As of Thursday this past week, if you are a St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago Cubs fan, it is clear where you want to be. Baseball season has started, and so a Cardinals’ fan wants to be at Busch Stadium, and a Cubs’ fan wants to be a Wrigley Field. Admittedly, it is better to be there on a day when a home game is actually scheduled, but you get my point.
There is a specific location that is the epicenter for the true baseball experience for each fan. For the Cardinals’ fan it is to be in downtown St. Louis on the Mississippi River at Busch Stadium – a new “old ballpark” festooned with decorations proclaiming National League pennants and World Championships. For the Cubs fan it is to be on the north side of Chicago on the “L” line at Wrigley Field – a now updated classic old ballpark with its ivy covered outfield wall.
In our text from Deuteronomy tonight, Yahweh tells Israel that when they enter the promised land, he is going to choose a location to place his name. It is there that the people are to go in order to offer their sacrifices. In this reference to the located means of the temple, we see how God’s dealings with his Old Testament people pointed to what he has done for us in Jesus Christ, and what he continues to do now.
As we have see in our mid-week Lent sermons, in Deuteronomy Yahweh is preparing Israel to enter into the promised land. He urges them to keep the Torah – the instructions – that he had given to them when he took them as his covenant people. The Gospel facts of the exodus and the covenant always stand a the basis for everything God says. So our texts begins with the words, “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth.” Note that Yahweh is described as “the God of your fathers.” Yahweh was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was the One who had elected Abraham – who had chosen him as the man through whom he would raise up his own people and bless all nations. He was the One who had elected Jacob – who had chosen him when he and his brother Esau were still in the womb. This election – this choice was a matter of pure grace.
Israel was about to enter into the land that Yahweh had given them to possess. This too was a matter of Gospel – of grace. God had promised the land of Canaan as a gift. He had rescued them from slavery in Egypt in order to bring them to this land. He had provided for them during their time in the wilderness. Now he was about to give this land to them. It was not something that they could take on their own. Instead, only Yahweh could give it into their hands.
In response to this gift and in order to continue to be blessed with this gift, Israel needed to live in faith toward Yahweh. They would do this by keeping his Torah. A part of this involved how they were to live in response to the false gods in the land.
God’s instruction described how they were to keep the First Commandment. He says in our text, “You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.”
Life in the ancient world was a clash of gods. Peoples and nations had the gods they worshipped, and when nations fought it was viewed as one set of gods versus another. It wasn’t hard to figure out whose gods were more powerful – whoever won the battles clearly had the stronger gods.
By giving the promised land to Israel, Yahweh was showing that he was the true God. The Israelites were to destroy all traces of the pagan gods. This would also remove the temptation to try to “fit in” by worshipping the false gods of the Canaanites.
This basic issue of the First Commandment recurs over and over in Deuteronomy. God commanded, “You shall have no other gods.” Everything God said came back to this one basic point. If they had no other gods, this is what life would look like. The same thing is true for us. The First Commandment continues to be foundational for the way we live life. The rest of the Ten Commandments describe what different areas of life look like when we keep the First Commandment. They tell us what it means to fear, love and trust in God above all things in relation to God’s Name and his Means of Grace. They tell us what it means to
do this in relation to parents and authorities; life and sexuality; possessions and reputation.
Israel wouldn’t do this perfectly. That is why God had given them the sacrifices as part of the covenant. But we learn in our text that Israel was not to offer these wherever they wanted. They were not to be like the pagans who offered their worship and sacrifices on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree.
Instead Yahweh commanded them, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.”
Israel was to offer sacrifices and worship at the place Yahweh chose – at the place where he would put his name and make his dwelling there. Where Yahweh’s name was placed, there his saving presence was to be found. Our text refers to the location he later chose on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. There the temple was built. There the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies. There the sacrifices were offered to remove sins and give forgiveness. Israel knew where God was present for them. They knew that at the located means of the temple on Mt. Zion they received God’s forgiveness.
The incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, embodied all that the temple meant for God’s Old Testament people. He was the fulfillment of the temple. John begins his Gospel by saying, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He tells us that all that was true of the tabernacle and temple, was true of Jesus Christ. In the next chapter Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
We are preparing to remember that on Good Friday they did destroy the temple which was Jesus’ body. The sacrifices that had been offered at the temple pointed to the once and for all sacrifice that Jesus offered for our sin as he was nailed to a cross and died. He was the lamb of God offered to take away the sins of the world. But as Jesus predicted on multiple occasions, on the third day he was raised from the dead. He began the new life of the resurrection that will be ours as well.
The risen Lord has ascended into heaven. Having fulfilled the meaning of the temple in his own body, Jesus no longer limits us in the new covenant to only one place. But the located means seen in the temple and the incarnation continue to describe how God works. He uses means and we know where they are located – we know where they are present for us.
At the font – in the water of Holy Baptism – God placed his Name upon us. And as Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism: “Where God’s name is, there must also be life and salvation.” Christ speaks forgiveness in Holy Absolution. Through the pastor in his Office of the Ministry, Jesus says, “I forgive you all your sins.” In the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for you.
We continue to see our God and his forgiveness in these located means. They are not located in only one place, but wherever they take place there we know that Christ is present giving us forgiveness. We return to these located means, just as Israel did to the temple. And as we know the comfort and confidence of forgiveness we respond in the same way that Moses describes in our text tonight: “And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters.”