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Proper 17B 1st Reading

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Books on spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation continue to thrive as publishers crank out page upon page that invite us to draw closer and closer to the God we know in Jesus Christ. Honestly, I’m a huge fan. In my nerdy, organized library, I keep my this section within closest reach. As pastors, preachers, and lay leaders committed to seeing ourselves and others continue to grow and develop spiritually, there are few among us for whom this subject is not a burning priority. Which book or program, ancient practice or new insight, might shape us and our people into the image God desires to display in his people?

While it may seem like an oversimplification or massive understatement, our lectionary reading from Deuteronomy suggests the original plan for spiritual formation in the life of God’s people begins with God’s Law, the Torah. One might even say that it is this Torah through which all the other spiritual practices of God’s people emerge. In the Torah, God’s people receive instruction on feasting, fasting, corporate worship, service to others, confession and restoration (through sacrifice), etc. And while this spiritual formation appears in a way that does not necessarily look programmatic, in the Torah, we are invited to believe that through its observance the people of God are shaped and formed to be God’s special people.

The trouble is that at first glance, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday can appear somewhat bland. It sounds like the same old chorus repeated time and again in the Torah, and especially in Deuteronomy: “Hear, listen and do, all of these commands!” This familiarity may make preachers hesitant to tackle this text that has no action, drama, and seems like a rerun in the reflections of Moses. But the real gem for this text hides in plain sight and provides a interesting preaching path.

In this midst of all Moses’ urgent calls to follow God’s law, Patrick Miller takes particular interest in the somewhat strange interjection of 4:7 – “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?” With all this talk about following the law, keeping the commands, diligently observing the statutes, Moses’ speech seems to derail – if only for a moment – with a reference to God’s nearness. But what at first glance appears out of place, actually develops more fully later on in Deuteronomy as an important theme: following the Torah leads us into the presence of God.[1]

Miller notes that this nearness of God found in observance of his laws stands in contrast to all of the other ways in which we are accustomed to seeing God at work in the lives of his people. Think of the many ways stories in which God’s presence manifests itself in the ark with the divine presence and power residing in that particular object.[2] Brueggemann adds to the ark other items typically associated with the presence/nearness of God, like the tent, tabernacle, temple, and even the very name of God.[3] Like Israel, we know these images and stories, and we expect to see God’s glory revealed in each. But do we typically expect this of the law, and adherence to it? Miller points out that this text would be particularly meaningful to those in exile who had no access to the divine presence through these typical mediums.[4] One wonders if such a connection might be just as meaningful for the church today, a church that does not witness God’s presence appearing in flashy signs and grandiose technicolor displays like we might imagine or wish for. Rather than having a church that laments their inability to experience such nearness to God, we might do well to invite God’s people to believe that as they obey God’s call upon their lives, then they too can see his presence living among them. God lives among us, and we draw near to him, as we obey and follow. For other passages in Deuteronomy that further develop this theme, notice the nearness of God in 4:9-14 as he speaks the commandments at Horeb, 5:4-21 with the nearness of God in giving the law to his people,[5] and 30:11-14 on the nearness of God’s commandment.[6]

In an interesting historical juxtaposition, Telford Wok points out that this nearness of Israel’s God serves as an ironic foil to the idols that they so often lured them into idolatry.[7] He notes that “idols are intrinsically near to their makers and worshipers.”[8] It is not the product of their hands and labor that draws them closer to god, regardless of whether or not they can sit and stare at such idols or even embrace them in times of difficulty. What truly draws one close to the God who formed the world, called a people out of Egypt, and saved them from slavery is their commitment to walk in his ways and follow his commands. Again, our contemporary context is ripe for preaching such themes, since so much of what we have in contemporary North American culture seems infinitely closer and able to provide fulfillment than the God of scriptures. But Deuteronomy dares God’s people of old and those in the present to believe that anything else that offers fulfillment, peace, or any other such promises is nothing but a useless idol. To draw near to God, one must submit to his authority and observe his laws.

In the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, such a connection between law and the nearness of God is even more easily discerned. In Christ, we receive a call to fulfill all of God’s law through our observance of the law of love, loving God, our neighbors, and each other in Christ’s church. The Wesleyan tradition teaches that this adherence to the law of love embodies that call of God’s people to be holy as God is holy, and that our progression towards holiness actually draws us closer and closer to our God. As we continue to be sanctified, or as we more faithfully fulfill Christ’s law of love, we move close to God, experiencing his nearness and presence. Deuteronomy encourages us to preach that obeying this law still draws the people of God near to him and into the divine presence. This serves as often overlooked, but essential, discipline in our spiritual formation.

For those who are liturgically minded and history buffs, it is interesting to note the collect for this Sunday (14th Sunday after Trinity) found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This prayer serves as a particularly powerful reminder that we might all share in the nearness of God we experience as we follow his commands, especially Christ’s law of love:

Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May God bless you as you preach and teach this Sunday!

[1] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, pgs. 54-57,Miller points out this interesting connection in his commentary on the text, and I am indebted to him for his insight on God’s nearness and presence in the observance of the Torah.

[2] Miller, pgs. 56-57.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pg. 53.

[4] Miller, 57.

[5] J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy, Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2002, pg. 105.

[6] Miller, 56.

[7] Telford Wok, Deuteronomy, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009, pg 61.

[8] Ibid.

About the Contributor

Kristopher Adams

Children’s Pastor at Rogers First Church of the Nazarene in Rogers, Arkansas.