Remaining Faithful in the Midst of Success, Deuteronomy 6

“Remaining Faithful in the Midst of Success”

Deuteronomy 6

December 4, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

We come to Deuteronomy 6 this morning. And as we hear the text, you may recognize some portions that may be especially familiar. But this morning I’d like to especially consider those verses in the context of the chapter as a whole.

And as we do that, we’ll ask three questions of the text. We’ll ask: What is the goal the Lord holds out here for his people? What is the threat to that goal? And what is the solution offered?

With that in mind, let’s hear now from our text, Deuteronomy chapter six.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

Moses said to the people:

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord [that Yahweh] your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear Yahweh your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

“Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 “And when Yahweh your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 It is Yahweh your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for Yahweh your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of Yahweh your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

16 “You shall not put Yahweh your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. 17 You shall diligently keep the commandments of Yahweh your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. 18 And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of Yahweh, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that Yahweh swore to give to your fathers 19 by thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as Yahweh has promised.

20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that Yahweh our God has commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And Yahweh showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And Yahweh commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear Yahweh our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before Yahweh our God, as he has commanded us.’

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Prayer of Illumination

Lord, you have dealt well with us,

just as you have promised in your word.

Teach us now good judgment and knowledge,

for we believe in your word to us – your commandments and your testimonies.

You are good and you do good,

teach us your ways.

We know that your word to us in the Scriptures is of more value for us

than thousands of pieces of gold and silver.

Help us now to treat it and attend to it as such.

Grant this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.

[Based on Psalm 119:65, 66, 68, 72]

Introduction

So three questions:

  • What is the goal of the text?
  • What is the threat we are warned of in the text?
  • And what is the solution offered by the text?

The Goal

First, what is the goal of the text?

And what we see is that the goal of the text is faithfulness for salvation. The goal is that God’s people would remain faithful to the Lord for their salvation – for their good and for God’s glory.

And that goal comes up repeatedly in this text, though it’s stated most clearly in verses four and five – often referred to as the Shema. There we read: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Love for God is the goal.

And the love for God that Moses holds out as our goal is an all-encompassing love. We are to love God not with just one aspect of ourselves, but with every aspect of ourselves. And we are to love God not just with part of ourselves, but will all of ourselves: to love him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might. That is what true faithfulness to the Lord looks like, and that call to faithfulness is repeated in this text – it comes up again in verses seventeen and eighteen, and then again in verses twenty-four and twenty-five.

And, of course, this call to love God doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is a call for God’s people to rightly respond to what God has already done for them. [Barker, 342] God has shown great love and faithfulness towards Israel, by rescuing them from Egypt, as Moses points out in verses twenty-one through twenty-three. And now Moses calls on them to respond rightly to the Lord.

And what could be more fitting? If God has done such great things for them – delivering them from slavery and hopelessness in Egypt, and bringing them to a land of blessing, then it is only right and proper that they should respond to God with love and dedication. God has been faithful and loving to them. And they, in turn, should be faithful and loving to him.

And we would want the same thing in our own lives. We don’t want to be people who take the gifts of others for granted. We don’t want to be ungrateful people. We don’t want to be unfaithful to those who have been faithful to us. And so Moses is not calling Israel and he’s not calling us to anything we already wouldn’t want to be. The goal is that we be a faithful, and therefore a thankful, people towards the Lord. The goal would be that we would be people who are characterized by love toward God with our entire being.

That’s the first thing we see here – the goal of our text.

That said, we know that most people’s lives are not saturated with love towards God. We know that our own lives are often not characterized by love towards God. We may wonder why that is.

Which brings us to our second point …

The Threat

Second, what is the threat that Moses holds out for our consideration here? What is the thing that gets in the way of our having a proper love for God?

And what we see is that the threat that Moses holds out is forgetfulness in the midst of success. The threat Moses warns of here is that in the midst of their success, God’s people will forget who God is and what he has done for them.

And this is important, because we often think of times of loss or suffering as being moments where our faith might be under threat. But Moses here is focused on how success may cause us to forget our God.

After all, success is what’s in view here. In verse three Moses points out that his focus is on what will happen once the Israelites have entered the promised land, a land that he describes as “flowing with milk and honey.” And as Daniel Block explains, that phrase is meant to communicate the spontaneous blessing of the land. In the wilderness, Israel depended on miraculous provisions of mana. In Egypt, the land had to be intentionally irrigated to yield anything. But milk and honey are both sources of nourishment that are produced spontaneously – humans don’t need to cultivate them … just to gather them. And this would be a land characterized by such blessings. [Block, 178]. In our day we take plentiful and convenient food for granted. In the ancient world people could not. By entering the promised land, Israel was about to receive more material provision, success, and comfort than any of them had in their lives so far. That is the context Moses is speaking about.

And it would be a time of blessings not only of food, but, he says in verses ten and eleven, Israel would receive “great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant” where the people could eat and be full. It would be a place of such blessing that Moses says in verses twenty and following, Israel’s children will have no recollection of slavery. They will need to remind one another of their past struggles and oppression. Such things will be a distant memory. That is the success and blessing that Moses knows awaits Israel.

All of those are good things – they are gifts from God. But Moses also recognizes that they pose a danger for Israel. The danger is that they will forget what God has done. The danger is that they will forget the story that led them to that place.

We see this in verses eleven and twelve. Moses says, when they enter that land with all its blessings, when they experience that success and satisfaction, he says: “when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

As Paul Barker puts it, the forgetting in view here is “less a memory problem than a moral one.” [Barker, 342] It is a faithlessness. It is a rewriting of their own story that leaves out the most important causes for why Israel is experiencing the blessings they currently have. And it even goes so far as to give credit for their success to others – either to themselves or to the pagan gods of the Canaanites.

We might wonder how such a thing could even be possible – how could Israel forget the Lord, who acted to save them from slaver and oppression in Egypt and deliver them to a new land. Surely every good thing they experienced from that moment on they should know they owe to him. And yet such forgetfulness is not so uncommon for most of us.

In 2007 the social scientist Robert Frank was playing tennis with a friend when he had a massive heart attack. One author summarized what followed like this: After he collapsed, Robert Frank’s “friend dialed 911, and the dispatcher called for an ambulance. Emergency vehicles were usually sent from a location miles away and would’ve taken thirty to forty minutes to get to the tennis courts, but as it happened, two ambulances had just reported to the scene of two different car accidents only a minute from where Frank was lying motionless. One of those ambulances was able to peel away, get to Frank immediately, and save his life. Frank later learned he had suffered from [something called] ‘sudden cardiac death’ – a […] medical condition that is 98 percent fatal, and the few who do survive it often have intense and lasting side effects, which he did not.”

When Frank awoke and learned what happened he had the shocking realization that every good thing that happened in his life from that moment on, he owed to the unmerited good fortune of having that extra ambulance at the right place at the right time. Every blessing, even every accomplishment he achieved, from then on should be attributed to that good fortune of that moment – because without that, he’d be dead. He owed everything to being unexpectedly saved in the way he was. [Schur, 229]

But one thing Robert Frank soon observed is that most people didn’t think like he did. Most people tend to be more forgetful of the unmerited favor that lay behind their own lives and their own success. And because he was a social scientist, Frank developed this beyond an anecdotal observation and into a hypothesis that many people not only tend to forget the role of unmerited blessings in their lives, but they tend to rewrite the story of their lives in their minds, to give themselves more credit for the good things they have in life. [Schur, 230]

And you can see this pattern in your own mind, can’t you? When your family is doing well, and you stop for a moment to consider that … or when your career takes off to the next level … or when your finances grow, or you experience some other level of success in life, then how do you tend to think about how you got there? If you really stopped and you really broke down the events that led to that, you would see all sorts of special providences – of unmerited good fortune that contributed to what you have. But most of the time you forget about that, don’t you? Most of the time you don’t see that … but you only see your own accomplishments … right? You look at your success and you think “Look what I did.”

That’s a mistake when it comes to the earthly and mundane successes of life. But Moses here warns us that we can do it with the cosmic realities of our lives too.

When the Lord rescued Israel from slavery to Egypt, from that moment on, they owed every good blessing they received to him. Because without him, they would still be slaves in Egypt.

And in the very same way, if the Lord has called you to himself – if he has brought you to know him, and he has rescued you from slavery to sin and death, then from that moment on, you owe every good blessing that you receive to him – from now and into eternity. As Christians, we should live our lives in constant recognition of that fact. And yet … shockingly … we tend to forget that. We tend to drop that out of the story. We tend to make it about us.

When we do something good … when we act in a good way or we exhibit self-control … or our faithfulness results in things going well in our life, we tend to attribute that to ourselves. But when we do that, we forget that if the Lord had not saved us, and if the Lord had not been with us, then we never would have even had the opportunity to act in that way or to have our life go well as it has.

It would be folly for Israel to forget the Lord in the promised land – as if they had just suddenly appeared there. But it is equally foolish for us to pat ourselves on the back for our accomplishments in this life – spiritual or otherwise – as if the Lord were not the one who had made it all possible, but making us his own, and working in our lives.

And yet where do you do that? How do you forget what you owe the Lord? How do you edit out of your story the role that God has played in bringing into your life every blessing that you have received?

How do you see yourself forgetting the Lord in the midst of success? That is the threat that Moses warns us of here in this passage.

The Solution

So we see the goal, we see the threat. Third, and finally, what is the solution that is offered here by the text?

And what we see is that Moses calls on God’s people to fix their lives within the full story of Scripture. Moses calls on us, and all of God’s people, to fix their understanding of their lives, within the full story of Scripture.

And there are several ways that Moses calls us to do that.

The first is reading God’s word. There’s a lot of ways that we can and should attend to God’s word in our lives. We do that when we gather together here on the Lord’s Day. We can do that even more when we decide to gather twice on the Lord’s Day – both morning and evening. We can also do that by having a daily time set aside for reading Scripture, as many Christians do.

All of that is true. But interestingly, our text focuses more on how we fill our minds in other moments of life. We see this in verses seven through nine. Moses there calls on God’s people to be attentive to God’s word not just in those special moments that have been set aside, but in all sorts of moments. He calls on them to attend to God’s word when they are out walking, and when they are at home sitting. He calls on them to put God’s word before them both at their doorposts and at their gates. Commentators may debate the details of what these commands entailed, but the overarching theme is that  God’s word was supposed to show up again and again in the people’s daily lives. It was supposed to be with them at all times, and they were supposed to direct their minds to it again and again.

Which begs the question: What do you tend to fill your mind with as you go through your day?

When there is quiet, when there is a pause or a mental lull, what do you tend to turn to? Is it ever the Word of God? Do you ever direct your thoughts to God’s word? In those moments of mental lull, when you pick up your phone, how often is it to open your Bible app to turn, for a few minutes to God’s word, or to listen to a sermon … and how often instead is it to fill your mind with something empty and vacuous?

The first thing Moses calls us to do here is to take those moments of life, and to fill them with God’s word.

Second, Moses calls us not just to listen to, and to think about God’s word, but to discuss it. In verse seven he calls on us to talk with one another about his word. Do you have such spiritual conversations with those closest to you? If you have a Christian family, does your family discuss the things of God? When you interact with Christian friends, how often do you actually speak of God? If you have a Christian spouse, do you speak about God together as if God is a real person and a real factor in your life together? Whoever it may be, how might you cultivate more discussion about God and his word with the Christians the Lord has placed in your life?

Third, Moses calls us to draw from the Scriptures to remember where we came from. That is what Moses tells us in verses twenty through twenty-three. He says: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that Yahweh our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And Yahweh showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.”

Moses’s point here is that we need to remember where we came from. We need to remember what God saved us from.

If you came to Christ later in life, this will mean remembering what your life was like before that – when sin had more dominion over you. You need to remember that you did not save yourself from that state, but it was the Lord who rescued you. And without him you would still be a slave to sin.

But if you have always been a Christian, for as long as you can remember, then this applies to you too. After all, Moses here is addressing how the Israelites should speak to their covenant children – children who never knew slavery in Egypt themselves. But in these instructions, Moses calls them to imagine what their lives would have been like if the Lord had not acted in their lives as he had.

An Israelite child could imagine that had the Lord not acted, he would still be in Egypt. He would be a slave there. His life would be hard and miserable. He had never experienced that first-hand, but Moses here calls on him to imagine it – to realize where he would be had the Lord not acted in the lives of his ancestors. And such thinking should have increased his appreciation for what the Lord had done for him. It would be helpful for him to use his imagination of what his life would be like if God had not brought his family out of Egypt generations earlier.

And the same is true for you if you grew up as a Christian, in a Christian home. Don’t take that for granted. But think back. Consider your parents. You know their struggles and their sins. What would they have been like if they had not been Christians – if the Lord had not rescued them from their slavery to sin? How would your life have been different? More than that, you know your own sins and struggles – if you had never known the Lord, what would you have been like – what would you be like now?

Moses here calls us to remember where we came from and where we would be now, had the Lord not acted to rescue us.

Moses here calls us to take God’s word to heart. That means turning our attention to it again and again throughout the day. It means discussing it regularly with one another. It means letting it remind us again and again how different our lives would be had the Lord not intervened. This is Moses’s antidote to our spiritual forgetfulness – our tendency to edit the Lord’s work out of our lives. We need to hear God’s word, and to discuss God’s word, and to reframe how we see our own lives in light of God’s word … lest we foolishly forget what all we have now, we own not to ourselves, but to him.

How do you need to more firmly fix your life within the full story of Scripture in your own mind? How do you need to remind yourself daily of what God has done for you, that you might not forget him in the midst of your blessings, but might instead respond to him with love and with thanks?

That is Moses’s calling on us in this text.

Conclusion

And it is a calling we should especially take to heart now – in the season of Advent and Christmas.

Because our culture tends to have this kind of forgetfulness when it comes to Christmas … and often we as Christians can do the same thing.

Perhaps the greatest indication of that forgetfulness is that those who are comfortable and successful in our culture tend to experience Christmas as a sort of capstone on a good and successful year … while those who have experienced suffering … or failure … or loss … tend to experience Christmas as a time of emotional distress. For them Christmas can become a mental health crisis.

So, the satisfied experience Christmas as a capstone on their satisfaction, while the struggling experience it as one more disappointment.

What’s striking is that this is the exact opposite of how those closest to the first Christmas understood it.

It’s harder to imagine anyone closer to the first Christmas than Mary herself. She gave birth to Jesus. And not only that, but she had Jesus’s conception and birth explained to her by a literal angel. But even more important than that, she knew the Scriptures. And she remembered the Scriptures. And then she explained how we should respond to the birth of Christ in light of the Scriptures.

And she said this – she proclaimed:

 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Whereas we so often see Christmas as a time for those satisfied with their lives here to feel even more satisfied … and those unhappy with their lives here to feel even more acutely their unhappiness … Mary sees Christmas as a time for those who are unsatisfied, those who are suffering, those who are struggling, to be greatly encouraged … and those who are satisfied to be warned lest they find their satisfaction too much in the things of this world.

And the reason for the gap between how Mary thinks of Christmas and how we often think about it is that we tend to think of this season as a truncated story about us and our own lives, but Mary centers it on the Lord. Mary centers it on the Scriptures. In that way, Mary has followed Moses’s advice in our text, whereas our culture is often like the forgetful Israelites.

Mary remembers that the world we live in is broken – it has been damaged and degraded by sin, which has touched every person’s life.

But she also remembered that the Lord had promised to act. And in the coming of Jesus, he would.

And so the first Christmas was not a reaffirmation of the wins and losses of this world, but in many ways an overturning of them.

And so, if you have suffered loss, then Christmas is a time for hope, because it is a reminder that we have a God who acts, and our earthly losses are not the end of the story. It means that if you have suffered disappointment in this world, then you still have reason for joy and eager expectation, because God, in the incarnation, has broken into the world, and by doing so he has offered us far more than this world can ever give us or take away from us. It means that if you are weighed down by your sins and failures, then the hope of grace is a real offer to you, because Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – even the foremost of sinners. It means that if you have made a mess of your life, then you can have hope rather than despair, because Christ has come into the world to make all things new. That is what Christmas – rightly understood – has to say to you if you are struggling.

But it also has words for those who are satisfied with their lives in this world. All good things come from God – that is true. But Mary warns those who have been blessed in this life not to place their ultimate hope in those blessings. As Mary sees it, Christmas is a word of warning to the self-satisfied: the goods of this life will one day pass away, and you will stand before your Maker. Are you ready for that? Have you come to him in repentance and faith … or have you presumed upon his kindness? To those seeking their fulfillment in the things of this world, Christmas is a call to repent. It is a warning that there is more to life than the world we see. It is a warning that the things of this world cannot satisfy. It is a warning that the things of this world cannot last. It is a reminder that God himself has come into the world in order to seek us – God the Son gave up his place in heaven to seek out you and me. And so it is a call for us to put aside our comforts and fixations in this world in order to seek him and know him. That is the warning and the calling of Christmas, if we understand it within the full story of the Bible.

Left to ourselves we can forget this. Left to ourselves, we can recast Christmas as a time of vague sentiments and nostalgia. But as Moses urges us, the Scriptures can help us remember. The Scriptures can help us see things aright. And that is as true of this season as it is of our lives.

Christmas is a reminder that God has acted. And Christmas is a reminder that in coming once, Christ has promised to come again. And when he does, he will make all things new.

He will, as Mary tells us, show strength with his arm;

he will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

he will bring down the mighty from their thrones

and he will exalt those of humble estate;

he will fill the hungry with good things,

and the rich and self-satisfied he will send away empty.

He will help his people,

in remembrance of his mercy,

just as he promised to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

That is what the Lord has done.

That is what the Lord will do.

That is good news.

Let us not forget it.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Schur, Michael. How to Be Perfect: A Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2022/

Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

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