[Sermon audio available here.]
The scandal of Christianity is that central to its message is suffering and death. Suffering and death are the two things that the world tries to avoid at all costs. What our society values is in many respects the opposite of what Christianity holds dear. Popular culture teaches us from a young age that what will make us happy and what really counts is being a winner, being good looking, being healthy, being wealthy and famous. Heaped on top this idealism – no, in fact driving it – is a world that mocks us for believing in a God of suffering and death. The difficulty for us Christians is that when our lives do not conform to what the world expects and values, it can be easy to doubt God’s goodness and his love towards us.
The overarching message of the Song of Moses in Deut. 32 is comfort for sinners whose lives are riddled with suffering. This message is the same one that gave Abraham hope as he sojourned in the desert with no country to call his own; the same hope that sustained Israel in slavery in Egypt; and the same hope that Israel was to hold onto in the wilderness as well as in exile after banishment from the Promised Land.
The message of incalculable comfort in the Song of Moses is that God is in the thick of suffering and even death. No, in fact, God has ordained the suffering and death that breaks in on the lives of his people. For what purpose? Through suffering and death, God brings about salvation. Salvation comes through suffering and death. This central truth of Scripture is confirmed most powerfully in Deut 32:39, where God declares that he alone is the “one who kills and makes alive.” God kills and wounds through persecution, sickness, poverty, loneliness, anxiety and depression, and God puts us to death through the law: so that we might find our life in Jesus Christ. For, Jesus lived a live of perfect obedience to the law. He suffered and was put to death, and he was raised for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus has vindicated God’s name in a world of sinners who hate losers, and who, therefore, hate God and his people.
God alone is God
If you recall from the last two weeks, we have been learning about Israel’s fate because of her sinful idolatry and her unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. In Deut 32, Moses sets forth the many terrible curses that will fall upon the nation of Israel for her disobedience. The foremost curse is that God will disown Israel and kick her out of the Promised Land. There, she will be defeated and owned by enemy nations of Assyria and Babylon. This is the basic context for God’s words to Israel in Deut 32:39. Think about it, here are pagan nations who hate God, who think that they have conquered Israel by their own strength. You can just imagine the gossip and gloating that was going on in the enemy camp. And then there is a rejected and exiled Israel tempted by despair. The pagans are elevating their gods above the God of Abraham and as far as Israel can tell, God had left them altogether.
It is in the midst of this arrogance and unbelief that God asserts himself as Lord over heaven and earth. He declares: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me…” The nations of Assyria and Babylon had no idea who they are contending with. Their reading of reality is completely wrong on two accounts. First, they are oblivious to God’s impending judgment for their sins. And second, they think that God has no power over them. Just when the pagan nations thought they had outsmarted God, God reveals that in fact he gave them victory over Israel, which actually served his plan of salvation for the world!
Such truths are indeed fearful things for unbelievers to consider. And yet, for the children of God – for you and I – to know that God alone is God and therefore Lord of the universe is of immense comfort! To know that God alone is God means that nothing that happens in this world and in our lives is outside of his sovereign control. To know that God alone rules is to know that every horrific turn of events, every nerve ending that shoots pain through the human body and that moment when the heart stops beating are all ordained by God.
Hear O Israel: God alone kills and makes alive
This is what God himself affirms in no uncertain terms in the second part of verse 39: “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” In these few words, we have the strongest and clearest declaration by God that he alone is responsible for that which no one wants to talk about and everyone wants to avoid: suffering and death. With these words God ventures head on into that realm of life that can so easily shake our faith to its very core: which is the pain, sorrow and bereavement which so often sends shockwaves through our lives in this fallen world.
The comfort, however, for us is that God is the one behind the killing and the wounding. But it is not just that God is the one who has ordained our suffering. This truth alone is still terrifying. The incomparable comfort of this verse is that God kills and God wounds in love and in mercy. Yes, it sounds scandalous to the ears of the world, but to us who believe, herein lies the way of salvation.
This is Israel’s story, isn’t it? The seeming contradictory and inexplicable nature of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel is that he chose to save them through death and destruction. God gave Israel a taste of heaven on earth in the Promised Land of Canaan. And then he brings them literally into a place of hell on earth through the torments and captivity of their enemies.
Why? So that Israel would stop and consider who they are and who God is. In their sufferings, Israel was forced to consider their weakness and helpless condition without God.
In God’s inscrutable wisdom, he chose to subject Israel to the howling wilderness and the terrors of exile so that they would understand the essence of God’s covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, the Old Covenant. Only once God beats down Israel’s pride by the circumstances of life would they begin to grasp his message of redemption given through the Law of Moses. God subjected Israel to suffering so that through it they would solve the riddle of the Old Covenant: which is that human obedience cannot earn salvation before God. The law cannot save. Rather, the law kills and God’s promise alone gives life. Contrary to what many Israelites believed at the time, the various laws of God set forth in the Old Covenant, and summed up in the Ten Commandments, were actually intended to kill Israel – put them to death spiritually. Why? Because the nation of Israel needed to know their hopeless condition as sinners in order to turn to God. And this is what the law does. With its relentless demands to obey and perform perfectly, it destroys our hopes of pleasing God with our own obedience or righteousness.
God still kills and makes alive today
Brothers and sisters, and children, while it may not be a popular thing to say, but God still kills and wounds his church today. However, things are different from the time of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. Remember that Israel lived during a unique time in the history of redemption. They lived under the conditions of the Old Covenant and the threat of punishment if God’s law was broken. For example, if a child disobeyed his parents, he was stoned. If a person was caught stealing, his hand was cut off. If an Israelite rejected God by going after foreign gods, he could be killed on the spot. This was to show that God is just and that only those who are holy can dwell in his presence.
The difference for God’s people today is that the conditions of the Old Covenant have been met in Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of the OT. Jesus kept every jot and tittle of every moral law, every ceremonial law and every judicial law that God imposed upon Israel. What is more, Jesus bore the wrath of God for the sins of mankind by dying on the cross. This means that while the remnant of Israel (true children of God among the nation of Israel) experienced many temporary curses for breaking the Old Covenant, God does not punish his people today. Jesus was cursed once and for all for our sin.
However, this does not mean that God does not still exercise fatherly discipline toward us. Just like a loving parent who will at times correct his child with the use of unpleasant consequences, so too God chastises those whom he loves. The author to the Hebrews in Heb. 12:8-11 writes: “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” In other words, God makes us endure all kinds of suffering in this life so that we may learn the way of salvation, which is to obey the gospel. God teaches us to submit to him and his grace through the trials and temptations he sends into our lives.
This is the point at which Christianity becomes so counter-intuitive and so counter-cultural, and foolishness to those who do not believe. But to those of faith, the Holy Spirit teaches us to get beyond the discomfort that suffering brings and behold God’s grander purpose in it, which makes our hearts sing for joy. By trusting in God, we need not be overcome when we are persecuted for our beliefs, when disease riddles our bodies or when a love one dies. By faith we can rejoice in the midst of loneliness or a bad marriage or a difficult job.
Beloved, if you are suffering, do not be surprised. It is normal. It was God’s way of salvation in the OT and it is still his way today. This is what the NT tells us to expect. In Acts 14:22, Luke encourages the disciples in the faith and then says: “though many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Whether it be God’s fatherly hand of chastisement or just the stubborn reality of living in a world cursed because of sin, the message of the Song of Moses and all of Scripture for that matter is – in the words of Paul in Romans 8 – that all things are working together for our good and our salvation: from the smallest irritation to the greatest horrors that come into our lives. This is why the Apostle Paul could say: “I am sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).
Beloved, the Holy Spirit wants to teach us both the high and the low notes of this Song. We must learn how to follow the low notes to the high note in the music that God has given us. The low notes of suffering in Scripture and in our lives have set the stage for the high note of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Have you heard and do you understand that God kills us and wounds us in order to make us alive and well?
It is not just through the terrible circumstances of life that God puts us to death and wounds us, but also, more importantly, it is through his law. In fact, no amount of physical and emotional pain in this life can accomplish what the law is intended to do for our justification: which is expose our sin and destroy trust in our own so-called goodness. In Rom. 7:9, Paul writes: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and killed me.” In 2 Cor. 3, Paul says: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives live.”
Brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus, God has put us to death and he has wounded us through the sufferings of life’s circumstances and the law, so that we might have eternal life. And how has God made it possible to get from death to life? He has done so by killing his only begotten Son. According to the foreordained will of God, Jesus endured a life of unspeakable suffering, which culminated with his crucifixion at the hands of evil and arrogant men. The world thought it had won and it had conquered God. But the paradox of the gospel is that through the greatest evil ever committed, God brought salvation to humankind.
Therefore, no matter what wilderness experience you are going through or will go through in this life; no matter how the law accuses you and terrifies with guilt; the good news of the Songs of Moses in Deut 32:39, which is the gospel, is that no-one and no thing “can deliver us out of God’s hand.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love because we have died and been raised to new life in Jesus. Though we are the weak and despised of this world – like sheep led to the slaughter – we are nevertheless more than conquerors in Christ who loves us. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (March 31, 2013)
[Sermon audio available here.]