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
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday before Lent – Exodus 34:29-35
There’s something about the presence of God which lights people up. Or does it? In fact the Hebrews word used here can have a very different translation, one which is in fact far more common in the OT. And for centuries this was the way in which this passage was translated by Christians – after his meeting with God, Moses had grown horns! It was only relatively recently that scholars have reverted to a more primitive translation, that of the Septuagint, which put the OT into Greek, and gone with glowing rather than horned. And, it must be said, the reaction of the people when they saw Moses, that of fear, seems far more appropriate if he had have grown antlers. But whichever way we want to translate this term, the fact is that the proximity of God was actually terrifying to the people. In fact so upset were they that out of kindness and consideration to the people he began to wear a face-covering (let those who have ears hear!).
This strange story highlights something which is highly significant throughout the Wilderness narrative (by the way, if you haven’t found my series of podcasts on this period of the OT, have a look on this blog, of search for revjohnleachblog on Spotify of iTunes, and you can hear more about the thrilling adventures of the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land). The whole story is a sad tale of the people’s moaning and grumbling contrasted with Moses’ faithfulness, and it is punctuated with various smitings from God as punishment for their ungrateful and miserable attitudes. The people quickly repent, or say they do, but then go on and do the same things in the next chapter. And God constantly gives them new chances and allows them to fail and blaspheme him again and again. The point of this, I think, is that God is both merciful and scary, a truth which many in the Christian church today seem to have forgotten. We have gone so overboard on a God of love, a God who forgives and is generally nice all the time, that we have forgotten that he is also a God of righteousness, who does get offended by the arrogance and hard-heartedness of the human race. Moses’ face, whether scarily shiny or scarily horned, is an icon of this double-edged sword of the character of God. But it is an icon which we have seen before. In Ex 19 and 20 the giving of the Law which will form the basis of the relationship between God and his people is accompanied by thunder and lightning, and regulations have to be put in place to protect the people from the awesome majesty of God. And as the story continues there are numerous occasions when the people’s attitudes or idolatry mean that they justly deserve punishment, whether by fire, by plague, earthquake, poisonous snakes, or whatever. They may not have learnt much about their behaviour, but they certainly knew that God could punish as well as bless.
Well, I hear you cry, that was before Jesus died on the cross and won our forgiveness. True, it was. But lurking behind this truth is a far more dangerous idea, first proposed by a guy called Marcion in the 2nd century, that the OT God was different from the Jesus of the NT. In the old days he was nasty, scary and at times vindictive, but now he is nice, because of Jesus. So what are Christians to make of the scary God of the OT? The first thing to say is that the unchangeable God does not suddenly become a very different person. It is easy to read selectively, only noticing the OT passages about God’s judgement and the NT ones about his love and mercy, but in fact both are present in both Testaments. The early preachers told the Jewish and pagan crowds that God commanded all people everywhere to repent; the author of Hebrews reminded his readers how dreadful a thing it was to fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire, and of course Jesus had far more to say about hell than he did about heaven. So we must never believe that God has somehow underwent conversion therapy around 30 AD and is a fundamentally different person.
So if God doesn’t change, maybe we do. In fact throughout the Bible God shows different sides of his character to different people. To those who are faithful to him, love him, and keep his covenant, he shows everlasting and unconditional love. But those who constantly rail against him, disobey him and in so doing forget to show his love and care to others get to see a very different side of him. This truth is even built into the 10 Commandments, which proclaim a God who punishes people to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him, but shows love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. It has always been the case that the same God treats different people differently, and it stands to reason that a God of righteousness, and God who is simply incapable of doing anything wrong, must have both love and judgement in his character.
That, then, puts a huge responsibility squarely on our shoulders. If God doesn’t change, then we must. We much change from those who reject him and hate him to those who love, submit to and honour him, in our lives as well as in our worship. And that, right there, is the message which we as his church are called to proclaim.
The Wee Donkey – Numbers 22-24
Lifting up the Serpent – Num 21:4-9
For those who want a change from the Gospel
2nd before Lent – Genesis 2:4b-9,15-25
We are familiar with the idea of ‘Creation Myths’ – stories which different cultures tell to explain how we all got here. What is less well known is that the Bible contains three different ones, two from Israel and one from Babylon. The last one is never endorsed, but it is often alluded to, in those passages which have God cutting some kind of a sea monster in half or crushing its head. This is like us telling the story of Pandora’s Box: we don’t believe for one minute in its literal truth, but we can see really clearly the point the story makes, that once evil is let out it’s impossible to shut it back in again. But the passage set for us today provides the oldest Israelite creation story. If you’ve been listening to my podcasts on the Wilderness Journey, you’ll be familiar with the idea of there being different sources behind our Bible, written at different times. The more familiar creation story, in Genesis 1, is thought to come from the Priestly source, and to date from after the exile, maybe the 5th century BC. But Gen 2 is older, probably from around 1000 BC, and the differences between the two stories shed light onto the cultures which told them.
The reign of David, around 1000 BC, marked the golden age for Israel. Things were going really well for the nation, with a (largely) godly king, great prosperity, peace from enemies, and a great expansion of the empire. ‘We’ve made it!’ seemed to be the watchword of a nation who had only 300 years ago been slaves in Egypt. So the story begins with man, and the rest of creation is there to serve him. Plants for beauty and food, animals for companionship, even the woman, are created for the benefit of the man. The Genesis 1 account comes from a later time when the nation have again been exiled into slavery, but have now returned to their own land sadder but wiser. Humans are now not the starting point, but the last word, taking their place among the rest of the created order with much more humility than they have in Genesis 2.
The original story in Genesis 2, though, tells us some important truths about ourselves. In his care for the human race God provides all that we need, including some things which are less obvious to us. The chapter reads a bit like the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s attempt to chart what we need to flourish and in what order. So in v.5-9 God provides the basic essentials of food and water, without which life is simply impossible. It is interesting, though, that he also provides beauty, something which he also deems essential for a good life. We seldom recognise that one, particularly if we live in an inner-city concrete tenement somewhere. Then, in v.15, God provides work and purpose. Even as a recently retired person, I still need purpose in my life, which is partly why I keep churning out blogs and podcasts every week! Talk to unemployed people, and they will tell you how empty and unfulfilled their lives are, particularly if they don’t find purpose elsewhere, for example through volunteering. Note as well that work is meant to be a delight, with good things growing from it, and not the production-line drudgery which is the lot of so many.
Then comes another need which we have but seldom recognise: limits. V.16-17 set some limits beyond which it is forbidden to go. Freedom is never freedom if it is without limits, and it is vital for human flourishing that there are some places we do not go to. It is a tragic paradox that while humans were meant to control and care for nature, so many have become controlled by it, addicted to plants like tobacco, grapes and hops, poppies and cannabis. Rather than ruling over the plant kingdom, so many are ruled by it. Genesis 3 is going to tell the sad story of the choice to step beyond those limits, a choice which affects all of us every day.
Then God provides harmony and companionship. The idea is for the humans to live in good relationship with the rest of creation. I’ve never been a pet person, but I do know how important animals are to many people, and what well-being they can bring. But God’s final gift is perhaps the greatest, as he provides companionship which goes way beyond your pet moggy: he provides love. The man recognises that with another human being, complementary to him, there is a relationship which no animal is capable of providing, a union of mind, spirit and body.
As I have written this blog I have become aware of people I know who for a variety of reasons are not currently in receipt of these precious gifts. Some are hungry; some lead ugly lives; many are purposeless; many more are lonely or at enmity with others. Maybe this passage reminds us to give thanks more fulsomely for what we have received from God, and to pray and work for those who have received so much less.