Thank you, Lord, for the promise of your presence
“During the forty years that I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.” I know that’s not our text tonight, but it comes in the immediate context of our text and really offers a concrete example of what the Lord said to Israel and to Joshua: “The LORD himself goes out before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
How many times did this occur to the Israelites over the years? Did it occur to them at all? As they dressed and put on their shoes each day did they wonder if this was the day that they’d have to retire an old favorite? Or did they just dress and shoe and move like every other day?
This is just one of the many miracles the Lord performed for Israel throughout the period of time we call the Exodus. We think of the ten plagues that forced Pharaoh to finally let God’s people go. Then God parted the Red Sea for them to cross. God led them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. At various places the Lord provided miraculous streams of water…from rocks. When Israel noticed a scarcity of food, God provided a dew of manna daily. When they grumbled about the boring repetition of the manna, he flew in quail to supplement their diet. Mighty, marvelous miracles. Forty years worth of miracles.
But it’s the shoes and sandals and clothes that stick in my mind. It’s so simple, so obvious, yet, not. Had Moses not mentioned it here in Deuteronomy 29 and earlier in Deuteronomy 8, our only notice that this miracle took place would have come from the almost-never-read book of Nehemiah, and that probably unnoticed for it comes in another litany of God’s works on Israel’s behalf.
He kept their shoes from falling apart and their clothes from wearing out! More than that, in Deuteronomy 8 Moses mentioned that their feet didn’t swell either. Forty years without foot problems! I bet some of your dogs ache for forty days without foot problems.
Proof positive, if ever Israel needed it, that yes, indeed, the LORD himself goes before them. He stands with them. He doesn’t leave. He doesn’t forsake. So, there’s no need for fear or discouragement. So says the Lord to Joshua and Israel.
The anonymous author of Hebrews grabs this verse and brings it home to us, makes it real and relevant, more than just a word spoken to Israel long ago and far away. In chapter 13, verse 5, in a section entitled, “concluding exhortations,” the inspired writer says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
Yet our shoes wear out. My favorite clothes, even recently purchased, don’t hold up forever. And when was the last time the manna and quail just sort of showed up while water poured out of a rock? Now, you’re not so obtuse as to have forgotten that even in the Bible itself, most of the time God chooses not to work miraculously. Here is an interesting paradox about our God, something a Lutheran by the name of Lenski noted about Jesus during his earthly ministry: “As his office and work required Jesus used his divine attributes; but not beyond that.” Jesus didn’t always use five loaves to feed thousands; or even the twelve. Sometimes they simply purchased the food and cooked it.
Jesus always had divine powers. He’s God. Our God, the LORD who spoke his promises to Israel and Joshua through Moses, remains ever and always all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Yet he doesn’t always, or doesn’t always appear to use those powers. My shoes and clothes are a case in point. Your aching feet, ailing back, or persistent cough testify to this truth also.
And the devil uses that. “Ah, he’s left you; he’s forsaken you.” Or, “What did you do? You must have made him really angry now, you stinking sinner! You’d better get working and try to get back on his good side.” And we buy it, hook, line and sinker. God must have left us, for this, that, or the other thing happened. We didn’t pray enough. We weren’t good enough. God’s love wavered. He regrets what he said and has taken it back.
No, never. For this is not your God. Damn to hell such thoughts, for that’s where they belong. And that’s where we would end up if we let the devil convince us of such.
But I dare you, I dare you, to look at the cross and see Jesus there and say that God has left you and forsaken you. I dare you to pull out your baptism certificate. Wipe the dust off if you have to. Find the day and date – May 25, 1980, for me. Then look at the promise that that certificate represents. God speaks to you and says: “Here are the clothes that never wear out: my Son’s righteous deeds.” I dare you to look at that and say that God has left you and forsaken you. I dare you to approach this altar and hold in your hands bread and wine that is no longer bread and wine, but is also the very body and blood of God, the body and blood of God whipped, nailed, stabbed, and damned for you, for your sins, given to you for your forgiveness. I dare you to receive that and say that God has left you and forsaken you. I dare you to glimpse into the tomb with the Marys, with Peter and John, to sit for a moment next to the angels, to finger the folded (and empty) burial clothes and say that God has left you and forsaken you. The only things God left was heaven to take on your flesh. Jesus left his Father’s side to be damned instead of you. He left and forsook death to be your everlasting life.
In other words, God is, in fact, on your side. Even as he “fails” to miraculously come through and relieve whatever it is that burdens you. And I know you have burdens. Jesus calls us “weary and burdened” in Matthew 11. Every day, every week, every year we face challenges. Some shockingly new and some depressingly old. We wish God would whisk them away in his miracle working machine. But he does not always, because as his apostle Paul told the Romans, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” That is, it always serves to turn us away from ourselves and towards God, towards Christ, towards the cross, the place where God did miraculously whisk away my burdens and troubles, my damnation.
God does take care of us. I have shoes on my feet, clothes on my back, and relief from ailments. He has done the same for you much of the time. After all, you’re here now. Yet God wishes us not to fixate on those things. In Isaiah, after the Lord makes promises so similar to that spoken by Moses about going with Israel, being with Israel, and so on and so forth, reminding them of the many miracles he has performed, the tricks he has up his sleeve, he proceeds to say, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” He tells Israel to forget about the shoes, the clothes, the unswollen feet. Forget about the Red Sea and the pillars of smoke and fire. Forget about water from a rock and bread from the sky. Because it’s nothing next to this new thing, this new covenant, the new covenant Jeremiah spoke of, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more,” a new covenant Jesus inaugurated at the greatest thanksgiving feast, “My body, given for you. My blood shed for you. For forgiveness. Eat and drink all of you.”
Shoes and socks and clothes. Health and wealth. Family and friends. Good neighbors, good weather, good government. Godly spouse. Peace and order. A good name, faithful neighbors and the like. All good. All God’s daily bread for sure and for certain. Yet that does not even begin to exhaust God’s presence among us, God being with us, God being FOR us. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. Something you could even, in a sense, forget about and not get too attached too. Under the waters, driving that mound of daily bread inexorably forward is the Lord Jesus who ended fear and discouragement by ending sin’s power, destroying the work of the devil, and casting death itself into hell. When we find ourselves in his wounds, we find ourselves having all we need, for we find ourselves in the arms of the Blessed One, the present one, the with-us-always-to-the-very-end-of-the-age one, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, the one who was dead and is alive again, the one, to whom we can say, “Save me, for I am yours!” Amen.