Sunday, October 04, 2009

Hope in God's Future

Deuteronomy 26.1-11
1 Timothy 6.6-10
Matthew 6.25-33


Today's Old Testament passage from the Book of Deuteronomy is about thanking God for the harvest and doing so in a very concrete and practical way, by making a donation to God of the first fruits of the farmer's labour before sitting down with the whole community, including outsiders from different cultures and faiths, and celebrating God's goodness together. But the celebration is very deliberately set in the context of a journey. It is the culmination of the Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. They have come to a land flowing with milk and honey via a long drawn out period of wandering in the wilderness, and they are never to forget it.

It is probable that only some of the people of Israel had their origins in Egypt, where the Bible tells us they had gone to escape famine in their homeland of Palestine. There they found work as functionaries of the Egyptian pharaohs but gradually, as their numbers increased, they began to be seen as a threat and eventually they were enslaved and forced into hard labour until God freed them from oppression.

Only in the Bible do we find this story recounted. The Egyptians do not tell us about the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, but then people rarely leave monuments to their own defeats. However, many ancient near eastern civilisations - including the Egyptians - did leave behind records which mention a group of people - nomads who sometimes served as mercenary soldiers or labourers - whom they describe as the Habiru. These records are letters sent between kings, or orders exchanged between generals, and they reveal that the Habiru were perceived as a threat and - although they sometimes provided useful service - there were frequent tensions between them and the people of the countries where they settled. Often they were forced to move on, or sent to work in quarries, and sometimes there were even pitched battles with them. Some scholars think that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were a part at least of this mass movement of nomadic outsiders, and the description in our reading of the ancestors of Israel as 'wandering Arameans' bears out that idea.

The instructions about celebrating harvest festival time are written in the form of a prophecy about the future, something which Moses promises the people of Israel as part of their destiny even though - at the moment - they are still living as outcasts. But it's probably something which was actually written much later, during a time of religious revival after the conquest of Palestine. It forms part of a liturgy, used in the Temple, when the story of Israel's rescue from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land was recounted to remind people how gracious God had been to them.

So much for the history lesson. The interesting thing for us is that an ecumenical report to this year's Methodist Conference about global warming chose to focus on this story as a model for the way that we, as Christians, should be responding to the crisis. The report is called Hope in God's Future, and it sets out to inspire the same sense of hope about the way ahead which Moses is attempting to create when he tells the people of Israel to look forward to their first harvest in the Promised Land.

It would have been easy for the wandering Habiru or Arameans to despair, as some of them did when they rebelled - from time to time - and told Moses and Joshua that slavery in Egypt had been preferable to wandering, lost and hungry, in the Wilderness. But Moses constantly calls them to be hopeful. Moses' promise about the harvest is designed to kindle the same kind of warm feelings as the Labour Party campaign of 1997, when Tony Blair's theme song was 'Things can only get better.' What a long time ago that seems now! But that is very much the theme of this passage. Things not only can get better, but they will get better! God has not abandoned Israel to her fate in the wilderness, he has a plan to make them a mighty and prosperous nation with a land of their own, so long as they never forget their past, as an oppressed people in Egypt, and remember to treat the strangers in their own midst with a lot more compassion and kindness than their own ancestors were shown.

In the same way, the report warns us that - if the human race, and many other species, are to survive - we must embark on an urgent and difficult journey to a new way of life, a journey full of uncertainty and not without hardship, but a journey which - if we embrace it wholeheartedly - can still end in hope. It is a journey which - like the Exodus from Egypt - 'has a destination only future generations will reach and benefit from...' and 'the most difficult part of such a journey is' the report says, 'leaving without looking back.'

So what exactly is this journey which the report foretells? Actually, it says that much of the way ahead is still unclear, but it does suggest strongly that we shall have to expect to be content with much less worldly wealth than we have been used to enjoying in the last few decades. Today's reading from 1 Timothy sets the right tone when it says that there is much to be gained from being content with the basics of life - food and clothes. In fact, in a striking phrase, the Revised English Bible translation says that religion 'yields high dividends to those who are content with what they have.'

We've been used to looking for a different kind of high dividend - the get rich quick kind, perhaps - but that's not what the future will have to offer. Last summer I was looking on one of those comparison websites to see where we could get the best rate of interest for our meagre savings. 'The experts are recommending a Bank called Kaupthing' I said. 'They've got the best rate of interest at the moment.' 'Well I'm not investing in anything with a name like Kaupthing,' said Helen, and how right her instincts proved to be! We have to let go of the dream of high dividends from stock markets and banks, these are symptoms of the foolish and harmful desires that threaten to plunge us headlong into ruin and destruction unless we mend our ways.

Our Gospel reading, from Matthew chapter six, urges us not to worry or be anxious, about the future, because God knows our needs and - as the report puts it - nothing can ultimately frustrate the will of God. But neither the Gospel reading nor the report offer a recipe for sitting back and waiting for God to rescue us. God needs active allies and he is calling us to strive for change, 'to set our minds on his justice before everything else.' If we do this, all the rest will come right in the end.

So, in this vein, the report reminds us that we have to repent for the negligence of our own ancestors, who started the harmful industrial processes that have damaged the atmosphere so badly, that we need to be willing to pay an immediate price to safeguard the future for our own children and grandchildren, and that we need to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are not disproportionately affected by any lifestyle changes that need to be made - and that goes for disadvantaged people in our own country as well as for the more disadvantaged nations in the global economy.

Perhaps it all sounds a bit daunting. But, remember, all of these Bible passages celebrate the future and insist that it will be good, so long as we allow ourselves to be guided and inspired by God. There can and will continue to be a rich harvest at the end of our journey. Urgent, bold and costly action can still make a difference. And, because we are able to live our lives in Christ, we can be made capable of lives which we could not otherwise live.

No comments: