Dear friends in Christ. In last week’s OT reading and sermon we met the Israelites toward the beginning of their 40 desert journey to the Promised Land. We met them when Moses was on Mt. Sinai getting the Law and they had given up on Moses and made the golden calf to represent the Lord’s presence. There we heard about tests of faithfulness—first the people and then the Lord. The people failed that test of faithfulness as they relied on their own thoughts and looked for help in something visible—the golden calf; the Lord passed that test, showing Moses that He wants to be held to His promises and precisely His faithfulness sustains us and is the basis of our prayers.
Today our text finds the Israelites right about to enter that Promised Land after the end of the 40 years. The book of Deuteronomy is basically the restatement of the Law of the Lord as Moses gives his farewell to the Israelites before his death and their entrance into that Promised Land. And what theme do we again find? Faithfulness! Moses in our text and throughout his farewell discourses warns the Israelites against the sin of idolatry; He warns them against becoming unfaithful.
1. The very first words of our text are words of warning: Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, that is, be on guard for a lack of faithfulness. The OT Israelites had an outward promise from the Lord that they could look to and hold to—the covenant. The covenant, or agreement that God obligated Himself to, basically had 3 parts. The first was that the Israelites would be His special people. God showed and fulfilled this as He rescued the Israelites and led them through the desert and set them apart from the other peoples by giving them His holy law.
The second part of this covenant was that God would give them the Promised Land of Canaan, as He had promised Abraham. This, the Lord was about to do as the Israelites stood on the borders of the Land. And the third part of the covenant was the greatest—that the Messiah would come and according to His human nature be an Israelite. Of course, at this time, that was far in the future but the covenant and the Law were constant reminders to the Israelites that they were a people that the Lord was setting aside and preparing to welcome and to receive the Savior of the world, who would come as one of them. Their eyes were always to be on Him.
That’s why the Israelites needed to hear Moses’ warning in our text: Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you. But what happened when Jesus, the long awaited Savior, finally did come? The Jews, in particular, the religious leaders rejected Him. That’s described in this morning’s Gospel account when Jesus tells the parable of the wicked vineyard workers; and He concludes it saying: 'The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD'S doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes'? 43 "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. Where there is lack of faithfulness, there are dire consequences; that’s why the Lord says through Moses to both the Israelites and to us: Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you.
The Israelites needed to hear this warning from Moses because the Israelites would be surrounded by unbelieving, heathen nations. All around them would be the pressure to go along with the way everyone else does it; that pressure not to stand out in the crowd. There would be the temptation not to be so strict with following the Lord’s commands. There would be the temptation to do “what makes sense.” There would be the temptation to be desensitized by sin, since it is everywhere, and not to think of it as “a big deal.” Doesn’t all of this, though, sound so strangely familiar? Don’t we face the same type of temptations to unfaithfulness today—being drawn and tempted by the sinful world around us, especially by our “go along/ get along” society where tolerance for everything, except true Christianity, is king?
There is nothing new under the sun. Listen to what Moses says: When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil in the sight of the LORD your God to provoke Him to anger… Moses is warning the Israelites lest their zealous love for the Lord that they now have grows cold over time. He is warning them not to forget God’s former acts of mercy—as if they are something in the distant past and now taking His blessings and mercy for granted. He is warning them not to spoil God’s grace with idolatry. That’s the same sort of warning we need to take to heart today.
Just like the Israelites, we are sinners who have experienced the rich grace and mercy of God. There are times that we have especially felt the Lord’s grace and mercy. Perhaps it was for some answered prayer or some temporal blessing; perhaps, it was when we were older and the Lord first called us to faith and we for the first time heard the Gospel in all its glorious sweetness; perhaps it was the forgiveness of sin when we heard the absolution or received our Lord’s Body and Blood after having confessed a particularly burdensome sin. Then what a great feeling of joy fills us—surely like the joy that the Israelites experienced about to enter the Promised Land. But like Moses warns here, that joy in and love of the Lord can grow cold over time and so does our faithfulness to the Lord. May we be warned here and guard our hearts. Our hearts are guarded from unfaithfulness as we always recall the Lord’s mercy, goodness and love toward us. There is no better way than to be faithfully and diligently in God’s holy Word hearing once again what He has done for us in Christ; there is no better way than daily examining our hearts and lives in the light of God’s holy Law recognizing our sin, sorrowing over our sin and remembering our baptism by returning to it and with the hand of faith reaching in and reclaiming the blessing of forgiveness God, with His Word, had put in the saving water of Holy Baptism; there is no better way than having before our eyes and receiving in our mouths the very body and blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, for there Christ recalls for us His perfect once for all sacrifice as with His Body and Blood He also gives the blessings He won for us on the cross—forgiveness of sin, life and salvation. By His Word and Sacrament our hearts are guarded lest we forget God’s grace, mercy, and love toward us; lest our love of the Lord grows cold and we become unfaithful to Him.
The Lord has given us His holy Word and Sacrament to strengthen and guard our hearts because there are dire consequences for unfaithfulness. For the Israelites He says through Moses: I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess. The Israelites were given the Promised Land, the land in which the world’s Savior would be born; but if they would reject the Lord and become unfaithful to Him they would be expelled from the land because the land is the Lord’s [Lv. 25.23]; He retains ownership. Because of their unfaithfulness and rejection of the Lord, they were expelled by the Assyrians, Babylonians and the Romans.
Here the warning for us is clear. The Israelites received these blessings only when they were faithful; if they rejected the Lord, they cut themselves off from His blessings. If we become unfaithful and by our rejection of the Lord, by our impenitence, by our spurning His graces and blessings, we do not receive the blessings the Lord wants to give us. Where there is no faith, there is no hand to receive them. We cannot think that our claim to be a Christian will save us, if there is no faith because faith in Christ is what makes us a Christian. We cannot think that our baptism will save us if we reject our baptism and what God has given us in it.
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. The holy Triune God desires His people, those to whom He revealed Himself in love and grace, to be and remain faithful; He does not want any divided loyalties; He is not mocked. Yes, there are dire consequences where there is no faithfulness. And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. The Lord would drive out the Israelites from His land for their unfaithfulness and as punishment, give them what they wanted: And there you will serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. Dear Christian, let us heed Moses’ warning; let us heed the example of the Israelites; and so let our hearts be guarded by God’s holy Word and Sacrament, for through these alone He works to bring us to faith and to keep us faithful.
2. Just as God is a consuming fire to the hardened and smug sinner, just as nothing can withstand His wrath, so also is He a gracious and merciful God. And that’s what Moses directs the Israelites, and us, to in our text: But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice 31 (for the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them. Even though the Israelites were not faithful to the Lord and the Lord expelled them from the land, the Lord would keep His promise, preserve a few and if they would repent, He would remember them. It was precisely this promise that some who were expelled from the land remembered and in faith they turned back to the Lord, repenting of their sins and trusting in the coming Savior. In other words, though we are unfaithful, we can turn to the Lord who is always faithful to His word and promise. What a comforting and most gracious promise from the Lord to us—no matter how much we have sinned and strayed from Him, no matter how unfaithful we may have been: from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him! Here is the assurance to us that His kindness, grace and mercy will once more be poured out on repentant sinners.
The other glorious thing for us to remember is that even though we may be unfaithful to the Lord, unfaithful to the vow we made at the time of our confirmation, He is still faithful to us and will work to bring us back to Him, even using our various trials and hardships to shake us up to drive us back to Him as we see and feel our lost, helpless and hopeless condition. Our text: When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice… Nothing happens by chance or fluke. It is our gracious Triune God working all things for our spiritual good.
This is precisely what our God wants to do: to show us mercy and grace where there is repentance. This is what faith holds to—God’s faithfulness to His promise to be gracious and merciful—(for the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them and that’s why faith returns to Him for it is sure that the covenant of God’s faithfulness is not broken on His side.
Let us then, heed Moses’ words to the Israelites and apply them to ourselves. Let us be on guard for any lack of faithfulness to the Lord in our hearts and lives, and when we find it, let us hold to God’s faithfulness to His Word and promise for when we are unfaithful, God remains faithful. INJ Amen.