Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Don't Drink the Sand (Deuteronomy 8:7-18)

Reading for Thanksgiving Day (A)
Introduction to Christian Preaching
Duke University Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina

7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

11Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. 19If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20Like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 8:7-20 NRSV

At the brink of the promised land

The Church traditionally understands Deuteronomy as a speech by Moses to the people of Israel after a series of victories, and just before their entrance into the promised land. Old man Moses, gaunt and still a little raspy when he had to speak for a large gathering, probably looking a lot more like a stooped-over Morgan Freeman than like Charleton Heston, backs a little ways up a hill so that he can be seen, and gives his parting address.

“We are standing right at the brink of the promised land,” he says to a skeptical crowd. "Wonders await you that you can’t imagine: abundant water, fruit growing on every tree, and land that will yield food when you plant and riches when you dig. I’m scared for you, though, because I’ve noticed you have a nasty habit of forgetting God.

“Just before we crossed the Red Sea you started complaining that it would be easier to go back to Egypt, and barely had it begun flowing again before you were complaining about water and food, wishing you had died and not trusting God. Even when God gave you bread from heaven you wouldn’t trust that it would come again. And of course, we can’t forget how I found you worshipping a golden calf when I came down from the mountain where I received the covenant for you.

“God has been forgiving so far, but we must all realize that we stand at a new place, and we must think about how far we have been brought and how much has been given to us. If we forget, there is a cost we certainly cannot afford.”

“They don’t know the difference.”

Think about hearing that speech of Moses. Would it be appropriate for us to hear? Are we standing at the brink of the promised land, or are we living in it?

The American President is one of my favorite films. It features a heated debate between the president, Michael Douglas, and his senior domestic policy advisor, Michael J. Fox. Fox is trying to convince the president to be more aggressive, and he says with great passion:

[People] want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

The president responds coolly,

People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty; they drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
That’s always made me mad. The one fallacy in my favorite character in one of my favorite movies. Well, he does sleep with a lobbyist in the White House, but that’s another sermon. I’d never liked this interchange, because after all, I know the difference between sand and water. I think most of us do. As I started thinking about today’s text, though, I decided he might be right. Maybe we do drink the sand, not even realizing that there is a better alternative.

The key for us is realizing that this world is not the promised land. It sure sounds like it at times. If we decided to distribute it evenly, we would have plenty of just about everything we need. We’ve “eaten [our] fill and… built fine houses,” and, though certainly not as much as we might like, our “silver and gold is multiplied…” (Deut. 8:12-13). Without doubt, we have been richly blessed. In fact, we as middle- and upper-middle-class Americans have everything Moses described as being in the promised land. We have those things for which the Israelites thirsted.

Our thirst

But still, our desires are not quenched. That’s because we are essentially different from the Israelites, and have different needs. An enslaved people in a barren land thirst for freedom, water, food, and riches. We are not in any legal sense enslaved, we have plenty of water, this past week might have served as a reminder of both how much food means and how much we have, and if you want to see a display of riches, just hang out at the mall during the next month.

There are plenty of people around us who hunger for food, freedom, water, and riches. To ignore that would be a grave sin for sure, but to act as if we don’t need anything because we have those basic necessities would be quite like the sin Moses described.

Our wilderness

What would our promised land look like? We could dream the day away imagining. Diseases cured. The threat of terrorism a faded memory. Families made whole rather than torn apart. Christians being as radically inclusive as Christ was. A system of commerce that fulfills our needs rather than dictating our desires and diluting our passions.

You see we are in the wilderness. We have the food, land, and riches, but only in the wilderness would people be concerned about airplanes flying into buildings or, if you’ll go a step further with me, only in the wilderness would people be so concerned with getting everywhere fast that they feel crippled without worry- and hassle-free travel near the speed of sound. Only in the wilderness would we witness marriages and divorces of convenience. Only in the wilderness would we seek to exclude people who don’t fit the church mold. Jesus had lots of things to say about that.

We are not alone here in the wilderness, and we need to be thankful even here. As Moses speaks to the Israelites we hear what this time is all about for us:

14b[do not forget] the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.

Deuteronomy 8:14b-16 NRSV

We are in the wilderness, and it surrounds us with all of its threats and perversions, but it does not overcome us. God leads us and provides for us. It ought to be even more clear to us that we must give thanks, because we don’t depend on leaky flint rocks and sweet-tasting insect dung that shows up every morning. Like the Israelites, we are always a little more comfortable with where we are now than with where we will be next, and so we sit here in the wilderness, fooled by the mirage that this is the promised land, and we drink the sand because we can’t seem to tell the difference.

Christ as our guide

For we who have mapped the whole world and even explored beyond the bounds of this planet, we can’t get into the promised land by battling a conventional enemy or even a “twenty-first” century military opponent. We can’t get in by crossing a man-made bridge or breaking through a wall.

Moses spoke to his people as they were perched on the brink of the promised land, and he speaks to us as we are perched on the brink of Advent. When we avoid the commercialism of the wilderness enough to recognize this as a season of waiting and watching, that becomes more real to us.

Like Moses, I want to issue a warning. We have a nasty habit of forgetting, but there’s no room for that. Now especially,

18…remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Deuteronomy 8:18 NRSV

We are standing at the brink, so I invite you to look through the trees here at the edge of the wilderness. Put down that water you have cupped in your hands, because it’s really sand that you’re about to drink. The fog is lifting—can you see it? By the Word of God, I can promise to you with the same certainty that Moses had that you may enter the promised land, and that it will be a land of wonders you can’t begin to imagine. Your guide will be a child, of whose coming we have heard, and he won’t let you drink the sand any longer, but will plunge you into water that gives true life.

No comments: