5th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 26.06.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The comedian and film-maker Woody Allen once told of how he went on a speed reading course. At the end of it he could read War and Peace in twenty minutes. Asked what he could remember about the book he replied, “Well – its about Russia”! True – but there is infinitely more to say than that.
Over the next six weeks we will be undertaking something which may seem equally foolhardy: not the speed reading of War and Peace but an overview of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is recognised as one of the great classics of ancient literature, a library of 66 individual books, written over the course of almost a thousand years, the oldest being almost 3,000 years old. It is a mix of epic stories, history, reflective philosophy, poetry, song, political commentary. It delves into stories of personal intrigue and passion, and wrestles with philosophical enquiries into the meaning of life. Hollywood regularly returns to its story lines and themes. It is a book that has inspired millions of people.
But it is not an easy read. It is written by a middle-eastern stone age and iron age culture 2,500-3000 years before our time. Its writing reflects attitudes to vengeance and violence quite different from our own. It requires work to understand what it may have meant to people when it was first written, what it can mean to us today, and where God is in the story. My hope is that over the next few weeks you will gain an overview that will give you confidence to read it more.
The first thing to say is that for all its remarkable variety of authorship, subject matter and style, there is a very coherent story-line throughout. Its the story of God raising up a people who will worship him and proclaim him to all nations.
The story starts with God promising to a middle-eastern nomad called Abraham that he will be the father of a nation that will settle in Canaan – what is now modern-day Syria. Abraham trusts this promise but in his lifetime and in the next few generations there is not much evidence of its fulfilment, though there are some remarkable events that take place, including his wife giving birth to a child in old age, to give him hope. Indeed, Abraham’s grand-son, Jacob, and his great-grandchildren, far from forming a nation, end up in Egypt, driven there by hunger and famine. A few hundred years later, and things have gone from bad to worse. They are now in slavery, and such are their growing numbers, are now perceived as a major threat to Egypt’s social cohesion, so a genocide of all Hebrew boys is ordered.
It is within this context that God calls forth a leader, Moses, who stands up to the full might of the Egyptian Empire and achieves the almost impossible – the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery. Throughout the story, there is no doubt that such a miracle is achieved only by the direct work of God – his sending of the plagues to convince Pharaoh that he has to let the people go; the clearing of the sea so that the Hebrews could escape safely across. Without God’s acts, the people would still be under Egyptian rule. It is clear that it is God who is the great deliverer, the saviour, of the people.
The people’s liberation and escape from Egypt will remain the defining story throughout the next two thousand years of history. This is the story that will be returned to again and again to remind the people that God is with them. This is the story that will be returned to in the dark times. This is the story that reminds them of where to place their trust. If you could roll up in one the emotional, spiritual, political and cultural significance of the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa for the anti-apartheid movement, VE day for all those longing for the end of the Second World War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall for East Germans, you will get just a glimpse of what this meant to this people.
These ex-slaves are now a group of wandering nomads, free, but in search of a home and an identity. They find it not in some great political leader but in a relationship with God. On Mount Sinai, a covenant, an agreement, is made where the people out of thanksgiving to God promise to follow God and be faithful to Him, and God promises to protect them and bless them. This is where we get the ten commandments.
Over the next thousand years, and over the next few weeks we will trace that story, it is the people’s relationship with God that takes centre-stage. It is this which the writers of the Old Testament focus on. It is this which gives meaning and coherence to the story.
And this is significant. The other religions of the time were primarily results-based. If you wanted your crops to grow, you prayed to one god. If you wanted the rains to come, you sacrificed to another god. If you wanted your goats to breed well, you made an offering to a third god. In other words, faith was entirely transactional. You bought the god’s favour. You made the requisite prayer or offering, you got the right result.
The faith of the people of Israel was based on something entirely different. It was based on relationship. It was not a case of saying, “I will believe in god if he does this for me”. Instead it was a faith that said, “Because of the love and faithfulness God has shown to me in the past, I will be faithful to him, no matter what happens in the future. Because of what he did in freeing our people from slavery in Egypt, I know he loves us now, even when times are tough. I will continue to love him. I will continue to worship him.”
There may be times when we are tempted to base our faith on results. “God, I will trust in you if you help me get this new job.” “God, I will love you if you will heal this person I love.” And when those things don’t happen, we may find our faith begins to drift away little by little. We find ourselves more reluctant to pray. We find that there are more reasons why its not quite possible to get to church this week.
But the Old Testament pattern of faith encourages us to do something different. It encourages us to look back over the story of our lives and see where God has been with us. For some of us, there may be some dramatic moments, like for Israel, the escape from Egypt. For others of us, it may be in his gentle and gradual leading over the years, just as he was to lead the people through the wilderness. Take time this week to reflect on the story of your life. The people of Israel continually looked back to the past to find strength for the present and hope for the future. If the present or future feel overwhelming to you at present, and in the light of the economic and political shock waves following the referendum we all may feel like that at the moment, take time to trace the hand of God in your life up to now, and draw strength and hope.
Which brings us to the ten commandments. Having escaped from Egypt, the wandering group of ex-slaves under Moses’ leadership have some major questions to resolve. Questions about identity and belonging: how are they to live and who are they to worship. The answer comes from Moses’ extraordinary encounter with God on Mount Sinai, from which he returns to give the people the ten commandments.
The first four of those commands deal with who the people are to worship. In a world where there were a staggering number of gods and spiritualities, the answer was unheard of. You are to worship the God who has freed you from Egypt, and him alone. There are to be no other gods or idols.
It was notable in the referendum campaign how both sides worked so hard to claim that they were the ones who held the key to national security, to economic prosperity, to control of our borders, to our national identity. These things matter, but they can become our idols, the things that determine our actions and what ultimately we value most, and distort our relationships. Instead, and this remains as true now as it did back 3,000 years ago, what matters most is God, and living in a way that recognises his holiness and his love for all people.
The last six commands deal with how this emerging people are to live. The commands don’t give structures of government. They give principles for living. Murder and adultery, theft and false accusation, are all forbidden. They all seem quite obvious now, but that’s because they’ve formed the basis of almost every law code in western civilisation ever since. Back then, this was a radical new way of living. People were to live in a mutual relationship of trust and love, where the poor were protected from exploitation, and the rich from the excesses of greed.
These principles shaped this emerging nation. As we begin a new chapter in the life of our own nation, these principles can shape us too. Loving the God who has been present in the story of our lives. Loving one another in a way that respects the God in whose image each of us is made.
A final thought. The fourth commandment encouraged the people to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” – a day in every seven to stop their work and remind themselves of God’s work in their lives. If these wandering nomads needed to do it, how much more do we, living in an age where we are under the constant pressure of 24 hour communication, ever-lengthening to-do lists and overloaded calendars.
Can I encourage you this week to stop and take breath, maybe to read some of those Old Testament readings on your sheet, and remember the story of God’s work in your life.