Loving God in a time of change

Please take a seat. And let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for your living word by which you speak to us as you have spoken to your people for thousands of years. Speak to us this morning, Lord, we pray, and teach us more of what it means to love you as you have loved us. In Jesus name. Amen.

We’re back to the Book of Deuteronomy in this series called ‘Wholehearted’ – and today we come to Deuteronomy 8.1-6. We heard that just now, but if you have a Bible with you, please open that up so that you can see it in front of you. I’ve called this ‘Loving God in a time of change’ – which is really what the whole of the Book of Deuteronomy is about. So let me ask, are you in a time of transition and change in your life? If not, then it’s going to come sooner or later. We move from pre-school to school; from primary school to secondary; from school maybe to employment, or university; maybe we get married and have children; maybe after many years we move from one job to another, from one home to another, from one town or city to another. And so it goes on. There are times of significant transition and change in our lives – sometimes after years of relative stability.

And I’m aware, as the grandfather of a grandson just turned four, that when we’re young even four years can literally be a lifetime for us, so a change after four years can be quite as significant as a change after forty years later in life. So I ask again, are you in a time of transition and change in your life? At least in relation to this pandemic, we all are. So this word from God is especially relevant at such a time as this because Deuteronomy comes out of a time of massive transition in the life of the people of God. There are four big changes coming up for them. Let’s remind ourselves of them. First, there’s a change of leader coming up. Moses, who has lead God’s people for forty years, will soon die. He knows that. And he knows God’s people need to be prepared. Deuteronomy is Moses doing that preparation. Secondly, there’s a generational change. After forty years spent in the wilderness, (with a couple of notable exceptions) all those who were adults at the time when Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt have now died. Moses is addressing the new, younger generation who have taken over. They were either not yet adult, or not yet born, at the time of the exodus. They remember that time from the stories they’ve been told, not from their own experience.

Thirdly, there’s a change of location coming up. For forty years after escaping from Egypt they’ve been moving around the wilderness. At times they’ve set up camp and stayed put for a while. But they’ve never been settled. Never really at home. But now they’re in the Plains of Moab, to the east of the River Jordan, looking over to the land that God had promised them, and preparing to cross the river to take possession of that land that would be their home. They were leaving the wilderness behind. Fourthly, this new home would bring a change of lifestyle. No longer on the move in relative isolation from other people, depending on God for the manna with which he fed them in that barren land. They would be putting down roots. Planting crops. Living in houses not tents. Negotiating relationships with the peoples around them. Encountering their gods. No longer relying on that manna for food, but growing their own. It would be a very different way of life.

So this was a major transition they’d arrived at. A new leader. A new generation. A new place. A new way of life. And new temptations. The living God was the same God. His love for them was as profound and full of grace as ever. His commands were as far-reaching and as good for them as ever. But they needed to hear them afresh, and for their new context. That’s what Deuteronomy is all about. The same commands to love God and to love one another, but in a new situation. So Moses is spelling out afresh to God’s people how they should live. And he was doing that for their own good, because obedience would bring blessing and life, but disobedience would bring a curse and destruction and death. Look then at Deuteronomy 8.1, this is Moses speaking:

“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.”

The basic message of the entire central section of Deuteronomy is right here in Deuteronomy 8.1. Obey God’s commands so that you will be blessed. But we mustn’t miss the amazing wider context of this command. Which is grace. Deuteronomy is a grace sandwich. Grace at the start. Commands in the middle. Grace at the end. The grace at the start is Moses’ reminder to them that God has already rescued them out of slavery to take them to the land he had promised. They could look back to the exodus and rejoice. In the same way, but with even more joy, we can look back to how God has rescued us from Satan, sin and death through the cross and resurrection of his Son. The grace at the end of Deuteronomy is easily missed, but it’s vital, because despite spelling out God’s good commands at great length, it’s extraordinary that Moses is quite clear about two things. First, God’s people will not obey him, and they will suffer as a consequence. But secondly, in the end God will work in their hearts to change them and empower them to obey, and he will bring them back to himself. By grace.

So when you look closely, you see that Deuteronomy is the gospel in the Old Testament. Read Deuteronomy 30-31 for yourselves, and you’ll see how this book of law ends with grace. We have to understand that if we’re going to read these commandments correctly. Because in the end we’re no different to God’s people three and a half thousand years ago. We too disobey. We too are dependent on God’s grace. Only by grace can we learn to obey as we must, and so find ourselves on the receiving end of God’s blessing. So, in the light of all that, here are three lessons for us from Deuteronomy 8.1-6.

1. Remember how God has led you

Remember all that God has been teaching you. And that is especially true if you’ve been going through a hard time – maybe for years – and things are changing for the better. It’s so easy to forget. We mustn’t. Look then at Deuteronomy 8.2-4:

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years.

What do we make of the wilderness periods of our own lives? Why does our heavenly Father keep us in the wilderness? Why does he let us hunger? Why does he let us go through hard times, maybe for year after year? Has he stopped loving us? No. He’s humbling us. He’s testing us. And he’s teaching us. He’s humbling us, because we need to lose our pride and arrogance. We need to see the depths of sin and rebellion that lurk in our hearts. We need to understand how utterly dependent we are on the provision and grace of God our heavenly Father. Such is the stubbornness of our hearts, that this is what it takes to humble us. He’s testing us, because if we only love and trust God when things and easy and everything is falling into our laps, then we’re not really loving and trusting him at all. We’re just taking him for all we can get. If we only obey God’s commands when it’s easy, then we’re not really obeying God at all, we’re just doing what we want. Obedience is tested when we don’t want to obey. Trust is tested when we don’t like what God is doing and we can’t see why he’s doing it. And in the hard times our heavenly Father is teaching us, because we need to learn – what? We need to learn that (Deuteronomy 8.3):

…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

It’s a striking thing that when Jesus was being ferociously tempted by Satan in the wilderness, three times he counters Satan with Scriptures from this very section of Deuteronomy. And when Satan tempts Jesus, who is starving, to turn stones into bread, it is precisely to this Scripture that Jesus turns. Deuteronomy 8.3:

…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

We need bread, of course we do. God knows that. That’s why he provided manna in those wilderness years. He kept them going and never took them beyond their limits. But bread is not enough. Our heavenly Father wants us to learn to hunger for his life-giving word – life-giving not just for the next meal time, but for ever. Bread keeps us alive for now. God’s word gives us life for eternity. So when things change in our lives (and above all when things change for the better), we must not forget the painfully won lessons of the hard years. Remember how God has led you. That’s the first lesson. What’s the next?

2. Know that God disciplines you as his child

Bearing in mind all the hard-won lessons of those long years of wandering in the wilderness (or our equivalent, whatever that might be) look at Deuteronomy 8.5:

Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.

Don’t think of discipline here just as punishment, though there might be an element of that, so that we might learn our lesson. Think of discipline as training. A good father, as indeed a good mother, will spend year after year doing what it takes to train up his son to take his place in the adult world as a man of skill and integrity, able to serve the community, to care for others, and to make a valuable contribution. And such is our readiness to be deeply self-centred, that this training doesn’t come easily. It takes persistent effort, often against the grain of what we want in the short term. We might prefer a diet of ice cream and sweets, but we have to learn to eat our vegetables! And we might not thank our parents for depriving us of sweets at the time. But we will thank them later.

God our heavenly Father is training us (disciplining us) to be like Jesus. That is for the sake of his kingdom, and for the sake of others. It is also for our own sakes, but it isn’t comfortable while we’re going through it. This is a lesson that’s driven home in the New Testament as well. Hebrews 12.7,11:

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons…For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

So hard training, far from being a sign that God has stopped loving us and has abandoned us, is the exact opposite. God puts us through it because he loves us so deeply that he’s not prepared to leave us as we are. He wants us to grow to be like Jesus. He is treating us as his beloved children. Remember how God has led you. Know that God disciplines you as his child. And finally there is one more lesson in these verses, that leads us on into the rest of the Book of Deuteronomy. So:

3. Keep God’s commands

We’ve been reminded that we can only do this by the working of God’s grace changing our hearts. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. That doesn’t mean we can neglect God’s law. We are commanded to obey. In Deuteronomy the very heart of God’s law is that we should love God. Deuteronomy 6.5:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

And in Deuteronomy the main way that we show that we love God is to obey his commands. At first sight that might seem a bit relationally cold. But of course it isn’t. If we say we love God but we don’t do what he says, then our declarations of love are hollow and hypocritical. Here then is Deuteronomy 8.6:

So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.

Three lessons, then, for people in a time of change. Remember how God has led you. Know that God disciplines you. And keep God’s commands. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, you have called us to yourself through your Son Jesus our Lord and our Saviour. As you taught and trained your people through long years in the wilderness in preparation for the Promised Land, please by your grace teach and train us too. Give us the endurance to keep going, and soften our hard hearts to learn the lessons of the times of training that you put us through. In transition and change, teach us more and more humility, trust, love, and obedience. In Jesus name. Amen.

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