Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"IN PROSPERITY THE LORD INSTRUCTS HIS PEOPLE TO REMEMBER HOW THEY GOT THERE."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
To the minds of so many in the world, brothers and sisters, you and I have hit a gold mine. Refugees around the world list Australia amongst the most desirable of lands they’d love to migrate to. Why that is? Yes, it’s the political and religious freedom we enjoy. But it’s also the material prosperity we’re so used to. Never before in the history of the world, it’s said, have people enjoyed the level of prosperity found today in various western countries – including Australia. No concerns about food, plenty of living space in a dry and warm house, transport facilities that take us anywhere, opportunity to take extensive holidays, ability to retire in peace and comfort – these privileges that characterize the average Australian home are the envy of millions upon millions around the globe. In their eyes, we’ve well and truly hit a jackpot.
And, brothers and sisters, it cannot be denied: we have! The wealth and comforts enjoyed by the average Australian surpasses the wealth and comforts enjoyed by the average member of other societies by leaps and bounds.
The abundance we have leads us, consciously or unconsciously, to conclude that we have a right to this abundance, that it’s ours. For we worked for it. The Lord tells us something radically different. In the midst of our prosperity, it’s that different message that I need to place before you today.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
IN PROSPERITY THE LORD INSTRUCTS HIS PEOPLE TO REMEMBER HOW THEY GOT THERE.
1. The way of Israel’s history
2. The purpose of Israel’s history
3. The lesson of Israel’s history
1. The way of Israel’s history
The people of Israel were assembled near the Jordan, listening to the words of Moses. As he spoke, Moses drew the people’s attention to the land on the other side of the Jordan, that land of promise which –said Moses- God was about to give to His people-by-covenant. He’s outlined in chap 6 that God was faithful, and so would certainly do as He’d promised; He’d make sure the land would fall into their hands. At the same time, Moses had continued in chap 7, the people had their own responsibility; in the land of promise they had to destroy every inhabitant they found there, lest the Canaanites teach them how to serve the idols.
That brought Moses to chap 8. His focus in this chapter is how the people are to live once they’re settled in the good land across the Jordan. Already in chap 6 Moses had described what this land over the river was like. It was, he’d said in vs 3, "a land flowing with milk and honey." And he’d spoken in vs 10 about "large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant." Descriptions like that, no doubt, reminded the older Israelites in his audience of the cargo they’d seen nearly 40 years ago, brought back by the twelve spies; they’d returned –says Num 13- with that "one cluster of grapes … carried … between two of them on a pole" (vs 23). Talk about a desirable land! How we can understand how the people’s thoughts dream on about the peace and comforts awaiting them…. With longing their eyes settle on the hills on the other side of the river….
But listen: Moses has a word of instruction for the people as they dream about the land on the other side. He speaks in our text about the need to "remember". As a matter of fact, this instruction to "remember" is repeated at the end of the chapter, in vs 18; the command to ‘remember’ serves as two bookends holding together the content of the entire chapter. Vs 11 has the equivalent instruction, the command "do not forget", a warning that’s repeated again in vss 14 and 19. This notion, then, of ‘remembering’, of ‘not forgetting’, is the thread that ties together the chapter Moses sets before Israel as they contemplate the good land they’re about to receive.
Remember. As the people let their thoughts drift about the prosperity awaiting them across the river, what must they remember? What, for that matter, does the word ‘remember’ mean?
In the Bible, brothers and sisters, the word ‘remember’ is more than simply something that happens in the mind. Rather, the word ‘remember’ is intimately tied up with action. I read, for example, that after Noah and the ark floated for 150 days on the waters of the flood, "God remembered Noah" (Gen 8:1). The point was not that God had a memory lapse in relation to Noah and the ark, and that after nearly six months the Lord suddenly thought of Noah again. No, the point is that now God set to work doing something about Noah and the ark; He "made a wind to pass over the earth" so that "the waters subsided". The Lord God commanded His people to sow blue-threaded "tassels on the corners of their garments" –why?- "that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them" (Num 15:38f). The tassels were to function as memory triggers in order that action might follows; they people were to "do" the commands of the Lord. I can multiply examples, but the point is that ‘remembering’ carries within it a power that leads to action. That’s the point in our text as well; as they contemplate the Promised Land, the people must "remember", and that act of remembering is to lead to particular action.
What, now, must Israel remember? Says Moses literally in our text: "you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these 40 years in the wilderness." The emphasis falls on the way, the path, and hence the manner, in which God led Israel after their exodus from Egypt.
The way. You may know, congregation, that the shortest way from Egypt to the Promised Land was along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; that route was known as "the way of the land of the Philistines" (Ex 13:17), and was the road the merchants used. The Lord, though, led them along a different route, involving a journey through the desert. It was a route involving many obstacles, as the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers illustrate. To mention a few: a brief three days after the people had crossed the Red Sea they ran out of drinking water, and the water they finally found in the desert –Marah- was bitter, not drinkable (Ex 15). Six weeks after their departure from Egypt, the people ran out of food – and were yet nowhere near the Promised Land. Yet what could the desert supply them?! (Ex 16). Marauding bands of desert brigands sought to terrorize the people; they were of themselves no match for these relentless Amalekites (Ex 17). I can go on illustrating the point; the way the Lord led Israel for forty long years was not an easy route.
Not, mind you, that the Lord had failed His people along this route. The bitter waters of Marah He sweetened with a log so that people could drink. The food crisis He solved by giving His people manna every morning. The Israelites saw His care for His people in the victory He gave over the Amalekites. Yes, He rose to His people’s defense time and again, supplied His people’s needs. For forty long years He led them along, day by day, showing the way with His cloud-of-glory, protecting His people, feeding His people, looking after His children.
That, says Moses, is what Israel must remember as they settle down on the fruitful hills and lush valleys of the Promised Land. They must "remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness," remember the water, the bread, the enemies. One wonders: why must Israel-in-their-prosperity-in-the-Land-of-Promise remember this route? That brings us to our second point:
2. The purpose of Israel’s history
What was the reason why the Lord led Israel along this route? The reason given in our text is this: "so that He might humble you, to test you and to know what was in your heart." The word ‘humble’ captures the notion of breaking one’s pride so that one knows oneself to be small and dependent. Implicit in the notion of ‘humbling’, then, is the thought that one isn’t broken to begin with. That, of course, is human nature; it’s in every person –of Israel’s time as well as today- to want to be self-sufficient, independent. But the Lord God saw fit to take this people out of their slavery in Egypt, and then, before settling them in the Promised Land, to lead them for forty years through the desert –why?- in order to break their hearts, to make them humble, and so to teach them dependence on Him.
How did the Lord humble Israel, break their pride, teach them dependence? The details follow in vs 3. Says Moses: God "allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know." Recall: the people left Egypt with their tucker-bags full. I say that because it wasn’t till the middle of the second month after the exodus that the people ran out of food – says Ex 16. Had the Lord led them along the coastal highway, that "way of the land of the Philistines", they’d have reached that promised ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ before their food ran out. But see, the route along which God led them saw them still a long ways away from ‘milk and honey’ by the time their supplies ran out. And the desert in which they found themselves was empty, with not a hope of supplying the needs of more than a million people. It wasn’t by accident that the people found themselves out of food in the barren desert; rather, their covenant God led them this way on purpose so that after six weeks they might hunger. And why hunger? So that He had opportunity to teach His people, teach them of His care, teach them to trust in Him. For His response was the promise of manna, a bread from heaven that would appear on the ground each morning, six days a week.
For our part, we’re familiar with the fact that Israel ate manna day by day for 40 years. But do you realize, brothers and sisters, that implicit in the daily gift of manna was the hard reality that Israel’s pantries were always empty? The sum total of their daily diet was manna, be it that they could make a variety of tasty dishes with it. But whatever manna they saved up for tomorrow bred worms – with the exception of manna saved up on Friday for the Sabbath. The fact that their pantries were empty six nights a week compelled the people each evening to trust that the Lord would supply tomorrow’s bread. That was the purpose of God’s decision to supply daily bread; the people should learn to trust in Him for daily needs. Since He was their God by covenant, they should learn to lay themselves contentedly in His hands without concern today for tomorrow’s needs; they should know that their God would certainly supply.
That is the point of Moses’ words in vs 3 of our chapter. "He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you manna …, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord." What keeps a man going: the food that’s in his pantry? Distinctly not; that food can breed worms! What keeps a man going? This, that the Lord supplies His needs! And how does the Lord supply the needs of His people? He speaks, He utters His word of command. He speaks, He says to Moses that Israel shall have manna, and lo, Israel has manna. He speaks, He says that water will appear from the rock, and lo, Israel has water. It happened at creation; God "spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast" (Ps 33:9; cf Ps 104:7). It happens in the course of history; "He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destruction" – says the psalmist of God’s redeeming activities to Israel (Ps 107:20; cf vs 25). The word of God is effective, powerful; "My word…shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please," says Isaiah (cf Is 55:11). What God’s people build their future on is not a pantry full of groceries or a barn full of provisions. What God’s people build their future on is the faithfulness of their God, and the conviction that this faithful God is powerful to accomplish the care He’s promised for His people. That’s the message that God impressed upon Israel those forty years in the desert; every morning their daily bread was there, for God never failed. And it wasn’t only bread He supplied, but for forty long years their clothes received no wear and tear, and the sharp edges of the desert stones did not wear out the sandals on their feet. Every day again was a lesson, every day was new instruction for Israel, instruction about the faithful, unending care of the God who mercifully claimed this people as His.
Our Lord Jesus Christ pointed up for us what the depth of this instruction really was. After Jesus had spent forty days in the wilderness with nothing to eat, the devil came to Him to tempt Him. He said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread" (Mt 4:3). How tempting! His God and Father had given Him nothing to eat for nearly seven weeks. With a stomach rumbling with hunger and so pressing on Jesus that His Father had rejected Him, how tempting it was for Jesus to claim His rights as the Son of God and show His authority over creation; let stones become bread to feed the Son of God! But what does Jesus say? He quotes Dt 8: "It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’" Jesus’ point? Though He was so hungry, His life did not depend on a dinner; though hungry His life depended on the grace and the care of His God. And that God was mighty to supply; He need but speak one word and a dinner fit for a king would be spread out on the desert floor for His Son. If this God withheld bread from His Son, should Jesus make it His business to take bread? How would that demonstrate trust in God?! That would show distrust, that would show you’re taking matters in your own hand, and that in turn would generate tension between yourself and God so that you bring upon yourself His curse and not His blessing. Jesus trusted, and therefore waited for God to supply His needs. And God did; in vs 11 we read that "angels came and ministered to Him."
See there, congregation, the intent of God’s instruction to Israel in the desert. Jesus learned well the lesson all Israel was to learn; we live from God’s hand. By His word of command He supplies our every need, and so it’s for us to trust in Him, to expect our needs from Him – and therefore not to think that our well being tomorrow depends on ourselves, on our initiatives and labors. So we find ourselves in our third point:
3. The lesson of Israel’s history
For forty years Israel’s empty pantries impressed on the people how dependent they were on the Lord. But the land on the other side of the river was –vs 7- "a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, that flow out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing." That’s to say: in that Promised Land your pantries will be well stocked; in that Promised Land you will today have sufficient for tomorrow.
That changed state-of-affairs brought with it for Israel its own challenges and temptations, and that’s specifically this: will you still depend on God in the same way as you had to depend on Him in the desert?? In the desert you were taught to live by the day, taught to believe that tomorrow the Lord would supply tomorrow’s need. In the midst of the prosperity and abundance of the Promised Land, will you remember that lesson? Or will it be –vs 12- that "when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and flocks multiply" that you will forget God, forget that it’s His hand that gives you these things?
You see what’s happening here, congregation? The Lord God judges that Israel has spent enough time in the school of the wilderness. Now God will take them across the Jordan, they will graduate from the desert to the Promised Land, and now God wants to see what Israel has learned about how life is, wants to see what Israel has learned about God’s faithfulness and their dependence on this God. Human nature is such that people want to be self-sufficient, but God’s labors in the desert these forty years was to teach His own something radically different. That’s now the question: have they learned?
As it is, there is evidence that Israel had not learned. But instead of looking at how Israel fared as post-graduates from the School of the Desert, we shall do well to look at ourselves. It wasn’t all that many years ago that our own pantries were empty, that our mothers had no clue where tomorrow’s food would come from. But poverty is not only an economic concept; it’s not that many years ago that the locals of our community had derisive names for us because we went faithfully to church on Sunday and started our own schools. And if I can go back a little further in history, it’s a mere two generations ago that our fathers were afflicted with war, and at the same time afflicted with spiritual oppression; I speak of the spiritual poverty before the Liberation of 1944. All of that –the empty pantries of the early migrants, the ridicule the fathers tasted, the spiritual poverty in the old country- all of that drove home the message that we were dependent on the Lord for every aspect of life; it was a school, the Lord was disciplining, teaching those who came before us.
But things have changed. We live in a land that is the envy of millions around the world. Our pantries are full and our retirements secure. The taunts and ridicule of the past have subsided. The spiritual poverty our fathers endured has been replaced by riches beyond compare; I need but mention the preaching of the gospel, the bible study clubs, the catechism classes, God-centered schools for the children, you name it. Shall we say: the Lord has graduated us from the School of the Desert.
But how do we fare? In the midst of our prosperity, of the blessings God in mercy has showered upon us, do we make it our business to "remember"? Remember, recall, involves action, involves specifically that we work with the lessons learned in the Desert. That’s to say that we show concretely our awareness that we are dependent on the Lord for our every need. It’s so tempting to conclude that our full pantries and our comfortable homes and our free days are the results of our own hard labor. But it isn’t so; we, like Israel of long ago, live by God’s word alone, and that’s to say that God commanded the manna to fall upon Israel’s tents each morning long ago and it’s equally to say that God in the Promised Land commanded the crops to grow in response to Israel’s labor, and similarly that God today commands His blessings on our labors so that there is food in abundance for us and warmth in our houses and reserves for our retirements. Our prosperity is not the fruit of the labors of our hands; we are as dependent on Him today as Israel was in the desert and our fathers were when they first arrived on Australian with scarcely a penny in their pockets. And that dependence has to show!
We’re so enormously blessed with the preaching of the gospel Sunday by Sunday, so enormously blessed with Bible study clubs, with catechism classes, with schools. We get so used to these gifts that we no longer think of the grace of God the moment we think of the preaching or the clubs or the schools; these gifts are just part of life. But it isn’t so; we, like Israel of long ago, live by God’s word alone, and that’s to say that God gives us the preaching of the gospel Sunday by Sunday, and God gives us the Bible study clubs and the catechism classes and the schools and the teachers, etc. Our spiritual wealth is not the fruit of the labors of our hands; we are as dependent on Him today as Israel was in the desert and as our fathers were when they had no ministers and there were no schools and they felt totally as strangers in a strange land.
"Remember", says the Lord, and that involves that we compare the riches of today with the poverty of yesterday, and then recognize how abundantly the Lord as blessed. "Remember", and that’s to say that we overflow with thanksgiving to this God who blesses so richly, and show that thankfulness by using His gifts for His glory – and not for our comfort (vs 10). After all, what we have comes not from the labors of our own hands!
That’s God’s will for us. But Thursday evening, at the Annual General Meeting of the Kelmscott John Calvin School, the chairman of the board told us plainly that the two congregations from which the Kelmscott school draws its pupils has the most arrears of all the congregations in the area. We’re also the worst in attracting new members for the school association. The chairman didn’t give any more details than that, but the admonition is plain enough – especially in light of the material of Dt 8. The fact of the matter is that the Lord gives us all so very much financial wealth. The question is: do we use it for our pleasures today, do we keep it for our needs tomorrow, or do we recognize that it’s the Lord who supplies our daily needs –one day at a time- and so it’s for me cheerfully to pay off my debts with the school, indeed, to give freely to the school for the education of God’s covenant children? Given the abundance we have, brothers and sisters, it’s ultimately not a matter of shortage but of trust. And the Lord promises to supply our needs – as long as we don’t forget Him.
Need I say anything more in relation to the statement we all received last week from the Committee of Management regarding church contributions and where we are in relation to the church budget? Given the abundance which the Lord has showered upon us –an abundance first of spiritual wealth in as much as we may be children of God by covenant, an abundance of spiritual wealth too in as much as we have received an incredibly rich heritage in biblical insight, an abundance also of financial wealth- it just cannot be that we don’t pay cheerfully, eagerly.
"Remember", says the Lord, and we recognize that we don’t remember the way we should; we fall so far short of His holy standard. But here I may remind you, beloved, of the perfect work of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the midst of His hunger in the desert, He "remembered" the lesson God taught Israel, and obeyed perfectly the command of the Lord. Because of Christ’s perfect obedience –in the desert as well as on the cross- the Lord God has made His covenant of grace with sinners. And the Lord says to these sinners that He cares for us more than He does for the birds of the bush and the flowers of the field.
That promise of care, beloved of the Lord, is every encouragement to keep trusting in the Lord for your daily needs. So, show your trust by sharing your wealth freely and giving it away readily. "Remember" how you got what you have today! Amen.