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What is the point of our faith? Why are we here today? In particular, why join with a church, be baptized? These questions surely won’t be adequately answered in the next several minutes. But they are good questions, and definitely the kind we should ask ourselves now and again. We’ll at least begin pondering together.
Moses has reached one of those moments when people may well be asking him, “What’s the point of it all? What’s the point of this old covenant, and this long slog through the wilderness? What’s the point of our faith?” In the stories told since last Sunday’s passage, Moses has, in fact, led God’s people out of Egypt (with God’s help) and into the wilderness, where they have been wandering, the bible tells us, for 40 years.
Forty years is a long time to keep covering the same roughly 240-mile track through the wilderness, even if you are on foot. (Even at a fairly slow pace, it should have taken closer to 40 days than 40 years.) Some of us refuse to stop and ask for directions. Some of us refuse to follow the directions we are given. And for some of us, we just need to take the long way home.
The people of Israel fall into all those categories. Elsewhere in scripture it tells us that the length of the journey was not by accident but by design. At this point, only those who were under the age of 20 when they left Egypt now remain alive to enter the land of promise.[i] There are many hints as to why that was so. I think it can be summed up in this statement: the people who left Egypt and slavery behind, were not yet ready to embrace their freedom.
We are now at the end of that 40-year-journey. And the entire book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ deathbed words to the people, who shortly will cross the Jordan River and go where they have been promised a good and broad land, and land flowing with milk and honey, which is to say—they will have everything they need. Moses is dying. He will not be going with them. But now he is taking the time to answer those implied questions: “What’s the point of this old covenant, and this long slog through the wilderness? What’s the point of our faith?”
In the course of his answer, Moses says a really startling thing. “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our [fathers] did the Lord make this covenant…” I know the English says, “ancestors,” and that’s usually a better translation, but not here, because Moses is actually talking about the immediate parents of the people who are camped out in front of him.
Not with our fathers, Moses says, but—and here is how the Hebrew reads—but the covenant is “with us, we, these here, this day, all of us, the ones alive.”
Moses is saying, in effect, don’t depend on the faith of your fathers. It will get you nowhere. The covenant is meaningless unless it is made, right now, afresh, in your hearts, this day. It is nothing, unless it is living and breathing. It is dead, unless it becomes alive in you, now.
The same is true for us, today. Our faith has to be a living faith, fresh each day, or it is no faith at all. Does this mean that we throw out the past entirely? Do we get rid of the bible, for example, and our historic documents of faith? Of course not. We mine them, and we do so in a way that helps us to understand that our faith is alive. Here’s an example. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of the historic documents that makes up the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was written, one part of the Westminster Confession of Faith, in well over 1000 work sessions, over the course of 6 years, between 1643 and 1649. It was written under duress—a constitutional crisis was unfolding, and a king was executed near the end of their process, and he was executed over theology. Like every creed in our Book of Confessions, it was written in a particular time and place, to answer a particular set of questions. So, how could it possibly matter to us today? Here is the opening question and answer:
Question 1: What is the chief end of man? (That is to say, what were we humans made for?)
Answer 1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.[ii]
We are about the business of glorifying God, and enjoying God forever. That is what it means to be a person of faith. In a few moments, four people will join with this congregation by baptism, or by renewing the promises made at their baptisms. I encourage each person here to listen, closely, to the promises made at this time, because everything—from saying “no” to sin and evil, to saying “yes” to God’s claim on us, and Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice—these are all ways of loving God, and glorying in the beauty and majesty of the Creator, and saying yes to being bathed in that love forever.
And this is not a solo, “me and God” kind of thing. In our reading, I skipped over Moses’ reiteration of the Ten Commandments (which are also recounted in the Shorter Catechism). These laws at the heart of the covenant are not about us alone. They are about us in community. The law, as God gives it, is about the neighbor. Saying “yes” to God, and glorying in God forever, means, not separating ourselves from others, but loving them.
What is the point of our faith? The ancient texts tell us that it is to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Everything we do to say “yes” to God’s claim on us, reminds us that this covenant is living. It is fresh. It is now.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning… ~Lamentations 3:22-23
This is God’s promise to us, we, these here, this day, all of us, the ones alive.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Numbers 14:28-30.
[ii] “The Shorter Catechism,” 7.001, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 1999) 175.