A people holy to the Lord
Intro: beautiful belonging?
normally, belonging is a beautiful thing. I remember starting at a new school and feeling the cold wind of not belonging at all. I didn’t know the people, I don’t know the geography, I didn’t know the teachers or the rules or the customs. And your survival at a new school pretty much depends on your capacity to make some quick connections with people who will bring you up to speed rapidly. And when that happens, suddenly everything starts to relax – you relax, people around you relax, I suspect the teachers relax, and once you belong, it all starts to be beautiful. You feel safe, you feel comfortable, you know that you have people you can rely on, and the tension just drains out of the whole experience.
I don’t think belonging to God is anything like that at all. The Bible has a special word to describe how it is to belong to God – holy. We think that holiness is a religious word, that means slightly otherworldly and spiritual – the Delai Lama is holy, and that means he probably never burps, or something like that – but actually, holy has a much more straightforward, down to earth kind of meaning. It just means, ‘belongs to’, ‘is special to’, ‘is connected with in a special way’.
and Deut ch 7 is a a magnificent, terrifying, inspiring, aweful in the true sense of that word, full of awe, unfolding by Moses of what it means to be holy to the Lord God, who brought Israel out of Egypt and to the very edge of the promised land, the Lord God who brought Jesus out of the deathly tomb, and seated him at his right hand in glory. The key verse in the chapter is v. 6:
6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
We have just a brief time this morning to read it through and reflect a little, but it would be well worth your while if during thew course of this week you found the opportunity to re-read it repeatedly, and meditate upon it at length. And Moses says that being holy to the Lord your God will mean 3 things, the first of which is about os disgusting as it gets for us, ch 7.1:
1. Holiness = ruthless rejection of unholiness
1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations–the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you– 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
there is no getting round this, this is very difficult for us to cope with. What Israel is instructed to do here is to utterly obliterate the enemy as an act of theological obedience. This is exactly the kind of religious fanaticism that we most fear on our world today, and is grounded in precisely the holiness of Israel to the Lord her God – she is holy, and therefore, this is how she is to treat her enemies. But before you merely recoil in horror, note 4 things about it:
first, let’s not pretend that there was any real alternative. We’re talking about an invasion of land occupied already, and it’s pretty much a kill or be killed scenario. I have no idea what it is to fight in a war, let alone a war in a traditional society for your very survival, but handshakes and gentlemen’s agreements were not really an option.
Second, it derives from what proves to be a legitimate fear. The land of promise is also a land of seductions, that is the religious seductions of those who currently occupy the land. That’s why the focus of this command is on the systems of religious symbols in the land, v. 3: Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. And the fact is that Israel failed to utterly destroy the peoples, and was seduced into religious compromise, and did turn away to other gods, and the Lord’s anger did burn against her. That’s how her history went, and as the prophets reflect on how it all went horribly wrong, the answer is clear – Israel failed to utterly destroy the peoples of the land.
Which leads to the third point, namely that Deuteronomy doesn’t fail to wrestle with the moral challenge of this. That Israel is holy to the Lord is not the only explanation given for this treatment of the nations – later on, in chap 9, Moses is at pains to highlight the fact that the reason God is giving the land to Israel and utterly defeating the nations is “not because of her righteousness or the uprightness of her heart, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them.” Here is an attempt to respond to the cry – how is this fair? Well, says Moses, it is just in the perfect eyes of God. And in a sense, I don’t think it’s our place to try to stand above God and judge as to whether this is morally adequate. Standing in judgment over God is never a very safe place to be. What Deut does is invite you to take this explanation at face value, and recognise that this is not without a moral justification, that at least was good enough for God.
Finally, this speaks to Israel as a nation, with national boundaries and a foreign affairs policy and a government whose job it was to uphold the true worship of the Lord. That of course is not our situation, particularly because the people of God are no longer constituted as a nation with these kinds of national concerns. But, and this is the real point for us to hear, we are no less holy to the Lord our God, and therefore we are to be no less utterly and absolutely ruthless to those things which would contaminate the purity of our belonging to Jesus. We know that killing people is not an option, not because we are not that serious about holiness, killing people is not an option because it is the very contamination that we are seeking to avoid. But feel the intensity of what it means to belong to the Lord; feel the discomfort, the utter relentless purity of it. In a moment, we’ll come back to what this might mean for us, but settle it in your hearts at this point that we have plenty to learn here, and that the meaning of holiness for us might have a different texture to it, but it won’t have a different temperature – white hot is what the Lord demands of his people, white hot.
so that’s the first thing that belonging to the Lord means. The second thing is something of a backhanded compliment, v. 7:
2. Holiness = being chosen by grace
7 The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. 10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. 11 Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today.
the second thing being holy means is that we belong to God by sheer, pure grace. This is one of the great themes of Scripture, that God doesn’t love the lovely, the loveable, the excellent, the good, the upright – Jesus put it bluntly – “it’s not the well who have need of a physician, but the sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Feel the positioning of that – we like to see ourselves as competent people, well informed or able to be well informed, makers of good choices, clear minded and mature.
Jesus has a slightly different perspective – we’re sick, spiritually and morally sick, defective and frankly incapable of doing anything about our defects. And that’s who he is interested in. He has no time for or interest in those who are well, those who are righteous – at least well in their own eyes. The ones he chooses are the sick.
and that’s what Moses says – God makes Israel holy to himself by choosing her, choosing her out from among all the other nations, and the ground of that choice, the reason for it, lies not in the thing chosen, not in Israel herself, not because she was more excellent, not because she was more powerful and numerous, not because she was a good horse to back, in fact, she was the fewest of all peoples, a complete loser of a nation. No, the reason for that choice lies entirely in God. In fact, 2 reasons, neither of them very good, and yet at the same time, both of them the very best, are given – why did the Lord set his affection on Israel – he loved her because he loved her, and he loved her because he kept his promise that he swore to Israel’s ancestors. The Lord loves because he loves, he is faithful because he is faithful.
on the one hand it doesn’t make particularly good sense, it wouldn’t pass muster in a philosophy class; but on the other hand, it is the only thing that makes sense precisely because it is the only logic of love. Love that doesn’t operate like this, love that is the love of the lovely, love that ultimately finds its cause in the one who is loved, is not really love at all, it’s more like a deal – you be like this, you look like this, you be as healthy and funny, and attractive and energetic as this, and I’ll fulfill my side of the bargain and stick around; but if you start to fade, or ill-health kicks in, then all best are off. But with the Lord, there are no if’s, no ‘as long as’, simply, ‘I love you because I love you’, I’m faithful to you, because I’m faithful.
not that this comes without the call to live out holiness. That the Lord loves like this means that to reject his love, to meet his love with our hate, or perhaps even worse, indifference, is something that he will not, cannot tolerate. He will discipline and correct and prune. But the one thing he won’t do, the one thing he never does to Israel is to withdraw his love. Every time it looks like they have completely blown it, loaded yet another plank on the camel’s back, and the Lord sets himself to utterly destroy them, he relents, there is always a remnant, a future, a hope for her, because the Lord because he loves.
make sure you feel this – there is a terribly important conclusion from the fact that the Lord loves like this, what you could call covenant love, rather than with contract love, deal making love. And it’s this – if the ground of God’s love is not in us but in him, then the there is nothing particularly we can do to end that love; it doesn’t start with us, and so it won’t end with us. Do you see the power of this – if God has loved us at our least and worst, then there’s no need to fear that our least excellent and morally worst behaviour will have the power to interrupt his love. That’s never what it was about in the first place. That too is part of what it means to be a people holy to the Lord.
• the third thing is that this love will overflow in blessing, v. 12:
3. Holiness = blessing beyond belief
12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. 13 He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land–your grain, new wine and oil–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. 14 You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor any of your livestock without young. 15 The Lord will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.
I don’t want to say much at all about this, because we’ll have the opportunity to look at this issue in detail in ch 11; but just to note that love for God takes deeply practical form – his love overflows to life, real, earthy, full life, because he is the God of life. We don’t have to worry that living in the love and grace of God is going to truncate our lives, suck all the colour out of them, leave us pale and grey. No, God is the creator of life, the Lord, the giver of life in all its fullness.
• and the finally, being a people holy to the Lord means not needing to fear, v. 16:
4. Holiness = no need to fear
16 You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you. 17 You may say to yourselves, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” 18 But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. 19 You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear. 20 Moreover, the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. 21 Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God.
it’s not easy, belonging to the Lord. There is endless challenge, and for Israel that took the very real form of warfare. And God says, don’t be afraid, because I am with you. We belong to him, and he belongs to us, not in the sense that we keep him for ourselves, but in the sense that he doesn’t send us out on our own, he is amongst us, a great and awesome God. Remember well what the Lord you God did to Pharoah and to all Egypt; remember well what the Lord your God did to the sting of death in that tomb. Nothing is impossible with the Lord, and therefore nothing need create in us panic.
of course, our challenge is not Hittites, Girgishites or Amorites – not physically at least. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities, against sine the world and the devil. Where are you joining the battle at the moment? Where is belonging to God making you most uncomfortable, most disrupting your natural inclinations? Perhaps its the call to forgive someone who has hurt you, forgive them as the Lord has forgiven you? Perhaps it’s in the call to be generous even though times are tight, and you’re not exactly certain how it’s going to end up? Perhaps it’s in stepping up to serve in some area of the community or the life of the church, or be much more public about who you are as a Christian at work or amongst your mates? Perhaps you need to put to death some sin in your life – break an addiction to alcohol or pornography? Be far more directly acquainted with the truth as you speak, rather than shaving it to make you look better?
• it seems to me that we never get comfortable in our belonging to the Lord. The call of holiness is relentless. But we need not fear or be terrified of what it might mean for us. For he is with us, and among us, and by the gift of his Spirit, present in us in all his power, a great and awesome God.