This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM to be proclaimed on Sunday 10th March 2019.
Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
In this morning’s set reading from the Hebrew traditions Moses addresses the Hebrew People on the edge of the Promised Land, and he tells them about the future. This People who had been slaves for 400 years and asylum seekers for 40 years would find rest. When, in generations to come, the people who have become farmers will, in the context of the annual festival of harvest thanksgiving, bring in the tithes and the offerings of first fruits, the Jews were to recite this liturgy. The liturgy is a poem, the story in verse of “a wandering Areamean”, and how God was faithful to him and to all descendent generations according to the promise. Remember, none of this has happened yet, Moses is preaching in the Jordanian wilderness and no one has set foot in Israel for a generation. This song was to become a reminder of who God is in the daily life of the individual and the national life of the settled Hebrews.
I wonder how that went. Did the Hebrews, who then became Israelites and Judahites, and then Jews in exile, and then Samarians and Judeans in an occupied land under various empires, and then Jews in exile once again, and in our day are known as Israelis who live amongst Palestinians (who used to be called Philistines) actually do this? Were there actual harvest festivals like God had decreed and Moses explained, and did the tithes and first fruits ever come into the temple? The Biblical and historical records suggest yes; it seems that as late as the time of Jesus there was a living memory, recited at least, of who Israel was and who Israel’s God was. History also tells us that the temple was destroyed in 70, and that it has never been rebuilt. There has never been a tithes and offerings festival at the temple Jerusalem since then, yet Judaism remains and the calendar remains, and the right time for the festival rolls around every year when the harvest of whatever land the Jews live in is gathered. There seems to be something in this story, a story that has been told for almost three and a half millennia, (since 1500 BCE) and which was written down two and a half millennia ago, which has continued to enrich the culture whose story it is. God is faithful, God provides in season, and God is worthy to be praised; so the Jews have learned. But this is not some rote piece of creed or a memory verse, it is the moral of the story, and the story is (the man) Israel as a metaphor for all who are destitute and placeless until God intervenes. The Jews have always known that God is faithful because they have never failed to continue to tell their children the nationally personal story, even in foreign lands and foreign languages.
Recently I was invited to speak into the life of a young writer. When I say young she is younger than me, but she is also of my cohort, so she’s no teenager. Anyway this young woman has been journaling and worshipping and she sought my advice, amongst the advice of other trusted friends, about publishing her work and going on with God into a writing and teaching career: seminars and the like. I’m not going to tell you her story, that’s for her to tell; and I’m not going to tell you how her story and my story run parallel and why the advice I gave her was especially pertinent. I am going to tell you what my advice was, because I think it fits the story told by Moses and the Jews as well. The advice is this: tell the story of God in your life, don’t tell the story of your life where God occurred. The actual wording I used for her was tell the story of Jesus and quote yourself as a source, don’t tell the story of you. In every faith story Jesus is the hero, you are the narrator and the researcher. Looking at Deuteronomy 26:5c-9 the story is really about God’s faithfulness that we know about because it was us and our ancestors that God was faithful. The story is not about us the downtrodden slave-mob for whom God intervened. We are in the story, we are telling the story, but it is God’s story because it is about God.
When we look at a story about Jesus, and we did that earlier in Luke 4:1-13, things get interesting. Who is the hero of Jesus’ story, is it Jesus or is it God the Father? If the hero of my story is actually Jesus, and every story I tell is testament to his glory, who is supposed to be the hero of Jesus’ story? What we read in Luke 4, and this is as much the case in Matthew 4 where he tells a similar but not identical story, is that Jesus lived a life of thanksgiving and humble adoration of Father, even from the outset. In knocking down the accuser’s attacks on his character and calling Jesus made it quite clear that he didn’t need to test God to prove God to himself, and he had no interest in spectacular activities to show off God or his own faith to prove God to others. Jesus already knew he was saved by grace through the covenant between God and Abraham, and Jesus knew as Paul would later write in Romans 10:10-11 that his salvation was evident through his trust in God. Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged other Jews (participants in the covenant) to trust God and know God as Father. So even for Jesus, at least as far as he was a man from Nazareth, the hero of the story is God the faithful one, not Jesus the brave and hungry one.
Today’s Psalm, 91, speaks with the same theme. At first glance it appears to be directed to people rather than God, as if it’s advice for believers or perhaps even a priestly blessing or benediction rather than a hymn of praise. It’s something that I might say to you as a reminder of who you are to God, rather than a prayer which I recite to God on your behalf as your worship leader. Well it’s actually that at second glance too, advice to people, and a longer reading demonstrates that this is a story about God told by the psalmist and the leader of worship as a lesson of personal experience. Again it’s not “I was faithful and God rewarded me by blah-de-blah-blah”, it’s “God is faithful in this way, and in brackets I should know”. And the message itself is consistent with what Moses has already told the Hebrews; and Jesus and Paul would tell the later generation of Jews; that you will find shelter and trust in The LORD, the great refuge who keeps you from harm. God holds me above danger (and perhaps Jesus might interject “even in the midst of the greatest temptation”), and gifts me the fullness of life.
So by the time we get to Paul, and to his letter to the Roman Christians, we have the beginning of faith in Jesus as The LORD. Paul speaks of Jesus as Jesus spoke of the Father, but remember that he is speaking of the exalted and resurrected one who reigns at the right hand of the throne of Heaven. This Jesus can be the hero of your story, even as the itinerant rabbi of Nazareth wasn’t the hero of his own story, because the one we follow is God-made-Human, Word-made-Blood. We follow The Son; we don’t merely adhere to the teachings of a wise guru who demonstrated incredible perseverance in the Outback. Jesus will tell you that what sustained him in the wilderness was his faith in God, not his faith in himself. Now that Jesus has returned to God, to be God once more in company with The Father and The Spirit, and to take up all that which was laid down (according to Philippians 2:5-11), we can have confidence in him. Our salvation is “made effective” to use a liturgical phrase, that is to say it is evident (you can see it for yourself) and it is efficacious (it actually does the thing) when we declare the truth, which comes out of the heart. It’s Romans 10:10 which says that, and Romans 10:13 can be paraphrased into the language of Psalm 91 to add that all who declare their shelter to be God will be saved. If you can name God as shelter then you also know in your heart (i.e. by instinct and to the extent of muscle-memory) where your shelter is when you need one. I don’t even have to think, when there is trouble I run to God, and then I am safe (and therefore I am saved). What is unique in Paul, something he alone says and that the Psalmist and Moses did not say, is that you don’t have to be a blood descendent of Jacob to have this: if you trust God and you call upon God you will be saved by God, (or you are safe in God). The sentences that make up Romans 10:12-13 are a direct pull from Joel 2:32, Paul is quoting Hebrew scripture, in this instance “The Prophets” part of “The Law and The Prophets” to make a point, that in Christ all are welcome in God’s safe house.
So, where does this put us?
Well, it puts us in the place of witness. With all that God has said to us about proclamation and the need to speak the hard truth into the present day, this message is somewhat easier to follow, I hope. Speak about God, tell of God’s glory, and tell of how God has rescued and blessed you. In a church with a strong theology of the priesthood of all believers you should all be bringing your offerings to God. I am your pastor, not your priest: you don’t need me to burn a sheep on your behalf. I am the lead preacher in this place, the only one paid to preach and with a certain responsibility to go deeper than those of you who volunteer to speak once in a while, but that doesn’t mean that my testimony is more effective than yours, merely that I am better trained in public speaking and theology than you. You and I preach the same Jesus, and we can all share the story of how God has saved us individually. If we want God’s Church to grow in the Wimmera, and if we want there to be a Christian Church in Kaniva and Serviceton in the generations to come, it is the responsibility of each one of us to tell the story of God to our children and to our neighbours. If you’re not sure how to do that, well let me teach you. If you don’t need teaching that’s great, but what are you waiting for?
Have at it, go and tell.