Week of June 24: God's will for God's people


Lesson for week of June 24
Scripture: Deuteronomy 10:12-22, 16:18-20
By Mark Westmoreland
Deuteronomy. Ugh. Speeches, sermons, and laws—lots and lots of laws.  You might wonder what it all has to do with you … until you read the passage before us today.  The language about God is rich and evocative, the phrasing exquisitely crafted, the call to faithfulness profoundly simple or maybe simply profound.
“So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being” (10:12-13; this and quotations to follow are NRSV).
Following those amazing opening words, our passage lays out themes important to Deuteronomy and our faith: integrity of heart, justice without discrimination, kindness to widows, orphans and strangers.  We have heard all of this before, haven’t we?  And yet …
Easier Said than Done
I was talking one day with the cantor of a nearby synagogue.  He was struggling to help his members be more hospitable.  New folks were finding it difficult to move into the life of the congregation.  There were turf wars; there was distrust toward newer members; entrenched structures and cliques made change difficult if not impossible.  As I listened I realized that either some Methodists I have known had infiltrated his synagogue or all of God’s children face the same struggles when trying to live out the teachings of the Bible.
Help the widows and orphans?  Of course, but funds are a little tight right now, and choices must be made.  Welcome the stranger?  Yes, but, you know, some strangers are stranger than others.  This stuff isn’t easy.
But take heart.  God does not simply hurl the stone tablets of the Law at us and turn away.  Rather, the obedience to which God calls us is always rooted in relationship.  We begin, then, not with the Law, but with the God who gives the Law. 
Consider the description of God in this passage:
God’s mark is upon everything that is.  Have you noticed the universe around you?  God made it all, every single atom of it (v. 14).
God is “mighty and awesome” (v. 17).  Think everything you can think about God, then think some more.
In short, God is God, and we are not.  God is the one who gets to set the rules.
And yet (!) the God of all that is has “set his heart in love” for his people (v. 15).  God chooses relationship with us.  God cares about us.  The Law is given “for [our] own well-being” (v. 13).  The life of God’s people, like life itself, is grounded in God—in the being of God, the love of God, the action of God.  And the action of God toward God’s people is gracious.
In vv. 17 and 18, the language describing God takes a turn.  God, we are told, “is not partial and takes no bribe,” and God “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”  I find these verses intriguing.  The description of God, who is “mighty and awesome,” suddenly becomes very down-to-earth, even human, in tone.  The God of all that is models for us a very human concern and integrity.  The phrasing signals a transition—from the nature of God to what it means to be God’s people.
Remember, Remember, Remember
Why should we show hospitality to the stranger and kindness toward the powerless of this world?  Because that is the nature of the God who gave us life, and because God’s own people were strangers themselves, powerless in the land of Egypt (v. 19).  The God who was with his people in that strange land “has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.  Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven” (vv. 21-22).
“Grace begets graciousness,” I have heard it said.  Or, as the wise old apostle put it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Remembering is essential to faith, to obedience, and to the shaping of our own character.  God’s deliverance of us from bondage and from sin is an act of grace that makes all things new.  We are who we are because God has shown us mercy.  Remember that, and there will be no room in your life for arrogance.
For the Jews, that means telling and retelling the story of the exodus and God’s gifts of land and identity.  For us Christians, it means returning again and again to the cross.  Grace begets graciousness.  Circumcise your heart, and don’t cling to the old ways any longer (v. 16); be baptized in the grace of God; trust God’s way of mercy and compassion.  It is the way of truth and life.
Living Our Faith
The inclusion of 16:18-20 with the passage from chapter 10 was an illuminating choice.  The words from 16 provide the “so what” of all we just read.  Those who are set as judges and officials over God’s people must model God’s own integrity—serving justice, showing no partiality, rejecting bribes and corruption.  “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,” God says.
And what goes for those judges and officials goes for you and me.  God has shown us what is good and right.
I once heard Dr. Fred Craddock say that the best test of any movement or belief system is the kind of people it produces.  What do you say to that?  And what would your neighbors say?
The Rev. Mark Westmoreland is senior pastor at Fayetteville First UMC. Contact him at mwestmoreland@fayettevillefirst.com