A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 1 October 2017
In our reading from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is portrayed as preparing the people of God for entry into the Promised Land. The key issue the book is trying to address arises from the gulf between their experience in the wilderness and what life was like in the Promised Land.
We heard the wilderness graphically described as:
‘… the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land
with poisonous snakes and scorpions …’
The Promised Land on the other hand is a place of great abundance:
‘… a land where you may eat bread without scarcity,
where you will lack nothing …’
The great contrast drawn between these two places may be a bit of an exaggeration!
After all life for many in the Promised Land was far from easy. The settled life required labourers to construct terraces, plough and sow, irrigation problems needed sorting out and harvests gathered in.
Whereas people whose way of life was nomadic, as it had been for the people of God in the wilderness, these people lived largely off the natural vegetation and other resources available in the area, and when those ran out, as nomads you simply move on to fresh pastures.
Also with the settled lifestyle came greater opportunities to accumulate wealth, own land, build fine houses, multiply your silver and gold and eat your fill, as we heard in our reading.
As a consequence the settled lifestyle was often viewed with considerable suspicion – corruption, luxury and disparities of wealth and poverty meant that you hear writers and prophets in the Old Testament denouncing these developments in society and advocating a return to the wilderness and the simpler lifestyle.
So at times the wilderness is viewed as a purer way of life, a place and a time when the people of God didn’t rely on their own resources because they were so meagre, and instead relied on the Lord their God!
What is particularly striking about the book of Deuteronomy is that it doesn’t denounce the café culture of the Promised Land and extol the virtues of the wilderness. Instead it acknowledges the goodness of the land and that this was where God had brought his people and he’d brought them there for a purpose.
Yes, the accumulation of wealth can be intoxicating! Yes, forgetting the Lord their God is a constant danger! But the book does not support a position of outright rejection, nor does it advocate a ‘Back to the wilderness’ movement!
The challenge that the book of Deuteronomy is trying to address is how to live as the people of God in a way that is faithful to the God of the wilderness years – acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God in this new context with all its opportunities and temptations.
The book sets out that at Harvest time, people were to bring a basket filled with the first fruits to the temple as a thank offering to the Lord. This says something about priorities – they were to bring the first fruits not the fag end.
Bring them as a symbol of how you intend to live, Deuteronomy suggests. That you will never accept your luxuries at the price of someone else’s poverty; that you will not deceive yourself into thinking that material security can compare with knowing that underneath are the everlasting arms. Bring the first fruits – that’s the significance of that little word ‘first’
The issues we face are of course very different – obesity, housing, utility prices, financial stability, rising consumer debt – but the teaching from the book of Deuteronomy still resonates with us.
Running through our reading we heard certain key refrains that run right through the book:
‘Do not exalt yourselves.’
‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my
own hand have gained me this wealth.”’
‘Remember the Lord your God.’