If and then with the Lord
Intro: ‘if … then’ with God
sometime or other in most relationships, you hit the brick wall of ‘if … then’. When you’re a kid, it’s all about your ability – ‘if you’re good enough at cricket, then you can join our team’; ‘if you’re smart enough, then you can be part of our slightly nerdy group’ – well, actually they don’t put it quite like that, but it’s there. As you get a bit older, it becomes less to do with your ability and more to do with your personality: ‘if you add to the general level of … in this gang, then you’re allowed in’; ‘if you are as cool, or even better, cooler then we are, then we’d like to hang out with you’.
When it works for you, the ‘if … then’ can be quite affirming – it’s quite nice to know that there is an ‘if … then’, and that you qualify, that you satisfy the criteria. “Hey, I actually am as nerdy as these people”; “Yeah, I am as cool as those cool guys”. You can luxuriate a little in the feeling that you belong, and that you are secure – at least for now. On the other hand, the ‘if … then’ can be devastatingly destructive – when a marriage fails on the sharp rocks of ‘if you stay attractive and tight skinned as a 25 year old, then I’ll stay in love with you’, the realisation that you aren’t as young as you used to be, which is one of the more inevitable things in life, becomes almost unbearable.
sometimes the ‘if … then’ makes perfect sense. When you employ a plumber to fix your toilet, there is a very clear and explicit mutual ‘if … then’ – if you fix my toilet without making too much mess, then I’ll give you the $700 that plumbers seem to standardly charge these days. And if the plumber turns up and gets half way through the job and then turns to you and says that he really doesn’t like the smell of toilets, and is having a bit of mid-career crisis, then while you might be moderately sympathetic, I suspect you won’t be sympathetic enough to pay him his fee while the toilet still doesn’t flush. It’s a strictly ‘if you fix the toilet, I’ll pay you the money’ kind of arrangement, and anything less than bathroom beauty is just not good enough.
one of the great yearnings of the human heart is for a relationship that has little or no ‘if … then’ about it. We want a person in our lives who knows us through and through, and whose stance towards us in not one of, ‘if you satisfy my criteria, then we can hang out together’, but whose stance is simply, ‘I want to be with you no matter what’. And it is one of the great moments in a person’s life when you find such a thing, and even better when that is with the God of the universe. It stunned me at the time, and continues to sustain me now, the fact that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is unconditionally for me, so much so that he gave up that which was most precious to him in order to make me his. When I make a fool of myself, when I fail in the things I attempt, when I fall short even of the rather generous standards I set for myself, the Lord is not repulsed, he is not shocked into distancing himself, not given to second thoughts; I am his and he is mine, for the duration. We call it grace, pure sweet, enabling, empowering grace.
so it comes as something of a surprise that in Deuteronomy there’s a lot of ‘if … then’. You may have noticed it along the way, although it’s not something that we have majored on, but now it’s time to make sure that we hear what God is saying to us through Moses. You can see how I want to approach it – first the ‘if’ with God, and then the ‘then’.
The ‘if’ with God
You see it for example in vv. 13-17 of ch 11:
13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. 16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, 17 for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.
or again, v. 22:
22 If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves.
did you hear the ‘if’? If you keep his every commandment, which is all about a total life commitment to God, both the detailed acts of obedience as well as the attitude and affection of the heart and will, then he will give the rain for the land in its season. Of course, this is a great blessing, in an agrarian society rain is life, it makes the crops grow and herds to multiply and the wine to flow, it ensures that wealth multiplies and as far is possible, that things are good. And the flip side is there as well. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away and serving other gods, really is of the form, if you turn away and serve other gods, then the anger of the lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, stop the rain, and just as rain means life, so no rain means death, the death of crops and livelihood and hope, and ultimately of everything.
what’s more, this is not news to Israel. Her history is full of what Moses calls the discipline of the Lord,Remember he says, v. 5:
5 what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; 6 and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company; 7 for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did.
and the fact that there is this massive ‘if’ in Israel’s life with God means that Israel faces a choice, a little bit like the choices you face at the supermarket, but with significantly greater importance, v. 26:
26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known
it seems to me that virtually no one believes this. On the one hand, the vast majority of people in this country are pretty sure about 2 things in relation to God – first that he exists, which survey after survey indicates more than 80% of people affirm; and second, that he has almost no interest in or connection to their ordinary lives, which is why they are perfectly comfortable living their lives from day to day and decade to decade paying almost no direct attention to God or his call on them. They are fully convinced that if there is an afterlife, then they will be full participants in it, and receive the suggestion that it might otherwise be the case with outrage and even anger.
On the other hand, most Christians don’t believe Moses’ ‘if … then’ either. We have rightly latched onto the glorious reality of grace, but we have done so in such a way that we come to think that the blessing of God is automatic, a kind of guaranteed, locked up, doesn’t matter what comes next kind of thing. There’s no ‘if’ at all, only the ‘then’.
and yet Moses is insistent – there is blessing and there is curse, and the blessing is attached to obedience, and the curse is attached to disobedience. What are we to make of this?
We can start by ruling out some options. It’s hardly likely that God has a change of heart, like some callous lover. This would be the view that he tricks us into connecting with him, promising grace and then only delivering misery. But of course, nothing in the history of his dealings with his people would support that conclusion.
Here’s another option to be ruled out – that what God sets up is a system, a deal according to rules that we are permitted to manipulate. It’s possible to go to work on an ‘if … then’ arrangement – if you are sufficiently committed to the ‘then’, you’ll be prepared to do almost any ‘if’, and then get cross if the ‘then is not swiftly delivered. Very occasionally, say once every 10 or 15 minutes, my daughters have a bit of a spat with one another. And with about the same regularity, we intervene and try to sort things out, and teach them that the way forward in relationships is always to say sorry when you have done something wrong. Of course, saying sorry is easy and trivial, and very different from the much more difficult and important thing of being sorry. So they work the system – what they hear is ‘if you include the word ‘sorry’ in your next sentence, then the fact that you have just destroyed your sister’s entire sense of person-hood will be completely forgotten.’ The ‘if … then’ becomes a deal to be done. But God does not do deals like this.
Rather, what’s going on here is all about the nature of the one from whom the blessings flow. The reason that there is and must be an ‘if’ with God – a different kind of ‘if’ – is that you can’t have the gifts without at the same time having the giver of those gifts. God is only interested in giving us everything – no half measures – and first and foremost that means giving himself. The great chorus of the covenant is the he will be our God and that we will be his people; that he has chosen his people and set his love upon them to be his special possession, his treasured possession, and that he will dwell among them. You see that echoed here in ch 11 in v. 12, in the thought that the eyes of the Lord our God are always upon the land, and it is most clearly reflected in ch 12, when the first specific command is to worship the Lord only at the place that he chooses, as his habitation to put his name there. And the point is that he is the holy Lord, a jealous God, a consuming fire, the righteous one, the one who loves the powerless and the widow and the stranger, the one who hates injustice and oppression and slavery. And when you live with that one, when that one is in your midst, it can take only one possible form, it takes the form of repentant obedience. And that is as true in the new covenant as it is in the old, it’s as much the case for us Christians as it was for those Israelites.
In other words, how you live is a function of who you think God is. For most of the residents of Five Dock/Haberfield/Ashfield, God is essentially a sugar daddy, a provider of goodies with no strings attached simply because his and their preference is that he keep his distance; of course, that’s plagiarism, it’s trading somewhat selectively on the Christian understanding of God, as compared say to the Hindu or Buddhist notion of karma, which is much stricter. It’s grabbed the Christian idea of grace, but rejected the giver of the grace. And if that’s what you think God is like then it makes sense to live a vaguely theistic consumerist life, pretty much doing your own thing your own way, since you know God will not presume to interfere. But if you know the living and true God, the God who gives so much more than things, the God who gives himself, then the if makes perfect sense. The if is the only way to live with this God, holy as he is holy, righteous as he is righteous, alive in love and purity and justice like he is alive. Which is why Moses keeps saying that the commandments God gives do not constrain and constrict and squeeze the life out of us, but are on the contrary the way of life itself – as the Pslamist put it, Ps. 19:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
which leads us onto the shorter second point, the ‘then’ with God.
2. The ‘then’ with God
if the ‘if’ comes as a surprise, the ‘then’ can be a bit embarrassing – it’s so incredibly earthy, so very material. Listen again to Moses’ then, v.
8 Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, 9 and so that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 11 But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, 12 a land that the Lord your God looks after.
we cringe a little at this, I think. Partly we know that Israel having this land means the Canaanites don’t have it, although Moses is aware of that and has his response ready. But more generally, it just feels a little lacking in spirituality, it should be a little more ethereal.
one way out for us is to say that the blessings of the new covenant are exactly that, spiritual not material, and there is both truth and error in that. Truth, in that the people of God is no longer constituted as a nation, no longer has national boundaries to establish and defend, and is not in the business of running a national economy. But there’s also an error in here – we can end up thinking that the blessing of God more spiritual by being less material. In fact, what God promises us in Christ Jesus is completely spiritual by being more material – the life of the age to come, where the streets are paved with gold, at least, as John saw it in his revelation. In other words, the most precious thing here is the most common thing there.
• of course, that is future for us; in the mean time, we wait and we worship and win. We wait with patience in world that does Christian faith no favours; worship the Lord who has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought is into the kingdom of his beloved son; and we win people for Christ, praying that God would open the hearts of the people around us to him, and open doors of opportunity for the gospel to us, and give us the wisdom and courage to walk through them, for nothing less than the blessings of God hangs on it.
Conclusion. Choose blessing
• we called this series The heart of integrity. The word integrity is from the same stock as the word integer, whole numbers. No messy fractions, no half measures, no quarter commitment, but an integrated life, a life lived as a whole, life lived wholly devoted to the Lord our God. I hope that as you have heard Moses’ word to Israel, so you have heard God speak to you, to lift your eyes to that kind of integrity which runs Monday to Saturday. It is not an easy path in this world, to live for Jesus. But there is blessing in it, wonderful blessing, the blessing of living life in the presence and light of the Lord our God.