Deuteronomy Part 1: The Tender Wilderness

Introduction: Why Deuteronomy?

Hello everybody,
this is my first time speaking at the new All Nations service.
I think it’s going to be lots of fun.
 
It has been said,
the Bible is simple enough for a baby to paddle in,
but deep enough for an elephant to swim in.
 
The morning Global service is a bit like stage one Bible – splashing in the shallows.
All Nations is like stage two – going out deeper, where the elephants swim!
 
Mike said, I can talk about whatever I want!
I thought, that’s great
I can dig into the Bible, go exploring, and tell you guys what I have discovered!
 
So take your Bibles, and turn to the contents page.
Most of my messages will be from the fifth book, in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy.
Why do I want to study Deuteronomy?
Look at what these Bible scholars say:
 
“Deuteronomy is the heartbeat of the Old Testament.” (Chris Wright, 1996) [i]
 
“Few books take one so directly to the heart of Israel’s faith” (Patrick Miller, 1990).
 
So Deuteronomy can help us understand the whole Old Testament.
And what’s more,
Deuteronomy can help us understand Jesus![ii]
For example, who knows the story of when Jesus was tempted by the devil?
Three times Jesus answered with an Old Testament verse from the same book – guess which one?
Yes, Deuteronomy!
 
Deuteronomy can help us understand the Bible and Jesus,
And Deuteronomy can help us understand ourselves.
It’s got a lot about our struggles in life and our relationship with God.
It’s all about the “heart and soul”.
Understanding the Bible, Jesus, ourselves.  That sounds a pretty good package doesn’t it!
 

The Background: The Promise and Egypt

Before we dive into Deuteronomy, I want to quickly tell the story that comes before it
 
The first book of the bible is Genesis.
in Genesis 12,
God spoke to an old man called Abraham, somewhere around 2000 BC
he has no children, but God made him a promise.
 
The promise had three parts:
One: you will have many descendants, who will become a great people.
Two: these descendants will have a good rich land to live in.
Three: I will bless them and bless others through them
 
Then the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “I will give this land to your descendants….
I will bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore… And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed
Genesis 12:7, 22:17-18
 
“all nations”-hey!  That’s the name of our service!
 
Look at us – people from China and Japan and Korea and Malaysia and Thailand and New Zealand.
this is part of what God promised Abraham 4000 years ago:
God’s blessing to Abraham’s descendants coming to All Nations!
 
 
The whole Bible, and especially Deuteronomy, is really about God fulfilling this promise
Abraham had a son called Isaac.
Isaac had a son called Jacob.
At the end of Genesis, Jacob’s family go down to the land of Egypt.
 
 
And we come to the book of Exodus.
The Egyptians had made the people of Israel slaves.
They were there in Egypt about 400 years.
But God hadn’t forgotten them – he sent Moses.
 
Through Moses, God did amazing miracles
he sent 10 terrible plagues on Egypt.
and at last, King Pharaoh let the people go.
 
Moses leads the people out of Egypt.
But Pharaoh’s army chased them
when they saw the horses and chariots thundering after them, the people were terrified.
They cried out to Moses,
 
“Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? …
 13 But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today will never be seen again. 14 The Lord himself will fight for you.”
Exodus 14:11-14
 
 
I am a person who is easily frightened,
I see those enemy armies coming – scary things like exams or sermons – and I am often afraid.
Is anyone else like that?
one of the biggest messages of the Bible.
Especially in the book of Deuteronomy, is this:
“Don’t be afraid… God will defend you, God will fight for you.”
 
And that’s what happened.
The people were trapped between the Red Sea and the army.
God opened the waters so they could walk through on dry land.
the waters flooded back and drowned the Egyptian army.
God’s people carried on,
and they camped at a mountain called Mount Sinai.
 

Deuteronomy 1

with that background, let’s turn to the start of Deuteronomy.
 
1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all the people of Israel while they were in the wilderness east of the Jordan River. They were camped in the Jordan Valley…
Deuteronomy 1:1        page 139
 
 
It’s a turning point in Israel’s life
Two big things were about to happen; two huge changes.
First, Moses was very old -120 years. (31:1)
After leading the people, he was about to die.
 
Second, they had been in the dry desert for a long time.
Now they were about to cross the river Jordan,
It was the border of the land God promised them.
A good land, with rain for them to grow food.
With materials to build their own houses.
It will be a big change,
 
In Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing the people to face these new challenges.[iii]
Most of Deuteronomy is three speeches or sermons of Moses – his last words.
Looking back to past lessons, as they move forward into the land.
let’s read on:
 
2 Normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir. 3 But forty years after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses addressed the people of Israel, telling them everything the Lord had commanded him to say…
Deuteronomy 1:2-3
 
Kadesh-barnea is near the southern border of Israel.
If it normally took 11 days to get there from Mount Sinai.
– how come they needed 40 years?
In Deuteronomy chapter 1, Moses tells us the sad story.  It starts at verse six
 
6 “When we were at Mount Sinai, the Lord our God said to us, ‘You have stayed at this mountain long enough. 7 It is time to break camp and move on. Go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all the neighboring regions…  Look, I am giving all this land to you! Go in and occupy it, for it is the land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to all their descendants.’”
Deuteronomy 1:6-10.
 
 
Here it is, God’s promise to Abraham.
What was the first part?
To have many descendants – in Egypt, that happened![iv]
 
“When your ancestors went down into Egypt, there were only seventy of them. But now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky!”
Deuteronomy 10:22
 
God fulfilled part one of his promise
Now it is time for part two – having their own home, in the good and fruitful land.
The big theme of Deuteronomy.
So the people set off across the desert,
they came to the border, and Moses said:
 
‘Look!  God has placed the land in front of you. Go and occupy it as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be discouraged!’…
Deuteronomy 1: 21
 
Were the people excited?
Were they full of praise and thanks to God?
Did they go up and take the land?
Here’s the tragedy: no, they weren’t, and no, they didn’t.
Moses carries on, reminding them what happened 40 years ago:
 
“But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to go in. 27 You complained in your tents and said, ‘The Lord must hate us. That’s why he has brought us here from Egypt – to hand us over to the Amorites to be slaughtered…  “The people of the land are taller and more powerful than we are, and their towns are large, with walls rising high into the sky! We even saw giants there!”‘
Deuteronomy 1:19-28
 
God had done so much to rescue them.
Remember when Pharaoh’s army chased them out of Egypt?
They were afraid, but God fought for them:
he opened the Red Sea for them to go through, and drowned their enemies.
 
The people saw that with their own eyes, but now
They forgot what God did.
All they saw was the big fortified cities, the big scary soldiers.
Giants like Goliath that David faced last week
the people were full of fear.
Worst of all, they accused God of hating them!
How do you think God felt? [v]
he was very disappointed in them.
They were not ready for the land, so he said
 
Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land…
Turn around now and go on back through the wilderness.
Deuteronomy 1:35.
 
And that’s why the people spent 40 years in the desert, instead of 11 days.
Because they didn’t trust God, they wouldn’t obey.
What a tragic waste!
 
 
Here in Deuteronomy, they are again on the border of the Promised Land.
It’s 40 years later
a new generation, with a new opportunity.
 
In the first chapters of Deuteronomy,
Moses makes them understand why they failed to enter the land the first time
He draws out the lessons from the last 40 years:
warnings and encouragement
so they will trust God and won’t miss out again
So that this time, they won’t blow it.
 

The Wilderness: a place of Terror

we don’t have real deserts in New Zealand.
has anyone been in a desert overseas?
Nothing but sand as far as you can see.
Walk for hours, days – just more sand.
imagine spending 40 years there.
What was it like for the people of Israel?
 
 
Firstly, the wilderness was a place of danger and dread and despair.
the wilderness was a place of terror
 
There was no shade from the burning sun.
In the sands were poisonous snakes and scorpions
Behind the stones, were the wild beasts,
Waiting to chew their bones, when they run out of water.  (Exodus 17:2-3)
Moses called it an empty, howling wasteland,
 
the great and terrifying wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, where it was so hot and dry.   Deuteronomy 8:15, 32:10
 
The only way out was blocked by huge hostile cities.
And the sharp swords of the Amorite giants
 
————————————-
 
Have you been in a place like that?
Has there been a wilderness time in your life?
like being in the desert.
Nothing but dry sand, no water to drink.
big dangers, and no one to help.
Maybe you are in a place like that now.
 
When you see those overwhelming dangers.
When you hear the howling desert wind
And terror grabs at your heart.
What do you do?
How do you react?
 

The Wilderness: a place of testing

two weeks ago, George talked about a sponge.
It might look nice and clean on the outside.
The real test comes when you squeeze it.
– is the water that comes out clean or dirty?
 
That’s what being in the wilderness is like
The desert strips away our illusions,
It’s like a tree in winter, stripped naked, when all the leaves fall off.
The wilderness reveals what we really are inside.
 
Moses said
Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.
Deuteronomy 8:2
 
the wilderness was a place of testing.[vi]
squeezing like a sponge.
So what came out of the people?
What was inside?
 
 
Well, it’s been said, it took a few days to get Israel out of Egypt,
But 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel.
Physically, they weren’t slaves to Pharaoh anymore.
Spiritually, they were still slaves to fear.
So when they were squeezed, what came out?
Fear and unbelief.  They couldn’t trust God.
 
They were tested and they failed that test.
the 40 years of wilderness was God’s judgement on their character[vii]
 
————————————-
 
Think about that wilderness time of your life.
Your time of fear.
When you are squeezed like a sponge – what comes out?
When hard times reveal your heart, what do you see?[viii]
 

The Wilderness: a place of tenderness

the wilderness was a place of terror and a place of testing
a place of danger and a place of judgement.
 
But here’s the beautiful thing.
through it all, God looked after them.
the wilderness was also a place of tenderness.
Moses said,
 
The Lord your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child….
He has watched your every step through this great wilderness. During these forty years, the Lord your God has been with you, and you have lacked nothing…
your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell.
Deuteronomy 1:31, 2:7, 8:4
 
where our Bible here says “God cared for you”, most versions say:
the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son.
 
Who knows the story, “footprints in the sand”?
Here is the original version!
 
There was nothing to eat in the desert, but God worked a miracle
God gave them bread from heaven called manna to eat
every morning the bread was there on the ground for them to pick up.
There was nothing to drink, but God brought water out of dry rock.
 
40 years in the sand and the sun – you’d think their clothes would fall apart.
You’d think their feet would be sore and blistered.
But no, God provided.
 
All that time in the wilderness,
God carried them like a loving father.
And he protected them like a mother eagle:
 
God found them in a desert land,
in an empty, howling wasteland.
He surrounded them and watched over them…
11 Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
and carried them safely.
Deuteronomy 32:10-11
 
Isn’t that beautiful?[ix]
Mother bird looking after her babies.
 
The desert was a place of terror – surrounded by dangers.
The desert was a place of testing – disciplined by God
and the desert was a place of tenderness and intimacy.
 
————————————-
 
Have you found that in your life?
When have you felt closest to God?
For me, the most hard and lonely times have been when the Bible came most alive.
When the story of Jesus really touched me.
When I thought most about God’s love, and really wanted to love him in return.
 
 
That’s why I called this message, “the tender wilderness.”
The word “tender” can describe a young child, vulnerable and easily hurt, fearful, needing protection
Like the people of Israel in the desert.
Like us sometimes.
 
The word “tender” also describes being caring and compassionate and loving – like God. [x]
 
 
For fun, I often Google my sermon titles.
“tender wilderness” is the title of what looks like a girly love story sort of book.
Groan… But wait – the romance reference is not inappropriate!
 
Despite his people’s failings, God looked back on the wilderness time with tenderness,
almost like a honeymoon after a wedding.
Look what God said through the prophets:
 
I remember how eager you were to please me
      as a young bride long ago,
   how you loved me and followed me
      even through the barren wilderness.
Jeremiah 2:1
 
when Israel rebelled against God and turned away,
God was like a brokenhearted husband, and he cried:
 
I will win her back once again.
      I will lead her into the desert
      and speak tenderly to her there….
   She will give herself to me there,
      as she did long ago when she was young,
      when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
Hosea 2:14-15
 
The tender wilderness.
That’s the sort of relationship God wants with us.
That’s one benefit of dry desert times.
Sometimes God lets us go through terror and testing, so we can come to know his tenderness.
 

Deuteronomy and Jesus

so, what have we learnt tonight?
Deuteronomy is “a book on the boundary” (Miller)[xi]
the people of Israel are on the boundary between the hard, dry wilderness and the good promised land.
 
Moses looks back to the past and the lessons they’ve learnt.
Moses warns the people:
don’t be like your fathers, or you could miss out too
he encourages them: remember God’s care
remember that 40 years in the wilderness
a time of terror, a time of testing, but also a time of tenderness, when God looked after you .[xii]
 
 
Around 1500 years later, Jesus found himself in the same place:
across the Jordan, in the wilderness.
For 40 days – like their 40 years – he ate nothing.
the devil tempted Jesus, tested him,
squeezed him like a sponge to see what came out. (Luke 4:1-13)
 
As we have seen, Israel failed the wilderness test.[xiii]
This time, however, it was different.
each time the devil spoke, Jesus quoted a verse from Deuteronomy:
 
people do not live by physical bread alone, but by God’s promises.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.
You must not test the Lord your God
 
unlike the people of Israel, Jesus passed the test with flying colours -100%
He totally trusted and obeyed God,
and because of Jesus, God’s promise to Abraham 4000 years ago has been fulfilled.
The promise part three: through Jesus, God’s blessing has come to all nations!
– And here we are today!
 

Deuteronomy and Us

well, I hope you’ve enjoyed our first session in Deuteronomy.
It’s a great book.[xiv]
 
I’ve found Deuteronomy becoming relevant to me in ways I didn’t expect.
There in the desert, by the Jordan,
The people were about to lose Moses, their wise spiritual father.
At the end of last year, my own father died.
I can imagine some similar feelings of sorrow, loss and insecurity – he had guided them for 40 years.
 
And now, they were about to cross the River Jordan into a new phase of their life.
It was exciting, but a bit sad and scary without Moses there any more.
 
Most of my life I have lived with my family, but next year I will probably be travelling overseas.
Crossing the Pacific Ocean.  Maybe a new season in my life
It’s exciting – a new stage of God’s promise of blessing, stepping toward what he made me to be.
But it’s also a bit frightening.
 
like the Israelites, I am a very fearful person.
Sometimes I am better at looking at giants than trusting in God.
Sometimes my problems can appear bigger than God’s promises
Like the people, I need to hear Moses’ words:
 
Be strong and courageous!  Do not be afraid and do not panic before them.
For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you.  He will neither fail you nor abandon you.
Deuteronomy 31:6.
 
 
What about you?
Are you in the wilderness right now?
Too many snakes and scorpions, too little food and water?
Or are you at the border, the boundary, a new stage of your life?
 
has God said to you, like to the Israelites at Mt Sinai,
“You have been here for long enough.  It’s time to move on.  Set out on your journey” (Deuteronomy 1:7)
a journey to your promised land
For some of you, literally a new land.
It may be a land of scary challenges and nasty giants.
Maybe you are full of fear, you think you can’t cope, you can never overcome them.
 
 
If that’s you,
remember God’s message through Moses in Deuteronomy:
Look at your great God, not the great dangers.
Remember what he’s done in the past to keep his promises.
He rescued Israel from Egypt,
he carried them like a loving father.
He protected them like a mother eagle
Look back on your own life – remember how God has rescued and cared for you.
 
Don’t be afraid! Don’t be discouraged!…
The Lord your God is going ahead of you. He will fight for you, just as you saw him do in Egypt. 31 And you saw how the Lord your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Now he has brought you to this place.
Deuteronomy 1:21, 29-31.
 
… This good, promised place.
So do not fear.
In the past God carried you, in the future God goes before you.
From first to last, he is with you.
No matter what times of terror or testing you may meet,
in his tenderness, he will never leave you nor forsake you.
Wherever you are,
 
The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath you are his everlasting arms.
Deuteronomy 33:27

 


All Deuteronomy Sermons


[i] Feel the pulse of Deuteronomy and you’re in touch with the life and rhythm of the whole Hebrew Bible” (Chris Wright, 1996).
[ii] It is one of the most quoted books in the New Testament (along with Genesis, Psalms and Isaiah). “There is no book of more importance in the Old Testament, and no Old Testament book more basic for understanding the new testament than Deuteronomy.”  (Elisabeth Achtemeier).  In fact, some scholars think that the middle part of Luke is deliberately copying the pattern of Deuteronomy.  Others think Matthew is patterned on Deuteronomy 27-34 (Tom Wright).
[iii] Deuteronomy means “second law.” Moses is explaining to the people, the meaning of God’s law in Exodus Leviticus numbers, so this is the “second law.”
[iv] So many people that Moses needed help to look after them:  9 Moses continued, “At that time I told you, ‘You are too great a burden for me to carry all by myself. 10 The Lord your God has increased your population, making you as numerous as the stars!  Deuteronomy 1:9-10
[v] God said go back into the desert.  But now the people change their mind. They thought, we will attack anyway. God said:
42 “‘Do not attack, for I am not with you. If you go ahead on your own, you will be crushed by your enemies.’
Looking back on what happened, Moses reminded the people:
43 “This is what I told you, but you would not listen. Instead, you again rebelled against the Lord’s command and arrogantly went into the hill country to fight. 44 But the Amorites who lived there came out against you like a swarm of bees. They chased and battered you …
Deuteronomy 1: 43-44.
[vi] the people were also testing God:
They stubbornly tested God in their hearts…
Oh, how often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved his heart in that dry wasteland.
41 Again and again they tested God
Psalm 78:18, 40-1
[vii] But the wilderness was also a classroom.
in that time, God was teaching them to trust and obey him, despite their fears.
Teaching them that our life, our security, our well-being, depends not on human strength, but on God’s Word
3 Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna…  to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord… 5 Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 5
[viii] I’ve been solo tramping a few times.  Once, it was about 40 hours without seeing another person.  I hoped it would be great quiet time with God.  But I found the real distraction is not the noise of traffic or telephones outside.  It is the constant noise inside!
[ix] I read that Eagles catch their young on their backs when they are teaching them to fly.  God was teaching his people to fly over the terrors by faith in him, instead of crawling through the dry sand of their own fear.
[x] In the dictionary, I also noticed, to tenderize meat: to boil meat a long time until it is soft, like the Israelites 40 years, boiling in the desert sun, slowly softening their hearts toward God
[xi] “Deuteronomy is a book for a people on the move, literally at first, spiritually and morally thereafter” (Chris Wright)
[xii] The desert was a sort of in-between place, a no man’s land, a rite of passage, between Egypt, the land of slavery, and Israel, the land of promise. Reflecting the Psalms’ pattern of orientation to disorientation to re-orientation (Walter Brueggemann) from slavery with security in Egypt, the familiar routine of making bricks, to being lost, disoriented, in the maze of the desert-freedom with no certainties, no food, no water, no visible sign of support-just an invisible God. To reorientation in the promised land, with a new life, a new home, and new fruitfulness.
[xiii] And that was a big problem, because it endangered the progress of God’s promise to Abraham. Not just part two: the promised land, but also part three: God’s blessing to all peoples.
[xiv] the Holy Spirit says,
“Today when you hear his voice,
8 don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
when they tested me in the wilderness.
9 There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
Hebrews 3:7-9 (also see 1 Corinthians 10:1-11)

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