April 10, 2005

Forgetting to Remember
Deuteronomy 8:11-20

Many of you no doubt assume that the primary function of a refrigerator is to keep food cold. If you do, you are mistaken. The primary function of a refrigerator is actually to serve as a showcase for displaying notes—shopping lists, school calendars, doctor’s appointments, upcoming birthdays, and hints for healthy dieting. We humans, after all, have an alarming capacity to forget, so we must take certain steps to insure that we do remember our various responsibilities. Otherwise, we will inevitably find ourselves in an all-too-common and embarrassing situation, needing to say to someone, “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I wonder how often God has heard those very words. The same people, after all, who forget appointments often forget God as well. We suffer from that dreaded disease known as “Spiritual Amnesia.” Because of this, the Bible repeatedly reminds us to remember the Lord in all things.

Even a quick trip through the Scriptures suggests the importance of the word “remember.” God, first of all, is not susceptible to spiritual amnesia – he does not forget. On the contrary, he remembers the covenant (Gen. 9:15; Lev. 26:42), his love and faithfulness (Ps. 98:3), his holy promise (Ps. 105:42) and people in their lowly estate (Ps. 136:23). The only thing that God ever forgets is the sins of his people when they confess them and ask him for forgiveness!

People, however, continually forget, and we are therefore instructed to take the necessary precautions to ensure that we remember. Remember the Sabbath, we are told (Deut. 5:15). Remember God’s past actions on your behalf (Deut. 8:2). Remember, remember, remember. Attach tassels to the corners of your garments, the Israelites are instructed (Numb. 15:39). Teach your children. Tie strings on your hands and foreheads. Hang reminders on your doorposts (Deut. 6:4ff.). Eat symbolic foods. Why? Because we forget. We forget appointments. We forget our responsibilities. We forget special birthdays. And we all too often forget God. One verse after another reads like the Surgeon General’s warning on a box of cigarettes. “Forgetting God can be hazardous to your health.”

Note the warning, for example, spelled out here in Deuteronomy 8:11-20. “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” the Israelites are told. And what is the context? What places their memories at risk? Too much food to eat. Extravagant houses. High returns on their financial investments. Worldly success, in other words, is a primary cause of spiritual amnesia. Such success often leads us to inflated views of ourselves (v. 17) and blinds us to our deeper need of God.

But the Bible speaks of many others causes of spiritual amnesia as well. In Mark 8, a fascinating scene unfolds. Jesus had just fed the multitudes, twice as a matter of fact. Here were the disciples, out in a large field, with at least 4,000 people. The service apparently continued for quite some time when it dawned on them that there was no food in the immediate vicinity. The nearby Weis market was closed, and the local restaurants simply could not handle crowds of such magnitude. What were the disciples to do?

As all of you know, Jesus miraculously fed everyone by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish. As a matter of fact, there was so much food that the disciples gathered up seven baskets full of leftovers! Now, here is where our story becomes especially enlightening for us this morning. Following this miracle, Jesus and his disciples entered a boat to cross to the other side of the sea of Galilee. While in route, the disciples made the frightening discovery that they had not brought the proper provisions for the trip—they had only one loaf of bread! Imagine it. The disciples, the very ones who had just witnessed the feeding of the multitudes, the very ones who had gathered the leftovers. Now, just a short time later, they are distraught over their own empty cupboards.

So Jesus reminds them. “Don’t you remember what I just did? Don’t you recall the few loaves and fish?” If only Peter, or James, or John, or Matthew, or somebody could have reached down into his pocket or money bag and produced, for the rest to see, one of the bread crumbs from the leftovers. If only one of the disciples would have said to the others, “I don’t know what we will eat now, but I know that God is able to provide, just like he did before.”

Sometimes, the pressures of our physical needs overwhelm us. At such moments, we need to look at that string tied around our finger and remind ourselves—God does not forsake his own.

Or think for a moment about a familiar story in Numbers 13. Israel had already been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They’ve passed through the Red Sea, stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, and been welcomed into God’s presence. One thing, however, remained. The land of milk and honey that had been promised to them had yet to be obtained. As such, Moses sent twelve spies to evaluate the situation and to formulate some recommendations concerning strategy.

“The apples are this big,” the spies reported when they returned to camp. “The water is crystal clear, and there are no cans or bottles on the bottom of the streams. But there is a major problem,” they continued. “The people in the land are too big, and their equipment is far superior to our own. God must have been delirious when he told us to take the land—it’s hopeless.” Only two of the twelve spies, the narrator informs us, did not succumb to spiritual amnesia. Both Joshua and Caleb believed that their task was possible, and they encouraged the rest of the community to inoculate themselves with a good dose of spiritual reflection. But to no avail.

We are, I think, often too hard on the Israelites, as though they were little more than a bunch of ignoramuses. After all, they had recently passed through the Red Sea, only now to doubt in the face of a new problem. I’ve sometimes heard people say things like, “If I would see the Susquehanna River parted and God lead me through on dry ground, I would never doubt again!” Really? Haven’t you ever seen a miracle? Haven’t you ever seen a transformed life? A sinful person made whole again? How many times must God prove himself before we will genuinely trust him, even in the face of adversity?

Are you in a bind? Do you have tough decisions to make? Family problems? Out of work? Obstacles looming that appear to be almost bigger than life itself? Tie a string around your finger. Remember! The situation itself won’t hurt you, but the way you react to it could devastate you. Remember God and what he has done for you and others in the past.

Finally, note an intriguing situation described for us in Isaiah 1. The people of Israel weren’t necessarily doing anything explicitly wrong on this occasion. To an extent, they were doing what was expected of them—keeping the Sabbath, offering their sacrifices. The problem, however, was that through time, these observances ceased to be a means to an end and became instead an end in themselves. Their religion was no longer one of relationship, but one of do’s and don’ts—a religion of pious busyness. Remarkably, the people forgot God in the midst of their religion! Talk about irony.

But think about it. We often affirm, if not by words than by our actions, that our constant busyness in the Lord’s work means that he is pleased with us. Now, of course, our religious activities can be good, and many of them are obviously necessary and helpful. But let’s not lose sight of why we do them—to give glory to God. When we are on the verge of falling into the trap of forgetting God in the midst of our religion, it is time to look at the string that’s tied around our fingers.

Forgetting God is nothing less than taking affairs into our own hands. We concentrate on our circumstances, our possessions, our needs, our religious deeds. “I don’t know what I will eat, but I’ll think of something. I don’t know what I will do, but I’ll figure it out.” Then, when we get ourselves in yet another mess that we cannot get out of, we think that God has somehow forgotten us. “Where are you, Lord, when I need you?” we ask.

No, says the Lord through the prophet Micah. “I haven’t forsaken you. Look at all I have done for you. You, you have forgotten me.” And the solution? Remember. Remember. Leave notes in selected places. Talk to each other. Teach your children. Hang magnets on your car’s dashboard. Place a reminder on your computer screen. Do whatever you need to do, but remember!” In the same way that we take various measures to prevent forgetting important dates and responsibilities, so must we take care that we do not forget God.

The next time that you are lying awake at night worrying about tomorrow, try to follow the Psalmist’s example. In Psalm 63, we read:
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches
of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I stay close to you;
your right hand upholds me.