God's Story, Our Story: Keeping the Story in Our Hearts
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
In his book Sacred Thirst, Craig Barnes tells the story about how when he was a child, one day his father brought home a twelve-year-old boy named Roger. Roger’s parents had both died in a drug overdose. Craig’s father was the family’s pastor, and when it became clear that there was no one else to care for the boy, Craig’s parents decided to take him in and raise him as one of their own sons. From the day he walked in the door, Roger was part of the family.
Now it was a beautiful act of grace on the part of Craig’s parents to adopt Roger, but it also created a lot of work for them. You can imagine that growing up in the home of heroin addicts was far different from what Roger discovered in this new stable and healthy home. With his birth parents constantly stoned, Roger had spent the first twelve years of his life consumed by fear, and he became completely self-absorbed as a way of survival. Often he wondered if there would be enough food for him to eat, and he learned to fend for himself.
But now, in his new home, Roger had to learn about sharing and using good manners and doing family chores. Over and over, Roger’s adoptive parents would have to say to him, “No, Roger, that’s not how we act here. You don’t have to fight or scream or hurt others to get what you want. We expect you to act differently here.”
Now Roger had been embraced as a full-fledged member of the Barnes’s family. He had been given a new story as one of their beloved sons. But it was going to take some time and effort for him to learn how to live into this new story and leave his old story behind. It was going to take time and effort for him to learn how to act like a member of the Barnes’ family. And it was only because Roger was loved unconditionally by his new family that he would be able to make the necessary changes.
The same thing was true for the Israelites as they made their journey out of slavery in Egypt and into a new life of freedom. Through the leadership of Moses, God had rescued them and given them a new story. They were no longer slaves; they were God’s covenant people—his “treasured possession,” “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” They had been adopted into God’s family, just like Roger had been adopted into a new family.
But also like Roger, the Israelites would need to learn how to live into this new story—how to live like members of this new family. They would need to learn to think and talk and act like God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and holy nation. And this is why God gives them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. So they could learn to live like the beloved children of God that they already are.
There are two places in the Old Testament where the Ten Commandments show up—Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. This signals just how important they are to God’s Story and our story. Too often we misunderstand what is happening here with the giving of the law, and we misunderstand how God works in the Old Testament. We see the Ten Commandments as a list of rules that God’s people needed to follow in order to be saved. But it is crucial to notice that before God issues any command, there is a declaration: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….”
This declaration of who God is and what he has done turns that notion that Israel is saved by their good works on its head. We must not miss the order of how the Exodus story unfolds! First, God rescues his people from slavery as an act of grace; then God leads them to Sinai and gives them the law. Grace always comes first! The Israelites are called to keep the commandments not in order to be saved but because they already have been saved! Here’s another way to say it: obedience to God is always a response of gratitude to God’s grace!
Not only does grace precede the giving of the law, but the giving of the law itself is an expression of grace. Think about it. True freedom comes not from jettisoning all rules and living however you want (that’s just another form of slavery); true freedom comes with becoming who we’re intended to be—living fully into God’s design.
Go back to the story of Roger. It was a gift of grace for his adoptive parents to give him rules and show him a new way of acting in the family. Is this not true for all parents—you demonstrate your love and care to your children by showing them the way, being clear about expectations, teaching them to live in a way that will help them flourish? The point is never the rules or boundaries themselves, but the way those rules and boundaries lead to healthy relationships and enable us to thrive according to God’s design.
On one occasion, the great Jewish author Chaim Potok was asked about his call to be a writer. He explained how his mother tried many times to persuade him to be a brain surgeon instead. “Son, you’ll make a lot of money,” she’d say. “And you’ll keep people from dying.” But Chaim didn’t want to be a brain surgeon. “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying!” he’d say to her. “I want to show them how to live!” “That’s why I am a writer,” he said. “Because I want to show people how to live.”
Well this is exactly God’s purpose in giving the Ten Commandments! God has written them in stone with his own finger not just to keep his people from sinning but to show them how to live! To live in right relationship with God; to live in right relationship with each other. Eventually, the Ten Commandments, along with the first five books of the OT, would be called “the Torah,” a Hebrew word that literally means “the hand pointing the way.” The law is God’s divine hand pointing the way, showing his children how to live into God’s Story—how to live as a people who belong to God!
The whole law gets summarized in the Shema, the central confession of Israel’s faith: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words I am commanding you today in your heart.
It wasn’t enough to just externally follow God’s commands. God wanted these commands written on their hearts. Which is to say that God didn’t just want to get Israel into his Story; he wanted to get his Story into them—deep into their hearts. And a life of loving God with their whole self, expressed in radical obedience, was the way to getting the Story into them and keeping it in their hearts. It was also the way to get it into the hearts of their children.
Getting God’s Story into their hearts wasn’t just for their sake. This is so important to understand. Israel is called to get God’s Story into their hearts and obey the commandments for the sake of the world—so that the whole world may know that the Lord is God! Through their faithful obedience, the Israelites were showing the world how to live into God’s Story—how to live according to God’s design!
` This was their missional witness to the pagan cultures around them! By worshiping God alone and letting their allegiance to God ripple into every nook and cranny of their lives, they were a display people showing the rest of the nations what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Their obedience to God pointed back to Eden—what God intended form the beginning—and forward to the end of the age when Christ will return—what God intends to do to restore all creation. By living in such a way that God was at the absolute center of their lives, they were a light to the nations, a contrast society, drawing others into worship of the one true God.
But what does all of this mean for us today? Now that Christ has come, what role does God’s law play in our lives as Christians?
Yes, there are differences between us and the children of Israel; but the main thrust is the same! We, too, are called to obey God’s law not in order to be saved but in gratitude to God because we have been saved by grace through faith! Jesus was very clear—he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. When Jesus was asked, “Which of the commandments is the greatest?” he answered with the Shema: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your strength. And along with it, love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.
Of course we can only obey God’s commands because Christ dwells in us through the Spirit. It is because Jesus, the new Moses, is our mediator and he has perfectly obeyed God’s law for us. Jesus has paid the price for our disobedience in his sacrifice on the cross and his victory over the grave. Now, we share in his life, and it is his power at work in us that enables us to obey God’s commands! It is his power at work in us that transforms us from the inside out and help us grow into this new identity as God’s adopted daughters and sons! It is his power at work within us that ultimately gets us into God’s Story and gets God’s Story into us!
It was a terrible day when the telegram arrived to the Barnes’ home. The telegram announcing that Roger, now a grown man, had been killed in an act of heroism in Vietnam. Craig reflects on the memory of seeing his mother break down and cry at the kitchen table, the telegram clutched in her trembling hand. He writes, “I remember my mother’s tears most of all. She wept because of profound grief, to be sure, but also because she was so proud of him. He had given his life to save others. How could he have learned to do this but through the sacrificial love of my parents?”
Craig goes on to make this connection between Roger and us, as those who’ve been adopted as God’s children in Christ through the Holy Spirit: “Where can we learn to give our lives to something other than the self-absorbed effort of trying to quench our own parched souls? Only in the home of the heavenly Father, who sacrificed his son because he loves us and who brings us home through the ministry of the Holy Spirit….It is not about us. It is about what the triune God has done, is doing, and will continue to do. By the Holy Spirit, we are lifted up to participate in the Son’s own relationship with his Father. All we do is receive. And that changes everything. ” (p.85-86)
Yes, it is only as we receive the grace of God who rescues us in Christ, gives us a new identity as his treasured people, and empowers us with his Spirit that we can truly change from the inside out and become who we truly are! It is only as we receive God’s grace in Jesus that we can keep this Story in our hearts, live it out in our daily lives, and share it with the whole world.
“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. “A city on a hill cannot be hid….In the same way, let your light shine before others, so they might see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14,16)
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.