6th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 3.7.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week, we began a series looking at an overview of the Old Testament. We began with God calling a pastoral nomad called Abraham to become the father of a people who would worship God and proclaim him to all other peoples. We saw how God a few hundred years later was to call this people out of slavery in Egypt, and was to give them guidance – in particular the ten commandments – that was to act as the framework for this new people of ex-slaves.
But where were they to live? God had promised Abraham that they would settle in a land flowing with milk and honey, but the desert near Mount Sinai seemed far removed from that. The next few years are marked by wandering in the wilderness, moving from one arid place to another, finding temporary grazing land and water, exhausting it and moving on. These were not easy years. The people grumbled. They may have felt they had voted when they left Egypt for a future that promised prosperity; instead they were faced with grim austerity. For forty long years they wander.
Then a leader by the name of Joshua arises. He takes the people over the river Jordan into the land of Canaan, a prosperous land with flowing rivers and fertile valleys. But it is a country in a state of flux. The power of the Egyptian Empire, a large multi-national conglomerate if you like, is on the wane, and parts of the land of Canaan are making their own individual bids for independence. In addition, new waves of immigrants are coming into the land, attracted by its wealth, and not too warmly welcomed by the local populace – the sea-faring Philistines from the west, the Moabites from the south, and now the people of Abraham too. Its a national context that may sound vaguely familiar to our modern times.
The people of Abraham are able to carve out land for themselves, partly through military conquest, partly through assimilation with the local people and partly by compromise deals with local kings and war lords.
Why this matters is that this land of Canaan becomes seen as the Promised Land, the land where the people can finally settle and put down roots, the land God has promised them. A nomadic people have come through hundreds of years of slavery and wandering to finally find a place they can call home. And in it all they can trace the hand of God in bringing them to this place.
Its worth noting that there has never been a time when there were not large movements of people, when the people of the world have not gravitated to where there is food or wealth or the chance of a better life. Those movements have shaped our own nation over the decades and centuries, as they did the land of Canaan. And its worth noting that our own spiritual forebears – the people of Israel – were nomads, immigrants, once. In the light of the increased racial attacks since the referendum we need to speak up for and protect those who have come to our country, for amongst other things the people whose footsteps they follow are our ancestors who have shaped our identity for what it is today. Such people deserve our compassion and respect, not our intolerance and abuse.
The people of Israel settle in the land. At which point it would be great to be able to say, “…and they all lived happily ever after.” But a pattern emerges which keeps repeating itself throughout the next five hundred years. And its this pattern that challenges us in terms of our own lives of faith.
Just as things are going well, the people, who we can now begin to call Israel, forget the God who has brought them to this place. A generation grew up “who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for them.” The story of liberation from slavery that we had talked about last week, that story that was such a critical part of their identity and relationship with God, lay forgotten. Instead the people looked for something more “relevant”. Yes their God may have helped previous generations escape slavery and provide food for them in the wilderness, but these were now different times. What they needed now were gods who knew how to bless the growing of crops, and how to bring rains to this new land. They looked around and saw peoples wealthier and more technologically advanced than they were, and they assumed that this must be because of the gods they worshipped. To get those things, they needed to change allegiance – to start worshipping the local gods Baal and Ashtoreth.
I guess its the modern-day equivalent of us looking around at people who do not come to church but whose lives seem better than our own – maybe who seem healthier, or wealthier, or happier – and wondering whether we shouldn’t trust in the things they trust in instead. “They don’t trust in God and look at how good their lives are! Maybe we are missing out. Why don’t I ease off on the time I give to faith, and focus on other things instead? The gym, or the pub or that community group, or time putting my feet up.” Gradually we may find our faith slipping through our fingers.
Even if that is not us, we may find that in a culture that struggles to value spirituality and faith, we ourselves may find it hard to give our relationship with God the time and the focus it needs.
It was what the people of Israel struggled with more than anything else – remaining faithful to God. Not forgetting him amongst all the competing demands of daily life.
The next step of the pattern and one that is repeated at least 12 times in the book of Judges alone, is that such unfaithfulness leads to defeat and despair. The people of Israel, as they become disperate individuals rather than a people united by their shared faith, become weak and are continually overrun by their aggressive neighbours. They suffer defeat after defeat. The writer of the book of Judges speaks of God “handing them over” to their enemies, of “His hand being against them”. Today, we might speak of God allowing them to face the consequences of their own actions, of allowing them to reap what they have sown.
In our own lives there can be consequences to our unfaithfulness too. We can come to a point where we feel listless, empty, wondering “is this what’s its all about?” Deep down we can experience a loneliness. The words of Saint Augustine still ring true today: “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”.
At such a point we are offered a choice. To continue that downward spiral or to turn back to God and receive his forgiveness.
The wonderful thing about the story of God’s people is that every time they call out to God, he responds. Every time they call out in repentance, acknowledging their failings and seeking his forgiveness, God brings them salvation. In the book of Judges we see this outworked time and again. He raises up leaders such as Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson. Their stories are uncomfortable and disturbing to our modern sensitivities, and rightly so. One of Israel’s enemies is killed by a tent peg driven through his head while he sleeps; Jephthah ends up killing his daughter due to a rash vow; Samson brings a building down on himself and all his revelling enemies. But whether we choose to take these stories as literal truth or mythical folklore, or something in-between, the over-riding truth that the writers wish to convey, is that Israel’s deliverance is the work of God. It is God, and God alone, who brings them freedom from their oppression. The events of Judges reflect the brutal nature of war and peace in stone age and emerging iron age cultures. But what is different is that these are not stories of God backing his people, no matter what. God responds to faithfulness, not to ethnicity; he responds to love, not to creed.
What was true then is even truer now in the light of Christ. God’s forgiveness does not depend on who we are; it does not depend on our nationality or ethnicity. It depends simply on our willingness to repent, to seek forgiveness. If we find ourselves in that place of despair, that place where we feel we have walked away from God, the Old Testament story gives us the same consistent message that Christ was to live out so fully: turn to him and he will forgive and restore.
So surely now, with the people having been saved and restored, we are ready for the “and they lived happily ever after” ending. Well, no. Each time the people are delivered and saved, after a few years they return to their unfaithful ways again and the cycle starts all over again: unfaithfulness – despair and defeat – repentance – salvation. The situation gets worse and worse for the people of Israel. Not because God’s grace runs out, but because the consequences of Israel’s unfaithfulness build up.
The philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.” That was true of the people of Israel, and it is true today at an individual level as well as at the level of nations.
All of us, like the people of Israel, fall short. We fall short of our own standards, let alone God’s. It is part of our human nature. But we can save much pain to ourselves, to those we love, to the world around us, and to God, if we live always remembering our own history and learning from it: a history that shows us that God loves us, forgives us and saves us.
That will help all of us live thankful, grateful lives. Lives that will be empowered to love all people, no matter where they are from.