© 2020 Evan D. Garner
At the end of his life, Moses stood before the people of Israel and delivered one last pep talk. They had been on quite a journey together. From Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, where on Mt. Sinai God had given them the Law. Then on toward the River Jordan and the land of Canaan, which the people were now prepared to enter. Moses knew that he would not be completing this last leg of the trip with them, and he wanted to leave them with some words of encouragement. “Blessings and curses,” he reminded them. “Those who obey the Lord will be blessed, and those who don’t will be cursed. As long as you remember that, no matter what hardships await you in the land that you are about to enter, God will be with you, and you will be blessed.”
But the people weren’t so sure. There was some murmuring among the crowd as one person whispered to another, “Easy for him to say; he’s Moses! He’s been telling us to obey the Lord our God ever since he came down the mountain, and how has that worked out for us?” But Moses wasn’t finished. “You haven’t made it this far for God to abandon you now. You’ve come all this way and now stand on the edge of the land that has been promised to you. Surely God hasn’t brought you here to leave you now. Quit saying that this commandment is too hard for you. Quit worrying that you’ll never find it. It isn’t up in heaven or across the deep. It’s very near to you—even on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something you accomplish. It’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.”
More than 1200 years later, the apostle Paul had his own pep talk to write. The Christians in Rome were discouraged. They had come into the church because they had been convinced that the way of Jesus was the way that led to their salvation. But, since then, things had gotten tough. Persecutions were on the rise, and faithful believers were being handed over to the Roman authorities for torture and even death. These nervous Christians were beginning to wonder whether they had made a bad decision—whether choosing the way of Jesus had been a mistake. But Paul wanted them to remember why they had come into the Christian faith in the first place. He wanted them to remember that their salvation wasn’t something that they needed to go and find. It was already very near to them—on their lips and in their hearts. All they had to do was to remember that and to trust that everything would work out for them. But holding onto faith in the midst of struggle isn’t easy.
To make his point, Paul did something rather remarkable with the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. He set up a contrast of ideas—not as a theological conflict but as a temporal dialectic—a tension of experiences in order to convey a fuller truth. In our reading from Romans 10, Paul quotes Moses from two very different moments on the journey from Egypt to Canaan. First, he pulls from Leviticus 18: “The person who does these things will live by them.” Moses had said those words in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. There were part of long list of commandments that God had given God’s people. This was a moment when Israel was still discovering that belonging to God meant behaving in a particular way. But, in the very next sentence, Paul quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 30, when Moses had addressed God’s people at the end of their journey, right before the crossed the River Jordan. That’s when Moses had said, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” At that point, Israel could look back at their time in the wilderness and know what it meant for God to be with them even when they struggled to do the right things.
Paul labels the first idea as “the righteousness that comes from the law” and the second as “the righteousness that comes from faith,” but he doesn’t present those ideas as oppositional to one another. He describes them as if they are two moments from the same journey. Having reached the end of their struggles in the wilderness, the people of Israel were able to see that because God’s word was near them—even on their lips and in their hearts—they could do and live by what God asked of them. Paul believed that the same was true for the Christians in Rome. If they could believe that the cross of Jesus had given way to the empty tomb, they could know that God and God’s word would be with them no matter what. If they could believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they could maintain their faith in God despite whatever hardships they faced.
How might the same be true for us as well? All we really want is to know that everything will be ok. That’s why we ask our beloved if they really love us. That’s why we seek our parents’ affirmation even after they’ve given it for the 1000th time. That’s why our cat brings in little wiggly presents from the backyard when we come home from vacation. We will do whatever it takes to know that the ones who hold our hearts and lives in their hands will take care of us—that they will shield us from all that threatens us. And only when we’ve come through significant struggles and have seen them prove that their love and protection are certain can we live into the confidence of that certainty. Only then can the relationship between us blossom as one that does not depend upon our attempts to win another’s affection but upon a love that transcends those attempts.
We live in a time when strife, sickness, anxiety, and isolation are mounting. Things aren’t getting better, and it doesn’t seem like they will get better anytime soon. We are desperate to know that, in the end, everything will be ok, and it feels like we’ve reached a point where there’s nothing we can do to convince ourselves that it will be. That’s why we need faith. Having reached the limits of our own efforts, we need to turn back to the one who loves us with a love that has no end. We need to lean on the one whose salvation cannot be broken. We need to rely on the one whose care for us is bigger than our moments of struggle and is founded instead upon goodness and mercy.
Paul knew the transcendent power of believing in Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus was the ultimate sign of God’s abiding presence and love. He knew that the same God who turned Christ’s death on the cross into a triumph over the grave would save God’s people from all danger because, in Christ, God would be with them always.
You are one of God’s people. Look back over the journey that you have been a part of—a journey from bondage into freedom, from death into life. As a child of God, you have already travelled with your spiritual ancestors through valleys of great peril into a land of promise and plenty. God has not brought you this far only to abandon you now. You may face dangers and hardships, but you do not face them alone. God is very near to you—on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something that you accomplish. Because of Jesus Christ, it’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.