Who would ever want to write a sermon on Deuteronomy 33? A question I asked myself when I prepared, this week, an article for an exegetical magazine in the Netherlands on this text. Theyll be preaching from Deuteronomy there, next year in January and February.
At first sight, reading through the chapter I felt at a complete loss: how was this ever going to make sense to people at this time and in this world? Could what Moses had said to the tribes of Israel just before he died and they were going to enter the promised land ever be relevant to us? I baulked at the militaristic language, the picturing of God as warrior, a slayer of enemies. Hasnt Christ taught us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek? Arent the blessings Jesus gives in the sermon on the mount in direct contradiction to what is said here? The whole passage seems to be centring around the accumulation of wealth and the protection of it. Hardly what we have been taught to strive for in a Christian life is it?
To be blessed with the promise of wealth and military prowess hardly what I would be, or would be supposed to be waiting for.
So what was I waiting for? What kind of blessing would I like, for me and for the people around me? And what would such a blessing mean? For me, for my world, for my future?
A blessing, in the biblical sense is speaking good words into a situation. A blessing, in the biblical sense, is not a static thing, but are words, laden with power, that set the future they evoke in motion. They start of what they promise, they advance toward the future and bring it closer, they start to give shape to something that is, as yet, still utterly shapeless.
What happens in Deuteronomy 33 is that the future is spoken into the situation of the tribes as they stand on the verge of venturing into the promised land. Moses speaks words into that situation that start giving shape to the future.
It is, by the way, most probable that Moses never said those words the way they have been handed on to us. Somebody wrote them down centuries later. Somebody who knew full well what had happened after the tribes entered Canaan, what troubles they encountered, what difficulties they had, where their weaknesses lay and what happened to Gods promises. This person pictures Moses as a father who knows his people, knows what is going to happen, knows what support they will need, knows where things might go wrong, trusts that God will make it well. That God will keep protecting his people, like he did in the wilderness, that he will fight for them and give them wealth, abundance, and bless them with all the good things Canaan has to offer. By the time the text was written down the people would have known what had happened and how they had been blessed, how God had protected them and looked after them.
Perhaps that is where we should go first too. Think about and acknowledge how God has blessed us, as this congregation, as his people in this place. And realise that we are blessed, with abundance in all sorts of ways. Even where life has been difficult and where we have encountered trouble.
God has carried us like Benjamin, God has given us abundance like Joseph, God has guided, taught and encouraged our worship like with the Levites, God has not let us down like he did not let down the tribes of Israel after their entry into the promised land.
Something that should fill us with gratefulness and trust, and with the expectation that God will go on blessing us and looking after us, now and in the future.
Another thing that is acknowledged in the words Moses speaks in this text is that this blessing, this wealth and abundance of Gods giving is not to be taken for granted. It is a gift, that needs God as the source and protector of it. Living Gods blessing is not without struggle, not without adversity, but is something that can only be won with God on our side.
And, and that is something the book of Deuteronomy leading up to this chapter has expounded over and over again: we can place ourselves on Gods side only by living according to his commandments and fulfilling his ordinations.
Otherwise there is no way we will receive blessing or be able to hang on to it. The laws as they are given in Deuteronomy very much being what Jesus preached: The practice of love, justice and peace in every aspect of life.
Blessing comes from righteous living and is not to be confused with a free and easy ride. It is something that is under constant threat from the outside. And at times it will be something we may completely lose sight off, when life is tough and we struggle.
In spite of all the military and quite violent language and imagery used in this text, I dont think we should consider this text as a way to legitimise the use of violence to protect our way of life, or even to justify the extensive acquisition of weaponry to safeguard our wealth.
It is not about that. What it tries to say, I think, is that the hard won life in the promised land, where we have tried to live life as God would want it and succeeded in making at least some of it work, is something God seeks to protect and shield from adversity.
Now, what is it we would we want to be blessed with?
I dont think it would be that much different to what people hoped for all those centuries ago: The love of God before us, beneath us and around us. To live life as God would want it and receive from him in abundance. To be sure that God will fight for us if we live according to his will and never leave us to be conquered by the forces of darkness.
If we could venture into the future with the firm belief God will bless us in that way I think our fear to lose what weve got would diminish, and we would not have to be as afraid of enemies as we would otherwise perhaps have been. We could be more generous, more open hearted and more welcoming because we would be secure in our knowledge that in the end our wealth and wellbeing depend on God and not on us, that the safeguarding of who and what we are is in the end in his hands and not in ours. That the only thing we need to do is live life according to the commands laid out in his word and that God will do the rest.
Much of what is going on in our world today is unfortunately not guided by this trust in Gods blessing for our lives or in his ability to protect and guide us in times of trouble. Fear and anxiety inform are more often than not the main drivers behind our decisions, both personally, nationally and internationally. The G8 in Edinborough is very much about protecting what weve got and making sure we will get even more. In our personal lives giving and sharing generously is often hampered by our fear of what might befall us in future. We accumulate, we protect, we spend sleepless nights wondering and worrying while all the time the only thing we have been asked to do is live righteously, practice love and bring peace and trust that God will then bless our lives with more than we need. Amen.