Pastor Chris Tweitmann
We’re in the second week of the Advent season – the church’s countdown to Christmas, if you will, albeit at a much slower and intentionally reflective pace than the rest of the world.
As a means of preparation for Jesus to born anew in our life and community together, the sermon series for the next few weeks is focused on recognizing how the beginning and end of the Christmas story go far beyond the boundaries of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.
Now with the overture to December 25th well under way, various holiday traditions have kicked into full gear.
One of the more widespread customs this time of the year is the sending out and receiving of the annual Christmas card or letter.
How many of you have sent out your Christmas cards already?
Has anyone received one or more Christmas cards or letters yet?
In many ways it is helpful to think of the book of Deuteronomy, where our passage for today comes from, as something of a letter – a letter postmarked for future generations by Moses.
Moses, God’s chosen deliverer of the people from slavery in Egypt, wrote the first four books of the Bible – but this fifth one, his last writing, is much more personal than the rest.
Having gone as far as he can go, Moses provides his farewell address by way of four sermons to the people who would become Israel.
These messages were intended to offer some direction and guidance as the Israelites prepare to enter their new home in the Promised Land.
In the twilight of his life, within these final words authored by Moses, we are about to discover something of a birth announcement – yet another hint that the unfolding of the Christmas story began long before the pages of the New Testament. Let us listen closely. (TEXT)
On the surface, this appears to be just Moses passing the baton – the exchange of one messenger for God for another.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15
No doubt that is certainly how the people initially understand what Moses is saying here as they wonder to themselves,
“You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.” – Deuteronomy 18:21 – 22
how can we recognize a true spokesperson for the Lord and God lays out the answer to this question.
But in hindsight – in the years to come, later generations came to perceive Moses was not speaking of his immediate successor, Joshua or in fact, any of the other messengers who would follow.
After centuries upon centuries came the realization the One God had promised had to be someone greater than Moses and everyone else who came after Moses.
The apostle Peter explicitly declares this realization in one of the first speeches he gives to a crowd of Israelites in Acts, chapter 3
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you.” – Acts 3:19 – 22
– as he points to Jesus as the One God had promised through Moses.
In order to appreciate what finally led to this realization of the great variance between what the people thought they were receiving and what the Lord ultimately delivered in the person of Christ, we have to go back to the foot of a mountainside.
For in this excerpt from Moses’ final message to the people, his outlining of a future expectation hinges on a reference to
“For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” – Deuteronomy 18:16
an earlier experience between the Lord and the Israelites.
The backstory to this moment takes us to Exodus, chapter 20, at the foot of Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai.
On the other side of the Red Sea, having been led out of their slavery in Egypt, the people are just beginning their journey through the wilderness toward the place God had prepared for them.
Before they go any further, however, the Lord seeks an audience on the mountainside with those whom He has rescued.
Christmas is often heralded as the time when God came down to be with us, but actually, it is the second time the Lord manifested His presence.
God draws near to give the people His word.
Before the Word becomes flesh, the word of God was carved into tablets of stone in what we know as the Ten Commandments – our Creator’s Top Ten rules and instructions for living life the way God intended – so that we can experience the best rather the worst that life has to offer.
But as the Lord drew near, the people stayed at a distance.
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance…” – Exodus 20:18
Before the boom of the thunder, the crack of the lightning, and the smoke than encircled the mountain,
before the raw, unfiltered glory of the Lord’s presence, the people were awestruck and overwhelmed by fear.
“Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” – Exodus 20:20
And even though Moses assured them not to be afraid and to draw near, everyone insisted if the Lord came any closer they would die.
“[They] said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” – Exodus 20:19
Promising to listen to Moses as an intermediary, the people begged for less of God rather than more,
“The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” – Exodus 20:21
as they “remained at a distance.”
The Lord initiates an invitation into a deeper relationship but the people opt to keep God at what they perceive as a safe distance from them.
They presumably are fine with the laying down of the Law and having a spokesperson for the Lord tell them what to do.
But they reject the opportunity to engage and experience the presence of God up close and personal.
Initially, the Lord acquiesces to the people’s request and mediates His presence and His word – the Law – through Moses.
But if we remember all that happens between this moment on the mountainside and standing on the verge of entering the Promised Land as Moses records these final words, we recall things didn’t go very well for the people.
Even though they had promised to listen to Moses, they did the exact opposite – grumbling and fighting against him every step of the way forward – only to end up always taking three steps backward.
And those rules they were so eager to follow?
They couldn’t even keep the first three, let alone the rest of them.
Fast forward to Deuteronomy as Moses, in preparing to retire, now foretells of a prophet, a messager like him whom God will raise up, the Israelites initially receive this as news of a new hire – someone to fill Moses’ shoes as the Lord’s liason to them – somone to keep laying down the Law, telling them what to do for God.
What they’ve misunderstood the whole time and will keep struggling to comprehend is the point of that first time God come came down among them.
That first time God came down the Lord wasn’t looking simply to lay down the Law; God purposed to be in relationship with His people.
On that mountainship, our Creator wasn’t just giving us rules to follow apart from Him.
Our Creator was, through His Word, through the giving of the Law, unveiling His character and the character of the life He designed and intended for us to live together.
By providing us with the Law, the instructions for life, the Lord’s intent wasn’t for us to go off on our own and do things FOR Him.
Following the instructions for life God gives to us isn’t for God’s benefit; it’s for our benefit – to experience life the way it was intended to be.
But all along, it was a package deal – the Word AND the Spirit.
Not just a list of instructions for living on our own but rather a way of life that is only possible when we are relying on the Lord – not apart from God but abiding in and with God.
At that first encounter with the Lord on the mountain, the people wanted the rules without the relationship.
And yet that’s the thing about the Ten Commandments, they simultaneously reveal the way life was meant to be; but in so doing also reveal how far short we fall from living life the way it’s supposed to be.
God’s Top Ten, on the one hand, inspire us to aim higher – for our best life – rather than to settle for less – for less than for which we are created.
At the same time, God’s Top Ten humbles us, bringing us down to earth as to what we can do apart from our Creator – which is nothing good.
God’s Top Ten convicts us in all our fruitless and ultimately damaging efforts to play God rather than to solely rely on God.
In that first encounter, the people wanted the Lord to keep well away.
They falsely believed they could remain at a distance from God without becoming more distant in their mindfulness & reliance on the Lord.
But our Creator isn’t interested in remaining distant and detached from our lives, from His creation.
The God who made us in His image is a relational God – a God who is single-minded in His desire for us to live full, abundant lives not separated from Him but again through Him
– lives that last not just for a couple of decades or perhaps a century – but for all eternity.
We were created to worship – to live out of a sense of devotion – devotion to the glory of our Creator and out such devotion to realize and experience the very best life together possible.
When we try to keep God at arm’s length, if the Lord is not the focus of our devotion, then inevitably we will end up making something or someone else in our life – a false god
– something or someone that cannot bear the weight of the glory of the Lord – what only God can give and do for us.
Idolatry – trying to fill that God-shaped hole in our lives with other things – whether it’s our worship of self or our unconscious attempt to try and make someone else be our Messiah, idolatry, the first and original sin, is what fractures and diminishes our life together – leaving us competition with each other rather in mutual, joyous collaboration in seeking to reflect God’s goodness.
This is why the first rule of life out of the Top Ten the Lord gives when the people start to pull back from Him is to remind the Israelites of the very first principle of creation, of the relationship:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;” – Exodus 20:2 – 4
“No other gods before me. No replacement idols made of silver and gold.”
Nonetheless, after that first encounter on the mountainside, the people foolishly still thought life would go better if Moses talked to them instead of God; if they operated through a third-party – a meditator, a messenger.
However, as the Lord let them discover, as Moses’ tenure in that role clearly bore out; there is no substitute, no replacement for the fullness of the presence and person of God in our lives.
Even the best and brightest among us are still just broken and flawed as we are – liable to act willfully and not completely in concert with God.
So it was with Moses. So it was with David.
Even the strongest and wisest who go before can and do fall victim to the temptation to tell us what we want to know, what we want to hear rather than to always speak the hard but loving truth of what we need to know even though we may not want to hear it.
So it was with Saul. So it was with Solomon.
As all of Israel’s history in the Old Testament demonstrates, no leader, no prophet, no messenger, no judge, no priest, no king, no one apart from God Himself can take where we need to go, can reshape us into who we were created to be.
This is what the later generations – persons like the apostle Peter – came to comprehend at long last on the other side of the Christmas story – that the messenger, the meditator, God promised to the people through Moses could only be God himself.
That the One who would be raised up from among the Israelites could only be God coming down, this time not in fire and smoke, but incarnated in our shared humanity.
That the One who speaks in God’s name – out of the very words God puts in His mouth – had to be the Word of God made flesh.
“…and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.” – Deuteronomy 18:18 – 19
That the One who we are to listen to – who speaks to us everything the Lord commands – only what the Father tells him – could only be the very Son of God.
That the One who is not false, who we can know is right and true because everything He proclaims in the name of the Lord has taken place and comes true is our Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.” – Deuteronomy 18:22
Jesus, the One who doesn’t merely teach us the rules of life – but lives and fulfills them perfectly – like no other.
And in so doing – ultimately sacrificing Himself out of love – a love so strong it that conquers death,
Jesus not only models a way for us to follow but through being even nearer to us than anyone could have imagined – beyond sharing our flesh to giving us His very Spirit, Jesus enables and empowers us to become all we were created to be.
Beloved, Jesus is the One the people were waiting for.
Jesus is the One we have been waiting for.
And yet, the fascinating thing about this time of year is most people and maybe even some of us are waiting for Santa Claus more than we are waiting for Jesus..
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to become another religious rant on the man with the big red hat.
Jolly old Saint Nick has his place in all our holiday festivities but that place is not to shape our view of who God is.
And yet, most people – again some even within the Church perceive and believe God to be something like Santa Claus.
A white-bearded, old man who comes from the sky to reward the children who are nice with whatever is on their list of wants, but who also withholds his gifts from those who are naughty – giving them little more than a lump of coal.
But a God like that is what the people initially perceived they were dealing with on the mountainside, isn’t it?
An exacting, foreboding divine judge arbitrating all life from a posture of frustration and anger.
A moral Law Giver – who informs us of the rules of the game and whom we must then appease by being nice instead of naughty.
Under the watchful eye of this God, who always knows if we’re sleeping or we’re awake, if we’ve been bad or good, a list is being kept on all of us – a ledger of all our pros and cons that is being checked twice in order to pass final judgment.
Follow the rules and we can either earn or merit the blessings we ask for whatever presents our hearts desire – including, ultimately, life after death.
Break the rules, step out of line, if we’re not nice enough, we will keep ending up with lumps of coal – not blessings but curses – until one day, all that coal becomes the basis of our final resting place – some place rather warm and uncomfortable – forever.
Functionally, if our view of God is something like Santa Claus, engaging us in terms of whether we’ve been bad or good, then we are right to be afraid that Jesus Christ coming to town.
If we believe that our standing with the Lord rises and falls on what we do for God – in following rather than breaking all the rules, then the arrival of the One born in Bethlehem is not the birth of our salvation; it is the delivery of our doom.
But the good news, the Gospel is the God we worship isn’t like Santa Claus.
Make no mistake the God who comes to us in Christ catches all and misses nothing.
What we do and failed to do does not escape His knowledge, whether yesterday, the day before, or ages past.
And let us also be clear, the thoughts we hold onto, the words we say, and the actions we do or do not take – all have consequences for either good and bad.
But we don’t worship a God who is keeping score because in the divine accounting of heaven, there is no good enough.
You and I being anything less apart or together than we were created to become is not an option with our Creator.
And yet, the deportment of the God who comes to us is not to condemn us for all our shortcomings, wrongdoings, and disobedience – rubbing our nose in the stink we make of what He has created and then confining us to the corner.
No, the posture of the God we worship is that of a loving Father who runs to where we are, who comes to us, and then embraces us with forgiveness, clothes us with healing, and procedes to lead us back home.
That’s the God we’re waiting for – the One who in the birth of Jesus, doesn’t just come down a chimney for a moment in the night to give us everything we want, only to then magically disappear.
No, in the birth of Christ, we encounter the God who empties Himself of all glory, who gets down and dirty, in embracing the vulnerability and fractured nature of our lives who takes hold of our humanity to give us not what we think we want but what He knows we desperately need.
And this God, who in Jesus becomes what He has created, comes to us not because He’s interested in either our being nice or in receiving niceties from us.
The good news of which Christmas is but the first chapter is not about what we can do for God but what God comes down to do for us – to do in and through us – transforming our life together and remaking all creation.
This is the Gospel, though we like the people on the mountainside may remain at a distance from God, God does not keep His distance from us.
From His self-revelation at Sinai to His humble birth in Bethlehem and all the way to His self-giving, being lifted up on a Cross at Calvary, Our Creator works to close the gap between us – to mend our brokenness, to redeem our failures, to resurrect our hopes, to reconcile us to become a people of truth, peace and love.
As the season of Advent progresses and the arrival of Christmas draws ever closer, let us remember what we celebrate is not a question of who’s naughty or nice.
In a broken world filled with broken people, we all manage at times to exhibit either tendency – being naughty or nice.
Let us keep that in mind before we are quick to judge ourselves or others.
No, the solution to the world’s misery and all that ails our humanity cannot come from within ourselves because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
What we need are not more rules to live by – things to do for God in order to prove ourselves good rather than bad.
We have enough already that by ourselves we can’t manage to keep.
While our Creator does give us rules to live by, laws that reveal a standard of perfection and righteousness that we cannot achieve or attain on our own, God does not give us these rules in order to set us up to fail.
Our Creator gives us the rules to make it clear the kind of life He intended for us all – the good, right, true and beautiful life for which we all long for, the kind of life we can only experience together in communion with Him.
God isn’t looking for us to do things for Him in order to prove ourselves good or bad.
No, at the height of our naughtiness, it wasn’t Santa Claus who came to town. It was and is Jesus.
God came down to us in Jesus Christ to do for us what we cannot do our own apart from Him – to embody the realization of all these laws perfectly lived out.
God cames down in Jesus Christ into the reality of our lives as they are – humbly submitting Himself to our difficulties, our temptations, our storms, our hungers, our burdens and our sadness, our suffering and our pain – walking through the darkest valley of our suffering – embracing our terminal affliction, the inevitable shadow of our death – all in order to clear the way forward and to empower us to follow Him into experiencing and sharing the full, abundant and everlasting life for which we were all created.
To a sin-stained, self-obsessed, and naughty beyond imagination world, God continues to comes down through the Word and the Spirit of Christ to flesh out His divine vision and our earthly hope for a better life – our very best life.
Let us have no fear. Let us not remain at a distance. Let us draw near to the One who will born anew in our lives.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. On You Alone, we wait and depend. Amen.