Because of my righteousness?
from time to time, people speculate about how it’s all going to go. I don’t mean how the ashes series is going to go, or even how the world economy is going to go, but how it’s all going to go – the entire universe. As far as I understand, there are 2 equally depressing theories – on the one hand, the universe, which is currently expanding, might keep expanding, everything getting further and further away from everything else, and therefore getting colder and colder, so that eventually, everything will freeze to death and the big bang will end up in the big fizz. Alternatively, it could go the other way, with the elastic band universe reaching it’s biggest stretch, and then rebounding back, with everything rushing closer and closer together, until the big bang ends up in a big crunch – either way, everything dies, every galaxy, every star, every planet, every creature, every person, everything dies. Except, I happen to know that that’s not how it’s going to go, no matter what the scientists might say. I know that death will not triumph, I know that life will triumph, that the ultimate destiny of the universe is to flourish in beauty and glory and joy, and that death will be swallowed up in victory, and that we – you and I – will get to sing the big nah-nah song at death – where O death is your victory, where O death is your sting? And I know this will be the case for the very good reason that Jesus rose from the dead, crashed through that cold hard tomb, and has begun the dethroning of death for ever.
and that’s just one of the things I know, and the things I know are just some of the extraordinary blessings that God has showered upon us. Just reflect for a moment – if you’re a Christian person, you not only understand how things will turn out, you understand where things began, in the goodness and greatness of God, and perhaps don’t trouble yourself too greatly with what mechanism he used to kick it all off. If you’re a Christian person, you know not just about the origin and destiny of the universe, but the God who made it, the God whose name is Father Son and Spirit, and who’s name is not Allah and of whom Muhammed is not his prophet, who is not taught by Bhudah, who is unknown by Hindus, and who is laughing in mockery at the atheists, as the Psalmist puts it, ‘the fool says in the heart, there is no God’. But more than knowing the one true and living God, as Christians we claim to have that God at work in our lives in the most astonishing way – he has claimed us as his own, he has made us belong to him, but not just belong to him as slaves, belong to him as nothing less than his children. And he gives to us uniquely his own personal power and presence, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to give you a totally unfair advantage over everyone else trying to make their way through life – that he by his Spirit and through that power, is making your life look more and more like his life, your character conform more and more to his character, so that you are loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and gentle and faithful and self-disciplined ,all the the things that make for a genuinely successful person – you have God on your side – no, that’s too lame, you have God in the center of your life – and no one else who is not a child of this God does. That is what you think every day, and if anyone is interested enough to ask, that is what you would say is the difference between a Christian and someone who is not a Christian.
and that sounds, feels and looks extraordinarily arrogant. How on earth can we say those kinds of things? What on earth makes us think that we have the right to position ourselves like that? Who do we think we are? That is the accusation that is constantly thrown at us. What’s more, there is no people who are in principle more committed to humility than us! We hate the thought that we might be arrogant in seeing ourselves this way.
And the great danger is that under that pressure, we do something terrible – we hear the accusation, and we believe it, and we back off. Great swathes of the church have either given up on these core beliefs of the faith, or at least have backtracked from them into saying that they are just one option among many, one path up the mountain of spirituality, one perspective on that many sided thing called truth. Or if they haven’t given up altogether, they’ve gone quiet, been cowed into silence, and swallowed the propaganda that strong bold Christianity is best kept a private thing between you and God and maybe a few equally deluded friends, but that the one certain thing is that it doesn’t belong in the public square or in public debate!
Israel too knew the blessings of God. She had been rescued from a tyrant, whom God dealt with in an extraordinary manner, utterly trashing the finest army on the planet, making a mockery of the might of the only super power around at the time. And now Israel stands on the verge of another extraordinary act of God in her favour, and to the detriment of others, entering into and claiming ownership of the promised land, ch 9.1:
1 Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan today, to go in and dispossess nations larger and mightier than you, great cities, fortified to the heavens, 2 a strong and tall people, the offspring of the Anakim, whom you know. You have heard it said of them, “Who can stand up to the Anakim?” 3 Know then today that the Lord your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you, so that you may dispossess and destroy them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.
how’s this for blessing? How’s this for arrogant. Imagine how the conversation goes over coffee between an Israelite and an Anakim the day before Israel crosses the Jordan. “So, we’re coming to get you guys tomorrow!” “Oh really, well we’re shaking in our size 74 boots. You guys are going to get creamed. I’m 8 ft 8, and I’m the shrimp of the family!” “Yeah, yeah, we know, you’re all big and strong and brave and all that, you can bench press 200 kgs one handed, you throw spears 150 metres. But let me ask you a question – how many of you are a devouring fire? How much of that good stuff have you got?” “What do you mean a devouring fire? None of us! Have you got some kind of secret weapon?” You bet – his name is YHWY, he is the Lord our God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He dealt with Pharoah, and he will deal with you, because he’s on our team forever.” “Get off the grass. What makes you think the God of the universe would want to be on your team – bunch of brick-making losers! You’re so full of yourselves, thinking that God would back you against us. See you tomorrow on the front line. I’ll be the guy with the spear in your gullet!”
what would you be tempted to say then? What’s the next thing that comes to mind? There’s just a chance it goes something like this: “You’ve got to be kidding, you guys might be strong and tall and tough, but you’re also wicked and brutal and evil. We know the kind of stuff you do, we’ve heard of the kind of thing you’re into. And we are not like that. Of course God is against you, and of course God is for us.” Or perhaps a more modern version of that story, deep down in the dark places of our souls that we don’t look at very often: “I guess it makes sense that some people are not Christians; when it comes down to it, they are mostly greedy and materialistic, giving virtually nothing to charity, self focussed and self interested, so that nothing else much makes it through to their decision making, driven by pleasure and profit and sex, and I’m just not like that. It makes sense that God would be on my side.” And most of that could even be true, except for the last bit, v. 4:
4 When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.
there’s a proverb – better is open rebuke than hidden love – well, this sure isn’t hidden love! And just in case Israel doesn’t get it, Moses says it not once but twice – it’s not because of your righteousness, don’t say it was because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people! It’s a bit of a verbal slap in the face to Israel, just when she might think she has all the reason in the world to feel pretty smug – the Lord is about to do again to the people of the land what he did before to the Egyptians – that same Lord says to them, they are a stubborn people.
What’s more, rather than leave it there, Moses makes sure they get the point, and for the rest of the chapter brings out all the really juicy skeletons from the cupboard – it’s a bit like when you’re great aunt meets your knew girlfriend or boyfriend, and starts to tell them what you got up to in the bath when you were 5 years old! And Moses is unsparing, v. 8:
8 Even at Horeb you provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.
Moses goes back to the very beginning, the moment above all moments and shows that even then, with the Lord on the mountain in fire and thick cloud and thunder, they managed to muck things up, and turn away from the Lord and cast for themselves an image of a calf. Before it even got going it was nearly all over, this connection between the Lord and his people Israel, and so Moses comes down from the mountain and smashes the stone tablets wit the covenant lying in tatters. What’s more, it’s not like this was a once off, v. 22:
22 At Taberah also, and at Massah, and at Kibroth-hattaavah, you provoked the Lord to wrath. 23 And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, “Go up and occupy the land that I have given you,” you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God, neither trusting him nor obeying him.
he reminds them of Taberah where they’d complained and grumbled about their hardships. He reminds them of Massah where they had not trusted God for water and accused him of saving them only to kill them in the desert. He reminds them of Kibroth Hattaavah where they complained about having only meat after complaining about not having meat and God giving it to them. He reminds them of Kadesh Barnea, from where they’d sent spies out to look at the promised land and decided not to go into it because the people were too scary, and they wouldn’t trust the Lord to look after them. And so Moses concludes this litany of failure and sin with these words, v. 24:
24 You have been rebellious against the Lord as long as he has known you.
• which is why it makes sense for Moses to make sure Israel knows never, ever to get close to even thinking that what she has is a function of how righteous she is – the truth of the matter is that she has been rebellious against the Lord as long as he has known her.
• and right there is the big danger – the danger to swing from arrogant confidence to non-arrogant non confidence. To find yourself so blasted by the accuracy of Moses’ observation that you flip out the other way: “Well, who am I, in what way am I special, how am I any different from the people around me, how can I claim to be special, or special to God, or know more than other religions, or say that my way is the only way?”
can you see the two opposite ends of this spectrum? Can you see how you might flip well away from one and well into the other? We know in our bones that we have no reason to be arrogantly confident, we know in our bones that if there was a kind of ‘thoughts of the heart video camera’, there would be so much there that we hate for anyone else to see; and so the only option seems to be to flip to other end, and to say, “no one has any greater claim to say or think of themselves as anything more than anyone else.” And then all the blood and colour and vibrancy drains out of your Christianity, and you end up being another bland, vaguely spiritual, somewhat religious, nice enough person who lives a basically small self oriented life.
• but there is a third way, a third way which leaves no room for being arrogant, and yet which is full of a holy confidence, a non-arrogant confidence in the grace of God, v. 25:
25 Throughout the forty days and forty nights that I lay prostrate before the Lord when the Lord intended to destroy you, 26 I prayed to the Lord and said, “Lord God, do not destroy the people who are your very own possession, whom you redeemed in your greatness, whom you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin, 28 otherwise the land from which you have brought us might say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.’ 29 For they are the people of your very own possession, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.”
• what we see in Moses dimly, we find in Jesus in perfect spiritual clarity. We need and we have a mediator, one who stands in the breach as a gift of God’s own love, one who is like us in every respect save without sin, one who is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, who by the sacrifice of himself means that God pays no attention to the stubbornness of us his people, our wickedness and our sin. None, not the sin that stained our lives before we were grabbed by him, and especially in the context here, not even the sin that has stained our life with him – because of the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, he pays it no attention, precisely because he has given it his full attention on that cross.
• what Five Dock / Haberfield needs more than anything else is non-arrogant confident Christians; what your unbelieving family members and friends need more than anything else – more than a pay increase, more than a holiday, more than a party – is you to be more and more transparently a non-arrogant confident Christian. Not an arrogant one; nor one by the way that thinks that just because it’s not because of your righteousness that therefore righteousness doesn’t matter, because that’s not true either – if there’s one thing that Deut makes clear it’s that – but a clear, confident, humble Christian, who knows and loves and serves the God of grace and so loves and serves people in grace. Will you be that kind of person?