This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living in the In-Between". See series.
Today marks the beginning of a four-week series on the one book of the Bible that perhaps is read less often than any other. If we took a survey, I'm sure it would take the prize for the least-read book of the Bible, finishing just behind Numbers and Leviticus. Even the name sounds boring.
There's a good reason Deuteronomy is not read very often. To understand why, we need to know that the Old Testament is divided into different sections. The first five books of the Bible form a section known as the Torah or Pentateuch. These are the books of Law. Deuteronomy is the very last book in this section. They are, in order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you read straight through to the end of Numbers, you could simply skip to the end of Deuteronomy, and you'd be at the same place in the narrative. The Book of Numbers ends with these wandering ex-slaves gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, waiting to enter the Promised Land. Arrive at the end of Deuteronomy, and you'll see they haven't moved from this spot. In other words, you could remove this book entirely and not miss a beat in the story.
Another reason Deuteronomy doesn't get read very often is that it's basically all words and almost no action. It's comprised of three sermons by Moses and a set of laws thrown in for the fun of it. Most of the sermons by Moses are retelling stories and laws we've already heard in the previous books. In fact, this is where the name Deuteronomy comes from—deutero means "second," and nomos means "law." It is called the "second law;" it's mostly repetition. If you read this book at a surface level, you might observe that it really has nothing new to say. So I think it's reasonable to wonder why this book is in the Bible to begin with! More importantly, why would anyone do an entire series of sermons on it?
One reason is that Deuteronomy is Jesus' favorite book in the Bible. I know, I know—Jesus doesn't have favorites. But if he did, this book would be it. Not only does he directly quote this book repeatedly, but his teachings and life reflect many of the themes found only in Deuteronomy. Some have called it "the first New Testament," because it presents an innovation in Israel's theology. It presents a new approach to the old law. In addition, most scholars consider Deuteronomy to be the theological center of the Old Testament, because the author or authors of this book also wrote all the books that follow it, from Joshua to 2 Kings. In this sense, Deuteronomy is the hidden hand that works the puppet. By understanding Deuteronomy, we pull back the curtain and reveal the intention and direction of this hand. In doing so, we can better understand the books that follow it and even the words of Jesus.
Given Deuteronomy's importance to Jesus and how its subtle power shapes the rest of Scripture, we should take a closer look to discover what it is that Jesus liked so much.
Deuteronomy is the story of a people in transition.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy, we get a clue to the uniqueness of the book. Deuteronomy 1:1: "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness … Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows …."
This passage sets the framework, the context for Moses' preaching. There are two things that stand out. First, it says, "Moses undertook to expound the law." That is, to explain, interpret, and expand—not simply to speak or introduce the law. In other words, Moses is not simply setting out to repeat the law and the stories in the wilderness—he is setting out to explain and give meaning to the law.
Moses doesn't simply offer a verbatim repetition of the stories and laws. Instead, he offers a creative elaboration and revision of older laws and stories. He is expounding, not simply describing. It is clear that he's doing this because many of the people of Israel weren't around for the first giving of the law. But more importantly, this explanation is tailor-made for the completely new situation that these people now find themselves in. This is the second thing about this passage—their new situation.
It says twice that Moses spoke to them beyond the Jordan in the wilderness. If you missed it the first time, he says it again. They are now on the banks of the Jordan River, no longer wandering in the wilderness, and they have yet to enter the Promised Land now visible to them. They are forced to wait in between. They are at the heart of a transition. This is a book about transitions. It is not only the story that presents a transition. Deuteronomy itself is a transitional book. It provides the bridge between the end of the Torah and the beginning of the books of history and prophets. The book halts both us as readers and the Hebrew people; it forces us to wait before entering the Promised Land to listen to a lengthy, meandering sermon by a very old man.
The in-between is the hardest part of any journey.
This transition zone is a difficult place to be because it is neither an adventure nor home. The in-between is the hardest part of any journey where we are asked to wait and listen—not to act or even react. It demands a courageous patience and a capacity to endure the unknown. While there is nothing that has to be done or needs accomplishing when we are in between, it is certainly not a place of rest. If it were, we would want to stay "in between."
Instead, it is a place of restless anticipation. I am reminded of an experience I had repeatedly as a child growing up. My family would always drive to our cottage in Canada from Minneapolis, a 1,000 mile-journey. For my brother it was no problem—he could sleep on command and get lost in a book whenever he wanted. Not true for me. I would be awake the whole time and I hated reading, so basically the trip was always unbearable for me. I remember vividly about halfway through our second day of driving, I would begin to ask the universal questions every kid asks on a long car ride: "Are we there yet? How much longer? Are we there yet?"
In the in-between, or times of transition, we revisit this near-universal childhood frustration and are compelled to ask God the questions, "Are we there yet? How much longer?" I spent four years between leaving my career in advertising and accepting this call asking God the questions, "How much longer? Are we there yet?" I am well-acquainted with the in-between. It isn't fun, but it is a normal part of a life of faith. It is a normal part of the maturing process.
I know that many of you are in the in-between in your own lives, and as a congregation, we are certainly in transition. We are aware that a previous era has closed and we are waiting for what is to come. We are invited to wait and listen. Many of us are grieving the loss of Kevin Snyder. Grief is a time in between, where we are between the time that person's life filled us and the time we are left empty and reeling. We are between immense loss and what seems like a distant possibility of ever living a normal life again.
I believe Deuteronomy, a book about the in-between—provides us some helpful guidance and suggestions for living in transition. And so over the next four weeks, I want us to live alongside the Hebrew people between two places. Let us stand on the banks of the Jordan River and listen to the wisdom of an old man as we wait and hope for God's promises to be fulfilled.
And while we are in between, whether in our personal lives or in our congregational life, I invite you to ask God, "Are we there yet?" It is a simple but honest prayer that opens our hearts to God and offers our deepest desires, which God longs to hear.
Shane Hipps is lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Zondervan, 2006).