What have we learnt? Deuteronomy
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 3 – Isaiah 55:1-9
This chapter comes right at the end of Deutero-Isaiah’s call to the exiles in Babylon to prepare to return to Jerusalem, to their home and their rightful place in the home which God had first promised and then given to them. Their own sin and rebellion had cost them this land, but now that has been paid for (40:2) and they are free, hopefully sadder and wiser, to come home. In later Judaism this whole unfortunate episode became more than mere history: it was a powerful symbol of the individual believer’s journey to find rest in God, and of what that final homecoming would be like.
I have recently been teaching a module which contained some comparative religion, taking on the belief of pluralism that it’s all the same God really, and we’re each free to choose our own path and customise our own ‘truth’. In particular we were considering what the idea of ‘heaven’ looked like in different faiths, from merging with the cosmos as a drop of water loses itself in the ocean, to the slightly more basic promise of 72 virgins. Between those two extremes lies Christianity, where heaven is often described as an eternal church service, with endless worship-songs. I must confess on a really bad day I sometimes wonder which I would really choose, given the option! But in fact there is another picture of the afterlife which is very prevalent in the Bible, and which is featured in our passage today – that of the banquet. In fact food and spiritual nourishment are very often to be found together.
The land to which Israel is invited to journey is portrayed in terms of its culinary riches, including milk and honey. When the spies first set foot in the Land they can’t but be overwhelmed by its riches, symbolised in the massive bunch of grapes gathered from Eshcol. In Proverbs 9 two symbolic women, Wisdom and Folly are contrasted, and Lady Wisdom is described as having laid out a huge banquet. She invites anyone who desires her wisdom to come and eat freely. By contrast Folly is portrayed as a slut who invites people to sin and shame. And several times in the book of Isaiah there is a picture of God setting out his buffet and inviting all the nations to come and learn at his table. This imagery continues into the NT, where several of Jesus’ Kingdom parables concern feasting, and where the Eucharist provides an appetiser for the feasting in the Kingdom which is to come at the end of history.
So what exactly is the deal with this food/wisdom/homecoming imagery? What is it about good food which seems to provide such a rich symbol of all the good things which God has for us? How about these suggestion?
Food is essential
That goes without saying, of course. When people are really down on their luck, it can be because they lack the basic fuel for living, as we are seeing daily on our TVs as people in Ukraine continue to be besieged. It has long been a successful military strategy to cut off from people the basic food and drink which we all need. By contrast God has been portrayed as the host at a great all-you-can-eat buffet, whose generosity provides all we need for thriving, including wisdom.
Food is fun
Yes, we need to eat to live, but there is a whole nother level where food becomes a great leisure activity because eating, and often trying new things, can be a lovely experience. Fellow curry fiends might have been through that stage in your life when you set out to discover how far up the heat order you could get. That feeling of my first Phall was truly something I’ll never forget, on several levels! Wisdom it may not have been, but there is something about good food which keeps calling us back for more. Truly wise people how little they really understand, and how much more there is stretching above them.
Food is corporate
Have you ever done this, or is it just us? Friends come to stay. They arrive, unpack, have a cup of tea; you chat, and then finally the evening meal is ready. You sit down, raise your glasses and say ‘Welcome!’ They’ve been here a couple of hours now, but it’s when you sit down to eat together that the stay really starts. That’s a picture of meals as homecomings. Our Eucharists are meant in one sense to be frustratingly small nibbles, because we join in to remember Jesus but also to look forward to the banquet when we shall finally be welcomed fully and completely into the presence of God.
… but be careful!
Whilst this picture of the heavenly banquet is a rich and tempting one, the NT reminds us that this kind of food needs to be consumed carefully. There are a couple of references in 1 Corinthians to the wrong kind of knowledge which merely ‘puffs up’ or bloats us. Jim Packer, in his classic book Knowing God warns us about this wrong kind of feasting, which becomes nothing more than an excuse for sticking in our thumbs and declaring ‘Look what a good boy am I!’ Those of us with teaching gifts constantly need to watch this: ultimately all we receive at God’s bountiful table needs to be geared, as is Is 55, towards inviting others to the feast.
revjohnleachblog will be taking a break for a week or two as I recover from Covid, take a holiday, and have my PhD viva. But in Arnie’s famous words, ‘I’ll be back!’ Keep your eye on social media!
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 2 – Genesis 15:1-21
There are probably many things you want from God, and, I’m guessing, many which you haven’t received, despite your yearning for them, perhaps over many years. But this passage about unanswered prayer isn’t quite in the same league as that. It isn’t just about something Abraham and Sarah wanted: it is about something which God had promised. Back in Genesis 12:7 God had specifically promised a new land for Abraham’s descendants. As far as they were concerned this was nothing short of a promise of a miracle, because they had never been able to have children (Sarah is the first of several significant women in the Bible who were unable to conceive) and now they were getting on and well past the normal child-bearing age.
Genesis 15 begins ‘After these things …’ There had certainly been quite a few ‘things’. Abraham had continued his travels, had lived in Egypt as famine drove him there, had seen Pharaoh plagued, moved into the desert, fell out with Lot, then rescued him. He had met with the mysterious Melchizedek, and disputed with the King of Sodom. He had been through so much, but God’s promise had still not been fulfilled. This is the nature of his interaction with God in our reading. This wasn’t merely about God not answering prayer, or answering it negatively. This was about God breaking his promises. We might from time to time feel peeved because God hasn’t given us something we want, but when he has promised to but then reneged on that promise, things move onto a whole new level of hurt.
It is interesting that God breaks the angry silence, and allows Abraham to speak out his pain. He seems more concerned that a slave will get his inheritance than he does about the lack of a child, but underlying this is a serious beef with God – you promised something to me, so where is it? Or will my slave get it instead of me? What an indignity that would be!
So God reiterates his promise, and spells it out very clearly – your heir will be your natural son, not an adopted one. And Abraham believed him. He chose to believe what God said over the natural circumstances, which is a pretty good definition of faith. All the evidence points one way, but I choose to believe God instead. But then comes the supplementary question: I do believe this, but how can I know? Faith is one thing, but knowing is something very different. I love the somewhat cynical definition of faith as ‘believing what you know isn’t true’, but the saying has a point. How do we turn faith into knowing? That’s the $64,000 question.
Well for Abraham faith moved to knowing because God moved from a promise to a covenant. The Hebrew literally means ‘cutting’ a covenant, and it was the custom then literally to cut an animal in half, and walk through the blood and guts between the two halves. It was a bit like ‘cross my heart and hope to die’. If I ever break this covenant, may I be cut in half just as this animal has been. God, invisible as so often in smoke and fire, passes between the two piles of bloody meat, and makes the solemn deal: I will give all this land to your (I can hear it in italics: your) descendants, all of this land, or I’ll die. At least until the next chapter, where Abraham takes things into his own hands and decides to help God out, he seems satisfied that God’s promise will come to pass.
Our lectionary omits some key verses, 13-16, which it is important that we put back in, because in this prophetic look into the future God subverts any idea that Abraham’s prayer will be answered any time soon. Your offspring will be given this land, but not before 400 years of slavery and oppression. You think you’ve had to wait a long time to have your promised son? Well that’s nothing compared to the wait before this promise of mine comes to birth.
This is a strange passage, but I reckon it does tell us two important truths about unanswered prayer. Sometimes we don’t get what we want so much because God has never said we will get it. That isn’t so much unanswered prayer as unfulfilled wishful thinking. In an age when ‘the word of the Lord is rare’ we find it hard to hear his promises to us, but we can’t complain if something we fancy doesn’t happen. If God hasn’t promised, who are we to ask? But even when we know he has spoken, it’s human nature to want it now. God needs to remind Abraham, and perhaps us too, that he works on a different timescale from us. Frustrating, I know. But a really important lesson for us to learn.
Succession Planning – Numbers 27:12-23
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 1 – Deuteronomy 26:1-11
The last time I preached on this passage I called it ‘Harvest Festivals for Dummies’ or something like that. It was indeed Harvest Festival, and I explained that the passage contained God’s instructions as to how they were to celebrate Harvest, taking their firstfruits to the Temple, saying the creed, offering their gifts to God and rejoicing at his goodness. But why on earth are we reading this during Lent? Surely that’s a time for going without, for being generally mournful, for taking up some extra penitential Bible Study or something. What are we to make of a Harvest Festival passage as we begin Lent? The answer maybe is to remind ourselves that it’s all about grace.
Let’s have a look at those instructions again. Note first that they are for people who have arrived in the Promised Land. This isn’t about the arduous journey (which, by the way, is being explored in my ‘Wilderness Years’ podcasts elsewhere on this blog site). It’s for those who have made it. We often see Harvest Festivals as a great evangelistic opportunity, when those perhaps on the way towards God and faith can be tempted along to church for a more community-focussed event. But for Israel, it was a celebration for those who knew their God, who had journeyed with him for some time, who had some history among his people, and had seen his action in their lives.
Then there is this motif of ‘firstfruits’. Israel would have celebrated two harvest festivals. The first was when the very first of the crops appeared, the second some time later when all was safely gathered in. the second was about thankfulness to God for his provision, but the first was a declaration of faith in God that the full harvest would surely follow the first pickings. We may have settled in the Kingdom; we may know a relationship with God through Jesus, but what we see now is only the very first bits of what we believe God has in store for us. We may have known something of God’s peace, his joy, his presence, his healing, his blessing, but these are the mere tasters for what we believe by faith is coming for those who love him.
Then comes the equivalent of our Creed. We go to the place of worship and declare what God has done for us. It’s corporate (‘We believe …’) rather than individual, and it spans history as well as that answered prayer last week. Creeds are one of the most underrated parts of Anglican worship, I discovered during my research, but they are powerful reminders of the actions of God for us and for our salvation, and a real chance to count our blessings. They also, interestingly, allow us to count our cursings too, as the bad times are remembered along with the good. Slavery and oppression at the hands of Egypt are an important part of the credal statement, because they were important parts of the people’s history. This is no rewriting and whitewashing of history, but faces times of grief along with times of blessing.
Finally the gifts are offered amidst rejoicing, the kind of rejoicing which shows the hospitality of God and welcomes others into our family circle. Whilst this is a great menu for Harvest Festivals, it can also teach us some powerful lessons about the more penitential season of Lent. Of all the seasons of the Church Year, Lent is perhaps the one where we are most likely to feel that it’s up to us. We must stop eating chocolate; we must read the Bible more, or go out on a cold evening to some study group; we must generally try harder. This passage reminds us that we can no more try hard to be better than a farmer can try hard to grow crops. Yes, there is some work to do in preparation, but it is God who gives the growth. Maybe Lent is more about giving thanks for what God has already grown in us, and looking forward to what he will do in the future than it is about trying to make things happen by ourselves. One church leader told his people ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less.’ And maybe it’s about reminding us that all is grace. We don’t deserve it, and we can’t force it, but God is at work in us anyway, and one day, when we arrive and settle in our Promised Land and see him face to face, we’ll realise that it was and always has been about his grace.
Have a grace-filled Lent!
As Zealous for God as he is – Numbers 25