trust and obey God; and to move forward. None of this negative generation (the original escapees from Egypt) would enter but only their children.
So now this younger generation, after 40 years of their parents aimless wandering, are themselves preparing to enter the land. But how does Moses prepare them for what lies ahead? Deuteronomy tells us his main way is to remind them of God’s laws that had already been given. He is not giving new laws so much as underlining old ones – which are God’s will for his people. He is saying that if they trust and obey God, their future will be good. If they disobey, it will be bad – in all sorts of ways.
As you read in 29.9:
“Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do”
But 29.19 says, they are to make sure there is no one who says:
“‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’ [for] This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.”
So that is the context for this verse 29. To understand verse 29, therefore, you need to go back to that fork in the road 40 years earlier at Kadesh Barnea. And you need to realise that this younger generation has, so to speak, to go back in their minds 40 years to where their parents were, exactly like they themselves are now, and not make the same mistake again.
For their parents thought they could predict the future and it would all be fearful and dismaying. They weighed up the pro’s and con’s, as they saw them, and said, “we can’t do it!” But God had told them to do it – to go in and meet all the challenges. For he knew that with him they could do it.
All this obviously relates to us here at JPC. We have had a “Kadesh Barnea” moment. We should, therefore, be celebrating tonight because with a challenge ahead that is pretty daunting, corporately (as expressed through our giving) we are saying we want to be like Caleb and Joshua. We are not wanting to be like the other ten. We are not saying: “the problems are so great; let’s not waste our money.”
So what does Moses then say to this younger generation about to cross over and enter the Promised Land so as not to be like their parents?
He says this in verse 29:
“the ‘secret things’ things belong to the Lord our God.”
You see, Moses is countering the faithlessness of the previous generation who thought they knew the future better than God. He says God alone knows the future.
And that, by the way, is why he knows what is best for you individually. So always trust and obey him.
And he knew what was best for that older generation. But those people were like the man in verse 19 who said, “I will be safe even though I persist in going my own way” and not God’s. However, they were now learning how wrong they were about the future and in going their way and not God’s. Far from having a safe future, they had 40 years of aimlessness and now virtually no future. So these “secret things” in the first instance were referring to the future – to what will happen in the Promised Land, or, in terms of our metaphor, the final match of the championship. That is something “secret” to God alone. He alone knows.
The people about to enter the promised land did not, nor could they, know. Their job, as ours now is, was not to worry about the future but to make sure that they were faithful to what they did know – namely all the things Moses, on God’s behalf, was revealing to them. And particularly he has been telling them in Deuteronomy they were not to conform to the paganism of their new world. In that way they would have a good future.
And all that applies to us. For the number one thing as we think about the future are not new structures of working, important as those are. It is being faithful to what God and our Founders have called us to at JPC – that old challenge. And that is to be “a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth” on Tyneside. The alternative is to drift away from our Scriptural moorings as sadly a number of Christians in the West seem now to be doing.
And as we prepare for a new future we must keep alive that mission of Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain with all those dimensions being vital and important. So the secret things for the first readers of Deuteronomy, and for all of us today, include our futures which God only knows.
In passing, let me say the truth of this verse, of course, has a wider application. For the “secret things” refer to much more than God’s foreknowledge of the future. This younger generation needed to realise that as well. So do we.
Isaiah 55.8-9 explains the issue. There God says:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55.8-9)
That helps you understand why there will always be “secret things” and mysteries about God and man you will not understand, such as: why does God grant you free choice so that you can choose wrongly and suffer – as did these older Israelites? And there are scores of such questions. So that brings us to our
… second heading “BUT THE THINGS REVEALED BELONG TO US AND TO OUR CHILDREN FOREVER”
And there are three things about this clause you must understand.
First, the word “but” is important. For not all is secret. Agnosticism over some secret things is inevitable and necessary, as we have just seen. But because some see the need for some agnosticism, they are agnostic about everything. They seem to think that if God existed and was worth following he would reveal everything. So they then irrationally ignore what he does reveal; and they suffer accordingly. It is like saying I won’t use my computer because I have not been taught all I want to know about it. So I refuse to learn what has been revealed in a simple get-started instruction booklet. That is so foolish.
The “but”, then, is important.
Therefore, secondly, we must thank God for all the things that are revealed. Moses has spent 29 chapters revealing God’s will for so many areas of life. That is what this younger generation needed to hear. And not least they needed to hear how the wealth of the Promised Land, once they had settled down and got rich, could seduce them away from their simple faith in the true and living God. You read about that in chapter 8. Yes, the world they were entering was a dark place in so many ways.
But so is ours. That is why Moses’ warnings are so relevant. We all need God’s light. The one thing that is almost universally believed is that the world as it is, is not the world as it ought to be. But what is wrong with the world? That is the question.
Many moderns say the problem comes from society. All babies are born good but they get damaged by their upbringing. By contrast G.K.Chesterton’s famous letter to The Times newspaper in a long running correspondence on this very question said this:
“Sir, What is wrong with the world? I am. Yours truly, G.K.Chesterton.”
And that was, of course, Jesus’ view. He said, Mark 7.21-22:
“from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” (Mark 7.21-22)
How we all need guidance from outside for the fundamental issues of life and existence. Humanly speaking you can argue almost anything and if you shout long enough people will believe you. But the good news is that in this darkness God is light. And today the Bible is fundamental in our switching on that light.
Yes, there is also God’s General Revelation for everyone through the natural world. In the Old Testament the Psalmist says:
“The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19.1).
And the New Testament agrees that the natural order shows there is an almighty creator. And it teaches that our God also ensures that in every human heart there is some of his moral law, along with some awareness of ultimate judgment. But the really good news is in God’s Special Revelation. This is only in the Bible and only through the prophets and apostles of the Bible and supremely in Jesus to whom the Bible witnesses.
By the Holy Spirit the Bible reveals not just God’s creative power but also his absolute holiness. And that explains the basic problem as coming from the rejection of God, which is sin. And it explains how a rescue from sin came through Jesus dying on the Cross where he carried all the guilt of those who trust in him as he suffered in their place. Who, perhaps, for the first time, needs to trust Christ like that tonight?
So how these folk entering into the Promised land should thank God for what he had so far revealed of himself and his will at this point in Salvation history!
And the third thing to understand about this clause is that “the things revealed”, do not only belong to Mosaic times – to the original “us” of verse 29. They also refer “to our children [that is the grandchildren of the older generation]”; and Moses then adds, “forever.” The Biblical revelation expresses timeless truths, promises and commands for every generation everywhere. So that brings us to our …
… third heading “THAT WE MAY FOLLOW ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW”.
Let me be brief and again with three points.
One, the purpose of God’s revelation is our following his commands and directions. We are to “follow” all the words of God’s law. God wants action. For he knows that obeying him is the way of “blessing” and not “cursing” (as Deuteronomy puts it). The jargon today for “blessing” is “human flourishing” - but real human flourishing that takes God into account.
Two, we are to follow “all” the words of God’s law. We are not to pick and choose. To pick and choose is like having some new petrol-driven garden equipment. So you read the instructions and do most of what you are told to do, but you decide not to mix two-stroke oil with the petrol because you can’t be bothered to get some. Don’t be surprised when things go radically wrong because you are disobeying in one thing. Who tonight is disobeying in just one area and things are going radically wrong for you? Well, stop doing whatever that is. Seek God’s forgiveness. And then trust him for your future. Now, of course, God’s revelation and law is progressive and cumulative.
Hebrews 1.1-2 spells it out like this:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”
And, of course, much of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Christ. And the Jewish nation has been succeeded by a universal worldwide church. But Old Testament principles are still relevant when interpreted through the New Testament and the teaching of Christ. And certainly you can’t pick and choose from the 10 Commandments and the moral law that comes from those commandments. So you are to follow all, not some, of the words of this law.
But, thirdly, they are “the words” of this law. God’s revelation is verbal. This is so important because, as we heard in our second reading,
“faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10.17).
Revelation requires words and the use of our minds and not just feelings and the warming of our hearts. Yes, the heart is so vital and the Holy Spirit needs to give it new life. But you cannot by-pass the Bible – a book of words. Four of us were at a clergy conference this week and one of the speakers had a good illustration for how words are essential for meaningful human communication and relationships. His illustration was a dog which, when you get in after you’ve been away, looks at you with sad but welcoming eyes. It seems the dog is almost human. But supposing the dog looked at you, opened his mouth and said, “have you had a good day”? Your relationship with that creature would change dramatically. That is as it is with God.
The question then is, “are you letting God speak to you by his word?”
So in conclusion thank God for his word in Christ who is witnessed to by the Holy Spirit through the words of the Bible. And as we prepare for a new future, pray that we may continue to maintain and promulgate sound scriptural and evangelical truth and all that that means in terms of Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain as we travel down this new road and as we hold to this truth that:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”