When God first appeared to Moses, it was because God had heard the cries of the children of Israel. God had seen the way they were being oppressed and abused by their captors… Just as God had seen and heard Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, Sarah, Rachel and Rebekah, Leah, Hagar and every generation between.
God made a way for the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and every step along that way, the power and faithfulness of God was made clear.
All of the plagues, the death of the firstborn Egyptian children, the passover, the parting of the sea, and its crashing back down on Pharaoh’s army… In all of these events, God made clear who was releasing the people, and that it wasn’t about human power or authority.
Then God continued to listen and watch over the people as they spent those long years in the wilderness. God provided food and water. God provided direction and boundaries, leading them with the cloud and the fire, and leading them through Moses and others who helped him care for the people. God assured that even as they wandered, they prospered; they grew in numbers; they had children and grandchildren
And so now, some 40 years after Moses and God first met on that holy ground, it was time for the people to settle in the land that was promised all those generations ago.It is time for the children of Israel to experience this land flowing with milk and honey.
All the children of Israel but Moses.
Moses is nearing death, and God has made clear that Moses won’t be going with them. It’s time for a change of leadership. Joshua will take them across the Jordan.
In some ways, the book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ parting words, his final speech to the people he has led and loved all these years. Like the final State of the Union speech from a lame-duck president… if their terms lasted 40 years.
Moses has been the go-to guy for a long time, making clear two things: God really did call and commission Moses for this purpose, and God empowered Moses for the work to which he was called.
Yes, Moses made mistakes – This fully human deliverer is not like the fully-human-fully-divine Christ. We’ll get to that story soon enough.
Moses was a pretty amazing mediator between God and God’s chosen people. By that I mean, he carried the concerns of the people to God. And he carried the Word of God back to the people. He made possible the connection between the divine and the earthly, sometimes by placing himself directly between God and the people. Moses interpreted God’s word to the people, and he advocated for the people with God.
The first time Moses brought the commandments of God to the people, circumstances were quite different. It was nearer to the beginning of their 40 year journey. They had come out of Egypt together, and they had not yet learned what it meant to be yoked to God, to be God’s people. They needed to know what was expected of them.
God desired for them to be different from the other peoples, the followers of other Gods, in part to help show that God was above the other gods being worshiped.
See, the rules they were given, which we inherited, these rules are visible – the commandments govern the things we say, the way we interact with people. Or I should say, they are the things we don’t do which then set us apart.
Like… when it would be easier to lie, telling the truth
Or when others would lash out in violence, when others would take up a gun or a knife, keeping peace
Or not worrying about others having more or better or more beautiful things, avoiding the traps of a consumer-driven culture.
Even choosing to speak about God with reverence and considering carefully how we express the truth of our faith,assuring that God comes first, even before family… even before football.
These things are all observable. If the people of God are following these commands, people ought to be able to see the difference between us and others.
But it’s the unseeable, the intangible, that Moses is digging into as he moves from the commandments to the next passage we read. These verses are called the “Shema”. In Hebrew, the first word of the passage is shema meaning to hear. Not simply listen but more like hear and understand and take to heart.
These verses have become a central prayer for practicing Jews, often recited both at the beginning and the end of the day. It is as familiar to a practicing Jew as the things we recite even on our deathbeds – like the Lord’s prayer or the 23rd Psalm.
Listen to it in English:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
As I thought about these commands and Moses and his long journey with these people, I think I am beginning to get why he wanted to say these things. I haven’t even been hanging around with you all for a full year yet, and my heart yearns for us to learn more about God together, to keep trusting God to lead us into new places and new experiences. And I want us to honor God in that process… not me, not you, but God.
That’s what Moses wants to experience with these people. But Moses is asked by God to step back at the very moment the people he loves are taking huge steps forward. Moses reminds the people that they have heard the commands God charged him to teach them to observe in the land that they are about to cross into and occupy. They were to follow the commandments, so that they and their children and their children’s children, might fear the LORD and keep all his decrees and his commandments, so that their days might be long.
So that their days might be long… not in the “Oh my gosh that was a looong day” sense. But so that they might live long and fruitful lives like Abraham at almost 200, Isaac over 150, and that their legacies might live on in their children and their children’s children.
Then he says,
“Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.”
Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.
Hear me, every one of you that comes from the line of Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.
Hear me when I say to you that our God is one of a kind.
Hear that our God has made and kept promises with us, not just with our forefathers, but us.
Hear that God delivered us and delivers us still.
Hear that God loved us and loves us still.
And All God asks of us in return is love and loyalty. In return for the love of the God who spoke this world into being, we are to engage our whole selves in loving and serving God. All of our intellect, all of our strength, all of our being, devoted to God and the things God cares about.
And don’t just hear this for today, hear it for tomorrow and for all the days to come. As children of Abraham to the 6th or 7th or maybe even the 8th generation, you are hearing this because God was faithful to Sarah and gave her a son.
You are hearing this because Abraham trusted God to preserve Isaac, even when God asked him lay this child of promise out on the table as a sacrifice.
You are hearing this because God redeemed and brought good from what Joseph’s brothers meant for evil.
You are hearing this because even when the story of Joseph was no longer known in Pharaoh’s palace and the troubles in Egypt began, the Lord heard the cries of the people.
Hear and remember, Moses said… Hear and always remember. Write the love of God on your hearts.
Write the will of God on scrolls and bind them to your arms, so that when you use your hands to work or are tempted to raise a hand in anger or war, you recall the commandments.
Write the will of God on scroll and bind them to your foreheads so that when you see a brother or sister on the street or in the temple and are jealous or tempted to speak out of turn, you recall the commandments.
Write the will of God on a scroll and hang it on the doors of your homes so that as you are coming and going, you recall that God sees you and hears you and is with you in all of your comings and goings.
Write the will of God in your heart, so that when your eyes are failing, whether because of age or darkness you can see the ways that your heart and God’s heart are bound and continue to beat as one.
Hear, O Israel…
Hear, O Israel, don’t just listen. Hear and take to heart, that you are not just like everyone else. The Lord has said, “You are my people”
And here’s the part that amazes me… the wideness, the ridiculous plurality, of those two words: You and People.
You see, when Jesus, the next deliverer, arrived on the scene, it was assumed that God was only interested in the Children of Israel, not the Gentiles, which would absolutely have left all of us out. But God heard the cries of the world, God saw the distress of all peoples, and God so loved the world…
The wideness of God’s grace and mercy means that we, too, are children of God.
We, too, were loved first.
We, too, were promised life eternal and abundant.
We, too, have commandments to keep.
Hear this, my dear friends:
The Lord our God is unique and most worthy of praise
Hear that our God is three in one, sending the son to teach and show us the ways, in which your love, embodied in community, can transform this world and sending the Spirit so that we might better understand and live in the way of Christ.
Hear that the Lord our God is love and light and life and that our love for God should engage every cell and fiber of our being, our intellect and emotion, our will and every impulse, reflecting the depth with which you have been and are and always will be loved.
Hear that the Lord our God desires that we love our neighbors, honoring the commandments that help bind us into one community, one body, beautiful in its diversity of thought and gender and experience and race and dreams.
Hear these truths and God’s commands, embrace them, write them on your hearts, put them on post-it notes and Facebook posts, stick them on the fridge with magnets… whatever it takes.
Hear and believe this good news.
The Lord your God has claimed you.
The Lord your God has saved you.
The Lord your God is with you & goes with you, now and to the end of the age.