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Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Love of God (Deuteronomy 7.6-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - June 2, 2013
:: Some Music Used
Prelude: Video* on Deuteronomy 7:9
Hymn of Praise: "Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past" (ST. ANNE)
The Word in Music: "God's Not Dead" (video*)
(Newsboys; acap arr. Youngblood)

Offering of Music: "Lamb of God" (Paris/arr. Lloyd Larson)

Song of Preparation: "Break Thou the Bread/Come Feast"
(arr. Younblood)

Song of Sending: "One Pure and Holy Passion" (Altrogge)
Postlude: "Postlude on 'St. Anne'" (Westendorf)

For the sermon, scroll past the videos 

We sang this in morning worship and then in the afternoon at the men's shelter (Rebound) in Charlotte!

"The Love of God"
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Text: Deuteronomy 7:6-13

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are beginning a summer series called “Soak in the Word.” Each week we will be focusing on a “verse every Christian should know” in hope that by the end of the summer you will have a core set of 15 scripture verses held deeply and dearly within. We want to do more than just preach on these, though; we want to help you learn them and take them to heart. One such way is to memorize them, so we’ll be working on that together, from reciting the verse together as the Call to Worship to learning scripture songs to bulletin covers and more. We’ll have take-home cards available each week with the verse of the week printed on it so you can put these on your bathroom mirror, car dash, wallet, purse, or wherever you might see it frequently. We’d encourage you to say the verse frequently, pray through the verse, incorporating the key words and themes into your prayers of adoration and praying for others. In short, this summer we hope to join together as a church family and “soak” in God’s Word, which is so vital to a living, growing, healthy faith.

This series was also born out of one other reality, that often we hear and learn some of these key verses and do so out of the context in which they were written. So, we learn that “I know the plans I have for you, to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11) and we think that means God will make us rich or successful, missing the very important context about God’s people fearing God’s judgment in Exile and not seeing how and why God is using them there to fulfill the covenant promises to Abraham. We’ll get to that one later this summer! The point is that scripture always needs to be read and studied (and memorized!) in context, so we want to focus on these verses each week in context so that we don’t take the wrong idea away and lock THAT into our hearts.

Today our key verse is Deuteronomy 7:9. We’ve already worked together on learning it in the Call to Worship, but I invite you to say it again with me now:

Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.

Conditional Love?

This verse is so important because it describes who God is and what He has done.

God is GOD, first and foremost. This is in contrast to the many so-called ‘gods’ of the surrounding cultures in ancient times. After naming Yahweh-God as THE one and only true God, this verse goes on to describe God as FAITHFUL. We might ask, “Faithful in what way and to whom?” God is faithful to His covenant and faithful in showing lovingkindness to the generations of His people. Said another way, God is faithful because He is loyal and loving toward His people. All this is framed by the first word, KNOW. This is what God’s people should know. This is what God’s people need to know. This is more than just knowing a fact, but a foundational, core, mind-heart-soul knowledge of what is and what will be, because it is about God, the eternal one. Know this, people of God: God is God, faithfully loyal and loving to you!

This is a key verse to learn, to be sure. But how could it go wrong? What’s to misunderstand in that? I think the main place where this verse can be misunderstood is around the nature of God’s love. Do we have to do something to earn it? Is it conditional?

Saying Yahweh-God was the only God was neither obvious nor unimportant to say in the ancient times. Most cultures and peoples had many gods for many things (crops, fertility, weather, etc…) and much of life was taken up with trying to please the many gods to enjoy blessing rather than cursing. If there was a drought, the god of rain must be angry, so one needed to sacrifice and worship and try to please that god to receive the needed rain. If one was infertile, the fertility goddess must be angry, so one needed to please her and seek her blessing. Love is probably not the right word to describe either the god-to-human relationship or the human-to-god relationship of those times, but the favor of those gods was all-important and very conditional.

This verse might sound like it is saying something similar, that God’s activity, faithfulness, and lovingkindness is bound up with human love and obedience, reserved for and conditional upon “those who love Him and keep His commandments.” Particularly notice the end of the full passage we read today: “…because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, …the Lord your God will… love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you.” (vv. 12-13) Isn’t this just the same as the gods of the day? Isn’t this just about acting in such a way that God will reward us and we will prosper? In order to receive God’s loyalty and love and blessing, must we first love Him and keep His commandments? Have you seen how many commandments there are? Doesn’t the Bible say that keeping all of the commandments perfectly is impossible?

Unconditional Love?

Well breathe deeply, God’s love is NOT conditional upon our love and obedience. Good thing, right? As we’ve already seen, Yahweh-God, the only God, is being distinguished from the so-called ‘gods’ of the day. His faithfulness, loyalty, and love are different and not dispensed whimsically or in response to human worship or behavior. And God’s love is not conditional upon human greatness. See there in verse 7? “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” Rather keep reading, God “set His love on you… because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers…” (v. 8). That’s the covenant, the one God made with Abraham.

In addition to being distinguished from so-called fertility and weather gods, Yahweh-God’s relationship to His people is defined through a COVENANT. So that phrase, “who keeps His covenant” is critical in understanding the nature of God’s faithfulness, loyalty, and love. That’s what is in view when the scripture describes God “keeping His oath.” (v. 8) God keeps the covenant and His people are to “listen to His judgments” and “keep His commandments.” We’ll need to understand the nature and relationship of covenants, judgments, and commandments, to understand what this verse means.

Before I get to covenant, judgments, and commandments, let me raise this question: If God’s love is not conditional, does it mean that God’s faithfulness, loyalty, and love are “unconditional?” Overall, that probably would be better than thinking God’s love is conditional on us, but it’s still not quite right. The New Testament warns against an understanding of God’s love and grace that leads us into free-for-all sin. Paul exclaims several times, “May it never be!” If, by “unconditional,” you think that our love and obedience toward God is of no importance, then you are in a very dangerous place. God does indeed love you anyway, but you risk self-destruction in not listening to and KNOWING who God is and what God has done. And that’s the point of this memory verse! It is that we would hear and KNOW who God is and what He has done. That does not lead to free-for-all disregard of God, but a deep and profound gratitude toward God.  So let’s look at God’s love not as “conditional love” or “unconditional love” but as “covenantal love.”

Covenantal Love

A covenant is almost completely alien to us. The ancient near-eastern covenant was a thing of life and death, a relationship pledged – vowed – between two people, with failure to uphold the oath penalized by death. One’s god was invoked as a witness.

There are two remaining examples of that kind of covenant that I can think of in modern times. One seems light and whimsical; the other one of our most meaningful practices. The first is that playground oath, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Though the setting is often the playground or the tree house and the participants are kids, it is among the most serious vows one can make, usually used either to say, “I’m telling you the truth” or “I promise to do something.” Do you hear the covenant language in there? With a witness and a physical gesture, one makes an oath with the direst of consequences if it’s broken.

And then there is marriage. It is intended to be a covenant, “Till death do us part.” It involves witnesses, physical actions and signs (giving of rings), calling upon God as witness, and the most serious of vows: “In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse… until death do us part.” It is a helpful analogy to understanding God’s covenant in some ways, and particularly one which I will highlight. It is not helpful because we have in many instances, exchanged marriage covenant language for marriage contract language. Sometimes, through prenuptial agreement, contractual terms are established even prior to marriage. More often, we revert to contractual – or conditional – behavior in our relationships: “I will love you if…”; “I will love her when…” Marriage is not my focus today, but the limitations on understanding covenantal marriage will also limit our easy understanding of God’s covenantal love for us.

But, however imperfectly we live it out, I think most people still are drawn to those marriage vows. We are stirred by the beauty of them. And that’s what God’s covenantal love is like. By way of reminder, when God cut the covenant with Abraham, it was not an “even” (bi-lateral) covenant. In that way it was different from marriage. It was unilateral… God chose Abraham and pledged Himself in love and loyalty. And God called on His own name (since God was the only God) as witness, pledging His own life should He abandon His vows. One of the most moving things to realize is that in order to keep that covenant with such an unfaithful partner as humanity, God indeed did give His own life, with Himself as witness in Jesus’ death on the cross!  But, that is also not our main focus this morning.

Our main focus is the love of God, best described as “covenantal love.” The love God has pledged, by way of life-and-death oath, is “in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse.” And because God is God, not even death will separate us from that love. “What can separate us?” asks Paul in Romans 8:35. Nothing will.

Whither Obedience?

God pledges to remain faithful, whether His people are faithful or not.  To be sure, there are consequences if His children are disobedient. That is part of a covenant and it’s part of any healthy relationship. In biblical covenant language, those are called blessings and curses.  But God will not abandon His Word and promise; God will prove faithful to this promise.

So, in simple terms, God keeps the covenant and we keep the commandments. Commandments are simply the ways in which the covenant is honored. In the marriage analogy, where two people have made a covenant; they are both expected to keep the “commandments” with each other, from the mundane of speaking with kindness to the profound break of infidelity. In themselves, keeping or breaking the commandments cannot break the covenant. It is stronger than that. But when two human beings are involved, the ways in which we honor or dishonor our covenant can profoundly affect the quality of our life together. So that is the role of commandment-keeping, to result in a better quality of covenant life. That’s what scripture means by “blessing.” It is the fruit of honoring God’s covenantal love; not a reward, but a fruit. God’s commandments are for our prospering, not a carrot on a stick with the stick ready for punishment otherwise.

Can we test God’s patience? Yes, to be sure. But where another human being would break and long give up on us, God will not. If you don’t believe that, read the Old Testament. God’s enduring faithfulness is well-documented… as is the self-inflicted misery of those who dishonor that amazing covenantal love.

If you are following the scripture closely, you will also notice the part in v. 10 about “those who hate [God].” That also needs to be understood in context and we are about “contexted out” for our time today. In short, it is describing the pagan peoples in the Promised Land who worship those fertility, weather, and other gods. That idolatry is understood as complete rejection of Yahweh-God and excludes those people from the covenant. Having said that and even with the promised and realized defeat of those peoples, God does make provision for those non-Israelites who do recognize God’s hand and trust Him, like Rahab and her household in Jericho. She actually becomes part of the line of Jesus Christ! And for those WITHIN the covenant, even hate of God is not enough to break God’s covenantal love, though it certainly wreaks havoc in the lives of those who are so intent to turn from it (think of the prodigal son!).

All this is to say two things. The first is the point of our summer series, that many times reading just one verse of scripture can be misleading. Always try to understand the fuller context and you will be left with a memorable verse solidly anchored in biblical truth.

Secondly, today we learned a verse about the love of God. It is not conditional upon us, nor really unconditional as unrelated to us; but God’s love is covenantal – faithful, loyal, and true, able to endure generations and continue to call people toward God’s mercy and grace. Our obedience is related to that covenantal love, not a condition of it but a fruit of blessing to those who honor the covenant.

God loves you! How might you honor that love in your own life today and tomorrow? Amen.

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